Editor’s note: This is the first part of a five-part series running each day this week through Friday. In this personal essay, Daily Illini columnist Melanie Stone combines her story with that of experts and multiple women across the country.
The world we live in is obsessed with the thin ideal, indoctrinating it into the minds of girls of all ages. Over the past few months, I interviewed college women and professionals across the country, hoping to find answers for what you’re about to read. It is a topic that is deeply personal to me, and now, I’m ready to share my own story, share my heart and share what I’ve learned. Some of it is messy, and I haven’t quite tied up every loose end yet, but I do know that as women, we are called to love ourselves. The question is: How do we do it?
I’m not acceptable.
That was the lie I chose to believe.
My story certainly unfolded slowly. I was 17 years old, a senior in high school and a size 6 when I began to look at my body differently. Before, I had always been fairly comfortable with my appearance. I liked how my hair was curly sometimes, straight sometimes. I liked the shape of my mouth, the way it curved up and down and formed a loopy M-shape. I liked my porcelain skin.
There were, of course, parts of me that I didn’t like. I had never been classified as “skinny”; my weight always seemed to hover in the average range. As much as I wished I looked like my tiny, small-boned friends, I loved food too much to give up eating what I wanted: burritos at Chipotle, ice cream after dinner, seconds when I felt like having more. To me, food was sustenance, but it was also a gift from God. I ate — happily, at that. My body had small divots and curves, but that was OK.
A few months into my senior year, I suddenly had my first real boyfriend. He was older — a sophomore here at the University at the time — and I was smitten with the new relationship. He was complimentary and never, ever made negative comments about my appearance, but in my mind, he was thinking otherwise. The fear of his judgment was enough.
The first step was adjusting my eating habits. I replaced burgers with salads, ice cream with sugar-free Jell-O and chips with carrots. I even swore off Chipotle, my all-time favorite restaurant. Then came the exercise: I befriended the elliptical, got comfortable in the lap lanes and rode the stationary bike into oblivion.
I lost a few pounds, but my newfound healthy lifestyle was not enough.
Enter the extremes.
I remember the day I set fire to my sack of leftover Halloween candy. The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups had been taunting me, begging me to unwrap them. The Kit Kat bars were just as evil.
No. I would not give in. And so I did the only thing there was to do: I took the pillowcase of candy outside, struck a match and watched it burn.
Shortly thereafter, I began carrying around a Ziploc bag of cucumber slices in my purse. At just one measly calorie per slice, the snack was completely guilt-free and comparable to chewing water. If I was out with my friends and everyone else was mindlessly snacking on junk food, I’d whip out my baggie and mindfully snack on the slices of nothingness.
* * *
The chewing and spitting was an accidental discovery. It was late and I found myself in the kitchen, sorting through the pantry for something to eat. The box of Hostess CupCakes stared at me. I stared back. As I reached for a cupcake, my mind went blank for a moment. I unwrapped the dessert. Lifted it to my mouth. Took one glorious, cream-filled bite.
And then I snapped back to reality. CRAP.
Promptly, I spat the sinful bite of cupcake into the sink, and relief flooded over me. And then, an idea: I could eat more of the cupcake, as long as I didn’t swallow anything.
Before I knew it, the sink was filled with chewed-up food: Cheetos, yogurt pretzels, my mom’s homemade chocolate-chip cookies, Goldfish and the rest of the Hostess CupCakes. I was a genius, a genius who had just unlocked the secret to weight loss, a genius who could finally have her cake.
This pattern of chewing and spitting the foods that I so desperately wished I could eat continued, first as a private, late-night, in-my-own-home sort of thing. But then it became a way to enjoy any forbidden foods: at my friends’ houses, at school, anywhere.
* * *
My weight was dropping, but it was a slow process. Still, I needed more. The diet pills caught my eye during a trip to Target in January 2011. The box screamed: “LOSE UP TO 20 LBS! HELPS STIMULATE METABOLISM! HELPS BURN FAT!”
