On my way into work this morning I passed by a gaggle of teenagers trudging listlessly along the sidewalk as if their feet were made of lead. They shuffled their ill-fitted shoes (I think it’s the style or something) and boys walked strangely flop-footed in their too-tight jeans. The guys all looked like varying version of Justin Bieber. Same clothes, same hair flip, same swaggered walk. It was the girls however that really got to me. It struck me how very thin and gaunt they were and not in a pre-pubescent way but more in a starving model kind of way. Their eyes were each rimmed in thick black liner making them seem angry and hardened by a world I can’t imagine they’ve lived in very long. I wondered how old they could be. 14? 15 maybe?
It got me thinking of what I was doing at 14. Fresh through the doors of high school, I struggled with self-esteem and self-worth issues as I imagine many of my peers also did. I was painfully shy as I worried at every turn what those around me must think. I pulled my hair into tight buns to hide the frizz, which I’m sure made it look as if I’d recently had a botched facelift. I was chubby and felt like none of my clothes ever hid the pudge that spilled over my pants when I sat down. At 13 I went on my first diet. By 14 I became obsessed with the outcome, to the point that I couldn’t enjoy holiday dinners with my family and was on a strict 300 calorie/day regimen. I thought it would make me thin and I thought it would make me confident and as a result, known and liked amongst those I wished to impress. Instead I became more miserable than ever.
By the age of 15 my issues with food and self-worth had spiraled into a state of absolute hell. I’d developed a catalogue of manipulative tools designed to dodge every worried glance or curiously pointed question that came my way. I put it all on the line to become what I thought would make me happy. My curvy size 14 body shrunk to a size 6 before my eyes and I couldn’t wait to stand before the mirror each night and assess myself based on how much my stomach stuck out or my thighs jiggled. I lost myself. I wasn’t me anymore because I was too busy being a size 6 and striving for better. I became moody, difficult and protective of my secret until one day I looked around and realized I was the only one not living. By 15 I met my first serious boyfriend and he softened the edges of my self-hate enough for me to realize I was in a haze of undeniable torturous reverie. By then I was so exhausted I began to accept that my feelings weren’t normal; that somewhere in there I knew better. At my breaking point I confessed everything to my very terrified best friend. She shakily threatened to tell my parents if I didn’t and I knew time was up. Enough was enough. So began my long and arduous journey back to the land of the living.
Watching those girls move along the sidewalk I realized they scared me because I saw something familiar. It wasn’t just their thin frames (I recognize that some girls really are miraculously built naturally like super models) it was their sad, unconfident wilted states that made them seem alarming. The other day at the grocery store as I rushed from aisle to aisle looking for the canned corn, I overheard a conversation between a mother and daughter. The woman was pleading with her daughter to pick food she’d eat in her lunch for the week following while the girl sighed and crossed her arms, frustrated that her mother dare have her bring a lunch to school. “You know I don’t eat at school and if I do I just split a bagel with Jessica!” she explained. Her mother shook her head, eyebrows furrowed and threw up her arms “It’s not enough! I don’t get why nobody actually eats at school anymore. You’re all so thin!” and she wheeled away down the aisle throwing crackers into the cart as she went. The young girl’s too-thin body trailed after her. The sight of the crackers made me realize I was in the wrong aisle for corn and also that I might have been staring a little obviously at a conversation that didn’t concern me, so I moved on too.
It stayed with me though. What are we doing to our younger generations? What are we teaching them? When I see Angelina Jolie’s bony frame on tv am I supposed to feel like she’s the epitome of woman and accept that young girls are seeing and idolizing women like her? It’s disturbing. We’ve regressed if we’ve become complacent enough to allow young girls to learn it’s more important to place your worth on things like dress and clothing sizes than intelligence, kindness and personality. In high school they educate young women about diseases like anorexia and bulimia but do they offer time slots on how to plan healthy meals or love your body? Is there an open forum for discussion so these same girls can reveal their understanding of self-worth and what the word “healthy” actually means because I suspect in many cases the true meaning has become quite lost. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and an alarming one half of all teenage girls (and I would argue possibly higher) use unhealthy weight control behaviours. The condition is mind-altering, all-consuming and so destructive it destroys you from the inside out. Because of the skewed assembly of priorities within a society largely hinged on beauty, the quest for thinness has taken alarming precedence so that the dangerous behaviours are acceptable instead of red beacons of alarm. There’s a quote by E.E. Cummings that I believe says it best:
“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
If I could impart one tiny gem to 13-year-old me it would be this. This is the gift we should allow our own experience to bestow upon younger generations, not the loss of it.