It’s a secret shame that countless women feel, but only rarely admit to. “Am I betraying my feminist self by believing I don’t look good in clothes until I lose weight?” a girlfriend texted me a few weeks ago, after agonizing about the fact that she is now a few kilos heavier than she usually is. “I feel like shit about this. I would die if I had a girl and she said that to me.”I feel the same. My friend only told me this (I’m fairly certain) because I’d previously confided in her my own squirmy thoughts about my weight. Like the shame I feel about having wasted years tallying how much dessert I’ll let myself have or how I feel about myself according to how tight my jeans’ waistband is on any given day.
How is this possible, I’ve long wondered, when I’m intelligent enough to know that my culture has brainwashed me into wanting to look thin? And when I know that spending that time on literally anything else would enrich my life, instead of mentally strangling it?
“It’s super common … and a huge part of the difficulty that some people can have psychologically because they feel it’s mutually exclusive,” says Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Stephanie Tan-Kristanto, who has helped many people work through these feelings. “[They think] ‘I must be really terrible, or a bad person because I’m having these thoughts, and I shouldn’t be having these thoughts because I’m too intelligent to be worrying about body image issues’.”
It is an under-acknowledged water-dripping discomfort that many women – and to a lesser extent, men – experience. Because while the destructive nature of eating disorders has long been studied, the embarrassment and shame that come from an unshakeable desire to have a smaller body – when it isn’t accompanied by disordered eating, obsessive exercising, an inability to focus on vocational studies or career, or other signs of a clinical disorder – has not.
If anything, these feelings are getting harder to battle, says Tan-Kristanto, as an increasing amount of celebrities are giving us the expectation that 50 or 60-year-olds can still look, respectively, 30 and 40.And the impact can be significant, and lifelong.
“I think it’s really bad for one’s self-esteem because I’m constantly saying to myself, ‘I’m not good enough, my body’s not good enough, my legs are too big, my stomach’s too flabby’,” says one friend of mine, a 47-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two who has been fighting these feelings for the last 35 years (since she was 12 and her parents told her she was “chubby”). Though she’s long been a healthy weight, and enjoys a wide variety of activities including surfing and dancing, she says: “I can see the amount of time I’ve wasted in my life dieting, and thinking about food so much and counting calories.”
They’re feelings Tan-Kristanto hears a lot from patients, particularly those who present with depression and anxiety. “The shame is a feeling that you are defective,” she says. But there’s a reason so many of us have these feelings: evolution.
“Our brains are hard-wired to be Velcro for negatives and Teflon for positives, so we’re naturally our own biggest critics, regardless of how intelligent or educated we are in many ways,” says Tan-Kristanto, a director of the Australian Clinical Psychology Association. “Our survival and ability to continue living and thriving as a species requires us to be more aware of the dangers in our life. So we need to look for the threats in our life to be able to survive and reproduce.”
In “caveman days” the risk was a sabre-tooth tiger. In modern times, it’s anything that can threaten our ability to fit in, get our next job and find a great partner.
“And all of those things are absolutely related to our weight, and humans being a social species, you know our survival and our thriving is in many ways related to how well we fit in cultures. Obviously the expectations of how we look or what we weigh varies across different cultures and different time periods. But it’s still a universal thing that our appearance and our weight is associated with society accepting us, and fitting into cultures.”
I’d always assumed this is something I’d inevitably age out of, especially once I hit my 60s or 70s.Turns out, not necessarily. “She was in her 80s,” says one woman I know, of a woman she knew who was in debilitating pain. It had become so bad that this elderly woman could barely walk. There was a remedy. A particular medication that would alleviate her pain and give her back the use of her legs. No dice. “It came with a possible two-kilo weight gain,” says the woman I know, explaining why the woman in her 80s rejected the treatment, citing her appearance.
Intense fear of gaining weight is just one indication, says Tan-Kristanto, that a person has moved away from a “somewhat helpful” focus on being healthy to “mal adaptive” behaviours that require psychological intervention. Others include: extreme dissatisfaction with body image, “really low self-esteem”, feeling depressed as a result of appearance, avoiding social situations that involve food, repetitive dieting, skipping meals or fasting and exercising even when injured.
As for the rest of us? We need to do our best to drop our shame. “You can be really intelligent and educated, and understanding of the pressures that society puts on you, and you can still struggle sometimes with body image,” says Tan-Kristanto. Accepting this, she says, frees us up to focus on other parts of our life.
“It helps us to be a little more understanding and compassionate, so we’re not fighting things as much, and not being as stuck or fused with those thoughts. It helps us to look at the bigger picture of things.” So does fighting the stigma of our feelings, by sharing them with friends. “I wouldn’t underestimate the value of [having a friend] say, ‘Thank god, it’s not just me’.”