I saw one of the most disturbing images on my student’s laptop. Her background image is the picture of a young girl whom upon first glance conjures would leave most people with one response. Cringe. The girl is much too thin. She looks malnourished and sickly. I held my breath and asked J., “Who’s the girl?”
I knew when I asked that no matter the answer it would be a long afternoon. Everything about the photo bothered me. The fact that this emaciated girl was striking a pose under dramatic lighting and served as the background image for a 16 year old’s laptop meant there would be no easy answer to my question.
Right out of the mouth of my favorite student, I heard, “Have you ever been to Pro Ana (dot) com?”
“What are you doing at that kind of website?” Silly question. I know what kind of place that is and why young girls go there. I didn’t really need to ask her that question. I just needed to buy myself a little time to think very carefully about how to respond.
“So you know what it is?” she asked. I nodded. Pretty sure that the expression on my face said it all but I knew I’d have to say something. Especially after she said, “I get them.”
Not sure of where to start. Not confident that I could have this conversation without getting emotional or betraying myself. “What do you get? J., you need to stop going to those websites. Whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it.”
“Gosh, Erin! Those girls are mentally ill! I’m not crazy.” [Her emphasis, not mine] Actually this is a huge step up for J.. When she said the word mentally ill, I thought back to how much she’s matured in the past nine months. Just six months ago she wondered why there was such a public outcry about teenagers committing suicide just because they were being bullied. J. foamed at the mouth when she said we should just let depressed people off themselves if that’s what they wanted. I couldn’t blame her for not understanding a mental illness like depression, but her abysmal lack of compassion for human life blew my mind.
“I would never want to look like a skeleton. Those girls take it too far. They’re sick,” she said. You probably can’t tell how she said “sick.” You can’t hear how the word was smothered in judgment. The way she said it made me think of people who kick puppies, made me think of the worst kinds of people .
“Yes, they’re sick. As in they have a mental illness, J., which you just acknowledged. They’re not crazy. But looking at websites created by someone with anorexia, for people who have anorexia, is a pretty crazy thing to do. It’s like you’re saying that you find something attractive about an eating disorder, about mental illness.”
“The girl who started the website isn’t anorexic.”
“How do you know?” I asked. I knew exactly what she would say.
“She doesn’t look anorexic. She’s the same size as me.” [The girl who started the website isn’t the same girl on J.’s desktop.]
“I don’t think you know the criteria someone has to meet for that kind of diagnosis. You can’t just look at someone and tell.”
“Pretty sure I do. If you look anorexic, you’re anorexic. If you look like you don’t eat and the world can see your bones, you’re anorexic. The problem with these girls is that they don’t know when to stop. Skeletons aren’t sexy.” [She has quite the way with words doesn’t she?] It goes without saying that I wanted to shake her. At least twice a day I have to remind myself that these kids really are just kids. If they seem ignorant about everything, it’s because they are — and to some extent they’re supposed to be.
Two minutes into a conversation with this kid and my head was pounding in pain. “Maybe it isn’t that they don’t know when to stop but that they can’t stop,” I said.
“They can if they want to.”
“Then why don’t they?” I asked. “J., I’ll agree with you on one thing you said. No one looks at a stereotypical anorexic body and thinks that’s attractive. It isn’t cute to see someone’s entire skeletal system poking through their skin. It pains most people to see bodies in such an abused state. So either, these girls can’t see their bodies in the same way the rest of the world does because their self image is so incredibly distorted or they think we’re crazy and that being that thin really is attractive or they’ve starved their brains into delirium and have lost the ability to think rationally and feed themselves. Either way, it’s not a road you want to go down. I guarantee you every single girl started out thinking she only wanted to lose 10, 20, 30 pounds and ended up losing a whole lot more to an eating disorder.”
“I’m just saying, I think they’re right. We can only control one thing in this world and that’s the way we look. The website inspire us to be our best. If you want blonde wavy locks, you can go and buy them if that’s the look you want. You don’t go scalp Goldilocks.”
“Maybe. Whatever rational thoughts you and I have about how to change our hairstyle or manage our weight is a gift that people with some types of mental illness don’t have. Maybe someone with a mental illness scalps someone because the only thing they can think about is getting the extensions, no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, you might do something really extreme without even realizing it. It isn’t extreme, it’s normal. And if you get wanting to starve yourself down to a size 2, if you think that’s indicative of your will power, if you think that will make you happy, then get ready learn what the girls on that website already know. You could starve yourself to death just to prove you’re not like everyone else and can control of this one thing. Not a single one of them set out to kill themselves, but that’s exactly what it does. Whatever control you think you have over your body is really control that the eating disorder has over you. I know you don’t want to hear this but you’re on a slippery slope.”
