By Grace Wade
When I was fourteen years old, I remember sitting in my room watching and re-watching Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows. I remember idolizing the Angels’ long, lean legs, their perfectly toned stomachs and the way they smiled. They seemed so happy, and how could they not be? They were the epitome of beautiful.
My obsession with achieving this idealized body type led me to googling each Angel’s BMI,measurements and diet. I spent time standing in front of the mirror pinching my stomach, scrutinizing the gap between my thighs, and measuring my hips, chest, and waist. Like many girls, all I wanted was to be just as beautiful as them.
While I went on to develop anorexia nervosa, a mental health disorder which caused me to become obsessed with calorie counting and led me to becoming dangerously underweight, I had also fallen to the cultural epidemic of beauty sickness.
Beauty sickness, a term coined by Northwestern University psychology professor and author of Beauty Sick: How The Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women Renee Engeln, occurs when people spend so much time or emotional energy on how they look that they no longer have enough energy to focus on things that matter to them.
“Many women I talk to feel that these thoughts on image are taking away their power and ability to fight the battles they want to be fighting because they are too busy battling their own body,” says Professor Engeln whose research focuses on the social forces that affect how women look at their bodies and the ensuing behavioral outcomes. She points to the modeling industry as one of the causes of beauty sickness by selling a narrow beauty ideal.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, buying into the message of the socially defined ideal body increases the likelihood of dieting and food restriction. While our current culture is disproportionately obsessed with food and weight, clinical eating disorders remain rare, affecting just three percent of the population. However, that does not undermine how societal factors, like the media-driven thin body ideal, has caused the majority of women to engage in disordered patterns of eating. “A lot of women do not have eating disorders, but they are dipping their toes in the water. They just call it being healthy or eating clean,” says Professor Engeln.“But not eating or becoming obsessed with every calorie you consume is not being healthy.”
Mary Penckofer, a 20-year-old neuroscience major at Northwestern on the pre-med track, was scouted to model in downtown Chicago at the age of 15. She worked for Factor Chosen, a modelling agency in Chicago, and modeled for brands such as Hollister before quitting at the age of 19. “When I stopped modelling it was because they told me that I had too athletic of a build. They wanted me to lose five pounds,” said Penckofer, “I think a lot of people know there is pressure on models to be skinny, but they do not know that the industry thinks a 22-inch waist is too big.”
Hollister, a lifestyle brand designed to attract consumers between the ages of 14 and 18, even photoshopped a photo of Penckofer to have her appear thinner. After seeing the original photo, Penckofer noticed how the company had edited her waist to appear smaller, her butt to be bigger and her legs to be thinner. “When they showed me the final photo, it was not recognizable at all. You could not even tell it was me,” said Penckofer.
By displaying thin models, especially images of photoshopped models, retailers are promoting the message that thinner is better, even if the body type they place on a pedestal is not attainable. Exposure to these images can increase body dissatisfaction, which can not only lead to eating disorders, but can also lead to perfectly healthy women believing they need to lose weight.
“I think it is really hard to grow up in a world where you feel like your body should be your number one project,” said Professor Engeln, who believes that the modelling industry exploits women’s self-hatred in order to sell products.
“If you are a girl and grow up in this culture you are taught the most powerful thing you could ever be is not president, it is beautiful,” said Professor Engeln. “A lot of women say that they want to look attractive for themselves, but how would they know? We live in a world that has never asked anything more from us than to focus on our appearance.”
As for me, and most other men and women who develop eating disorders, the desire to lose weight stemmed partially from a perfectionist attitude. Though I received good grades in school and aspired to attend to a top-tier university, I felt I could not achieve ultimate perfection unless I appeared skinny. I believe a lot of women, not just those with eating disorders, can relate to the idea that somehow those five or ten pounds are what is keeping them from that one date, that one job or that one goal, whatever it may be. Yet, at the end of the day, does losing that weight truly change who you are as a person? I can say with confidence that the answer is no. At least for myself, no matter how low the number on the scale got, I never felt truly satisfied.
It is important to note that eating disorders are a bio-psycho-social disease that occur due to more factors than just an obsession with appearance. Biological factors such as genetics and psychological factors such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder all play a significant role in who develops an eating disorder. Societal factors such as the media and the fashion industry merely act as environmental triggers. Yet this does not change the fact that the average woman feels dissatisfied with their body, and isn’t that bad enough?
During my battle with anorexia, focusing on how much I ate consumed a large portion of my life. Looking back at old notebooks from freshman year of high school, I am still surprised with the numbers littering the margins. Instead of taking notes in class, I would often count and recount the calories I had consumed for that day, terrified that somehow I would go over my allotted amount. I could no longer eat my favorite foods and would avoid going out with my friends out of fear that somehow food would be involved.
In an effort to prevent my friends and family from recognizing my unhealthy relationship with food and my deteriorating mental health, I grew distant and reclusive. As I lost more and more weight, my skin became dry, my hair fell out, and I lost my period. Even under layers of clothing, my skin was constantly cold and purple. I even grew lanugo, which is fine downy hair that appears on a person’s arms, stomach, and face as a last effort to keep the body insulated.
In addition to being diagnosed with anorexia, anxiety and PTSD, I also developed osteopenia, which is bone density that is lower than normal, but not severe enough to be osteoporosis. My resting heart rate dropped to 43 beats per minute as my body struggled to find the energy to pump blood, yet when I stood it would shoot up to 120 beats per minute, leaving me prone to fainting and blurry vision. It was everything but glamorous. I felt depressed, alone and out of control--not Victoria’s Secret beautiful.
On February 18th, 2013, I was admitted to the emergency room of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia by a cardiologist who feared I could go into cardiac arrest at any moment. This was the day I decided to get better-- that I decided I would no longer allow my eating disorder to affect the quality of my life or prevent me from achieving my goals. Eight days later, I was transferred to the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, and after two months of residential treatment, I was discharged. While I spent eight weeks going through intensive therapy and nutrition programs, my journey to recovery was far from over. It would take me years before I could eat a bowl of mac and cheese without shaking or stop subconsciously counting the calories in everything I ate.
However, here I am, at a place where I feel strong and comfortable in my own skin. A place where I now appreciate my body for what it can do rather than how it looks. While I am by no means perfect in terms of self-love, I believe I have made strides in combatting my own personal case of beauty sickness. Those thoughts of appearance no longer take up more space than I want them to and I can now focus on what matters to me most -- my friends and family, my personal goals and my mental health.
And I think all women deserve that. Women have a lot of things to think and care about besides how they appear. Every chance we can steal back a moment from time spent on social media or in front of a mirror is a moment we can use to better ourselves, our relationships and the world around us.