The Thin Ideal, How It Hurts Us, and How to Heal From It

The Thin Ideal, How It Hurts Us, and How to Heal From It

“How to Lose Weight in 30 Days and Keep It Off”, “Avoid These Foods to Get A Flatter Stomach”, “What You’re Eating that Contributes to Your Belly Fat”, “Try This Diet”, “Cut Out Carbs and Sugars”, “Keto”, “Atkins”, “Paleo”, “Losing Weight = Better Life”, “Beach Body”, “How To Get Your Revenge Body”, “Make Him Jealous”, “Thin Is In”, the list goes on and on, we are all familiar with the headlines in magazines, on social media, following our favorite celebs and what they do to “look good”, what they will and won’t eat, how models prepare their bodies to look their “best” before a fashion show. This is The Thin Ideal. The idea that being thin is the most attractive look, the only look and only way to be confident, well-liked, and get all the attention. It’s everywhere from movies to television shows, even media, our society is obsessed with thinness and encourages us to be obsessed with it as well. Everywhere we look we only see one body type, “the hot girl” in these movies/shows is almost always very small, unattainably small. When I’d watch TV, I always wondered why I never saw people that looked like me, none of the girls I looked up to had a similar hair type or skin color, they definitely did not have an average body type, like my own. I was always bigger than the models and actresses I saw, I thought I must be the problem. 

At the age of 8, before I could consciously even realize it, I started skipping breakfast. I thought if I started skipping meals, it would make me skinny. I’d finally look like those girls on TV. I’d be pretty and people would like me. And so it began, in 3rd grade, I no longer ate in the mornings. It didn’t bother me. I convinced myself for years, I didn’t even like breakfast, I didn’t have time in the morning, I wasn’t really even that hungry. Eating less means losing more weight, right? The lies crept their way in unnoticed. Throughout my teenage years I dieted and by dieted I mean, I was only allowed to eat one small salad a day, with the lowest calorie dressing. No more than that. I used to chug water and diet soda to make myself fuller. It worked. I’d lose the weight then gain it all back again due to the deprivation my body was suffering from, from weeks of restriction. I only felt worse about myself each time, determined the next time to do better and lose more and keep it off. My disordered eating became an eating disorder. Studies show that at least 25% of individuals who diet, will go on to develop a full-blown eating disorder and that percentage is much higher for those who participate in more extreme kinds of dieting. 

All because we buy into The Thin Ideal and its lies. We have all been subject to these ideas and they affect us all differently and in their own ways. For those with eating disorders, it becomes an extreme, we develop a rigid way of thinking and belief system, a set of commandments if you will, and live by them religiously. Carolyn Costin talks about these in her book, “8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder”. We will be exploring these commonly held beliefs among people with eating disorders and how they relate to our culture’s fixation on thinness.

Thin Commandment #1

If you aren’t thin, you aren’t attractive.

The Thin Ideal and our culture that perpetuates this ideal, make us believe that the only way to obtain attractiveness is to be thin. We see all these thin models and actors and try to obtain that ourselves in unnatural ways, going against our natural predilections and cravings, forcing ourselves into sizes we were never meant to be. When we look up to these celebrities, we are not getting the full story and are not seeing that their way to obtain thinness more than likely is also deeply rooted in diet culture and disordered eating. This way of living is not beneficial to anyone and can in no way guarantee your happiness or someone’s attraction to you. Think about it, when you find someone attractive is it a number that attracts you to them? Or is it their laugh, their bright and bubbly personality, the way they care for you, the way you can spend hours talking to that person and never run out of things to say. How important is someone’s weight to you in order for you to be attracted to them? Does the same go for them if they are attracted to you? Looks are fleeting, bodies change, bodies grow, but a true connection can last forever.

Thin Commandment #2

Being thin is more important than being healthy, more important than anything.

A healthy body will make you much happier than a sick one ever will. If your way to achieve thinness is through starvation, laxative abuse, over exercising, bingeing/purging, your body is suffering. You will feel those effects, maybe not at first but surely over time. Once this has taken its toll on your body, you will no longer be able to do the things you enjoy. When you do try to enjoy things, your mind will be preoccupied by incessant body checking and food thoughts. You will not have the energy to do the things you love because you will only get weaker and weaker. When you look at what is truly important to you, I doubt a number will be high on that list.

Thin Commandment #3

You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, and do anything to make yourself thinner. 

Again, laxative abuse and starvation wreak havoc on your body. Not only physically, but mentally as well. Yes, you may be thinner, but you will also be weaker, more irritable, less energetic, more unhappy, and most importantly, less “you”. All of these things strip you of who you truly are. What is the point of being thinner if you can’t even be yourself anymore? 

Thin Commandment #4

Thou shall “earn” all food and shall not eat without feeling guilty.

