Breaking the connection between “thin” and “healthy”
The first time in my adult life that I lost a lot of weight and became extremely thin happened when I was 18 and I was in my first year of college. I was infatuated with a boy I was dating, who happened to still be in love with his girlfriend from high school. It didn’t quite occur to me that this was a less-than-ideal arrangement, and I thought I could just wait it out and one day he’d be ready to be in love with me.
During those months, I found that I had a really hard time eating, especially when I was around him. I would choke down a quarter of a club sandwich and half a pickle, then excuse myself to go to the bathroom so I could puke it right back up. It wasn’t that I thought I needed to be thinner for him to love me or something like that; my stomach just refused to accept the food. I realized, after we broke up and my appetite returned, that this was my body’s way of coping with anxiety.
The second time took place when I was in my early 20s, and I had become immersed in Florida’s omnipresent drug culture. I’d been a pothead for a few years but then we moved to Florida and I quickly learned that the opportunities for chemical alteration were limited only by my imagination and the depths of my recklessness. By the time I was 24, I was basically a less-pathetic Cat Marnell (and that’s only because I refused to do things like smoke angel dust). Entire three-day weekends would pass in which I ingested no actual food, because who needed food when you were high?
I remember once going to get my hair done one Saturday morning after a night of partying – and by the way, has there ever been a sadder euphemism for drug use than “partying”? – and when I stood up to walk across the salon so I could get my hair washed, I blacked out. I blacked out a lot in those days.
Plus, my personal life was utterly chaotic at the time, and my body dealt with the anxiety the same way it had before: by destroying my appetite. So even when I was sober, I couldn’t force myself to eat.
In retrospect, at both times in my life, I was clearly in some deep shit. My vertebrae stuck out so far that when I’d get out of one of my epic three-hour-long baths, I’d actually have raw spots that sometimes scabbed over. My skin was sallow with dark under-eye circles, hair falling out everywhere. Just an utter mess.
And yet only once did anyone express concern for me and my health. One time, out of all of those years, did anyone say anything, and that was my dad. My dad came to visit me at college while I was in the midst of my unintentional bulimia, and when he hugged me, he must have felt all the sharp angles through my baggy sweater, because he asked if I was okay and if I was eating properly.
That was it. That was the only time anyone ever said anything to me about my obviously unhealthy weight loss.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days, with the latest spate of research coming out showing that being fat isn’t necessarily the indicator of poor health that so much of the establishment has said it is. How this false equivalence means people who live healthy lifestyles but are not thin are shamed and humiliated, while people like me, who abuse our bodies terribly, are given a pass because our bad habits manifested themselves in weight loss. How self-destructive behaviors are overlooked if they lead to thinness. How putting so much emphasis on weight loss means people are discouraged by their attempts at healthy living when the scale doesn’t budge, and in the process losing out on all of the crucial benefits that come along with a healthier lifestyle.
It’s never been all that hard for me to accept the idea that “thin” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” because I saw how this equation failed to hold true in my own life. Consequently it’s also not difficult for me to accept that someone can be fat and healthy. Of course, a person can be thin and healthy and fat and unhealthy, but the common thread here is not the person’s weight – it’s their habits and their lifestyles (and in the case of many, whether they have underlying health conditions).
But when we accept the dominant paradigm that says “fat=unhealthy” then it means “thin=healthy,” which means that others would have perceived me, with bony bod and my cigarettes and my pills and my powders, as healthier than a fat person who does triathlons and eats lots of fresh vegetables. This is a fatally flawed concept of health, and I’m hopeful that as more research comes out and more people share their stories, that this way of thinking will soon be a thing of the past.