Eat Your Words
By Abby Leigh Charbonneau
Illustration by Christina Mastrull
Upon returning to Syracuse sophomore year, I met up with a friend for Starbucks and bagels. We greeted each other with hugs and gushed about how good the other looked. “You’re sooo skinny. Oh my God, you look great!” she told me. “You look, like, anorexic!”
The absurdity of "anorexic" being used as a compliment was not lost on me. There were more calories in my Java Chip Frappuccino than someone battling anorexia would be able to down in a day. But this sort of insensitive language is far too common—reinforcing skinny as the ideal beauty standard for women, glorifying disordered eating, and contributing to the misconceptions many people still have about eating disorders.
Such compliments are not only common, but socially acceptable. “Skinny” and “thin” are used almost exclusively as compliments, and words like “thinspo” or “thinspiration” celebrate the body someone with an eating disorder inhabits. Any girl on this college campus could tell you what a “thigh gap” is, despite it being a relatively new, and dumb, concept.
On the other hand, calling someone fat is innately offensive and insulting. According to Glenn Gaesser’s book Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health, the majority of females between the ages of 18 and 25 would rather get run over by a truck than be fat; two-thirds surveyed would rather be mean or stupid than fat. We dodge around that three-letter word, creating a stigma of shame, and use less offensive words in its place—like “chub,” “fluff,” and “big-boned.”
We have even created specific words and phrases exclusive to body-bashing, like “thunder-thighs,” “love handles,” and “muffin top.” Rachel Wiley’s viral slam poem, “10 Honest Thoughts On Being Loved By A Skinny Boy,” questions the mutual exclusivity of being overweight and attractive: “I say, ‘Iamfat.’Hesays,‘No,you are beautiful.’ I wonder why I cannot be both.”
Women talk about food as something associated with guilt, shame, and indulgence, and use excuses like “I’m treating myself” or “I’ve earned it” to justify eating anything that’s not raw and green. Companies try to replicate dessert flavors like cheesecake and chocolate pie, advertised as “guilt-free” to ease the assumed inner turmoil of a woman who, God forbid, consumes more than 350 calories. It’s no wonder that the diet industry is a 50 billion dollar enterprise in the U.S. In fact, Time reports 80 percent of all children have been on a diet before they reach the fourth grade.
The truth is, the majority of us do indulge in disordered eating, from binging to fasting to fad dieting. The most common eating disorder is EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) and is described as irregular eating habits and distorted ways of thinking about food. And, unlike other eating disorders, EDNOS is primarily caused by the culture surrounding food and body image.
All these dieting behaviors and language reflect our distorted sociocultural beauty values and reinforce misconceptions about eating disorders. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia are not something you can turn on or off when you need to regain that beach bod, nor are they an expression of control. They are not glamorous, safe, or a method of attention- seeking—they’re dangerous. Up to 20 percent of those with eating disorders die from heart failure, suicide, or other complications. It is the most life-threatening of all mental illnesses. Even more detrimental is the attitude society has toward body issues and how we perpetuate these misconceptions.
We can’t change the beauty standard in a day. I doubt that the runways will be filled with 5-foot-3, 130-pound girls any time soon—not even 5-foot-8, 130-pound girls. We can, however, change the way we talk. So the next time you find yourself envying Leighton Meester’s photoshopped waist— which is approximately the width of your Jimmy John’s sandwich—bitching about your cellulite to your reflection, or telling a friend she looks oh-my-God-so-skinny, catch yourself, change your language, and don’t get caught eating your words.