Sometimes things happen in life that make you sit back and put things in perspective. Like everyone else, I tend to let myself get caught up in the little things and I forget to look at the big picture. Courtesy of life, I have spent much of the last six months realizing that I need to focus on the big things. Last week really brought a few things into focus.
I have a friend who has struggled with anorexia since long before I knew her. I met her almost two years ago when she came into the YMCA where I work to become a member. Later, she joined the church I attend so I saw her each week at work and at church. At this point in time, my friend was reed thin, but claimed she had been much thinner and had worked hard to get to her weight up. She was really proud of herself for becoming as healthy as she had. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to retain her weight and soon spiraled back down into full-blown anorexia.
As my friend’s health deteriorated, I was watching my mother struggle to rally in her last illness. As hard as Mom tried to rally, she was unable to recover because she had allowed her body to become too weak to do so. It was hard to watch, but it was also infuriating because for years we had all tried to convince Mom of the importance of not smoking, eating nutritious food, and exercising regularly. She insisted that she had no interest in any of those things and she paid a steep price for it in her last few weeks.
While Mom may or may not have been anorexic, her lack of interest in food left her way too thin and weak. While I was dealing with the results of my mom’s choices, I was constantly running into my anorexic friend. My friend’s health had declined drastically and it was hard to see someone making such bad choices and it was even harder when I knew similar decisions were killing my mother. I had worried about my friend for months and had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to approach her about her eating disorder.
I had finally had enough of the struggle when she walked up to talk to me one day when Mom was in the hospital fighting what we knew was her final battle. My friend had become emaciated and looked like she would break with each step she took. I told her how hard it was to watch her wither away while I was also watching my mom die from her refusal to keep her body healthy.
I tried to be gentle but firm, but I also knew I hurt my friend’s feelings. As bad as I felt about doing so, I would have felt worse if I hadn’t said anything. I knew with an anorexic telling her she was too skinny wouldn’t have an effect on her, but I was hoping reminding her that her decisions could have long term implications would echo somewhere in her mind and heart.
Shortly thereafter, my friend moved on to another job. She worked weekends at her new job and I no longer saw her at work or at church. I periodically wondered how she was doing, but I was dealing with my own life and issues and I didn’t follow up to see how she was doing.
Last Sunday, my friend came to church for the first time since January. There are not words to properly express how bad she looked. She was a walking skeleton. The only time I have seen anyone else that thin was in pictures of the Holocaust survivors.
I have no idea what the look on my face was when I saw her, but I have never had a poker face and I know she had to see the horror in my expression. She immediately leaned over and started telling me that she was leaving in a few days to go to the only hospital in the country that was prepared to deal with the extremity of her eating disorder. She plans on being there for about a month to get healthy enough to then relocate to a rehab facility to deal with the anorexia.
At the church we attend, there are a group of ladies who always sit together. We range in age from early 40’s to mid-80’s and we do our best to support each other. Quite a few of us were there last Sunday and you could practically feel everyone leaning into this woman to support her with our love. Of course, because the Universe works this way, the message on this day was all about standing in the gap for each other. I can guarantee that all of us will do our best to hold space for this woman as she heals.
I understand that both my mother and my friend were/are body dysmorphic. They are extreme examples of people who use their bodies as the ultimate battleground in proving they can exert control over something. My mother was so used to wearing clothes that were too big that she could not stand to wear anything that actually hugged her body. My friend had battled anorexia before and lost her grip on healthy eating when people started telling her she’d gained weight. No matter how tiny either of them got, they always saw a much bigger person in the mirror.
I know these women had issues with their bodies, but I also know that our society has helped contribute to these misconceptions. Everywhere we look we are inundated with images of bodies that are the exception rather than the rule. The average size for American women is size 14. However, the predominant images in the media are women who are size 0 or smaller. According to ABC news, most models meet the criteria to be considered anorexic. That’s right, we are being encouraged to try to obtain an anorexic body. Amazingly, the super-models of the 70’s and 80’s would be considered too big to model today.
Thankfully, change is in the wind. There is starting to be a backlash against the perception that a woman needs to be a size 0 or smaller to be attractive. Dove launched their “Real Beauty” campaign a number of years ago, using real women with real bodies in their ads; Aerie lingerie refuses to Photoshop the models in their ads; and more “plus-size” models are walking the runway at major fashion shows, even though anything over a size 6 is what they consider plus-size.
Nancy Reagan was once quoted as saying that you can never be too rich or too thin. Unfortunately, she was wrong. People can die from being too thin. I know as well as anyone how hard it can be to watch your body change and become a different shape than it once was, but we all need to learn to not just accept, but love our bodies the way they are.
So, what am I going to do to help myself deal with the size I am? I am going to go buy an expensive bra at a lingerie store that does custom fittings; I am going to talk to a friend who designs dresses and see if she will barter with me to help offset the cost of having a dress custom made; I am going to eat more salads and cherish each bite of the higher calorie foods I do choose to eat.