“If You’re Fat, Then What Am I?”

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about body image and eating disorders. I can’t even begin to address all of them here. But there’s one I’ve been thinking about lately–that problems with body image are caused solely by comparing yourself to unrealistic standards, and can be solved by simply comparing yourself to the “real” bodies around you instead.

First, a disclaimer–I’ve never had anorexia or bulimia. However, I’m not entirely out of my depth here. Had I gone to see a psychiatrist at some point prior to this year, he or she would probably have taken note of my obsessive calorie-counting, severe dietary restrictions, compulsive weight-checking and fat-pinching, and general conviction that I was “fat,” and diagnosed me with something called “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or “EDNOS.” This means that one doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the eating disorders, but is definitely disordered nonetheless.

(For the record, I’m much better now.)

Anyway, one thing I remember very vividly from my years of thinking I’m fat was one particular response that I often encountered. Some people (mostly other girls), upon learning how I felt, would respond with this: “If you’re fat, then what am I?”

Now, I understand exactly where this comes from. Many of my peers were probably insecure, too, and it makes sense that they would be reminded of their own insecurity once I mentioned mine. Since I was indeed thinner than many other people, that response makes sense on some level. If I’m fat, they must be obese!

But it doesn’t really work that way. It would certainly be convenient if people’s self-concepts were always rational and based on reality. But the very definition of mental problems is that they’re distortions of reality–they’re unrealistic. That’s why grief after the death of a loved one isn’t considered a mental disorder, but depression is.

And that’s exactly why “If you’re fat then what am I” is not an effective response. At the time, I didn’t give two shits what other people were. It didn’t enter my thought process. In my case, my conviction that I was fat was mostly caused by cultural factors; namely, the fact that Russians are fucking preoccupied with beauty and weight. Absolutely preoccupied. It was also caused by years of ballet lessons, my depressive personality (which magnifies personal flaws), the belief that I could lose 10-20 pounds and still be healthy, fear that guys wouldn’t find me attractive if I had folds on my stomach, and many other causes.

For other people with body image and eating issues, the causes may be different. Some people develop the feeling that they’re unable to control their environment, so they control the only thing they can–their body. Others may start out actually overweight, start to diet and lose weight, and find that they’re addicted to the feeling of getting thinner. Others develop an overwhelming guilt whenever they eat, especially when they eat unhealthily, and they start to purge after eating. Some may have friends who constantly talk about their bodies’ flaws (remember Mean Girls?) and start to think the same way.

Whatever the causes are, these issues are much too complicated to be defeated by a simple glance at someone who weighs more than you.

Of course, “If you’re fat then what am I” also fails one of the most basic requirements of being a good listener–don’t change the subject to yourself. If your friend feels crappy and needs to talk to you, don’t make it about you. If your own issues are making it difficult for you to listen, tell your friend that. Sure, they might be disappointed that you can’t listen to them, but that’s much better than how they’re going to feel when you take their pain and turn it into a conversation about you and your weight.

It’s easy to resent people who, according to you, “should” be perfectly happy with their weight but are not. I can’t say I don’t get a twinge of annoyance whenever I witness a girl much smaller than me freaking out about her weight. But then I remind myself that she’s not me. Poor body image seems almost like a cliche among young women these days, but it’s so much more complex than you might think.

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The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breast Cancer Awareness

If you have ever seen a bunch of women posting Facebook statuses with a random color, or a location where they “like it,” and felt a mix of confusion and frustration, you are not alone.

These memes are part of an effort for breast cancer “awareness,” a word that I use cynically here and only in quotation marks. The color meme referred to women’s bra color, and the location one referred to where they like to put their purses. Of course, they made it sound sexual to attract more attention: “X likes it by the bed”, “Y likes it in the closet,” etc.

Now, an acquiantance of mine (who also happens to be the Director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Northwestern University, and therefore isn’t entirely ignorant about these things) has reported that this stupid trend still has not died.

Perhaps even less sensically, the latest iteration of this meme is people posting stuff like “is going to New York for five months” or “is going to Las Vegas for twelve months,” and this, too, is supposed to elicit friends’ queries and be met with the response that it’s for breast cancer “awareness.”

As anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking skills can tell you, such a status, when finally deciphered, tells you exactly one thing: “There is a thing called breast cancer and you should know about it.”

Yes, yes there is. But could we finally get beyond that?

For instance, here are some actual facts about breast cancer:

If you’d like to do some actual good, why not spread this information around?

