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Monday, May 16, 2022

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Letter: response from a "skinny bitch"

In light of Love Your Body Week at the University of Richmond, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week later this month and personal experience, I feel compelled to respond to Kiara Lee's last column, "Too thin: Read this before you vanish into thin air."

I do not aim to attack Lee, since I have no desire to fuel the negativity tainting recent online comments on her, Patrick Coughlin's and Jacki Raithel's articles. Rather, I mean to address some misconceptions that disconcerted me — and, judging by this week's letters to the editor, other readers as well — about the pervasive issue of eating disorders.

First, the column's portrayal of self-confidence as an instantly attainable commodity undermines its inherent elusiveness and gives the false impression that anyone fully possesses it. Second, pegging self-confidence as the lone culprit for eating disorders oversimplifies the complexity of them and of human beings in general. Third, publicly attacking people who likely already engage in a constant battle with themselves will never be as effective as quiet, but unwavering, support.

"I'm not going to kiss your ass until you gain some self-confidence," as Lee wrote, falsely portrays self-confidence as an all-or-nothing attribute one can casually pick up at Ukrop's, or as something that anyone ever masters. It also implies a level of consciousness for those engulfed by eating disorders, as well as an availability of a panacea that I only wish existed.

But these assumptions fall far from true. For example, it has been only a recent realization for me that I developed an eating disorder during the second semester of my freshman year at Richmond. Or maybe I always had one, or maybe I still have one. Regardless, that I still can't speak definitively about it exemplifies the haziness and complexity of disorders that Lee's column ignored.

But she's not alone. To my family, friends and acquaintances, my issue seemed similarly clear, though I still to this day hesitate to apply the serious and stigmatized term to myself. I suppose overhearing, "Is that the girl with the eating disorder?" my freshman year should have been a tip-off. But to me, the inquistor was drunk and her informant was malicious.

To me, I was neither anorexic nor bulimic, which is all I thought an eating disorder could be. I never knew hunger and never binged and purged. I always ate at least three meals a day and never threw up any of it.

All I know is, one morning in college I woke up and could fit into my eighth-grade jeans. And I'd been a tiny eighth grader.

It is only in retrospect that I can more objectively evaluate the term "eating disorder" to understand it's simply any abnormal relationship to food that makes eating or not eating more than an afterthought, and any act of consumption a conscientious and calculated decision. But the causes are not so simple. Chalking it up to a lack of self-confidence or a fishing license for compliments is a generalization that grossly oversimplifies the complexity of human beings and, therefore, the disorders that riddle them.

For example, for me it was not a matter of self-confidence. I was lucky to grow up among family, friends and schools that cultivated that well. Paradoxically, it was more order than disorder, too much of a good thing.

That semester, I had been fortunate to learn the basic principles of nutrition, which the food industry has confounded so that most of what we consume we can't digest: cooked proteins, pasteurized dairy, refined sugar and salt, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, white rice and flour, even whole wheat flour, etc. In contrast, our bodies are more programmed to digest fish, fruits and vegetables, cane sugar and sea salt, raw oil, brown rice, sprouted, gluten-free wheat, etc.

But for a perfectionist, that became dangerous knowledge to possess, especially in an environment not as open and exposed to those kinds of products as now. For example, raw almond butter now sits on two of my roommates' shelves, but as a freshman it made eating an antisocial activity. The practical approach would've been to stick to those foods most of the time and stray whenever inclined, but always in the company of others. Instead I became an extremist and through restrictive dorm-room dining forged a fortress of solitude.

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It was not a simple struggle with self-confidence, but a destructive union of trait and circumstance. The circumstance was that I was unhappy at Richmond, and the trait was a mechanism that I'd honed so well to cope with my parents' divorce during grade school that it'd become a permanent characteristic that I then fell back on that semester: When things out of my control become imperfect, I can perfect the things I can control.

Adherence to this subconscious mantra had already made me a disciplined student, athlete, etc. Now I appended the list with disciplined digester. Enter: D-Hall becoming the most painful place on campus, Beach Week pictures that now shock me to look at and those tiny eighth-grade jeans. Then enter Lee's stinging candor: "We would really like to reply with something along the lines of: 'Shut up, skinny bitch,' 'Shut up, skinny bitch' and 'Shut up, skinny bitch.'" Ouch.

I understand Lee aimed to address the specific population of women who constantly complain about their weight, which quickly becomes an unfair burden on those around them. But in doing so, I don't think she realized she was attacking many more of us, who, from what I've observed and preferred, would rather hide than flaunt our struggles.

As one of my friends discerned, "I think the connection she failed to make is that eating disorders, in their most severe cases, are not a weight-loss strategy, but rather a psychological battle for control in your life when it seems to be absent everywhere else."

With this in mind, I plead that it will always prove more effective to support than scorch, sear and singe anyone struggling with a serious issue. For example, I can never be grateful enough to my best friend from high school whom I lived with in her shore house during the summer after that semester. Never once did she say anything to or about me, although even I cringe every time I envision pictures of us in bathing suits.

Instead, she was the silent support system that I didn't yet have at college. Although I will always appreciate the couple of girls who tried to be there for me as best as new friends could, it was as if our friendships were too inchoate to feel worth breaking my regimen.

But with my best friend, it was worth it. She slowly reminded me that although we both loved Whole Foods, our favorite meal was the triple-scoop ice cream sundae with hot fudge and Reese's peanut butter cups from the place across the street from our shore house the summer before. That summer had held a happiness I hadn't found yet at Richmond, and by healing through the next one it became clear that indirect actions in a happy environment outclass direct attacks in a hostile one.

Fiona Carmody wrote in her letter to the editor that, "If only women on this campus would look out for each other instead of lashing out vicious criticism, the atmosphere could be improved enough to breathe in." This recommendation gains special weight when we expand it to acknowledge the breadth of the problem, which is what makes this issue relevant for everyone.

Nearly everyone - male, female, young, old, eating disorder or not - worries about his/her weight. I've recently witnessed some of my strongest friends begin to struggle with body image after the supposedly tumultuous teen years, I know moms embattled by it and just last weekend I overheard a Richmond College male say it was always in the back of his mind.

Through oversimplification and insensitivity we perpetuate this pervasive issue. One hunch is that we are stuck between the insatiable demands of a ruthless society and the misinformation of a profit-driven food industry - a standard to attain but no path to get there. Or in my case, a path to get there but a standard you don't want to attain.

But the fact that my experience may be like or unlike anyone else's illustrates the complexity that Lee's column missed. Moreover, the varying degrees of body image issues rifling the majority of our population exhibit the need for real awareness - for everyone.

Again, I don't aim to attack Lee - that's the opposite of what we need. In fact, I thank her for bringing a crucial issue into the opinion section and getting me to write about something I still can't talk about.

But to hear from those who can, join Love Your Body Week's panel discussion at 7 p.m. today in room 327 of the Tyler Haynes Commons.

Contact opinion editor Maura Bogue at maura.bogue@richmond.edu

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