Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Grace on 06/25/2012

Perfectly Normal

why is obsessing over calories normal?

I don’t have a diagnosed eating disorder and that makes me sad. That might sound like a strange thing to say, but what I mean is that I think it’s wrong that my daily obsession with counting calories, my attempts to drink copious amounts of green tea because it supposedly speeds up your metabolism, and my complete inability to forget about my weight is pretty much considered normal. Wikipedia informs me that “Eating disorders refer to a group of conditions defined by abnormal eating habits that may involve either insufficient or excessive food intake to the detriment of an individual’s physical and mental health.”

I don’t fit into this category because I never fell ill, no one ever commented that my weight was unhealthy, and no one worried, despite the fact that I swung between binge-eating and eating 600 calories in a day. What seemed to make this OK was that girls often told me I had the perfect figure, and that I was so lucky I could eat chocolate cake and be so skinny. Plenty of my friends “went ano” before special occasions, and so these eating patterns continued until about a year ago.

I have days where I think, “Hey, I don’t have a model’s body, but I am slim. It’s crazy that I obsessively count calories to make sure I don’t go over 1750, and make sure I exercise enough to burn at least 250 calories.” Then there are the days where I can’t look in the mirror because I think my thighs are so hefty, and I see myself slipping back into a dangerous place, and I count the calories to make sure I’m eating enough.

As someone who considers myself a feminist, I feel like I’m betraying myself. I am healthy and fit and I know, deep down, that I am not overweight, so why am I letting these unrealistic, Photoshopped aspirations of perfection that I see constantly affect me so much? Am I bad feminist for wanting a thigh gap or am I just another teenage girl our modern society has damaged?

I recently graduated from a small all-girls school where nearly everyone was on a diet, and thinspo was abundant. In this environment, counting calories was second-nature, so I never felt that I should be pitied for my obsession with fitting into a European Size 6. Wikipedia adds to my confusion telling me “Some people consider disordered-eating patterns that are not the result of a specific eating disorder to be less serious than symptoms of disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Others note that individual cases may involve serious problems with food and body image. Additionally, certain types of disordered eating can include symptoms from both classic cases of anorexia and bulimia, making disordered eating just as dangerous.”

It makes me sad that I’m not the exception, that girls today are so lacking in self-esteem that I am just a drop in the ocean of girls on crash diets. I don’t think I’ll ever change, but I know that part of the reason I am a feminist is that I want to change things so my situation isn’t normal.

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  • Alexa @ at 1:38 pm, June 25th, 2012

    Very well thought out, and sadly, extremely relevant to both myself & many of the girls that I know. Desire to change perceptions of disordered eating, etc. are a huge part of why I’m a feminist too.

  • Emmy @ at 4:45 pm, June 25th, 2012

    I felt exactly the way you did until a book at my local public library randomly caught my attention. “Food: The Good Girl’s Drug” by Sunny Sea Gold taught me that you don’t have to be overweight, too thin, or in between to have an eating disorder. An eating disorder isn’t and shouldn’t be defined by a number on scale or the size someone wears. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness defines eating disorders as: “serious disturbances in eating behavior, such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake or severe overeating, as well as feelings of distress or extreme concern about body shape or weight.” In fact, a person does not have to be diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia to have an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association states that, “an eating disorder can include a combination of signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and/or binge eating disorder. While these behaviors may not be clinically considered a full syndrome eating disorder, they can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining.” This is when I realized I had a problem. I knew I wasn’t happy constantly obsessing over my weight and feeling so negative about how my body looked, but I never thought it was a serious enough problem to deserve any attention. I always felt selfish for thinking the way that I did knowing that there were people who were struggling with serious eating disorders. But after reading Gold’s book I realized, my behavior and my thoughts were so emotionally exhausting that my issues with food and body image did need attention.
    The reality is that a constant obsession over clothing size, body shape, calories, nutrition, and exercise is not a healthy way to live no matter what the number on the scale. It doesn’t matter whether we are diagnosed with an eating disorder or not; working towards our a version of ourselves that isn’t excessively concerned with body weight and shape is a spark that can ignite a generation of girls and boys to feel inspired to challenge what our modern society defines as beautiful.
    I am glad that as a feminist you are working towards this change, Grace, but believe that you can change! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this topic, this is definitely a conversation that needs to be had more often.

