Today I ate a piece of chocolate cake, and I survived. This sounds silly, I know. But not too long ago, there were countless days in a row when I truly thought my life was measured by the number on the scale, the size of my jeans, the number of calories I ate or my ability to refuse chocolate cake.
Sadly, this is no exaggeration, and many of you know this because you too are dealing with or have dealt with living in a self-made prison where the bars are made of supermodel standards, fear of rejection, endless exercising, obsession with body image, overeating, undereating, laxatives, diuretics, self-induced vomiting and self-loathing. Would you be able to tell, just by knowing someone, if they are one of the inmates in this prison of torment that destroys both body and soul? Are you one of these people who secretly hope that your warden of self-criticism will unlock the door and free you?
I am writing this article because I am a former inmate in the jail of disordered eating and body bashing. I was stunned at the number of people I met, both men and women, who were cellmates of mine, although I did not know it at the time. You too might be surprised at the number of occupants.
This article is not a forum for me to tell my story, however, because my story is really the story of thousands of other men and women across the nation who are locked up and rotting in that same prison. Rather, I hope to catch your attention, even if for the briefest of moments, and remind you that freedom to live freely in a world made up of self-acceptance and contentment is possible, even when you eat chocolate cake.
The etymology of the word disorder is “dis” — meaning “not” — plus the verb, “order.” Translation: not ordered. Ironic, isn’t it, when we consider how much time and effort we expend to “order” ourselves around eating, exercising and the attainment of an acceptable and attractive body?
Even the term “body awareness” is somewhat ambiguous in interpretation. In its positive context, awareness of the way our bodies are uniquely created and the multiple miracles our bodies perform each day is cause for celebration. In its negative context, awareness of how much we hate our bodies and fantasize about them being different is awareness I am sure most people would rather not have.
Personally, I do not think the term “eating disorder” is an accurate description of what happens when someone’s behaviors become so ordered that she or he is more consumed with appearance than with consuming a required, life-sustaining substance: food. It is not about the eating, the calories, the fat grams or even about the food.
What is it about then? When and how did the detailed “order” of it all cross into the “disordered” spectrum?
There are many theories and possible explanations behind the hows and whys of eating disorders and negative body image. Some blame the media for saturating our visual world with unrealistic expectations about the perfect body. Others focus on the influence of societal pressures to look, behave or speak a certain way. Still others believe familial influences contribute to disordered eating and negative thinking.
All of the above may contribute to either a positive/negative, healthy/unhealthy or rational/irrational image of our bodies. Although the roots of our body perceptions may differ, we share a common thread of wanting to be accepted, recognized, admired and wanted by someone at some point in time. Sadly, everyone is painfully aware that physical appearance can either deliver or deny these desires. However, physical appearance is not the only route to fulfillment; it is just the most visible and advertised journey to get there. And that journey is oftentimes costly.
Take a few moments to venture on your own body image journey this week. Are you walking the path of freedom, or are you an inmate in the prison of body hate? Are you visiting someone who is locked up in his or her own fear, guilt and shame? Have you been a person who contributes to the building of those prison walls? Will you choose to celebrate your body this week, without judgment, as you become more aware of its impact on your life? Will you choose to help others unlock the cell door? Will you ask for help in being freed? Will you look beyond the body and see the simultaneous pain and beauty of a human soul? Will you question the meaning of “ideal” and expand your field of vision?
I encourage you to reflect on your own thoughts and feelings about your body and notice who defines them: Is it you or others? As you ponder, challenge yourself and others to find their own personal freedom; it is there, waiting for you to embrace it.
Kiphany Hof, a provisionally licensed mental health practitioner, works as a counselor at University of Nebraska Kearney Counseling Care, a mental health clinic that offers personal counseling to students. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.