Negotiating the Body

The first theme (participation versus negation of food, weight and shape concerns or change practices) is by far the most frequently occurring and diverse discourse pair in the category Negotiating the body. It refers to the extent that FWS issues are significant to the participants. For example, when asked “How do you see yourself regarding weight and shape issues?” Sandy responds as follows:

“I don’t see it as much of an issue now. I mean I try to be I guess as active as I…I…can be. But it’s like never been a big part of like what I like to do. [Right]. So I’m basically comfortable with what I look like, and who I am….around, I mean I’m surrounded by people that I love to be with all the time, so I think that helps a lot, with a lot of…why I feel about…myself the way I do. You know. And it’s never really been an issue like, to be, you know, really small. I mean I know friends of mine that have had issues about it. But…it’s relatively been…an OK thing.” (Sandy)

Later in the interview she described a time when her mother was frustrated because she couldn’t find a pair of jeans to fit her. When asked what it was like before that memory, she responded with what is a striking contradiction to the quotation above:

“(Pause) I don’t even remember what it must have felt like. It’s hard to even just imagine not to like, be concerned with what your appearance is…[text removed] I mean because I think so much about weight and stuff…what was I thinking about then….to occupy my mind then?[text removed]I think about it way too much now, (laughs) come to think about it. Because I don’t even know what it’s like not to be thinking about it.”(Sandy)

Participants demonstrated considerable knowledge and experience in methods to alter their body weight and shape. The most common FWS change practices were skipping meals, exercising, dieting, omitting certain foods, and fasting. Participants described multiple negative side effects of body change methods, including headaches, dizziness, lack of concentration, increased urination from drinking excessive water, feeling very stressed, feeling crazy, feeling frustrated, crying at mealtimes, bruising (from pinching abdominal tissue to break up fat), feeling pressured for time because of time spent on weight loss practices, feeling burdened by the need for constant maintenance to stay thin and toned, violating the intuitive sense of what the body needs, and gaining weight when dieting “backfires”. The only positive experience identified other than weight loss was exercise.

This section refers to the degree to which participants express satisfaction with regard to their appearance.

Since participants rarely expressed satisfaction with their appearance, they were coded as satisfied if they were satisfied with any aspect of their appearance. At times they expressed both satisfaction and dissatisfaction in the same quotation.

“[And the first question is, how do you see yourself regarding weight and shape?] I think I’m pretty normal. I’m small, so… I’m short. [Yeah. How do you think others see you?](pause) Short. (laughs) Um .. not like … not skinny but not fat … just like normal. [Kind of average?] yeah.[What would you like to change, if anything?] My height.” (Tess)

The following participant is responding to a question about the relationship between self-esteem and attractiveness on a scale of one to seven (with one representing the lowest and seven representing the highest.)

“[OK. And …was there ever a time where it was … you might have been on a different part of the scale?] (pause) Well if I get a pimple or something like that, then I’m really, oh my God. I’m never like a 7, just probably a 5, 5½. [Yeah. What’s that like? Those days when you’re there?] It’s not great but it’s not horrible. Just have to live with it. (Tess)

Madeline clearly is unhappy with her weight and speaks freely in the interview about all the things she has done to lose weight. She also is conscious of the negative ramifications of many of her actions.

“Well I would get into that whole calorie-counting thing. And then I started getting really frustrated, I’d always start crying during dinner and stuff. Because … like 100 grams of pasta is this much, and like 2 tablespoons of sauce is this much, and then a shrimp is this much. So my mom puts down a plate of pasta with tomato sauce and shrimp and I’m like, ‘how many tablespoons, how many grams is this?’, and it just drove me insane, like, oh my God, I’m going to go crazy [It takes a lot of energy.] So I went crazy. And just … I lost my mind. Then I tried not eating certain things … Like I was, I’m going to cut out all carbohydrates, I’m not going to do any of that. Everything always frustrated me too, I always got really frustrated. I never really stayed on it, but I just had bad eating patterns or I’d skip meals a lot. I’d be like, ‘I’m not hungry, I’m not hungry’. And I would just skip meals. [But you would be hungry?] Yeah. Like my mom made me lunch, and then I was going to eat it, and I’m like, no no, and I’d throw it away and then I’d get really frustrated. I hated throwing it away because it was so wasteful but and I wanted to eat it so bad … I’d start crying, people are like, ‘Why are you crying and I’d just walk away. [Right.] Yeah, it was just ridiculous though. [Ridiculous in what way?] Like … I’m like, ‘Why didn’t I just eat a sandwich for God’s sakes?’ Like still now I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to go on a no-carb diet’, and stuff like that. Especially when I noticed I was gaining weight, I freaked out. I’m like, oh God … I know it’s stupid and I should just forgive myself but I’m just like …well I want to be thin. (Madeline)

