Topic Tuesday: Body Image
“Collision of the Internal and External” (By: Skyler Levine)
When I see my body, my vision is anything but 20/20. Though I have a keen eye for nit-picking and self criticism, I have zero accuracy when it comes to reality. I can name off the things that I see as aesthetically displeasing about myself, and am constantly wracking up a laundry list in my brain of these items. In fact, this inventory is always at the ready to list off the parts of myself that I see as “wrong” or “bad,” as if the miracle of the human body could be either. These things are astonishingly specific as well, and they don’t all have to do with my weight, although, the scale is more than a monumental factor, and something that takes up way too much headspace. I often think about my knee joints being unflattering to my legs. To me, they’re too low and therefore amplify the size of my thighs. Or I’ll look at my arm when draped over the back of a sofa cushion and see my relaxed tricep drooping off the bone. It always looks untoned to me, as if it was excess fat instead of unengaged muscle. These things seem petty, right? Self absorbed and ungrateful given that some people don’t even have limbs to bash on. I think so too. Though, the reality is these thoughts are not mine. They are speeches written by a phantom voice that likes to lecture me whenever I look at myself in the mirror. This is an illness that was given to me, not one I adopted.
I wish I could say it hit me during puberty, or even in middle school, but frankly I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t plagued with these thoughts. However, my younger mind conjured up much less destructive forms of these speeches. There were less thoughts of shame and embarrassment, yet more thoughts of comparisons between my skewed perception of myself and what I saw of others. I would look down and see a bulging (or what I thought was bulging) belly on my nine-year-old self. Then I’d see the slender builds of my classmates and sink into an abyss of humiliation. This specific cycle of comparison between myself and others has adhered itself to my daily routine ever since. The only thing that has changed is now, as a young woman, I have days where my weight tangibly fluctuates and I continually have to search for new ways to cope with that. Quite often, that seems like an unmanageably hard task.
Though infrequently discussed, eating disorders come in an infinite amount of forms. The one I was dealt with is bit atypical compared to the popular types, making it easy to minimize. However, I believe no matter what form yours comes in they all blossom from the same root. An eating disorder in definition, is a food addiction with no healthy outlet to process it. For example, I’ve battled orthorexia, – an extreme obsession with healthy eating that makes me feel hysterical about trying to “indulge” – as well as overeating. Though they seem like two completely different ailments, each causes me to fuss over everything that goes into my mouth for the same two reasons: I’m terrified of gaining weight, but I also seek comfort in food to heal my anxieties. Honestly, I battle my inner demons every time I sit down to a meal. That means three or more times a day I’m terrified to eat anything the orthorexic side of my brain has deemed unhealthy. That also means that three or more times a day I struggle to keep myself from endless binge eating. In today’s society it’s hip to be a health nut – even to the extreme level of anxiety and intense fear of food that I face – but it’s not hip to be an overeater. That is why I pretend like I’m not. I let people in on the fact that my obsession with healthy eating has gotten out of hand, but the side of me that can’t find an off switch when I eat is one I prefer to leave invisible. Both diseases are equally severe, but since one is more “respectable” than the other, that’s typically the only one I talk about.
Growing up in the 21st century, I’m constantly being reminded that the anorexic aesthetic is not only coveted, but praised by our culture. Gaunt bodies have become hip and popular and photo evidence of this isn’t hard to come by. Simply log onto any social media platform, walk into any clothing store, look closely at any advertisements, and pick up any mainstream magazine. They’re in there, every single one of them. Pictures of women with hollow guts wearing exquisitely fitting clothing. These external factors make it so easy for someone like myself to question my own appearance. That’s the definition we’ve prescribed for being beautiful, and I can’t help but want to achieve that beauty. The thing is, the visual aspect isn’t the whole story. Though today’s society pretends otherwise, popular eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are typically praised by those around us. Thus, this lifestyle has quickly become normalized. Sure, mainstream publications like to write about recovery stories and gush over celebrities’ strength in recovering from such an illness, but the underlying plot is actually to gush over the strength it took to maintain the disease. It’s easy to pretend otherwise, but if you’re not advocating against eating disorders, you’re most likely advocating for them without knowing it. Take author Roxane Gay as an example. In her memoir “Hunger” she talks of her experiences with overeating herself to obesity, then constantly attempting to get thin. People praised her weight loss, even when it manifested in a disordered fashion. She wasn’t applauded for the image of getting healthy, but for fixing the problem of her overweight body. This completely disregards the fact that she was 1) bulimic for a spell, and 2) had deep seeded psychological reasoning for her obesity that went unaddressed in her youth and left to fester in her adult years. Neither of these things mattered though, her losing weight was all that counted.
Now, before you think I’m cynical about the world or just plain ignorant to the many body positive outlets available to young women, let me tell you about why these resources are irrelevant in my career line. Being a dancer, the entire aesthetic of the art form relies on your bare body. Precisely as being a celebrity offers your body up for public debate, being a dancer gives your higher ups a say in how you’re supposed to look. It’s unfortunate to admit, – and sometimes we pretend otherwise – but truthfully, you can’t expect a career in ballet if you don’t have the right physique. In context of the classical ballet vocabulary, things are either right or wrong and the body is no exception. One must be unnaturally thin, but not lacking in muscle tone. One must appear athletic, but god forbid the muscle fiber builds bulky instead of lean. One must have the right bone structure. Knees that fully straighten, ankles with hyper-mobility, shoulders that aren’t too broad, etc., and the catalogue just continues. Even if you are dancing for a company who is on the lenient side in terms of physical appearance, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re forced to stare at your virtually naked self in a mirror and pick out each individual flaw, as a full time job. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t given you a “fat talk,” you see the blatant favoritism played to girls with ideal bodies. It’s a competitive sport and everyone wants that edge. Everyone wants those unachievable ideals.
In all truth and honesty, I believe beauty is strictly an opinion and something that takes infinite forms. The only way we can change this is by changing the way we view ourselves and those around us. I believe we must start seeing our bodies simply as vessels to experience our outer world and find joy through our discoveries. It’s when we focus on the superficial layers of ourselves and those around us that we find ourselves living life backwards and in a darkened state. Call me one to daydream, but imagine the freedom and deep capacity for joy you would have if you woke up one morning and never gave a thought about your body or anyone else’s.
Gay, Roxane. Hunger. HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
About the Author
Skyler is a five-year local to Nashville since relocating from California. She is a second company member with the Nashville Ballet as well as part time student at Belmont University. As her struggle with food and body image prevailed she felt the need to be of more service to others in order to heal myself. Now, she co-leads the Nashville Chapter of Dining for Women, (a global giving circle dedicated to woman in extreme poverty) as well as volunteers with three political activism groups. In her free time you will find her enjoying handwork (knitting, embroidery, spinning), a good book, seeing live music, or spending time with her incredible friends and family.