“We can stop talking about this. I love food way too much to have enough will power to give it up. I’m just saying that I get it,” she said.
“You get wanting to be sick?” A mostly rhetorical question. I just wanted her to hear how ridiculous she sounded. She didn’t take the bait.
“I get willing to do anything to have a perfect body,” she said.
“What’s your perfect body?” I asked.
“Size 2. Flawless skin. Perfect hair,” she answered. “The difference between me and them is that I know I’ll never have a perfect body so I’m not going to kill myself trying. My skin will never be flawless. My hair will never look like a model’s. I will never be a size 2. It’s a fantasy. It’s nice to look at those websites and imagine what life would be like if I were perfect.”
“But would you be perfect then? Or would you just have a perfect body?” I asked.
“I’d be perfect, too,” she said.
“Then the difference between you and them is a lot less than you think it is. If you believe in the fantasy, if you get their drive to do anything to be thin, then what stops you from acting on it? What stops you from becoming just as deluded and sick as they are?”
“Because I can’t do it,” she said.
“But you want to,” I whispered.
[Very awkward silence.]
“All of this nonsense about everybody being perfect just the way they are is what’s crazy. Maybe if we make people feel bad about themselves for not looking their best, they’d try to do something about it. They would feel better. They’d be happy,” she said.
“That’s not true and there’s research to that effect if you care to read it. Guilt has the opposite effect on the behavior you’re trying to manipulate. Think about it terms of your own life. You go on a diet. You break it. You feel guilty. What’s the first thing you do?” I asked.
“Right. You feel bad that you broke a promise to yourself that you wouldn’t eat this or drink that and instead of allowing yourself to have it in the first place, now you decide it doesn’t matter and you can have as much candy and soda as you like. So long diet. Here’s the thing you don’t understand about that whole everybody being perfect just the way they are business. You are perfect. I’m glad you’re here and I wouldn’t have you any other way isn’t a death sentence. Or shall I say, it isn’t a life sentence. You’re not stuck being this person and I’m not just talking about your body. There are things we can change about ourselves, other things that might not ever change. So, if you want to dye your hair, tan yourself into skin cancer, yo-yo diet for the next 50 years, go right ahead. All I’m saying is you don’t have to do that. If you think that you suck at life and that you need to look perfect to feel good about yourself, then getting a boyfriend, making straight A’s or starving yourself into a coma will make you happy, it probably will. But it won’t be a long-lasting happiness and it won’t even be real. You’ll get all the superficial shit you want, you might even fit your definition of perfect, but you’ll know what you did to get there and you couldn’t possibly feel good about that.”
“So you’re perfectly fine with your body? Perfectly happy with your life.”
I smiled. “No, I’m not. I don’t know anybody who is. That’s part of the fantasy, isn’t it? That there are people out there who are 100% happy with their bodies and their lives. But I don’t equate my life’s happiness with my body and I don’t equate perfect with happy, either. My body isn’t my life and my life isn’t my body. Am I happy? Sure, though not all the time. I don’ t think any of us are supposed to always be happy. Am I perfect? Well you can answer that. How many times a day do you roll your eyes at me in annoyance?” Finally, she smiled. “When you look at me, I know we don’t always see the same things. I see weight that shouldn’t be there, hair that shouldn’t grow there, blemishes that take their sweet time fading, hair that takes half the day to straighten properly.”
“Why would you straighten you hair? I like the way it is when it’s natural.” She said.
“Thanks, J. And I agree. It looks fine the way it is now but sometimes I’d like to straighten it. That’s exactly my point. You don’t see hair that ever needs to be straightened and my hair is so unruly, I don’t even try. I’ve lived enough to understand that when people say there is no such thing as perfect and you’re perfect just the way you are that they can both be true. If I look for a flaw, I’ll find it. If you look for beauty, you’ll find it. Look for the good stuff because it’s there. Look for the good stuff and you’ll know you’re okay. Look at the good stuff, the stuff that matters, the stuff that makes you perfectly you and you’ll go back to that website and weep for those girls because you’ll really get it. They don’t love themselves. They can’t find what’s good in them because it’s been starved out. They’re sick.”