Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why I Would Have an Eating Disorder if I Were a Woman

Everyday I am reminded about the fundamental struggle of American women with their bodies and their image. And it’s not the Barbies, the Maxim covers, or the Weight Watchers commercials that I see. It’s the people I know and love. And as I and my friends get older, I see single women struggle with their beauty more and more, fighting an inevitable decline.

Nowhere is this more evident than in eating habits. Within almost every substantive interaction I have had with women over the past week, there has been one definitive comment about food: “I can’t order carbonara because I want to lose 10 lbs” or “I am sorry I am late to the movie. I am 4 lbs from my target weight and had to go across the street for frozen yogurt.”

Let me repeat. If I have spent 30 minutes with a woman in conversation, it has come up in some form. This is not a struggle that lies below the surface. Sadly, I have personal experiences with eating disorders, and I know, as contentious as some of you told me this sounds, that I would have an eating disorder if I were a woman.

Public Scrutiny

There is no doubt that society in its many incarnations puts immense pressure on women to be “beautiful” in whatever terms that word means. One issue is that the “beauty” expectation is unrealistic, which is obviously true given the number of augmentations done, the size of the diet industry, make-up, the exercise craze … you name it. Being beautiful is a multi-billion dollar business. And thus, so is creating the unreachable stereotype. It is not surprising that women feel like every time they leave the apartment they are being scrutinized. Maybe that’s why so many women like to wander around naked in their own home – it’s the one place they are free of scrutiny. At least external scrutiny. And truth be told, I am part of the problem.

I love women and I can’t help but look at them, idealize them, and analyze them. It is a natural instinct. I love the way a beautiful woman can attract your stare and turn your head, no matter what you are saying. I love pronounced hip bones, the pelvic lines that result, and following their visual lead. I love hip huggers. I love how a smile from a beautiful woman can change the momentum of your day on your commute to work. I love the smoothness of their skin, the shine in their hair, and the fashion of NY women designed exactly to captivate my attention.

Of course, I also look closely and note the imperfections, as does every guy. Words like cankles, spare tire, muffin top, butter, thunder-thighs, cottage cheese, sasquatch crotch, junk in the trunk, lights off, jumping on the grenade, etc. have come across my lips and almost every guy I know. Men are amazingly apt at observing and noting the imperfections in a woman, and just as apt at communicating them in cruel ways. It is not surprising that most girls are self-conscious. Perhaps they are just conscious. We as animals innately detect when we are being stared at. And yes, us men are staring.

I am no stranger to being stared at. Sometimes I invite it. Sometimes I have dreaded it, like when I went to Taiwan to the hot springs. When I got there, much to my surprise, every one was naked. I stripped at my locker turned around to find 40 Asian men all looking at the only white guy around for miles. It was so unnerving to be stared at from every angle, analyzed and measured, yet that is exactly the situation for women. And the only way I could be comfortable was in recalling the size stereotype as well as my perception of being healthy in that regard, and so my self-image put me at ease. But what if I were a girl? What would my self-image be like?

Self-image

Well, I am already ego-centric. That’s my euphemism to what some might call vain, others call cocky. I pride myself on who I am, what I stand for, and what I have accomplished. And part of that is because like everyone, these things were under attack for most of my life, especially my childhood. And I frankly made it through because of a healthy faith and belief in myself.

I was always one of the smallest boys in my class until Junior year. For boys that age, power is about strength and size, and I had neither. I was picked on quite often and I developed my own way to respond, with my wit, which at that unrefined time was really more obnoxiousness. Thank god it evolved, although the jury is still out according to some.

So undersized, how did I respond? I tried drinking a pint of ice cream a day. That caused growth in the wrong direction. A couple nights a week, John Chang and I practiced basketball drills and athletics in our basements for hours. Hours. That’s a little obsessive for a 7th grader if you ask me.

To this day, my physicality some 20 years ago, has had a profound effect on the way I interact with people, why I keep them at arms length, why I shut down physical horse play definitively, why I play basketball like a madman, why I go to the gym, or used to before the latest job.

As a bit of an outcast, I didn’t have much of a love life in High School. No, that’s not accurate. I had no love life. So self-image very much plays a role in my love life too. I still strive to be higher in the hierarchy than I ever was growing up, and though it seems sad to say that, at least I can be open about it. In fact, how I appear socially, my outward image, has been a clear overemphasis in my life. Perhaps it is seeking approval that I lacked earlier, perhaps it is just natural. But with me, it is something that I have had to work on and struggle with.

So self-image, social acceptance and the social hierarchy, and my physicality have always been dominant issues in my life. These are the seeds of eating disorders and I assume would only be magnified if I were a girl. But what about food?

Food

For one, I love food. I think it is one of the most basic primal pleasures in your life. It is a fundamental drive built to the core of your DNA to seek out the sustenance you need to survive and procreate. I believe if you cook well, you will eat well for the rest of your life and that is an essential need for my happiness. As a result, I have taken cooking classes all over the world and plan to start teaching them myself in the next month or two.