Her desperation to lose weight is particularly evident in the following quotation where she speaks at length about the rather disturbing habit of pinching as a weight loss technique:

I pinched myself all the time. I used to even when I was like thinner, I used to pinch myself so constantly I would be like because I also heard that you can starve yourself and break up the fatty tissue, then you can lose the weight easier. And I subconsciously would pinch myself. And I remember this girl that I knew, she was like, ‘What are you doing,’ I’m like, ‘Oh’ and I explained it to her. And then she was … ‘I don’t think you should do that anymore,’ so every time I pinched myself she’d be like, ‘Uh uh uh.’ And … I was just, OK. And I realized how much I do it, how much subconsciously I do it, so much, like every spare minute almost …And I’d be pinching myself all the time, it was so weird. [Do you notice yourself still doing it?] Not as much … but I do do it on my stomach, on my thighs, during class… It gets really red around there. Sometimes I get nail marks because my nails are long and it’s really annoying. Yeah, I think I got a weird bruise-ish cut on my stomach once.” (Madeline)

In addition, she describes an even more disturbing practice of using recreational drugs to lose weight:

“(Ex-boyfriend’s) sister, she used to be kind of chubby. And then she did a lot of

crystal and stuff like that, and she’s so thin now. But she’s off drugs … but I don’t know why she still hasn’t gained weight but … I think it’s because, (ex-boyfriend) says that she just doesn’t eat. But … she used to tell me like, ‘Yeah, I’ve lost 2 pounds at this rave just yesterday,’ or, ‘I dropped another 5,’ or whatever. And she was like, ‘Yeah, if I ever become fat, I’m going to start doing coke again and stuff.” (Madeline)

In the following quotation, she refers to a friend who is bulimic in a very casual tone. It is likely that the casual tone is a defence against the seriousness of the behaviour:

“My friend who’s bulimic is like …It’s so bad, we even kind of make jokes about it, like yeah, I have to go to the washroom so bad, at Manulife Centre. And she was like, ‘Yeah, I know where the washroom is, you know how I found it?’ And I was like, ‘What,’ and she was like, ‘Well I was eating lunch and I had to go find a place to throw up,’ and I was like … ‘Oh my God.’ And she was like, ‘Oh my God, that sounded so weird,’ and I’m like yeah, because she said it so casually. [Text removed] I haven’t fasted but my friend has, the bulimic one. She used to fast for like a week, and then she’d eat. And then she’d fast for another week, and then time for another fast. My friends are really sick, I guess.” (Madeline)

Summer presents a seasonal trigger for dieting behaviour as described in the next quotation :

“No fast food at all. No fatty – No oils. Ah, no very, very little sugar, no pastry, nothing like that. No alcohol. [Yeah.] Ah … no carbs, like no bread , no pasta, no pizza, things like that. Basically more healthy, more vegetables, more fruits and more protein – basically. [ And how often do you do that?] Um … every couple of months, I’d say (laughs). When the summer comes around I think it’s more to do with the season. In the winter it’s not bad for me. I don’t really pay much attention to weight or anything like that because you’re always wearing pretty big stuff. April or May starts coming around, everybody’s in little shorts and tank tops, that stuff, it’s more like you become more aware it’s a good time for you to start going on a diet. [Right.] And usually I never stick to it for more than a week, so – [So is it successful?] Sometimes, yes. [Yeah? How much would you lose?] Ah, 5 lbs a week. [ And what’s the longest you’ve stayed on it?] Hm, probably a week.” (Louise)

The benefits but also the burden of exercise is described by this participant:

“[What are the pluses and minuses of exercise?] Ah … I think the positive side of it is that you feel good about yourself. You really feel a lot healthier. [Mm hm.]