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 8:25 pm, June 25th, 2012

    I go to an all-girls’ school and some girls are into the calorie counting, but my friends and I are totally not, so I guess I’m lucky I fell into the right crowd. I recently had some badly needed cosmetic dental work done and I felt like such a non-feminist when I looked into the mirror after the procedure and said “OMG, I’m finally pretty!”

    I recently gained like 5 pounds (my excuse is that I’m on Crohn’s medication, although doc just told me that there is no weight gain side effect so I’ll need to find another excuse) and I got really upset, but more over the fact that my clothes aren’t fitting than I’m gaining weight.

  • Meg @ at 9:39 pm, June 28th, 2012

    I would have described myself in the same way seven years ago. And it’s also a huge part of why I am feminist today.

    I want you to know that I did change my habits (the calorie counting, the constant thinking about food, exercising only as a way to burn calories, and the horrible anxiety and stress that comes with all that). It took a lot of work, a lot of creativity, and a lot of time to replace those habits with less harmful ones. But I did it, and though I still struggle with food and body at times, I am able to find joy in food and in exercise now. I even go through long periods where I am totally unconcerned with food or exercise, which is something that would have been incomprehensible to me back then.

    Though I did not have a diagnosable eating disorder, I did see a therapist, which was an enormous help. Engaging in communities like Health at Every Size also helped, as well as finding exercise that I loved for the way it made me feel (not because it burned calories… yay for bellydance and yoga!).

    So, I guess I just want to discourage you from resigning yourself to struggling like this forever. It takes time and hard work to change habits, but there is so much room for change.

    And lastly — don’t get down over the fact that you still care about that stuff even though you’re now a feminist. Feelings don’t just disappear that easily, especially when there is so much in society (patriarchy, capitalism, etc etc.) that has an interest in making you feel like that. Don’t place the blame for that feeling on yourself — and don’t let that feeling prevent you from trying to free yourself from it.

  • Morgan @ at 11:46 pm, June 28th, 2012

    I struggled like you for a very long time. It’s a very slippery slope. I was always extremely athletic and obsessed with my weight, my diet, and my distorted image in the mirror. Hating your body, hating yourself, because you haven’t exercised enough or eaten to much is a deep deep struggle. It is not easy to overcome and it can be very difficult to notice. I was anorexic for 3 years, but it wasn’t like I was a twig for all of them. It was slow and progressive.
    The last year is when people started to notice. I was so invested in my self that my relationships were not real and all I really cared about was having the unrealistic gap between my legs. Luckily my support group banded together and I started treatment. The thing they don’t tell you though is that is has to get a whole lot fucking worse before it gets better. And when you’re at your weakest point thats when they send you to the hospital. It sucks and its hard. But if you’re strong and can be life changing, as it should be. You have to be able to accept yourself. You have to be able to admit you have a problem. And you have to learn to love yourself. In August it will be a year since I was admitted to a hospital. Im stronger than ever, but i still struggle. I go to therapy once a week and am on anti depressants and up until i decided i wanted to eat whatever i wanted whenever i wanted, was on a meal plan.

    What im really getting at though , is fuck wikipedia. It knows nothing. You’re torturing yourself. You have an issue and if you wanted you could label it an eating disorder. I wish someone had before I hit my rock bottom. Get help while you’re still aware of yourself and open to it. dont let the labels and bullshit stop you. Life is not about calories and being the best looking. FUCK SOCIETY and the status quo. What do they know?

  • Em @ at 5:27 pm, July 2nd, 2012

    I found this piece sadly affirming…this didn’t really happen to me until college when I started living with girls with eating disorders. I’m not saying I caught it from them, I’m just saying it being everywhere in the culture + living with them + giving up other addictions meant my mind focused on food more as an outlet for beating myself up.

    I just do the best I can to accept myself today, one day at a time.

  • Chloe @ at 3:07 pm, July 18th, 2012

    Food is one of the joys of life! I am very thankful that I haven’t had to battle as intensely as you have for self acceptance. But every girl even the “perfect ones” have felt the same way. Although it is important to have healthy habits, indulgence is just as important. You only live once, so enjoy it! Bon apetit!!!! You deserve it, we all do :)

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