Friday, October 8, 2010

body vigilance

I've started reading Aimee Liu's Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders. I'm surprised I hadn't read it before; I guess it somehow slipped under the radar. I'll start by mentioning that her constant emphasis on people's weight (mentioned in specific numbers) is offputting. An Amazon reviewer articulated it perfectly: though in recovery, the author is clearly still caught up in the world of scales and pounds. While I'm empathetic to her continued struggles, I also think she has to accept responsibility for writing a book that could seriously, unnecessarily trigger the very people it's seeking to help. Weight issue aside, I've found it good so far.

When I reached the chapter about the inborn trait of perfectionism, I stopped dead in my tracks at this:

To test for perfectionism, the researchers asked questions like "Did you spend a long time doing and redoing your hair every morning to make sure it was straight without bumps?"

I cannot begin to tell you how many hours of my life I've poured into fixing and adjusting my hair, judging it and always finding it lacking when compared with other girls'. It was always too flat or too messy or too bland. Never, ever good enough. I have cried in frustration in front of a mirror, hairbrush in hand, more times than I'd care to admit. Though therapy, recovery, and Prozac have helped with my body image disturbances, I am still a chronic mirror-checker -- when in between classes or while out to eat or at a club, I generally have to go to a bathroom at one point and make sure I am not, in my own lovely self-dialogue words, "disgusting". It's an embarrassing habit and it causes me undue stress. It always has. No amount of lovely compliments or positive self-talk has been enough to counter it. While my stomach also contends for the dubious prize of "must scrutinized part of the body", the hair obsession has been far more long-lasting, arising well before the advent of my ED.

I still remember, with clarity so absolute that it surprises me even today, one night when I was in the family room with my siblings and mother, testing how my hair looked in different permutations and anxiously asking for evaluation. I was maybe eight or nine. This testing went on for some time until my older sister snipped, "Why do you spend so much time on your hair if it doesn't look good anyway?" I burst into tears, and that phrase has been burned in my mind ever since.

My family thought I was vain -- always checking and rechecking and then rechecking the mirror again because who knows what could have happened to make my hair tangled or static-y or flat or ugly in the past twelve seconds. Their breezy assessment infuriated me, although of course I never articulated it to them. Body image perfectionism was -- and still continues to be -- an incredibly raw subject for me. Describing it would mean articulating layers and layers of disgust and shame.

Another issue -- and god, this is a weird one to explain -- is angles. Yes, angles. This is a private journal entry I wrote about six days before I went into treatment, after spending a weekend trying to hold my shit together enough to attend my sister's graduation in Massachussetts:

I am so gross. I look hideous, by the way. Horrible. Every single time I looked in the mirror this weekend, I was upset at what I saw. Fat, ugly, round, red, messy. Always. (Strange travel-induced memory this weekend: me at twelve, staying at a hotel in Boston and seeing my face at a new angle in the weird mirrors there, absolutely appalled and ashamed at my profile and my stomach, horrified that this was how I looked to the outside world. Crying over it in the shower.)

That memory of being in Boston and looking in the mirror is also seared into my brain. I don't think I'll ever be able to articulate the intensity of the shame I felt after looking in the mirror. It was just so. . . visceral. I think I had gotten used to looking at myself dead on in the mirror and had accepted that that was how I looked from straight-on (even if I didn't like it.) But knowing that other people were looking at me in ways I couldn't control and didn't have access to (from behind, from my far periphery) decimated me. I just remember that feeling of helplessness. I felt like I had utterly failed in my efforts of vigiliance: it was one thing to look terrible, but it was entirely another to look terrible and not even realize it.

I recognized that this kind of obsession was perhaps more intense than others', but not pathological. Just as I spent years starving, calculating calories, bingeing, and purging while vaguely thinking, you know, everyone probably has a phase like this, I'm no so bad, I didn't think this sort of perfectionism was that uncommon. The results of a screening between high-achieving, psychologically healthy adult women and patients with eating disorders would suggest otherwise:

Except for a handful who had overvalued rules and order as kids, the women who had never had eating disorders registered zero childhood perfectionism, zero inflexibility, and zero doubt and cautiousness. By contrast, 60 of the eating disordered had been perfectionistic, rigid, and rule bound as children.

Another indication that there is something qualitatively and intrinsically different about people who go on to develop eating disorders, hinting again that the role of genetics/biology (this time, in the form of inborn traits) influences ED pathology more than culture.


  1. Ah, i know how you feel/: i often get so frustrated over my hair, my body, and just.. everything. I get so confused when guys turn and stare at me because i don't see why they're staring at me. But in the end, we just have to accept ourselves. I also listen to bruno mars song just the way you are because it reminds me i'm perfect just the way i am. And you are too.

  2. I think part of my heart truly broke reading about your Boston memory. It is horrible to have that feeling of shame indelibly burned into your brain. That hairchecking incident with your family is unbelievably sad and painful.

    I myself have been extraordinarily self-conscious since I was a kid, and to know that you've had to endure lots of pain and shameful feelings over your physical image for as long as I have just makes me incredibly sad. People constantly comment on how thin I am and say they wish they had my figure, but I look at myself and see almost nothing beyond my flaws. It is excruciating being trapped with a mind that fixates constantly on what's physically bad or wrong rather than what might be seen as lovely or attractive. It is heartwrenching that you would not only be able to understand where I'm coming from, but have actually experienced so much more hurt and anxiety than I ever will since your perfectionism gradually transpired into eating disorders and behaviors. You sharing your stories and struggles with your body image and ED is a testament to how strong and resilient you truly are. *HUGS*

  3. Danielle: it's funny, too, because my hair is probably what I'm most complimented on. Self-acceptance is such a long journey. . . but I'm with you, I'll keep trying too.

    wtd: It sounds like you relate, and I wish you didn't because it's a terrible experience. Thank you for your comment.

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