RSVP No to Anorexia

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

Right now, I am in a heated battle with my weight. It’s crept up, a little over a pound a year. When I got married thirteen years ago, I was twenty pounds lighter. Twenty pounds! My husband recently mentioned he was concerned about the weight I’d put on. Like there’s a woman alive who doesn’t realize she’s gained weight.

I’m trying all sorts of approaches. I make sure I eat healthily. I work out. I’ve had myself tested for thyroid issues, but it comes up negative. My blood work comes back stellar, so I don’t have other sneaky health problems that can be affecting my weight. And I’m desperate. What if this is me? What if I’m a chubby lady now? I had a lump in my throat just writing that sentence. One night recently, when I was alone in the house, I started Googling pointers on how I could become anorexic. Yes, really, and I know it’s a tragic health problem for the people who suffer from it. But I feel that bad about myself.

Signed,

Chubby and Hating It

Dear Hating It,

P: Wow. Of all the places I expected this to go, the last three sentences did not head in a direction I expected. Putting aside the frightening fact that you can Google how to become an anorexic, I’m not sure that, if I were at the point of committing slow and painful suicide in a fashion that gives you plenty of time to regret, but not a lot of options for reconsidering, I would write to an advice columnist rather than calling a shrink and making an appointment.

Having written to us, please also call a psychologist and make an appointment. I don’t think starving to death is a reasonable response to weight gain or someone’s noticing that you are who you are.

Anorexia isn’t a train that you get on at one weight and get off when you’re the “right” weight. 20 pounds is about four months of work, three if you work hard. I think you’re worth that.

B: For right now–just for right now–I will insist we take your concerns about your weight creeping up at face value. You neglect to mention how old you are, but please bear in mind that as people age–all people, mind you–they undergo a process known as sarcopenia, which is age-related loss of muscle mass. At some point in your mid-to-late 30s-ish, or 40s (you know how bodies are; they do things on their own timetable), it is simply what happens. Sarcopenia can wreak havoc with your system. Decreased muscle mass can drop your metabolism and create sneaky weight gain–which is then harder to take off because you have less muscle mass and a lower metabolism. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to consider adding some weight or resistance training into your workout. If you’re doing all cardio and no weights, it can defeat your efforts. Most gyms offer some kind of weight lifting class or, indeed, you could spend some time with a personal trainer and discuss your concerns. She or he could even tailor a workout regimen to suit your needs. It won’t be the magic wand that will make all your issues magically go away, but it will be good for you in any case, and a way to take action against inevitable body processes.

Now, with that being said…

P: Before you admitted that you were considering harming yourself, you seemed to be at an interesting place. Aware of the weight gain, but very aware of the rest of your numbers. And unable to complain about your overall health. What if you were just chubby, you ask… and is 5 pounds, or even 15 more, chubby?

Putting aside the husband’s need for a particular silhouette, how much of your self-worth is invested in looking a particular way? Because if you’re considering anorexia, you’re not worried about being in shape, you’re worried about your shape.

You’re willing to put your entire well-being on hold because your husband pointed out (yes, unnecessarily, did he think you didn’t notice you can’t button the old jeans?) that you’re gaining weight. Where’s your self-esteem?

B: Oh, honey. I am so sorry you feel this way about yourself. You did ask: What if this is you right now? So I want to know…what do you mean, what if? I’m not echoing your point to try and make you feel bad, I am saying this because it IS you right now. You’re everywhere–thirteen years in the past, projecting into an indeterminate future–except right here in the present. This is you, right now. And the you that comes across in this letter is someone willing to invest all her feelings of self-worth into a number on a scale and a dress size. There’s a fantastic line in The Devil Wears Prada wherein a character, talking about her new diet, says she is “…one stomach flu away from her goal weight.” And she says that with the unspoken implication that if she encountered someone with a stomach flu on the subway, she’d sit right next to him or her in hopes of picking it up.

And, it’s implied that that’s ragingly unhealthy, and underscores a skewed system of personal values.

I understand as well as anybody the pressure on women to be thin. I’ve struggled for years with my own body image. I am a meaty woman, and even though I work as a Zumba instructor I still carry extra weight. It can be deflating if you let it get to you. Thin = attractive, thin = still competitive against more youthful women. Thin women are beautiful and beautiful women have FEWER? less problems, right?

Only that’s not true. If thin and beautiful were the answers to every relationship problem, then Halle Berry wouldn’t have two divorces (and an impending third) under her belt. I feel like you’ve got a voice in your head that’s on a permanent loop telling you, “If only you could look like you looked when you were 25…if only you were super-thin again…if only you could look like you looked…”. If only, for any of us, and it doesn’t help that we are constantly bombarded by images of skinny women, who only seem to offer being skinny as a testament to their success and social worth (I’m looking at you, Kendall Jenner.) Thin doesn’t solve everything. Thin doesn’t solve anything, except how to fit into a smaller pair of jeans.

It doesn’t have an interest in Russian literature or know how to make killer pancakes. It doesn’t love watching quirky TV shows with your hubby or have a weirdly innate understanding of how to do one’s own taxes. It is only, just, thin. Thin doesn’t make you who you are, any more than the comment some boy said to you in fourth grade should define you. We learn. We grow. We are greater than the sum of our parts.

P: I don’t even feel like I should say to you, talk to your husband and let him know that you are so freaked out by his noticing your weight gain, whether or not it was noticing or judging, that you considered doing something dastardly — because the problem is so much bigger than your gaining weight or his being judgmental. The horror is that you’re lost in this.

If there are relationship issues here, you can’t talk to your husband about until you get some help for your self-esteem. Please go do that. So if you’re going to have that conversation with him, don’t try to solve any issues, just say that it was jarring and hard to hear — and was it necessary to say? — and that your response to his question terrified you and you’re going to do something about that. In the meantime, he can figure out if he wants to have the perfect wife or the perfectly shaped wife.

B: By all means, continue to eat healthily and meet with a personal trainer to devise a personalized exercise plan. And PLEASE talk to your husband, to let him know just how bad his comment about yourself made you feel. If he loves you, he should be appropriately horrified and realize that a different course of action needs to be taken. And go see a therapist. You’ve got some pernicious body image issues that are impacting you right now, in a potentially life-threatening way.

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