Food is not made to be “earned”, your body needs food everyday. It is fuel, it is energy, it is joy. It is life. When you develop this relationship with food and your body, it can complicate every aspect of your life. Your favorite foods become things you won’t allow yourself to eat anymore. If you do eat them, and then feel guilty about it, you then feel you must compensate for it. Your eating disorder distorts your natural enjoyment of food and makes it far more complex than it needs to be. It is for you to combat these thoughts around food guilt so that you can enjoy food again without feeling the need to “earn” or “pay” for what you have eaten. 

Thin Commandment #5

Thou shall not eat fattening food without punishing oneself afterwards.

You deserve to eat whatever your heart desires. There is no need to punish yourself for something you enjoy. It is quite difficult to escape the toxic messages you hear labeling foods as bad/good and fattening/healthy. However, it is through allowing yourself to have them, sitting with the uncomfortable feelings associated with eating those foods, without punishing your body through the use of purging or other means, that you can truly make peace with these foods and yourself for a more fulfilling life. 

Thin Commandment #6

Thou shall count calories and fat and restrict intake accordingly.

When you count calories, you are taking yourself away from a pleasurable, enjoyable experience that you deserve to have. Food is so much more than percentage signs and fat intake. If it tastes good, eat it. If there is a certain food you find comforting, savor it. Counting calories has never made anyone happy. In fact, it forces us to view food as numbers and measurements instead of flavor and fuel.

Thin Commandment #7

What the scale says is the most important thing.

Weight has nothing to do with who you are. In fact, it is the least interesting thing about you. The most important thing is how you feel in your body and your aspirations in life. When you have an eating disorder, it steals what is important to you, it morphs your desires into arbitrary goals that have nothing to do with anything meaningful or with what you truly want. If you are restricting your food intake you are also restricting your life, your happiness. Numbers going down on the scale may make you feel better and accomplished temporarily, but it won’t last. And if the number stays the same or goes up slightly you will feel even worse. A number should never determine your worth. 

Thin Commandment #8

Losing weight is good, and gaining weight is bad.

Although losing weight may feel good initially, if it is being accomplished through harmful behaviors, it will not feel good in the long term. Once you have lost a significant amount of weight, you may no longer be at a weight that is sustainable for a busy, productive life that you may want to lead. When you restrict, limit your food intake, or overcontrol anything related to food to lose weight, your body is being forced to be something it is not. If you do decide to change some of your eating disorder behaviors and gain weight as a result, it is because you are no longer doing things to your body that you were never meant to do. This is not bad! It is through this process that you can finally realize how damaging it is to manipulate the body’s innate wisdom and needs, and then come to a place where you can allow your body to find a weight that supports what it needs to function. When you come to this point, and start making changes that will sustain the lifestyle you want, your body will find where it needs to be whether that is through gaining or losing weight, but you have to trust and accept where it will go and allow it to go there.

Thin Commandment #9

You can’t trust what other people say about your weight./You can never be too thin.

You may not trust people when they say comments such as “You’re so thin, you don’t need to lose any more weight… etc.” because you look in the mirror and see something totally different. However, your visual interpretations are unreliable. Your eating disorder wants you to think that you still need to lose weight and could never be “too thin”, if anything that would be considered a good thing to you. But this thinking will keep you stuck, your eating disorder wants to control your life and have you keep on losing and losing, but no weight will ever be good enough and you will never be small enough in this mindset.

Thin Commandment #10

Being thin and not eating are signs of true willpower and success.

Although your eating disorder may make you feel this way, especially because you may already have an inherent need for drive and success that fuels your disorder, you can channel these needs in alternative ways that are not damaging to you or your overall well-being. When you look at all you have already achieved has it been because of your ability to starve? Or because you are a driven person? True willpower is fighting for what you really want out of life and challenging these negative thoughts. 

Our brains take shortcuts, they become wired to associate thinness with attractiveness, success, and happiness from what is shown in western media. We attach these same interpretations when we look at ourselves in the mirror and give thinness a meaning it never deserved to have. We compare our bodies to what we see in magazines and blame them for not looking like those models when in fact, those models don’t even look like the pictures displayed on the front covers. It is no wonder why we take such drastic measures in an effort to lose weight. The problem is that all of these things have nothing to do with weight and all to do with the mind. Happiness is a mindset not a body size. However, we still buy into the idea that changing our bodies will change our lives, that losing weight will make us feel better about ourselves and/or boost our confidence. Once we lose weight and find out that that is not the case, this distortion implodes, leaving us not only confused, but hurt that we’ve sacrificed so much of ourselves based on lies and misinformation. There is no evidence that being thinner ensures we will have happier lives, with less problems, struggles, or failures. There most certainly is evidence that doing the things we love, setting goals and accomplishing them, being around loved ones, can lead to happiness. Since The Thin Ideal is so deeply ingrained, it is difficult to think that it won’t give us what we want. These beliefs were never ours to take on but they are for us to challenge. No longer should we base our value or our worth on such an antiquated, faulty, and unreliable set of beliefs and allow them to affect our lives.

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