I’m a body image activist. I’ve read a lot about anorexia, talked a lot about anorexia, listened to a lot of recovering anorexics. I thought I knew how I felt.
But now that I’ve met an anorexic teen, spent time with her, watched how the adults around her deal with her, I understand in a whole new way.
When I’ve heard and read about the “pro-ana” movement and the websites and other means by which anorexics (mostly girls) encourage and support each other, what I’ve felt is sad for them, worried, and a little hopeless. When I’m in the presence of a real person, however, what I feel is “Go you!”
She looks like me to me. She’s thin for her age and body type; I was fat for mine. I know how it feels to have people watch everything I eat and count the calories. I know how it feels to have everyone know what’s better for me than I do. I know how it feels to have the choices that comfort and strengthen me be criticized at every turn.
She’s on vacation. At home, they keep her on an enforced 4,000 (!) calorie per day diet. On vacation, without her parents, the adults in her life are just constantly watching her, pushing her to order dessert, to eat more. Taking control. And I can see the need for control build in her.
After a tussle over yet another dessert, I shamelessly grabbed a private conversation. (Not easy. The teenagers protect each other from the adults. I like that in them.) “Look, you have to do what the grown-ups make you do.”
“But I want you to know that, even though I want you to be eating, I think this is yours to figure it out, and I think you would figure it out faster if they gave you some room.”
“I know! That’s what I keep telling my mother.”
“She’s not going to get it any time soon; but I thought you might like to know that there is a grown-up out there who gets it.”
I can’t tell whether that fell flat or whether it was useful, but I know my other approach works. I can light Emily up by setting up situations in which she is in control of anything. So I set that up in a teasing way every chance I get. She shows up in a Wonder Woman t-shirt and I make a bow: “Wow! I get to go on a hike with Wonder Woman!”
Our new game is that she’s the “Queen of Space.” This started at an eight-person restaurant table. She’s seated near the center, and someone has to clear space on the table as food comes and goes, so I proclaimed her the Queen of Space. Her eyes gleam and she takes it further
“I’m the Queen of all Space, not just of this table.”
“Hey! You’re the Queen of Space, so wherever you are is the center of the universe!”
“I like how you think!”
I completely understand why the adults who love her want to make her eat. If I thought it could work, I would want the same thing. But I don’t believe it can work.
I mean what I told her: she has to figure it out for herself. And it’s risky. On the whole, I trust Wonder Woman, and the Queen of Space, and that sparkling young woman with the sometimes haunted eyes to find own her way out of her own maze, just as I did. And if I can provide a couple of lanterns or trail markers to help her along, that’s enough for me.