Body language: The weight of our words


TW: discussions of weight and disordered eating behaviours, which may be triggering for those dealing with an eating disorder and/or body image issues. 

We understand ourselves through language. Little words like student, writer, editor, lover of reality TV, daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend. Our bodies are tangled up in language as well, so the ways we describe our physicality—and the meanings that hinge on those identities—carry weight.

Lately, I’ve been trying to change the way I understand my body. I’m no stranger to diets and overthinking calories. A lot of people do the same in both small and significant ways. But I don’t want to police my body’s size anymore.

In an interview with Salon, Kelsey Miller, author of Big Girl, describes disordered eating habits as perceiving food as something other than neutral; when you attach moral significance to food, and feed yourself according to some unwritten gastronomical gospel. According to Miller, far more people have disordered eating habits than we think.

“Even people who use words like ‘I’m so bad! I just ate a ton of French fries’—in the end, if it’s not haunting you but you’re still like, ‘Well, I ate the French fries. That’s too bad I ate a huge pile of French fries,’ you’re still engaging with it like it’s not just food but the thing defining your moral character.”

Part—though not all—of what encourages body image issues is our sizeist society. Western society normalizes fat-phobic sentiments, casting larger sizes in a negative light. Body shaming is entrenched in our everyday language, so it can be difficult to recognize.

Melissa A. Fabello critiques the expression “I feel fat” as one example of language’s significance: “[F]at is not a feeling. It’s a body type, an experience, and an identity. And associating it with every negative feeling that you have adds to weight stigma in the form of ‘Fat = Bad.’”

There are a few snags in my goal to abandon body policing. One is that I find it difficult to identify when my language is problematic, and I need to question it more.

Every time a friend tells me they’ve started a diet, I want to say: you are perfect and beautiful, and I applaud whatever ways you show kindness and respect for your body. It comes out as, “You don’t need to lose weight!” This is itself a fat-phobic statement, because it draws a—not necessarily strong—correlation between health and size. Health is complicated, and cannot be determined by a cursory, superficial evaluation.

Studies have challenged the traditional misconception that size determines health. In 2012, Time covered a study which had been published in the European Heart Journal. The study determined that “overweight and obese people were found to be at no greater risk of developing or dying from heart disease or cancer, compared with normal weight people, as long as they were metabolically fit despite their excess weight.”

Furthermore, Fabello and Linda Bacon list the reasons “‘concern’ for fat people’s health isn’t helping anyone”: “Think about what it must be like for larger people—that is, most people living in the United States—to confront daily in the papers, magazines, television shows, and commercials that their bodies are unattractive and constitute a horrifying public health crisis.”

Concern trolling, as it’s referred to, isn’t effective. If anything it reads as patronizing, discriminatory, and indicative of individuals’ own insecurities. I’m even questioning my use of the word “healthy,” because it’s so influenced by cultural understanding.

Another problem comes from my trying to exercise more and eat fewer processed foods without treating it like a diet. I have to be more conscious of how I think about eating than I am about what I eat.

This is tricky, as I realize at 22 how much of my life has been spent trying to shrink my body down. I can recall starting diets as early as 11 years old. Throughout middle school, I would hide in oversized sweatshirts and find little ways to police my size: wrapping my fingers around my wrists to make sure they were small; sleeping on my stomach, because my child brain thought that might make it flat; sometimes eating just an oatmeal bar for breakfast, or just an apple for lunch.

Even when I realized those behaviours weren’t good for me, my version of healthy was entirely skewed. Because of thinking I needed to lose weight in high school, I worked out obsessively. I calculated what my BMI could “healthfully” be at its lowest (not realizing that BMI isn’t an accurate measure of health) and made that my goal. I went on a “preemptive diet,” as I called it, in anticipation of getting my wisdom teeth removed. I justified that this way I could eat ice cream while I was healing. But while my mouth was raw and sore I didn’t want to “undo my hard work,” so I ate yogurt instead and waited until I could exercise again.

My experiences are not unique, nor are they as bad as I know others’ have been. I’m well-accustomed to indulging in self-shaming with gal pals—complaining about our bodies, promising to keep one another accountable and lose weight together. It’s less common to talk about accepting our bodies, or why we think it’s ok to hate them.

I need to untangle my body feeling good from feeling good about myself. The latter suggests a morality, as Miller wrote; like my being a good or bad person is dependent on whether I’m tempted by another piece of pizza. That’s all part of recognizing that my body doesn’t determine my value, and that big does not mean bad.

My complicated relationship with food started over a decade ago. I still evaluate how much I can eat based on the calories of the previous meal. My perception of my body still fluctuates far more than my weight does. Even my ardent love of food—evident in how much I talk about it and all my food flatlays on Instagram—is probably the result of seeing it as somewhat verboten. I know I’m more aware of how I criticize my body compared with six years ago. I also know I have a skewed perception of food and myself. I intend to change that.

I’m not sure how to approach this goal, because acceptance isn’t a billion-dollar industry; there aren’t websites, YouTube channels, books, magazines, and the like dedicated to giving up diets. But I can start by being purposeful with my language, and noticing when I start to criticize myself. I don’t want to find myself, 10 years from now, still treating my eating habits like they dictate my value.

If you think you or someone you know might have an eating disorder, there is help. 

Thrive BC — 604-928-5699.

The Looking Glass Foundation — 604-314-0548. For information about the foundation’s residence, contact 604-829-2585, or info@lookingglassresidence.com.

Kelty Eating Disorders

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