Besides that, here are some other ways you can help:

  • Volunteer to provide support for people battling breast cancer. (This is even easier if you know of such a person. You can help by driving them to doctor’s appointments, making them meals if they’re too tired, babysitting their kids, or just being there to listen.)
  • Donate to charities that provide such support, or to organizations that fund research on breast cancer. Here are some to get your started: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. With a quick Google search, you could find local charities, charities that cater towards a particular demographic that you belong to, and so on.
  • If you want to go beyond simply giving money, participate in charities’ fundraising events, such as Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. That way you get to raise money while meeting other people who care and physically showing your support for survivors and people battling breast cancer.
  • If you’re politically liberal, be an activist for government initiatives that fund cancer research, education initiatives, support for cancer patients, expanded insurance coverage, etc. One good place to start: ask your representative to support H.R. 3067, the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act of 2011, which proposes an initiative to end breast cancer by 2020.
  • If you’re studying medicine or biomedical engineering, consider making cancer research your focus. Or work as a research assistant in a lab that studies cancer.
  • Buy products from companies that donate to breast cancer research (but beware of pinkwashing).
  • Similarly, if you happen to own a business or want to start one (and I know many of you Northwestern students do), consider donating a percentage of your profits to breast cancer research.
  • If you’re going into journalism and you’re interested in health, consider writing about breast cancer. Not everyone has enough knowledge to decipher academic articles; you can be the one who makes that information accessible to those who need it.

As you can see, some of these require your time and money. Others do not. The few seconds that it takes you to type your stupid status could be better spent posting a link to an important recent article about breast cancer.

And now, I get it. Cancer is a terrifying thing. The amount of information available about it could fill books upon books, and some of it is constantly going obsolete or being revised. Even I felt a bit overwhelmed just looking at the few websites I looked at to research this article.
I also get that when your friends are posting oh-so-funny things on Facebook, you want to join in the fun. Trust me, I was in middle school once, I know.

But I have some unfortunate news for some of you: neither I, nor breast cancer survivors, nor families of breast cancer victims give a flying fuck what color your bra is or where you like to put your purse, cutesy sexual innuendo notwithstanding.

If you’re old enough to make sexual innuendo, you’re old enough to educate yourself and others about breast cancer (and, for that matter, anything else you think people should be educated about). Let’s stop selling ourselves short here.

*edit* Another reason I just thought of to hate these memes–they are generally restricted to women only, and women aren’t “supposed” to tell men what they mean, thus constructing breast cancer as a “girl thing.” Not only do men witness their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. fighting breast cancer, but some men actually get breast cancer, so it’s not only a women’s problem.

Anyway, there is enough of a stigma placed on men who get breast cancer without its promotion through this meme.

Update (2/2/2012): In case anyone’s going through my archives and reading old posts, let it be known that I officially withdraw my support for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in light of its defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Yes, We Need Psychiatric Labels

Recently I stumbled upon a Huffington Post article by one Dr. Peter Breggin, who lists himself on HuffPo as a “reformed psychiatrist.”

This should’ve told me everything I needed to know, but I read on.

The article is titled “Our Psychiatric Civilization” and tries to make the tired point that in this day and age, we are defining ourselves by our psychiatric diagnoses and not by anything else. It’s difficult to fully dissemble this argument because Breggin unceremoniously shoves so many unrelated arguments into the same sad little article, but his main points seem to be:

  • Psychotropic medication is overprescribed.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses (i.e. major depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, etc.) oversimplify the human condition.
  • Back in the good ol’ days, people apparently did a lot of spiritual soul-searching rather than resorting to all those damn pills.
  • The way people connect in our culture is through their psychiatric diagnoses.

I honestly don’t know which planet Breggin is living on, but it’s certainly not mine. I’ve addressed the overprescription crap elsewhere so I won’t talk about that now.

As for the second point, this is, to a certain extent, true. Psychiatric diagnoses DO oversimplify one’s psychological state, but that’s because you have to have a starting point. If you’re diagnosed with ADHD, you know that, some way–whether it’s through medication, therapy, or some combination of the two–you need to learn how to focus your attention better. If you’re diagnosed with major depression, you know that you need to somehow learn how to fix your cognitive distortions and become more active. If you’re diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, you know that you need to do things that counteract the shortening of the days–use a full-spectrum lamp, take vitamin D supplements, etc.

Just as knowing that I have, say, asthma or the flu doesn’t describe the full state of my entire body, a psychiatric diagnosis isn’t meant to describe my entire psychological condition. Breggin seems to think that we live in a world where all we know about each other is what pills we’re popping, and nothing else. This is ludicrous. In fact, that’s something we don’t often know, given the stigma that still exists regarding mental illness.

Breggin goes on to claim in a condescending way that there’s no reason for people to connect with each other based on psychiatric diagnoses at all:

Patients ask me, “Should I join a bipolar support group?” If I were flippant, which I never am with patients, I could respond, “Only if you want support in believing you’re bipolar and need to take psychiatric drugs.”

My first thought upon reading this drivel was, Thank G-d he doesn’t say this to patients. My second was more like, What the fuck?

The idea that seeking support from others who face similar issues as you is somehow disempowering and promotes seeing oneself as a victim is quite possibly the most batshit stupid thing I’ve ever heard from someone whose profession is helping the mentally disordered. Shockingly enough, people like to feel like they’re not the only ones with problems. Perhaps this has truly never occurred to Dr. Breggin.

