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Shannon Michelle Hurd
Personal Essay
2,473 words

The Anatomy of a Weight Obsession

They say a picture paints a thousand words, but if this is true, then why can't people see the misery lurking beneath my eyes when they look at my pictures? A boyfriend recently told me he especially loves the one taken at Disneyland -- my radiant smile, golden blonde ponytail, tan, toned body. He couldn't see my thoughts, he didn't know that while my friends were arguing about whether to ride Magic Mountain or Island Adventure, I was silently calculating how many times I'd have to jog up the 110 step entrance to burn off the pretzel I'd just eaten.

His second favorite -- me in a bikini, hugging a fellow lifeguard -- did he have any idea that two minutes after it was taken, I was kneeling in front of a toilet with my finger down my throat?

Maybe the saying should be changed to a picture hides a thousand words, for when I look at photos of myself, it's like staring into someone else's eyes, a happy, self-confident girl full of energy and vitality. The reality of the situation, however, is quite different.

It's ironic. Just five years ago, I was the furthest thing from weight obsessed. At lunch, I'd pig out on cheeseburgers, pizza and milkshakes with friends. If there was cake in the house, I'd eat it, whether it be midnight or six a.m. I didn't workout - I went to cheerleading practice when we had it, enjoyed my days off when we didn't. I didn't even know what a calorie or fat gram was. I remember seeing other girls nibble carrot sticks for lunch; I thought they were boring and obsessive. One night, a guy friend told me he hated Seventeen magazine because it encouraged girls to become anorexic. In response, I laughed. "Don't worry. I couldn't become anorexic if my life depended on it. I love food too much."

Today, however, my life is a torment of self-imposed regulations and fear about my weight. In a hellish 360 turnaround, that once spontaneous girl who lived for road-trips and sleepovers has died; she has been replaced by a high-strung and obsessive woman who lets nothing come between her and her daily workout. Why? People have asked me for years. What satisfaction does this sick and twisted regime bring you? Oh, my friends, if only you knew.

It's impossible for anyone to relive my experiences, but through words, it's plausible to gain insight from them. First point: It's more nauseating than a bottle of syrup of ipecac when people blame society's weight obsession on the media. If you are someone who thinks that eating disorders exist because Kate Moss has appeared in a few magazines, this story is for you. I have battled a severe weight obsession for five years, and I am here to tell you that the media was NOT the cause.

I've already introduced you to my former self - the cute, energetic high-school sophomore who preferred a handful of M&M's to an hour on the treadmill any day. So I guess I should now fill you in on when this girl's sprit began to fade, why it was replaced with what I prefer to call her evil twin. It's simple. When my first love, a freckled boy with deep brown eyes, ended our relationship, I was so devastated that I lost my appetite. I took refuge in the library, mind buried numbly in a book, lips chewing listlessly on an apple; after school, I took my hurt out on my old rusty ten speed. After two months, my mom said, "You're looking thinner. Keep it up." Amazingly enough, her comment elevated my mood above the heavens. It helped distract me from the nauseating pain of the breakup. Desperate for more reinforcement, I threw myself into weight loss; five months later, I weighed 113.

This was the beginning of a wild roller coaster ride that has yet to end. When my body could no longer take the fatigue, depression and numbness that accompanied my frail frame, my weight quickly rebounded to 170. Miserable, I would start a new diet with fresh determination. Then I'd lose too much and gain back even more, and the cycle would start over. For five years, not a single day has gone by in which weight has not consumed 70% of my thoughts.

Like others, I've struggled to understand what this sick obsession provides me. Only recently have I dug up answers. I think of myself as an archeologist, digging deep into the ground for the bones of my shattered self, hoping someday they'll fit back together into a meaningful whole.

The first bone I found was rather obvious, poking right through the ground. Itís something Iíve known for a long time, that is, my weight obsession is my way of avoiding other problems. As long as I've got my weight to worry about, I have a legitimate excuse to avoid contemplating why I wasn't hired by that newspaper, or why my boyfriend didn't say "I love you" last night. That stuff could prove deadly to my self-esteem (perhaps they thought my writing sucked; perhaps he'd already used the words on some other girl), but with my weight, I control my self-esteem. If something goes wrong, there is nobody to blame but myself, if something goes right, there is nobody better to praise.

Which brings me to another small bone - that six letter "C" word most people struggle with. Control. Everyone likes to feel in control. Admit it. When you know where you're headed, it's easier to smile at the mirror. Iím no different; I feel best about myself when Iím in control. After all, I can't stop a professor from giving me a "D", I can't stop my little brother from driving drunk, but I can control how many cookies cross my lips, or how many times I go to the gym. As irrelevant as this may seem, it provides me with internal satisfaction. How ironic is it that my weight obsession skyrocketed when I entered college? I was clutching for a tangible security blanket to cling to throughout the rough times without being called a baby.

This brings me to bone number three; an important one, maybe the spine? It's connected with identity. I became known as the weight loss expert, if someone wanted to know the caloric value of his or her sandwich, they called me. When my mom decided her real estate business would take off if she got rid of the jiggle on her thighs, she paid me to act as her personal trainer. When my friend Karen wanted to lose ten pounds before her wedding, she had me write out my diet, and then she taped it to her fridge and tried to follow it. All of this attention thrown at me during adolescence helped form my identity. I might not have been the smartest or most talented girl out there, but I excelled in something. So I threw all of my energy to the pursuit, because that was my way of asserting myself in this very large and frighteningly competitive world.