I love to cook almost as much as I love to eat. And often foods high in calories and fat. French, Italian, Indian cream sauces. I drool at the mention of Il Mulino. New Orleans style food. Charred animal flesh in cream sauces. You can’t beat it. I believe butter is a beautiful thing.

My relationship with food can only be considered healthy in that I get enjoyment out of it and have little if any negative side effects (that I know about). Luckily I have had the metabolism to process my sizable intake. But what if I didn’t?

Control

Perhaps I would constantly go to the gym for my “health.” Disorders are often hide in euphemisms, in semantics we create to obscure the reality as much from ourselves as from others. I currently go to the gym for vanity more than health and can admit it. There I see women who clearly hate being there. They are willing to do distasteful things to control their image. You know who they are. You see them too. Do you notice them? I would be one of them. At points, I have been.

Eating disorders are a lot about control, or the illusion of it. And the gym provides a great way to create “control.” I consider myself a control freak, relishing being able to understand the world around me scientifically and exert such control based upon that understanding. If I see something is a negative influence in my life, I remove it decisively (at least I like to think so). If my struggle and goals were around weight and image then I would pride myself on my ability to control the outcome. It would become a challenge.

I don’t think I would become anorexic, because food is too central to me. I am sure I would cut back though. I already have. I would look to other forms of control. I would probably try Sugarbusters (I have), Atkins, and South Beach. I would study and understand them. It would change the way I view food, complex vs simple carbohydrates and glycogen levels, metabolic vitamins, etc. Actually I do that now. I would be able to tell you what’s in everything you eat, and I would secretly resent those who would order “impractical” things I wanted but “couldn’t” have because of my created science. I probably would be an insufferable dinner companion. Truly struggling women often are. I know women who generally won’t go out with others to eat. It’s a dreaded experience for everyone. Instead, I would probably hole up in my room.

After some time, eating might become distasteful, while food itself would become a tantalizing temptation. Maybe anorexia wouldn’t be that far fetched. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the illusion of control. I would resent the loss of such a frequent source of joy and then I would have my Dorian Gray moment. As Oscar Wilde describes, “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” And my weakness might be despicable, because it would be a personal affront to my controlling nature. My sense of self-worth would be at stake, self-loathing would ensue as it currently does when I feel I have lost control. And then, if I didn’t see what the real negative influence in my life is, I might get really creative.

Purging might seem reasonable, probably a bit farfetched. I would definitely use the word “purge” because it seems more banal. At least that’s what I would say to myself. I would make sure I digested something to convince myself I was healthy. I would have to do something about my breath and the acid. Vinegar rinses. Antacids. If I follow this path, I can imagine bulimia. And while the thought now seems so unlikely, the slow, steady decline makes it all seem so reasonable. There are a lot of steps down this path, and they are all downhill. The pressures are unwavering and it is a gradual distortion. I have watched as the building delusions reinforce themselves. I have found my way down that path in other situations and have watched people I respect go down this path themselves.

Conclusion

It’s hard for me not to read the last couple paragraphs and think to myself, “man, you are presumptuous bastard.” And I am, minus the bastard part I hope. I don’t really know what would happen. And maybe my depiction above is trite and just scratches the surface. I am sure it does. I can only begin to estimate an eating disorder which is so psychologically devastating. But I do know this:

“It is a formidable adversary who takes positions in your mind.”

And so I write this not to pretend that I know what it is like or to say I understand. I write simply to say that in our image obsessed country, the eating pathologies of single women are ubiquitous. And it pains me. And what saddens me is that I know I would be among you, and for this, perhaps you can forgive the presumptuousness of my writing above. Perhaps the real goal of this piece is to give me a greater ability for me to forgive others and myself by walking down the path. Maybe that was the real need, at least for me.

2 comments:

brett said...

Please post a detailed description (and preferably photos) of "sasquatch crotch."

Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out that eating disorders are not only ‘women issues’ and that in recent years there has been an explosion in the numbers of men with eating disorders. Ten years ago, men accounted for only 10% of eating disorder cases, but recent studies show that 16% of patients are men, and that this figure appears to be rising. The difference is that women are more likely to come forward with these problems while men are usually embarrassed to seek treatment.
In today’s society everyone feels the social pressures to be beautiful. Women tend to be more concerned with body weight, while men with body shape and muscles. Similar to women, 80% of whom want to lose weight, an equal number of men feel bad about how they look. The 95% of dieters who fail to achieve long-term weight loss and the vast majority of men who are unable to match the bulk of male models, experience poor body image, may develop feelings of sexual inadequacy, have low self esteem, and may acquire eating disorders. Some men turn to cosmetic surgery for a solution. In 1997, men spent $130 million dollars on liposuction, anti-wrinkle injections, pectoral implants, and penile enhancements. It just goes to show that the male cosmetic market is growing and it will not only be women who will be expected to look and stay beautiful. After all believe me when I see a cute guy, with a nice body I will also have a good look and just as much as you men analyze the faults in women I search for the imperfections in the men I see. Women’s expectations are growing beware.