A few years ago, my older sister spoke words to me that I will never forget. In the middle of a conversation about diet (which, as two physically active health enthusiasts, we have often), she remarked, “Oh, I definitely was this close” making a pinching motion with her fingers, “to having an eating disorder.”

She said this casually, as mundane as if she was telling me about the weather. I barely reacted; the comment registered in the back of my mind, but it was probably more out of annoyance than any real recognition of the problem with the words she had just spoken.

Let me stop to clarify that my sister never formally had an eating disorder. For years, while I was still an active gymnast, I was annoyed at her dietary habits. In my naïve, 20-hours-of-practice-per-week, racing-metabolism mindset, I couldn’t begin to understand why, for example, on her birthday she would deny a perfectly delicious piece of chocolate cake. If we were on vacation in Maine for the summer she wouldn’t eat a single lobster roll, her favorite food, because “she couldn’t afford it.” Of course, it was my responsibility as the annoying younger sister to mock her by eating two of them and have ice cream for dessert.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when I had to quit gymnastics after repeat ankle injuries, that I thought critically about food for the first time. I became self-conscious, over-analytical and overly strict on what I ate. I still ate enough — for me, that has never been a problem — but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the struggle was always there. I was where my sister had been, struggling to adjust to a drastically changed lifestyle that, food-wise, essentially came down to “calories in, calories out” reasoning.

However, my sister and I are lucky. She found and then introduced me to a gym with a community of people I now count as some of my closest friends. Not only did the coaches and members of the gym provide physical activity, but also they provided an image of “healthy” that I now aspire to. Never, for as long as I have been a part of this community, has the emphasis been on appearance. Together, we have performance-based goals, which include both nutrition and activity.

Though it took some adjustment, I can say today that my definition of beauty has changed from the physical shape of an individual’s body or the number on a scale to the capacity of that person to move and function. People tell me, “You’re not the ‘typical’ kind of skinny,” and I respond with, “I don’t want or need to be.” I also know people who appear thinner than me, but who lift twice as much weight, and that, to me, is also beautiful. At the risk of being cliché, I’ll go as far as saying that definitions of beauty and strength are not one-size-fits-all.

Though the comment my sister made that day was in passing, I expect her words are true for a lot, if not the majority, of women today. If things had not gone the way they had for my sister and me, if our gym community had not guided me toward a new direction of health, I may have become one of the 30 million people in the United States currently suffering from an eating disorder.

Inside of the gym there may be one, communal understanding of beauty and strength, but outside is a different world completely. I could drone on about the “Barbie culture” that’s portrayed in the media; how by praising the “thigh gap” and the “spring-break bod” society imposes an expectation on young women that is, simply put, a fantasy.

I’m no expert on eating disorders, and I’m fortunate enough to never have been the victim of one. For this reason, I was hesitant to write this article. Who am I to talk about these things when the only perspective I have is of someone who can understand the temptation, but has never actually been there herself. 

Out of self-doubt, I asked a few friends to read this article, and subsequently each of them echoed feeling “borderline eating disorder” in the past. The position I’m in is not uncommon, so what’s to keep the scales from tipping? There’s more encouragement to succumb to these pressures than to go against popular images of attractiveness to create your own vision of health.

It’s easy to become desensitized to this topic, which is why my original reaction to my sister’s comment was so understated. Perhaps it’s because there are countless articles, just like mine, calling for attention to the fact that jokes about body image mask very real turmoil within. At the time, while I listened to my sister’s words, I was one of those desensitized people. It’s only after experiencing it in a tiny way, and being exposed to it through friends and family, that I understand the gravity of this issue is fundamentally overlooked.

Grace Carey can be reached at gecarey@umich.edu.

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