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TW: Body image, discussion of eating disorders

Back in January, I had to get an ultrasound done on my liver and gallbladder after months of pain and nausea had landed me in more doctors’ offices than I’d ever been in. During that ultrasound, the technician said to me after I flinched, “You’re just so darn skinny so it’s going to be uncomfortable.” I laughed it off in the office, but as soon as I got back to my apartment, I remember sitting on my kitchen floor, eating a brownie and crying. 

Not only had that remark completely disregarded the fact that most foods make me feel sick, it also sent me straight back into a mindset that I hadn’t touched in a long time. Remarks about my weight were something that had always gotten to me, but they were also something I thought I had overcome.

***

“Gluttony is a sin.” I’d hear this from my Christian elementary school teachers between my mother’s own remarks that I was “too skinny,” and that I “look anorexic.” If I ate too much, I was sinning, but if I looked like I didn’t eat enough, my mother would never shy away from a chance to comment on it. Body image has been something so intrinsically connected to not only my worth as a person, but connected to the fate of my soul. And when you’re 12 years old when the comments start, they stick.

However, it was also present in everyday conversations with my family. I remember very clearly going back-to-school clothing shopping the summer before my eighth grade year. It was during those early parts of my teenage years that I felt the most uncomfortable in my skin, though no one I knew seemed to understand. My whole life, my mother has been a size 16 — the average American women’s size — but she always described herself as a “bigger woman.” When 14-year-old, size-5 me expressed how uncomfortable the new jeans she just bought me made me feel, she scoffed. I remember her saying to me in the middle of a crowded store, “You’re not fat. You can find a pair of jeans that fit you.” Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t allowed to hate my body because it was smaller than average. I should be grateful.

***

Don’t get me wrong, thin privilege absolutely exists. No one questions me when I get a sugar-filled latte from Starbucks, or scoffs when I eat four Ghirardelli squares when I’m on my period, or tells me I should eat healthier when I admit that I haven’t eaten a vegetable in three days. No one tells me that I should be conscious of my health, even though my family history is rife with diabetes-related illness and heart disease and cholesterol problems. My doctor didn’t even notice when my blood pressure was higher than normal at my last appointment — it was something I had to mention myself, only for the doctor to tell me it was probably anxiety-induced.

No one bats an eye at my risk factors because I’m in the “healthy weight range” for a woman of 5’2. And, while sometimes it feels like my risk factors are neglected or overlooked because of my appearance, I’m confident that my concerns would likely still be taken seriously if I pushed for them to be examined. I wouldn’t have to fight as hard for acknowledgement.

I know it would be different if I were even a few pounds heavier. I know because I’ve watched my mother and sister be dismissed by medical professionals due to their weight — doctors not taking my sister’s back pain from playing sports seriously and telling her to lose weight; telling my mother that she needed to lose weight to fix her undiagnosed gastrointestinal issues (something I inherited and still have no explanation for). I’ve seen the way people look at them when they consume even a morsel of sugar. I know the judgement that they and so many other women face is not something I will be confronted with.

But that hasn’t stopped me from hating myself.

***

In the same year that I started hating my body — started counting every calorie, started doing yoga every day, started scrutinizing my every curve in the mirror — my Christian school teacher gave us good Christian girls some sage advice.

“Guard your hearts, ladies,” he said to us one day while we were discussing 1 Corinthians and sexual immorality. “Because as soon as you get to high school, all the boys will be looking at you. You’re fresh meat.”

At the time, I tried to brush it off. I tried to tell myself that I would be as godly as possible and not let my heart be led astray. I tried to tell myself that it was perfectly normal to absolutely abhor the idea of any man looking at my body. 

Years later, I would hear the term “male gaze” and start to understand why this made me so uncomfortable. This misogynistic and homophobic ideology places woman as objects of sexual pleasure and nothing else. 

But it wasn’t just this repulsion at the idea of being thought of as simply something to dominate; there was something else. It was the idea of men specifically looking at me, and the implication that I should want men to look at me if I wanted any sort of future relationship, if I wanted to fulfill familiar expectations. I had known from probably early high school, though, that I didn’t experience attraction to men. The idea of inherently being a sexual object for men made me dislike my body even more during those early teenage years when I was still grappling with my identity.

By the time I fully accepted that I was queer, however, I was well past the days of my early teenagehood and had come to mostly accept my body for what it was. I had started to like the softness of my hips and the contrast to my waist, where my ribs are perpetually visible. I didn’t hate my tiny ankles that never filled out even the skinniest of skinny jeans. I still hate that my jawline is weak and my cheekbones are undefined, but maybe one day I’ll get over that.

There were other things, though, that I started thinking about. For a long time, I thought that I was asexual — experiencing no attraction to anyone, regardless of gender — and this made me see my body differently. I hated the idea of looking “sexy” — I hated that I have what is traditionally called an “hourglass figure,” a body shape that, for a long time, has been very explicitly associated with sex appeal. I hated the idea that men, or anyone for that matter, might notice. I think I started looking at my body as something very unrelated to me — just a vessel to hold my consciousness, not something to love or take pride in. It was something for others to see, something I didn’t want others to see. Especially men.

***

Timelines are difficult. I don’t remember exactly when I started experiencing attraction to women, rather than just my lack of attraction to men. Some people like to think that sexuality is something you’re born with, and, while I agree that it’s something you cannot change, I think for me at least, it was something that took me a long time to actually experience. Perhaps I was born with it, but I also don’t think it was something I ever would have thought about — probably due to heteronormativity — had I not had queer friends that prompted me to wonder.

Specifically, I remember having dinner with friends one night years ago when someone admitted to having crushes on all of us at one point or another. When my friend got to me, they said, “But not you. I could tell how straight you were and didn’t bother.” It was such an innocent comment, but something about it felt very wrong. It would be a long time before I could confront what about it made me uncomfortable.  

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I was recently talking with a friend about a high school relationship. I mentioned how a guy I’d been talking to came up to me after class to ask me out and how I panicked and quite literally ran away. I chalked it up to awkwardness and shyness, but the reality was that the line between casual flirting and actual attraction had been crossed — for him at least — and the idea of a man being attracted to me made me want to jump out of my skin. 

“Straight me was terrified,” I said to my friend.

She leveled her gaze at me. “I don’t think straight you ever existed,” she said.

Once I recognized my attraction to women, it played a major role in how I felt about my body.It is sometimes these unexpected self-discoveries that can lead to acceptance. The things I had once hated about myself were things I found myself attracted to in other women. The stomach I tried so hard for years to get rid of was the same thing that made Aerie models so beautiful. The hip-to-waist ratio that I tried so hard to hide was the same thing that made my first college roommate look good in everything. In my own insecurities, I was able to find beauty.

***

When talking about body image, it is usually a good idea to veer away from artistic depictions of the female body. But there is a painting that always comes to mind when I think about this topic. I fell in love with “The Birth of Venus” by French romantic painter Alexandre Cabanel the first time I saw it. There is something about the softness of the body in this painting that really struck me — something that I find incredibly beautiful. It depicts Venus — goddess of love, beauty and desire — as a woman with wide hips and soft thighs. Maybe I find the painting beautiful because I see so much of my own body in it.

Statement columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at mdhubb@umich.edu.