For the next few weeks I took two a day. The Mega-T Green Tea Fat Burning Supplement was essentially caffeine, poured and diluted into a tiny pill capsule. I didn’t drop the promised 20 pounds, but I did notice a slight energy boost if I took the pill before a workout.
I soon switched to Celsius, a calorie-burning drink that made my heart beat a little too fast. I bought four-packs of cans and hid them under my bed, chugging one precisely 30 minutes before I left for the gym. Celsius was supposed to burn close to 100 calories per can; although it upset my stomach and made me jittery, I decided that anything was worth getting rid of 100 extra calories.
April arrived and I was almost 10 pounds lighter. I proudly shopped for size-4 tops and dresses because my clothes no longer fit me. Finally, I was in shape, able to run six, seven, eight miles without stopping.
By the time I graduated from high school, my relationship with my boyfriend was long over, my relationship with running was greedily based on calories, and my relationship with my body wasn’t getting any better. I was headed to Champaign come August — the only thing left to do was drop a few more pounds.
I was not quite good enough yet.
Angie Neufeld, freshman at the University, wasn’t happy with the way she looked. She had never been overweight, but the number on her scale wavered a few pounds above average. As a junior in high school in spring 2011, she began dieting on her own and ramping up her exercise.
Her workouts were, at first, miserable. But soon, Angie fell in love with running, building up to five-mile loops around her neighborhood.
“It began as a numbers game,” she said. “I thought a lot about how many calories I was burning in comparison to how much I was eating.”
The benefits — flowing endorphins and weight loss — motivated her to continue the quest for a new body image.
“I knew I could look so much better if I lost weight,” she said. “And, of course, there was pressure from society and media to look skinny, perfect.”
Turn to any article on body image, and it will likely mention the media. And rightfully so; the world we live in is virtually obsessed with appearances. Emily Fox-Kales is a clinical psychologist at Harvard University and Northeastern University, and she’s also the author of “Body Shots,” a book about Hollywood’s role in the way women see themselves.
According to Kales, our culture has a preoccupation with being slender, craving fitness and fearing obesity. These days, this obsession is even more rampant, and Kales attributes it to the media.
“It’s global now,” she told me. “Social media is global now. It presents a body ideal that anybody, all over the world, can internalize.”
In this age, the definition of the media is ever-changing. Maybe it’s not a glossy magazine cover — maybe, instead, it’s a tweet. I follow SELF Magazine on Twitter, and every day my feed is bombarded with seemingly innocent subtleties like “Rise & tone!” and “the trick for sexy shoulders + tight abs.”
Where are the tweets that read, “You’re beautiful as you are”?
I still can’t find them.
* * *
Joel Kevin Thompson, clinical psychology professor at the University of South Florida, is renowned when it comes to investigating body dissatisfaction. In a 2001 article, he explored something called thin-ideal internalization, which happens when someone “cognitively ‘buys into’ socially defined ideals of attractiveness and engages in behaviors designed to produce an approximation of these ideals.”
Millions of women see these tweets and posts and articles and commercials, but not everyone is buying into the thin ideal. Herein lies the difference between awareness and internalization: Thompson, in a 2005 journal article, concluded that the “association between internalization and body image is significantly larger than the association between awareness and body image.”
What’s more, the thin ideal doesn’t just translate to the media. Too many of us fall prey to comparison, looking at others and then looking back to ourselves. Comparisons can be upward or downward: “I’m so much prettier than her” would be the former; “She’s way skinnier than me” would be the latter.
Neither direction is healthy, but downward comparisons are exceptionally damaging when it comes to body dissatisfaction.
For those of us that internalize the thin ideal, through comparisons or through the media, we’re getting dangerously close to body dissatisfaction. This happened for me, this happened for Angie, this happened to almost every girl I talked to for this story: The world tells us to look a certain way, and we believe it.
And once the seed is planted into our minds, the story begins.
Read the story on Issuu, pages 1A and 6A: