This is less of a phobia, and more of obsessive-compulsive tendencies. There is still anxiety wrapped around everything related to each little tic of mine, in fact, more anxiety than troubles me about anything else. Am I working on it? Yes. Am I succeeding? In some areas, hell yes. In other areas, I haven’t made any progress at all. And no, I’m not talking about giving up eating chocolate chips by the handful (though that is a compulsion, and one I can thank my students for literally feeding). That is much too large of a problem for me to face in my current state.
Rather, I’m talking about the one thing that I can guarantee affects each woman in the US (and a lot of other countries, too) at least one point in her life: body image.
I have a smorgasbord of body image issues (Please somebody comment on the brilliance of that pun… thanks, mom!), ranging from weight to acne to whether or not people can see how big the pores on my face are. No, I’m not kidding. I wish I was kidding. That would be less pathetic.
I can trace most of my neuroses associated with what I look like to Denzel Washington. Now, for you new readers out there, I’m not actually referring to the actor. I’m actually referring to my biological father, who has an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Washington, and also studied his techniques to perfect his I’m-Disappointed-In-You Look and his I-Will-Destroy-You Face. Also for you new readers, as I can sense your confusion, my father is black. I know I don’t look it. Don’t rub it in, okay? That’s also a sensitive issue. (SOME DAY I WILL BE DARKER. SOME. DAY.)
I like to tell friends, mostly jokingly, that I am one daddy issue away from clear heels. But when I really dig down deep and analyze why I’m so fucking crazy about certain things, I can trace it to a precise moment in time. A lot of those times had to do with an interaction I had with a family member. It’s not their fault at all; rather, as they used to tease me when I was a kid, I am just a little too sensitive all the time.
Compulsion Number One: Picking (Body Image Issue: Acne)
This is gross, and for that, I’m sorry. It’s something that I am extremely embarrassed about, and have been doing for the better part of eight years. I’m really ashamed of the whole thing, and it’s become such an emotional trigger that writing about it has been a no-go. Up until this moment.
I pick my skin compulsively. Not like, scratching at it, though I used to do that when I self-harmed, but anything that I think looks like a zit has to be picked at. For two reasons: 1) zits are the devil, and 2) they make me ugly.
The origin of this compulsion comes from several conversations I had with Denzel over the formative years. I started getting acne in sixth grade, which, as most of you remember, is the grade when everyone becomes a little asshole and likes to make fun of you for stuff like that. I also had two older brothers who were completely acne free, but my face blew up like an oil field in disputed territory, so they teased me mercilessly. It was so bad that my mother would get my school photos professionally photo-shopped, and I would look at them longingly and wonder if my skin would ever look that clear (note to 11 year old Whit: eleven years later, and your skin is still a dick…. HA. Gross). I started proactiv at a young age, only to have my face red and peely. I tried differin, only to have my face swell up when water touched it. I tried clearasil, neutrogena, stridex, cetaphil, herbs, dial soap, some zit pill that is really bad for your liver… EVERYTHING. Nothing worked, except birth control, but I wouldn’t figure that out for a few more years.
My father had terrible cystic acne on his back, which left it cratered like a chocolate moon (sorry for that imagery). He was hypersensitive about acne, and passed that along to me, giving me conflicting messages like, “Whitney… you shouldn’t wear makeup because it will give you more zits and you will look worse,” only to say in the next breath, “but you should wear makeup because you look ugly without it.”
I was eleven or twelve when I had that conversation with my father. We then proceeded to talk about how much fun it is to get rid of a zit, and thus, a compulsion was born.
I pick when I’m stressed. When I’m bored. In my sleep (yes, I wake up picking at my skin). When I think it’s a bug bite. When I’m angry. And every time I do it, my anxiety skyrockets and I shame myself until I’m too ashamed to do anything but pick some more. My thought process goes something like this: “Ugh, what is that?” *pick* “My rent is due tomorrow, shit.” *pick pick* “I should stop picking.” *pick* “One more.” *pick pick* “Okay, for reals, this is the last one.” *Pick*… half an hour passes, and my shoulders are extremely red and inflamed. “OH GOD WHY DO I DO THIS TO MYSELF?!” *pick pick* “I HATE MYSELF!” *pick* And then I clean the wounds with alcohol, put some antibiotics on them, and go about my day.
It’s been eight years of this. I’m so over it, but I keep doing it. I have literally tried everything, and I’m just hoping that being completely sick of it will encourage me to find something else to occupy my anxiety with.
Compulsion Number Two-Five: Hello, Tape-Measure, Scale, Eating Disorders, and Exercise! (Body Image Issue: Weight)
Ah, weight. The patriarch of the word family that ends a lot of otherwise happy relationships. (Protip: feign a heart attack/panic attack/seizure/family emergency whenever you are asked the question, “does this make me look fat?” Then the attention gets put back on you and you don’t have to answer it! Perfect!)
