In the first two parts of this series, I’ve discussed stories of particular inspiration and which highlight the distinctive traits which have the potential to make women into astounding leaders and game changers.
In the last part of the series, I want to write about a topic that has long been very dear to my heart, and which can be a destructive barrier to the flourishing of such potential. This topic is body image and eating disorders and it connects back to some ideas I touched briefly upon when I first started this blog. I also reblogged an article a couple of weeks ago about the impact of parenting on disordered eating.
I can’t really remember a time in my life when weight and body image issues weren’t a concern to me. I am very confident in saying that a great majority of women and young girls I’ve come across have experienced similar struggles with self-confidence as I have. For some, this results in more significant and sometimes life-threatening behaviour, including serious eating and image disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Athletica, Binge Eating Disorder and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
I’ve known so many wonderful women in my life who haven’t seen their own potential. Looking objectively at someone else’s life or analyzing the things that they say, we question how they could think so little of themselves. Many of us turn around and treat ourselves similarly. I had a friend years ago who had symptoms of multiple disorders mentioned above and who nearly died from her condition. I so badly wanted to help her; to make her see her true value. But, when I look inwardly at myself and my past, I realize that while I’ve never had a diagnosed eating disorder, I have certainly had periods in my life of great obsession over the foods I ate, my body weight, and the way I looked. I have in the past used much self-deprecatory language, and years ago, I tried to use laxatives to lose weight. My knowledge of health and nutrition and the long-term impacts of laxative use meant I wasn’t able to persist with the habit for more than a few days, but nonetheless the desire to go to great measures to lose weight was a compelling one. Rather than starving myself or forcing myself to vomit, my past inclination has been towards extreme dieting.
Statistics show that 19% of normal weight girls in grade nine believe they are too fat and 12% of those have attempted to lose weight (Sullivan, 2002). Approximately 1% of young women have Anorexia or Bulimia (Hoek, 2007), and Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, on average killing sufferers within 10 years of onset (Sullivan, 2002). (Men suffer from eating disorders and disorders of body image too, by the way, but my focus in this series has been on women and therefore the single gender focus here).
Reflecting upon my own experiences and those of so many women I’ve talked to about this issue, I recall countless waits in grocery store aisles, faced with fashion and fitness magazine covers, unable to avert my eyes. I would stand there, looking at the women on the cover, wishing I could look like them and criticizing all the ways I didn’t. As I grew older and realized those photos were electronically modified, I knew in my rational mind that I shouldn’t even look; but the irrational and emotional side of me still longs for a body I’ll never have. Indeed, I’m more confident than I have ever been and generally accepting of the changes to my body that have come via aging and childbearing. I love myself much more than I ever have and I feel strong and beautiful, knowing I take good care of myself in a reasonable way via well-balanced diet and exercise regime. But still, I sometimes find myself wishing for body parts different than those I have.
I know how the preoccupation with physical beauty can distract a woman from all of her other internal potential – her intelligence, both emotional and cognitive, her creativity, her leadership capacity, her ability to nurture and care, her many other unique gifts. As well, a lack of self-promotion and confidence often translates into the non-physical realm, where people undervalue their many abilities. Our culture often has its priorities misplaced and in the case of body idealism, we are even contradictory. On the one hand, our culture puts value on a “perfect” body, and yet we often criticize and misunderstand strong self-confidence as arrogance.
It is probably inevitable that our culture will always identify and impose an ideal on us. But, I content that the confidence women gain through their accomplishments is far more important and has much longer-lasting impacts on self-confidence than the achievement of physical measures such a body weight or size. Not to say that balance and healthy lifestyle habits aren’t entirely crucial to impart as well, but from the perspective of health and well-being rather than on the achievement of physical ‘beauty’.
Thus, it’s our job as women to encourage in each other and in young girls the identification of interests and gifts of emotional and cognitive intelligence, creativity and professional potential and act as mentors rather than critics. Presupposing the inspiring women I’ve written about in the first two parts of this series weren’t at the time unnaturally focused on their physical beauty, they accomplished incredible feats of bravery, survival and philanthropy, while facing great impediments.
Let us inspire one another and build each other up.
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre provides information and resources about eating disorders and treatment in Canada: www.nedic.ca
Hoek, H. W. (2007). Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia and other eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 19(4), 389-394
Sullivan, P. (2002). Course and outcome of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In Fairburn, C. G. & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). Eating Disorders and Obesity (pp. 226-232). New York, New York: Guilford