Print Edition: October 30, 2013
I was homeschooled for the majority of elementary and middle school. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I dodged a body image bullet.
I spent the majority of my time hanging out with my brother, and we ran wild in our rural neighborhood. I didn’t think of my body as an image so much as a tool I could use to dig holes or climb trees or run to the end of the road. I wanted to be stronger, and I wanted to be faster, and I could push my body to do almost anything I wanted it to.
By the time I started attending high school, the way I viewed myself entirely depended on my ability; would I win in a wrestling match? Would I win in a foot race? How quickly could I climb the fence, and would I be able to land without hurting myself?
I quickly realized that this was not really how other girls thought of themselves.
Just as quickly, I realized this wasn’t how other girls thought of me, either.
I was teased for all sorts of things: I didn’t shave my legs, I actually pushed myself in P.E., I didn’t wear make-up, I wore baggier clothing and track pants, I was a tomboy. I thought being a tomboy was a good thing: it meant that I was tough, that I wasn’t afraid to pick up worms or go out in the rain without an umbrella.
I remember the exact moment I became unhappy with my body. It was one of the first nice days of spring at the end of grade nine, and we were all wearing shorts. Our bare legs looked like so many saplings growing out of the ground. Glancing at mine, someone made the comment that I “must be pretty athletic.”
I’m sure she didn’t even mean it as an insult, but suddenly I was starkly aware of how much thicker my thighs were than everyone else’s. As I played soccer I glanced surreptitiously around, trying to gauge what my body parts would look like to someone else. I was used to them, I liked them, and I had a sort of pride in my muscles and bones and tissues. But now being able to climb a tree or play on the boys’ team in floor hockey paled in comparison to what my limbs actually looked like.
I had this realization relatively late in life – I’m sure my classmates had come to the same cold, self-conscious conclusion in middle or even elementary school. I would certainly challenge you to find one woman who doesn’t worry about her body. I would challenge you to find a single human being who doesn’t worry about their body.
As high school students, we took classes with optimistic names like “Career and Personal Planning,” which theoretically covered topics like sexual health, mental health, and body image. This is an effort, and I recognize there’s only so much an institution (be it high school, be it university) can do to help students.
I can attest that we didn’t want the help of our parents, our teachers, or our counsellors. We sneered at the presentations and informational booklets that quietly explained eating disorders, even as we struggled with those issues in real life.
One of my closest friends was bulimic, which we all knew about and never acknowledged. I could name four or five other girls I knew who had struggled with eating disorders in the past, or fought with those issues on a daily basis. In my grad year, after a particularly harsh break-up, I struggled with anorexia. Denying myself food helped me feel like I had some measure of control over myself – as though eating was a needless, wasteful hobby. On the scale of anorexia, I fell on the moderate side (After all, I ate half a meal a day, I tell myself, which is perhaps more telling) so I don’t even count myself as one of the one in five women who struggles with an eating disorder in her lifetime.
And even if schools and universities and public institutions offer services to help troubled youths deal with body image and mental health, this isn’t a case of “if you build it, they will come.” Those dealing with eating disorders or body image anxiety are unlikely to approach an authority figure, either because they don’t believe they need help or because they’re afraid to bare such personal fears and have them ignored or written off.
Instead of general-bordering-on-vague information detailing how to spot symptoms and information on rehabilitation programs, there needs to be something in place for those close to youth to be able to help with an eating disorder. We’ve spotted the symptoms; what now? It’s not as simple as telling a parent or guardian—no one wants to be labelled a snitch, assuming the adult pays heed to the information in the first place—and frankly, we’re getting to the point where we’re adults ourselves. If someone came to me to ask for help, I wouldn’t have any idea what to say, let alone do.
Unrealistic body expectations and their repercussions are a horrible, horrible reality. But these are issues we’ve been wading around in for well over a decade; surely by now there has to be a way that we can speak about eating disorders openly and without fear, and encourage those who are suffering to do the same.