Numbers Are Arbitrary

Thoughts from a Recovering Bulimic

One of the first questions my therapist ever asked me during recovery was, on a scale of one to ten, what proportion of my thoughts were occupied with body image. For far too long I was hovering around eight or nine.

At sleep-away camp I remember going shopping with two friends when we passed through a home furnishing store. For fun they each decided to step on a display scale and, in turn, vocally lamented how dangerously close they were to breaking 100 pounds. This was mid-high school at the peak of my career as a competitive gymnast, a time I knew very well that my weight exceeded what was evidently some threatening invisible threshold, but their reactions coupled with my paralyzing insecurity made me feel ashamed. So when it was my turn I distracted them with some other product, leading them away from the dreaded scale.

I’ve thought I was fat for practically as long as I can remember, excluding pre-grade school years — that blissful time before I knew what the word meant. But in looking at old photos from years that I definitely recall thinking I was fat, it's become clear to me that I wasn’t. I was normal—skinny, even, by my own critical standards. And then a second realization soon followed: I didn’t want to spend years and decades only to become accepting of the past; I wanted to be happy now. Instead of wasting my time counting calories, purging, thinking about purging, and all the while hoping that no one would notice, I wanted to be a fully-functional, productive member of society. So, not long after my 21st birthday, I sought treatment.

There was a lot of ground to cover — too much, perhaps — in our weekly one-hour sessions. The depression; the anxiety; the fear of intimacy; the drinking problem I developed to compensate for the eating disorder, etc. Yet none of these were particularly out of the ordinary; on the contrary, if anything, they’re all on the rise, especially among other girls my age. The difference was that I got help; many don't. Everyone has a different path toward recovery, but for me one of the most valuable lessons I learned from my therapist was this: numbers are arbitrary.

Goal weight, clothing size, BMI – they’re all just numbers whose perceived significance has ballooned to a preposterous level thanks to many external factors. Clothes sizing lacks decent regulation across the fashion industry, and BMI, despite being paraded about as a health guideline, is merely a ratio that neglects whether an individual is, say, merely athletic and muscular versus unhealthily overweight. And setting a goal weight? Well, for one thing, body weight naturally fluctuates, so in a way picking a specific number is just setting oneself up for undue disappointment.

Now, I don’t generally fancy myself a raging feminist or conspiracy theorist, but bear with me for a moment. In Imperial China they had foot binding; in Europe corsets. Today we have…size zero? Across history and cultures, female standards of beauty have almost always been set by men, and quite arbitrarily at that. But if you take a look at say, the fashion industry, many of the so-called “tastemakers” aren’t even into women, so why should we bend over backwards, starve ourselves, abuse laxatives, and worse, in order to achieve a look that they promote as ideal?

The thing about eating disorders that perhaps deters patients (including myself, initially) from seeking treatment is that there is no cure. Even when the active symptoms subside, there are still the underlying self-destructive thought patterns that need to be broken and re-shaped. When you've been living for years under the same irrational paradigm, no amount of psychotherapy can make it reverse itself quickly. Because how can you possibly return to "normal" when you've forgotten what it feels like?

Whenever I'm having a rough day I just repeat those three words to myself, and if I can eat something for the simple pleasure of enjoying it (without mentally calculating how long I'd have to exercise to burn off the calories), or buy a new item of clothing for the fit and not for the size on the tag — well, it's a step towards a healthier state of mind.