I have pretty much tackled this issue. It’s taken a very long time for me to be comfortable with the way my body looks, and a lot of work for me to be confident in it, as well. But there were aspects of my life that didn’t make it easy.
1. My father put a medical scale in the main level bathroom of our house. You know the scales, the ones you stand on at the doctor’s office. Where they slide the big notch over to 50. Then to 100 (or 150). Then they slide the little one over until it balances out. That machine causes so much stress, and it’s not even always accurate; for instance, if everything is at zero, and no one is standing on the scale, it should be balanced. If it’s not, your scale is whacked. Asshole. I was maybe eleven when my father put this in, and I began weighing myself after every meal. After every time I exercised, or went to the bathroom, or, yes, even when I cut my hair.
This obsession carried on to college, where, thankfully, there were no scales around me every day. That, and the laziness that prevented me from walking up my mom’s flight of stairs at her house to weigh myself pretty much broke that habit for good.
2. My father didn’t exactly model healthy “diet” behavior. He would go through spurts of exercise, literally. For two weeks at a time, he would run ten miles a day, leaving behind a crust of salt so thick on the treadmill that you could actually see the residue building up on the handles. During these stints, he would live off of celery and clementines.
During a particularly difficult time, my father decided the whole house needed to be put on a diet. So, he went through our (gigantic) pantry cupboard and fridge, and threw out any food he deemed “unhealthy.” Gone went unopened boxes of Tabasco Cheez-Its (gasp), cereal, string cheese, my mom’s candy drawer, bread… unless it was a fruit, vegetable or meat, it was thrown away. Then he went golfing.
While he was away, my brothers and I went into the garage, opened the garbage cans, and took out the unopened boxes of our choosing. We then hid them in our closets. I survived off of Tabasco Cheez-Its during that brief amount of time, and would eat them guiltily by the handful in my closet, with my bedroom door locked, in fear of being found out.
What damaged me here was not that he wanted us to eat healthier; that’s great, go for it, dad! The problem was how he handled it, and the guilt I built up from eating food in my closet. That led to a rather unhealthy relationship with food, which led to a kind of chubby Whitney.
3. When your parents go through a very dramatic divorce and you are fifteen years old, recently medicated, and learning that you don’t have to act the way everyone wants you to act all the time, things get better. But then, when everything in your life spirals out of control, the only thing you can control is what you eat.
So I stopped eating. I would have my breakfast of diabetes-inducing waffles (two Belgian waffles, whipped cream, syrup, and strawberries), and nothing else. I would tell everyone that I had eaten, and I would just not eat. Then, I weighed myself six or seven times a day. And I got a measuring tape from my mother’s sewing kit, and began measuring my waist and hips every day. I didn’t know what I was aiming for, but I felt that I was too big.
The eating disorder dissipated with the finalization of the divorce. Thankfully, the stress hormones and the gigantic waffles I ate kept me from losing any weight, really, and I stayed the same. But my tape measure-compulsion stayed.
In college, after a particularly brutal interaction with one of my brothers, I did the Master Cleanse for a week, and I lost ten pounds. I also learned how easy it is to develop Bulimia, and I struggled with that for a few months, until I realized I didn’t want to do that anymore. For most people, that struggle can last years. I gave it up because of the guilt I felt whenever I did it. If you or anyone you know has an eating disorder, please, please talk to someone about it. Food is great! And that means you shouldn’t deprive yourself of it or make yourself sick.
But I still measure myself every day. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but most of the time nowadays, it gives me confidence. Because I’m ripped (at least, I like to pretend I am).
It’s important to remember that I’m not advocating any of these compulsions OR an eating disorder. I struggled with my image a very long time. It’s only been these past few years where I’ve felt that I look pretty awesome most of the time. And that’s a combined effort of eating much healthier (minus the chocolate chips it took to write this post–two handfuls so far), exercising often (my triceps are so sore from my workout at my new gym/class/place/thing that I can’t lift my arms all the way up), and my compliment board.
What’s my compliment board, you ask? It’s a chalkboard in my kitchen that reads: “Today is the best day ever! Because you are able, loved, provided for, intelligent, experienced, beautiful, kind, and funny! Rejoice!” I don’t really consciously look at it anymore, but I see it every time I sit at my couch, or go to my kitchen, or leave the house. So I’m starting to believe those things that I read.
I am not proud of my compulsions, but I am proud of my body. I am proud that I am strong, physically and mentally, and that I know my body is capable of doing more things today than it was a week ago, six months ago, five years ago. I fight against the impulse to fall into eating disorder habits beyond the tape measure, and I try my best to believe that I am beautiful despite the zits on my chin.
But goddammit. WHY IS MY SKIN NOT THE COLOR OF A MOCHA LATTE?