Along with identity comes attention; attention that runs deeper than my role as pseudo-nutritionist. It also includes the numerous stares I get from men. They're such a huge part of my self-esteem that sometimes instead of eating, I'll dress up in my sexiest attire and take a stroll through the mall. Usually, it only takes two or three looks to convince me that ignoring the raw, growling sensation in my stomach is the right decision. I'm not some superficial bimbo, I just spend so much time working on my body, that it's nice to know every once in a while I'm not screwing up there, as well. A boyfriend once quoted a survey which suggested that only 5% of people consider themselves "extremely attractive". To me, this top five percent received A's on the "looks" section of their report cards. Immediately, I became determined to be among that percentage. In an odd way, the shallow survey comforted me; it helped erase the memory of my less than perfect science grade. If I couldn't succeed in Zoology, at least I could succeed in Weight Control 101.

My next finding chipped in half as I was attempting to extract it from the ground. It's rough and twisted (maybe a rib cage?); it deals with the very subject I spend my life trying to avoid. The media. I wasn't kidding when I said the media didn't cause my weight obsession. But it obviously has a hold of quite a few people. And their skewed behavior indirectly fills my head with twisted ideas. Like my friend who claims her life would be perfect if only she could lose five pounds, who gave her the idea that a lower weight was equated with success, anyway? This is where I must admit to the dangers of seeing only thin and attractive persons on the screens of Hollywood. Why don't we ever see overweight people play successful lawyers and doctors? This imbalance appears to suggest that society considers overweight to be synonymous with failure; which would make the media partially responsible for the mental glorification of thinness. Isn't it interesting that after an experiment conducted at the University of Alberta Medical Centre in which 100 people were exposed to popular magazines and TV sitcoms for a week, only one answered "no" to a later survey which asked if they planned to start "actively waging the war against fat".

Another major discovery (a large bone, maybe the femur or something), involves my family. I love them with all of my heart. I'd rather drill nails into my eyes than disappoint them; unfortunately, I feel they are proudest of me when I am dieting. I partially think it's genetic - my mother struggled with anorexia as a teen. I partially think it's environmental -after hearing so many fat-phobic comments, you internalize them. Whatever the reason, my family plays a major role in the reinforcement of my weight obsession. Two memories stand out. When I was thirteen, my dad grabbed my waist and remarked that I was "getting a little hefty". When I was fourteen, my mom picked me up from school, and upon seeing the homecoming queen strut in front of our car, pressed her forehead to the window and sighed "Donít you wish you looked more like Angela? Sheís so thin and pretty." Insensitive, yes. But these comments were only two minute tidal waves in the sea of much good that my parents did for me. However, today, it is these tidal waves that I remember, and not their homework help, Christmas presents, or financial support. Why? It ripped through the core of my soul to hear them insinuate that if I were thinner, Iíd be better, more acceptable, more desired. And even more sadly, their actions rubbed salt in my wounds. When I was on the "down" hills of my roller coaster, my parents treated me like a queen, buying me clothes, asking for advice, bragging about me to friends. But when I was on the "up" hills, they glared contemptuously at my meals, they withheld my clothing allowance until I lost weight, and they refused to allow me to wear a two-piece to the pool. Do you hear how twisted that is? I'd always thought families were about unconditional love, yet in my household, love has a price. The lower the number on the scale, the more love you receive.

My last finding is the most personal and complex of all (colleagues tell me itís the skull). It combines the deadly forces of fear and perfectionism. I'm afraid to let go of my obsession because it's the only substance I have. If I'm not the girl who makes it into the gym everyday, rain or shine, then who am I? Just another college English major, whoop-de-do. Who isn't? I need to be somebody in order to make life worth living (this is where perfectionism comes in). And because I've spent the most formative years of my life focusing on weight control, that's where it makes the most sense to stay. If I wanted to pursue something else, I'd have to start from scratch; however, with weight control, I'm good at it, and the benefits are amazing. I've read about people who make a living by using their physical beauty to score them apartments, cars, and trust funds. The only thing they have to do in return is go to the gym and occasionally accompany some older gentleman to dinner (but hold the butter, please). How else could I achieve this? If you can think of a better way, please, let me know.

Laying out my bones on the table, I realize something big is missing. The skeleton is all there, but where's the core, the heart, the soul? This hollow surface is a symbol for myself - so wrapped up in superficiality, yet too afraid to let go. Currently, I have it in my head that breakfast everyday is at seven, lunch at noon, dinner at six. I set my alarm on weekends to adhere to this routine, I go to the gym everyday no matter if my foot is sprained, my head is hurt, or I am throwing up blood. I refuse to eat in between meals, I allow myself only one dessert, after lunch, if my workout was good. I've forgotten how to sleep in, my stomach often cramps when I run because I'm afraid if I wait for food to digest, I'll be tempted to skip working out. I've missed vacations, graduations, weddings, and interviews because they were scheduled during my gym time; I'll ignore the most intense of hunger pangs if it occurs outside of my meal schedule. I know that I am not normal, I know that I am obsessive, I know that ultimately, what I am doing to myself is probably more harmful than being overly lazy, but I'm afraid to let go. My identity would disappear, and without an identity, how would I survive?

It's eerie being able to recognize my problem, yet having no power to conquer it. Perhaps that's why staring at my own photos provides such a wicked fascination; I can almost pretend I am that happy girl which I appear to be. Maybe I'm just the human version of that old cliché "appearances can be deceiving". After all, I do realize that if I continue to center my life around when I eat and skip job interviews to work out, I'm going to die with nothing more to put on my tombstone than "Here lies Shannon. She died at her ideal weight." And somehow, that doesn't sound as impressive on paper as it does in my mind.