A Cry of Protest
Updated: May 13, 2020
Like millions of girls around the world, I have struggled with body insecurity and a shaky sense of self for as long as I can remember. In my recovery from anorexia, I have begun to see how my struggles were not only shaped by but also a response to societal pressures.
As explained by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach in her novel Fat is a Feminist Issue, "in this atmosphere, eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic, and cultural statement." I have found that the more I explore the psychoanalytic roots of my anoretic struggles and the sexist political links that shaped the way I view my body, the easier it is for me to act in a recovery oriented manner. Better understanding the systematic and institutionalized nature of body insecurity in our culture has not only enraged me, but has fueled my passion to spread awareness of these systems at play to give others the agency to choose to actively reject it.
The insecurity I felt in my adolescent years drove me to perpetually seek acceptance from my peers, and all my actions and thoughts were a reflection of and in response to the fear I felt of rejection. I constantly felt an overwhelming desire to conform. What other people wanted, I wanted too. What other people did, I did too. What other people said, I said too. I was never able to acknowledge what I was feeling, why I was feeling a certain way, and what I truly wanted for myself. Ultimately, the insecurity I felt in myself and who I was transposed into an insecurity in relation to my body and constant avoidance of fear.
The standard by which I applied to myself, what I decided was acceptable to eat, how much to exercise, or what to avoid, reflected my internalization of cultural values. These values were not only influenced by my peers and their beliefs, but the larger societal messages broadcasted in the media. I measured my sense of self worth in comparison to this projected norm of beauty, fantasized about the benefits that would arise from conforming, and created defense structures that expressed my discomfort with myself. In today's day and age, desirability is linked with an ever-diminishing body size. Now, women's anxieties revolve around limiting one's food intake. The femininity associated with bird-like eating is considered sanctified, and earns admiration and envy of others while boosting one's self esteem.
How did we get to this place. How did we develop a culture that works in this twisted way.
According to Orbach, "how women see and experience their bodies refers to cultural factors outside themselves... how she feels about her body will frequently affect how she is feeling about herself at that particular moment" (51). Our bodies have become a foundation for our self-concept. We perceive our bodies on a spectrum from "unacceptable" to "acceptable," and we see ourselves in these polarizing ways as a result of it. This is nothing new of course, and historically, women's identities have been deeply intertwined with their sense of self. The pervasive and overwhelming power of the diet, fashion, cosmetic, and beauty industry is not only rooted in both "material and ideological thrusts" (Orbach, 52).
Think there's something wrong with you? Buy this product. Want to change this part of you? Buy this product. Eat this. Don't eat that. Do this. Don't do that. These commercial industries profit off the enormity of the very body insecurity they create, amplify, and reinforce.
I internalized these societal expectations and norms in an extreme way. Regardless of what I did, what I said, or who I surrounded myself with, nothing I did was ever enough. I wasn't enough. Instead of working to find a sense of self acceptance in who I was, I sought the feeling of satisfaction that came when I felt in control of my body. Controlling and manipulating my body gave me a sense of success, a feeling that I could finally do something right, and like a drug addict, I constantly pursued this fleeting hope and happiness.
Moreover, my body became a statement about myself that I presented to the world. To me, my body represented my position in the world. I spoke using my body. My body allowed me to express my pain, my fear, my sadness. My body allowed me to ask for help in a way I couldn't, and wasn't brave enough, to articulate.
Because my life was largely shaped in response to other's needs and desires, I learned how to bury my own desires, only to experience shame and distress when they came up. I never felt good within myself. I didn't only feel unentitled, I felt wrong. To me, approval of others temporarily quieted this distress inside.