My sister and I look nothing alike. When we were growing up she was petite with bright, curly red hair, and everyone adored her. I was a gangly brunette who tended to stay in the background. As we grew up, however, Eileen began to fill out. Her shoulders broadened and she developed what my mother affectionately called “baby bearin’ hips.” She wasn’t fat, but her broad stance and muscular build made her look bigger than she really was. She was the ideal Renaissance woman. A Rubens picture of rosy health. She began dieting in her early teens.
I never filled out. My hips and shoulders remained narrow and unsuitable for the bearing of babies. I could eat all I wanted and still manage to look thin. I never had to diet. In fact, most of the time I felt guilty about being skinny.
Eileen didn’t resent my thinness, but I knew that my very existence made her feel fat. We couldn’t share clothes like other sisters, and I could eat all I wanted without getting disapproving looks from our parents. I wanted to gain weight. I wanted to have a big body and be confident, and thereby set an example for Eileen. I wanted to be able to rant with righteous anger about the impossible standards of thinness presented in the media. I wanted to stand in solidarity with all the “big” women who were oppressed for their size, but I couldn’t change my body type any more than Eileen could change hers.
My attitude began to change my senior year of college. Due to stress and the loss of my gallbladder I began eating less and less. I wasn’t anorexic, eating just became difficult because my body was no longer as good at processing fats as it used to be. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, I just couldn’t stomach big meals anymore, and weight loss was an unavoidable consequence.
I went to graduate school the next year, and if anything, my problem got worse. My boyfriend would bring me food and try to pressure me to eat more, but my stomach had shrunk, and I often felt sick after eating. And that was when I did eat – some days I would eat almost nothing because I was too stressed or too busy. I never purposefully starved myself. It was just that I was either so concerned with working that I didn’t notice that I was hungry, or my appetite was killed by anxiety. Graduate school is not for the faint of heart, or stomach.
On the rare occasions my parents saw me Eileen and my mom would comment on my size. “You’re so skinny!” Eileen would say doing her best to sound like a yiddish mother, “Go eat a sandwich.”
The problem was that I had begun to enjoy the weight loss. I liked the attention it got me. I was secretly thrilled each time I needed to punch a new hole in my belt. I looked at pictures of my self from earlier in the year and couldn’t believe how much weight I had lost. People noticed my weight loss and complemented me. I felt special. I felt beautiful. I was obtaining the impossible thinness our culture idolizes. Honestly, I was a little afraid of gaining my weight back. I had lost twenty pounds, but I didn’t want to gain a single one back.
I would never have admitted to any of that though. Of course I wanted to gain my weight back. Equating beauty with thinness was unfair and untrue. And a part of me still felt guilty. The thinner I got, the bigger Eileen was in comparison. So I kept telling people I was trying to gain weight. I was even keeping track of my calories, supposedly to help me make sure I reached my goal of 2000 each day, and though I tried, I secretly rejoiced when I failed. Like trashy tv or a hidden pint of Ben and Jerry’s, weight loss became my guilty pleasure.
I knew it was unhealthy and wrong, but I was achieving a cultural ideal. Being skinny in America today is equated with beauty. It is also seen as a moral victory. Thinness is not only seen as attractive: it represents self-control and hard work. Which makes everyone who isn’t thin seem lazy and gluttonous. Thinness It’s what everyone is working so hard to obtain. For women especially, it seems like the ultimate achievement.
The summer after my first year of grad school, my family took a week long vacation to Florida. While down there my mother decided to buy Eileen and me new bathing suits, which we both needed desperately. I quickly and easily found one I liked at the first place we went. My biggest problem was decided what color to pick. All of the choices would have fit me just fine. They seemed to all be made with my body shape in mind. It felt great.
Eileen was not so lucky. She was 19, and wanted a cute, colorful bathing suit modest enough to wear around her family, but flattering enough to make her feel pretty. She couldn’t find anything. She tried on suit after suit, but they were all too tight or too revealing. Most of them would certainly have resulted in a wardrobe malfunction if she had tried to actually wear it in the water. The ones that actually fit her were dark colors or what she called “old lady” bathing suits. We went to four different stores including two surf shops and a target, before she finally settled for one at Wal Mart. It was black and white, not colorful like she wanted, and it showed a little more skin than she wanted, but it would have to do.
When the search was over Eileen felt ugly and fat. She had broken down in tears in Target, and I now that we were back, I wasn’t sure she was ever going to take off her coverup. I was furious at clothing designers everywhere. Why didn’t they make cute colorful bathing suits for curvaceous girls. They were making my beautiful sister feel ugly. They were the problem. They were to blame.
And yet, under my anger at clothing stores and designers, I was also mad at myself. I wasn’t causing the problem, but I wasn’t helping. I was participating in a culture that values thinness above all else, including health. I was asking Eileen to reject a cultural lie I was neck deep in. I couldn’t ask her to accept herself and her size, while I chased the very ideal I was preaching against. I was a hypocrite, and a skinny hypocrite is no better than any other kind.
When I got back home, I faced the truth of my situation. I admitted that I like losing weight and that I didn’t really want to gain it back. It was the first step towards my recovery, and probably the easiest. Changing my thought patterns and eating habits was hard. I began taking a digestive enzyme that helped me process the fats my body was no longer able to deal with on its own. I also began eating more often, snacking on fruit, nuts, and chocolate during the day to help my calorie count. It meant spending more time eating, and forcing myself to eat when I wasn’t hungry or didn’t feel like eating.
But I was determined to get healthy and to stop obsessing over my weight. The best way to help myself and to help Eileen was to accept myself and stop trying to transform myself into some impossible ideal. We both had to reject the skinny myth.