Quite the contrary, I have benefited immensely from connecting to other people who have depression and other mental disorders. Many of my friends have one, and together we’ve formed a sort of support network. All of us can always count on having someone to talk to, and those of us who aren’t as far along in the process of recovery as others can ask friends for advice. I don’t know where I’d be right now without that.

(Maybe in a perfect world, we could just have support groups called “Fucked-up People Support Group,” but somehow this seems counterintuitive.)

Anyway, psychiatric diagnoses can also be immensely helpful in explaining to healthy friends and family what the deal is. While Breggin seems to think that “depressed” is some sort of insulting, disempowering label I ought to reject, let me tell you some of the labels that my close friends and family described me with before they knew I had depression:

  • overdramatic
  • overemotional
  • bitchy
  • attention whore
  • immature
  • insensitive
  • selfish
  • crazy
  • weird
  • fucked up

Yeah um, I’d take “depressed” over that any day.

Not surprisingly, you don’t make a particularly strong case for yourself when you try to insist to people that, no, it’s not that you’re really overdramatic, it’s just that you have this problem with, well, being overdramatic, and you’re trying to work on it, you promise!

Trust me, that doesn’t work. What does work is saying, “I have a disorder called depression that distorts my thinking and sometimes makes me act in a way that seems overdramatic. With therapy and medication, it’ll improve.”

Apparently, though, Dr. Breggin is much too intent on destroying his own profession to allow those with mental illnesses even that small comfort. After all, he makes it pretty obvious that the reason he hates psychiatric labels so much is because they make it possible to prescribe medication, and that, of course, is a big no-no.

If I got a dollar every time some well-meaning fool tried to inform me that the medication that saved my life is unnecessary, I would have enough money to actually afford a therapist.

Obama the Patriarch

I usually stay away from commenting on Obama’s presidency because, to be honest, I was just a kid during all the previous presidencies I’ve lived through and really have no comparison to make.

However, a recent statement by Obama has caused me to come out of my apolitical cave and rage. After the FDA made a recommendation that Plan B One-Step, a form of emergency birth control that is available over the counter to anyone over 17, be available to girls under 17 without a prescription as well, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary of health and human services, overruled the FDA’s recommendation. This is disappointing enough as is, but then Obama came out in support of her and said the following:

“I will say this, as the father of two daughters: I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine….And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect.  And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”

As usual when I write about women’s issues, I literally don’t even know where to start with this. First, and perhaps most obviously, I don’t understand why we’re having all this conversation about 10- and 11-year-olds. The change would have applied to all girls under 17, and the majority of teenage girls who might need to buy Plan B are not 10 and 11. Try 15 and 16. If Obama and Sebelius are that concerned about 10- and 11-year-olds specifically, they could’ve asked the FDA to recommend allowing only girls 12 and over to get Plan B without a prescription.

Second, and also very tellingly, if the FDA has deemed Plan B safe for over-the-counter use, who are Sebelius and Obama to assume they know better? Sebelius has a BA in political science and an master’s in public administration; Obama has a BA in political science and a law degree. Unlike many cynics, I don’t necessarily doubt that these two have the knowledge and ability to perform their respective jobs, but I would not trust them over the doctors and researchers who staff the FDA when it comes to medical issues.

Third, Obama immediately reveals what this is really about when he says, “as the father of two daughters…” Understandably, Obama would be worried for his two daughters if they were ever in a position to need Plan B. However, for all of the battling that Obama has had to do with the Far Right of this country, he clearly doesn’t seem to realize that many girls don’t have daddies like Obama who would care for them, be able to afford doctors’ appointments, support their right to get an abortion, and guide them through a decision. For many girls, it would be a choice between obtaining Plan B on their own or being shamed, abused, disowned, and/or forced to carry a baby to term.

Finally, I’m disturbed by the ageist and patriarchal notion that young women are somehow incapable of making their own decisions about sexual health. Yes, children need and should have access to guidance from adults. In a perfect world, every girl would be able to go to her parents for help with something like this. But that’s not the world we live in, and we must make do accordingly. Not only has the FDA already determined that Plan B is safe, but, unlike many medications that are available over the counter to children, you can’t overdose on it or otherwise fuck it up–when you buy it, you only get one.

Furthermore, there are other ways to make sure young teens know what they’re doing when it comes to emergency birth control. For instance, mandate pharmacists to provide an option for girls to privately ask them questions about how to use Plan B. Pharmacists know a lot. Why not use them as a resource?

Much has been made of Obama’s failure (or lack thereof) to support women’s rights, and it’s a debate I don’t normally follow because one can really spin it either way. On this issue, however, I would argue that Obama has definitively failed to support women and girls. Instead, he has promoted the antiquated notion that beliefs trump science when it comes to reproductive rights.