A couple of days ago, I saw a picture of a woman on Instagram.
The frame focused on the woman’s torso, and she was turned just slightly aside so that the lighting perfectly caught her abdominal muscles—making her look thin and fit.
Underneath the photo, she had written the caption, “This is the only time I have abs, and I haven’t eaten for 24 hours because I’ve been sick and throwing up.” The photo had been liked multiple times, and it had only one comment, written by another woman: “I’m so jealous.”
Now, I’m sure this woman didn’t mean her comment the way that it sounded. I’m sure she was not actually saying that she would love to be physically ill and vomiting to the point that she cannot bring herself to eat for 24 hours, all for the sake of obtaining abs.
Chances are she did not read the photo’s caption and merely thought that the first woman’s abs were admirable. However, there was something about seeing this exact comment on this exact photo that simply felt like a microcosm of how we as a society see women’s bodies.
Two years ago, I was 175 pounds and unhappy with my body. I was just coming out of a year spent coping with depression and eating what polite society would generously call a f*ckton of fast food (pizza was my kryptonite), and so I came to the conclusion that if I was going to make a permanent change in my lifestyle, I was going to start with my diet and exercise habits.
Fast forward a year, and I was down to 125 pounds. I had worked damn hard to lose those 50 pounds, and I was incredibly proud of myself for it. But on average, I was only eating about 1,000 calories a day. For those of you who don’t count calories, that roughly translates to “not enough food,” especially considering I was working out six days a week on top of that. There were nights where I only went to bed as early as I did because I knew that if I went to sleep, then that would bring me to breakfast faster.
On average, I went through my days feeling hungry and weak. I was shaky, I had a hard time focusing on the things that I loved to do, and there were times where I missed being physically larger simply because I didn’t feel quite so vulnerable and small when I was.
But at the same time, as much as I did not feel well, I was dedicated to staying that way. I counted my calories diligently, and if I went over, or if I ate more than one cheat meal a week, then I felt incredibly guilty to the point of tears, sometimes to the point of feeling the urge to go into the bathroom and try to make myself throw up (I never did, thankfully).
The strange thing about all of this is that I don’t really know why I, of all people, felt this way. I mean, yeah, 175 pounds was a little heavy for me, but I had been a curvy girl my whole life until this point—and I was damn proud of my curves too.
I was that girl who reminded people that Marilyn Monroe had been a size 12. I was that girl who rolled her eyes at the idea that women needed to lose weight to be beautiful. I was that girl who seriously questioned why “fat” necessarily needed to be an insult. And yet, here I was, starving my body and putting myself through emotional torment.
It wasn’t to be beautiful; I thought that I was beautiful before.
So why was I doing this to myself?
Well, to be honest, I think that it was because of the way that we as a society view women’s bodies—and I return to the Instagram commenter as my microcosm. It didn’t matter that the first woman needed to starve herself and be physically ill to get abs; the fact that she had abs was the only thing that mattered. We tend not to see the pain that goes into getting the body that society tells us we should want. Hell, we tend to not even think of it.
When someone we know has lost a ton of weight, our go-to comment to make is always, “Wow, you look great.” And of course, this compliment comes from a supportive place—all we’re trying to do is assure someone that all of the hard work they’ve put into their body is being noticed.
But what about the girl who lost all of that weight by starving herself? What about the person who lost weight because they were sick? When they’re being told that they are increasing their value in the eyes of those around them by causing themselves harm, then that is going to encourage them to keep causing themselves harm. They are going to keep on starving themselves, and they are going to keep on ignoring all of the signs that their body is giving them that they need to change what they are doing—all to get that compliment and feel that sense of accomplishment.
I’ve seen it done, again and again. The woman who knows exactly how long she can go without eating anything is told, again and again, by everyone around her, that she looks great and should keep doing what she is doing. And so she does keep doing it. She keeps on starving herself and she keeps on putting her own health at risk all because we as a society have decided that the only acceptable way for a woman to look is thin—and so some women will do anything to achieve that.
In my case, I didn’t even think I hadn’t been beautiful before. I just knew that I wanted to change my life, and considering the comments that I was receiving and the expectations that I placed on myself, as long as I kept losing weight, I was doing something right.
I decided to change my lifestyle shortly after I reached 125 pounds. People had been telling me for a while that I looked too thin, that I was a person built to be curvy and I didn’t look right so small and bony. But that wasn’t the reason that I decided to change. I sat down to write one night, to do the one thing that I always told myself came before anything else, and I couldn’t do it because I felt so weak and hungry.
It was at that moment that I realized it wasn’t worth it. I decided that I would rather feel strong and energetic than look the way that society expected me to look. I still eat healthy, and I still work out six days a week, but now, I eat when I feel hungry and I make sure not to count calories. I have gained seven pounds since, and I feel much happier and much more comfortable in my own body.
But it still scares me when I see exchanges like the one on Instagram. I hate to think of all the girls and women who are putting their bodies and minds through hell, and they continue to do it because they continue to receive compliments for their weight loss, as though their being thin somehow matters more than their feeling strong and well.
And it’s difficult to say that we should not compliment someone on their weight loss at all, because if someone has lost a lot of weight by simply making healthy changes to their lifestyle, then that is something that should be celebrated. But girls and women should also know that being thin is not the most important thing that they can be—being happy and healthy is infinitely more significant. Strength is so much more beautiful than a lean stomach will ever be.
My message here is not that there is any one way that our bodies should look. I am not trying to belittle the beauty in thin bodies, nor in larger bodies, nor in muscular bodies. I firmly believe that every body type is beautiful, but it is more important that you feel comfortable and happy, and that you are healthy in mind as well as body.
I believe that it is absurd that society encourages us to sacrifice our well-being for a body that is more acceptable by someone else’s standards. I believe that we are more than our physical appearances, that our thoughts and feelings and happiness have value, and that no one should ever feel the need to cause themselves harm in order to become something that society says they should.
Author: Ciara Hall
Image: Flickr/Emily Salazar
Editor: Travis May