The Cult of Thinness

The Cult of Thinness November 22, 2022

{Photo by Andrej Mitin for Scopio}

{This is a particularly vulnerable column. But in the sense that the deeply personal can sometimes be the most universal, it may resonate. Note, if you find talk of weight triggering, please accept this as a warning.}

Confession: I have incredibly disordered thinking around body image and weight. It comes from culture, family, programming. My disordered thinking is particularly clear when I’m slated to see certain people I haven’t seen in some time, who will notice I’ve put on weight. In their presence, I am so flooded by shame (no other word for it) that I can scarcely make my way up for air. For reasons I don’t understand, seeing family has the most negative potency in this regard, which reminds me I accrued these distortions at a young age. I do not remember this. If the messages were present, they were subtle and I am certain, unintentional.

The thing we women know (men too, if not as intimately) is that in American culture, weight is not just weight; body style is not just individual uniqueness, like the shape of our noses or the heights to which we stretch. Body style is imbued with values. Thinness is imbued with values. If a person is not thin, assumptions related to values are made, such as: “So and so has put on weight; I wonder if she is doing okay?” As if roundness is a harbinger of mental distress. People who lose weight are often greeted by others with enthusiastic smiles and “You look terrific!” As if a thinner body means the person has achieved inner wellness.

At the moment, I’m just a few pounds up from what I was in 2015, when a tragedy befell me. My husband—my husband I adored—suddenly and abruptly left our home and marriage to pursue another path. It was the biggest loss of my life—then and since—and I shed 40 pounds in four months. I was too heartsick to eat. I walked miles a day because walking out the door and into nature was at times all I could do to survive the oppressive pre-dawn hours when everyone else was asleep and I felt so alone I thought my heart would pound out of my chest. Pound. Pound by pound, my body transformed. Suddenly, I was thin again. And I liked it. But I was anything but well. My thinness was in no way a sign or harbinger of mental stability. It was the opposite. But when people saw me, they would say, “You look terrific!” As if the shape of my body was a sign I was doing “terrific,” when in fact I was drowning in grief. Every day felt so hard I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on. My slow shrinking was less a sign of thriving and more a sign I wanted to shrink out of my life and not be there anymore. But that’s not how our society sees thinness. No, thinness means you’re doing great.

I have on my bathroom wall a drawing I did in 2003 of a woman dancing, and around her are words from Alice Walker’s definition of “womanist”: “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” At the time I did this artwork, I was thin and had always been thin. What did I know of roundness? Never had I been taught to love roundness. In fact, I was taught by my context to hate it, to assume it meant something abhorrent: mental unwellness, laziness, less-than-prettiness. Conversely, I was taught to love thinness, as were most girls. Thinness meant health, beauty, strength, mental wellness. Somehow it was drilled into me that in order to be okay, I had to be thin.

Now that I have returned to my body’s set point as my doctor calls it, I wrestle hard with the “cult of thinness” baggage I was raised with (“set point” meaning the weight at which your body is naturally predisposed if you eat healthfully and stay active and let your weight be what it is). Most of the time, I’m outside that cult and not oppressed by it. When I’m alone, with my partner or daughter, with several close friends, with strangers, I’m fine. For the most part, I feel comfortable in my own skin, unaffected by the weight of cultural values around thinness. But get me around certain family and friends, and around most people I’ve known from thinner days, and I suddenly feel acutely the meanings ascribed to weight gain and roundness. My disordered thinking rises to a din.

I have a disease called Addison’s by which my adrenal glands don’t produce sufficient cortisol—a necessary hormone for life (my diagnosis and treatment began in 2013, at 43—a childhood brain injury and hypothalamus damage being the slowly degenerative cause). I replace my missing cortisol with hydrocortisone, the steroid that chemically mimics cortisol and is life-sustaining for those with adrenal insufficiency. And steroid use makes weight management tricky, even if the steroid use is for physiological replacement. I don’t offer this as excuse, because people do not need an excuse for having body types that are round instead of lanky. I mention this because for me, the fact that my roundness is due in part to medication that literally keeps me alive, should make me brim with gratitude every day! If I’d been born a hundred years ago, before the advent of steroids and the medical understanding of adrenal insufficiency, I likely wouldn’t have achieved middle or old age. But I’m alive! Relative to many people coping with endocrine disease, I am thriving! I should be so elated for this life-sustaining medication that I say “f*#@ off” to anyone projecting onto me their disordered thinking around thinness. Yet this is not my experience. Instead, I utterly forget to say “thank you” to science, to the redemptive flow of the universe, for the medical marvel I am. Instead, I falter under the weight of societal values around thinness.

How do we de-program years of negative values-programming around weight and roundness? How do we un-brainwash ourselves from the cult of thinness we’ve been brainwashed into? Therapy helps, and I’m working on it. I wish I had more answers than questions. I write this so that those who also wrestle with disordered thinking around weight will feel less alone. I know this: we can strive to offer different programming to young people in our lives, programming that doesn’t ascribe negative values to roundness, that doesn’t imbue thinness with meanings it does not deserve. The shape of a person’s body has nothing to do with their inner state, except insofar as we’ve distorted their thinking about bodies by brainwashing them into the cult of thinness.

Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal.

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