One of the most prevalent and harmful misconceptions about eating disorders is that they are all about vanity. Many people believe that sufferers are vain, beauty-obsessed brats that could easily recover if they’d simply stop looking in the mirror and get over their need to be pretty. This isn’t even close to the truth. As someone who has been personally offended by this belief, I wanted to share my story and my thoughts to hopefully shed some light on the vanity myth.
Before anorexia took hold of my life, I believe I had a pretty unusual level of self-esteem when it came to my body and looks. Sure, I had my days when I scowled at my reflection. They often occurred in dance class when I pranced around in my leotard amidst a room of mirrors. With a naturally lean frame and a fast metabolism, I was used to eating what I wanted and easily keeping in shape with my hobbies and lifestyle. I had been called skinny my entire life, and I actually hated it because it was usually said with a derogatory tone. In fact, there were times were I actually felt guilty about being thin and liking the way I looked. How messed up is that? It was so rare among my peers for someone to be satisfied with their looks and to truly love their body that I felt completely awkward and tried my best to always avoid the subject.
In college, after a series of unfortunate, traumatic events, everything changed. Within a few months I went from having good self-esteem and body image to completely loathing my entire being. How did this happen? Nobody had called me fat, I was never teased about my looks, and I didn’t get the sudden urge to pursue a runway career either. No, this wasn’t about beauty. This wasn’t about being thin. It was about becoming trapped in a “perfect storm.”
Eating disorders are about control, fear, anger, punishment, avoidance, rebellion, needs, security; I could go on and on. They don’t instantly develop over night. The circumstances have to be just right, just like the circumstances of nature that contribute to the development of a “perfect storm,” where all the elements of location, air temperature, wind speed, and direction, levels of condensation, and evaporation. For an eating disorder to develop, it usually takes a vulnerable personality, usually one with heightened emotional sensitivity and perfectionist tendencies. It often involves one or several difficult life changes, like abuse, the death of a loved one, or the start of a new school. Finally, the beauty-obsessed society we live in, the one that values physical appearance more than anything else, creates the recipe for disaster.
To the person with an eating disorder, many of these factors are not apparent. That’s why, when you ask them what they’re feeling, most often the answer is,”Fat.” When you explain to them that fat isn’t a feeling, the next answer is most likely, “I don’t know what I’m feeling.” This discrepancy is where the vanity-myth is born. The person with the eating disorder focuses on their body in order to avoid focusing on all the deep, dark, seemingly uncontrollable and overwhelming feelings and circumstances that lie beneath the surface. The endless pursuit of beauty becomes the scapegoat for dealing with society.
What is beauty to you? Can you even put it into words? The first definition that appears in my dictionary states that beauty, as a noun, is “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses.” Following this is the definition for the adjective version: “denoting something intended to make a woman more attractive.” Hmm. More attractive than what? More attractive than she already is? More like the air-brushed celebrities that you see in magazines? It is no coincidence that the number of eating disorders is rising drastically. The idea of the perfect body is being forced upon us earlier and earlier in life. While capitalizing on the beauty within, instilling body-appreciation at any size, and drastically altering the size-zero ideal won’t eliminate eating disorders, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
© Copyright 2011 by By Josie Tuttle, MA, therapist in Beverly Hills, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.