And that’s good. It boosts your self-confidence and your self-esteem a little bit. Um – and eventually it’s good for you. Like, your body, whether you’re using your exercise to tone or to lose weight or whatever, it eventually pays off. Um – it’s time-consuming. [Yeah.] Like sometimes you just don’t have that time to spend an hour exercising every day or three times a week. There’s so much stuff to do during the day, it’s not one of the most important things to do during the day. It’s not one of the most important things on your mind. You exercise and then you’ve got to shower, it’s a pain – [Yeah…what’s it like not to exercise? Do you ever have periods when you don’t at all?] Yeah, I feel really lazy and tired. When you exercise it gives you a boost of energy so and you know, with no exercise you feel it, like, oh, you just get lazy and tired, you just don’t want to do anything, just sleep.” (Louise)

In response to the question about what it would be like to be a seven out of seven on the scale of satisfaction with weight or shape, most participants presented themselves as unable to imagine that scenario, suggesting a “ceiling” for appearance satisfaction well below total contentment. However, acceptable levels for the discourse of dissatisfaction appear to be infinite, as the following illustrates. Louise is responding to the above question.

“I don’t think anybody can ever reach a 7. No matter how thin you are or how built you are there’s always, you’re always going to either compare yourself with somebody else; you’re never going to be happy with yourself. [Yeah.] It doesn’t matter what you do, there’s always going to be that thing inside you that says well, you could look like this way. That would be better. I don’t think anybody can ever reach a 7. [So it’s almost like there’ll always be something that would show you what you don’t have.] I think the grass is always greener on the other side. Recently, actually, I was with a friend of mine and my sister. My sister is dieting and she was telling me that my ideal look is to look like you, like have your body. [Yeah]. I’m like, that’s funny, because I looked at my friends and I said, ‘my ideal is to look like you and your body’! And she was like,‘that’s funny, because one of my other friends is even thinner than she is’. She was like: ‘my ideal is to look like them’. So it was really weird how it doesn’t matter what you think is an ideal body. It’s not necessarily what another person will think is an ideal body. You’re never going to be satisfied.”(Louise)

Asked the same question the following participant equates being thinner ( a seven) with being happier, more confident and more pleasant:

“[What would it be like if you were at a 7 with the weight and shape?] If I was at a 7 … I don’t know, I would … I don’t know, I suppose I’d be happier. I know I’d feel a little different. My personality might be a little bit different. [ What do you think you’d be like?] I don’t know, maybe I would be … a little more confident, I might have a more a little more attitude, like just … not attitude as like, oh, working at an attitude, but attitude like, OK, I can do this and I’m going to, you

know….[Yeah. A positive attitude?] A more positive attitude. And … overall just more pleasant to be around maybe. Well I guess I’m always pleasant to be around but … I don’t know … [But you think some part of you might be more pleasant?] Yeah, just because I would be more happy. [text removed] But I don’t think it would be a bad thing if I would lose like more weight, then I don’t think I’d look scary or anything like that, because I’m not skinny, I’d just look a little more … toned or something.” (Jasmine)

Overall, participants found it hard to imagine being totally satisfied with their appearance and even if they approached this possibility there would always be someone else judging them negatively:

“[What would it be like to be totally satisfied with your body weight or shape, to be at the 7?] Um … I don’t think … that’s me. I don’t think I’m totally perfect, I don’t think anyone can ever be totally satisfied with themselves. I’m sure like, yeah, you think you’re like totally skinny and everything, but maybe you think you’re extremely satisfied but … then there’s people that look at you and like you look like a skeleton or something like that. So maybe I could be extremely satisfied with myself but I don’t think … other people would see it the same way that I do. [Right. So it’s hard to imagine actually being up there at the 7…] Yeah. (laughs)” (Joyce)

In terms of prevention, the following quotation suggests that hearing the stories of other women who have struggled with eating disorders was very effective:

“We were never taught how to do it, like how … to do it, but in grade we had this whole thing on anorexia and we had people from Sheena’s Place come in and like talk to us and everything … I think … because at my school they started it at grade 9, that we’ve all like … like we all remember, like … these people like that came from Sheena’s place they told us like the most horrific stories ever. [So they were actual survivors of eating disorders?] Yeah. And they told us like the most horrific stories ever, and I don’t think … I think a lot of the stories stick with a lot of people…[text removed]…having someone who actually like dealt with anorexia and that like was really powerful, hearing her story and listening to everything she said and everything that she lost, like she lost so much from it … like she lost a lot of friends and she lost her self-esteem and her life and everything, and just hearing that made me like … really like, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to lose my friends my family, it’s not something that I want to do.” (Joyce)

Participants consistently acknowledged their use of the phrase “I feel fat’ —a feeling that was triggered by a variety of things including a new friend who is considered pretty:

“[…what causes you to think about your body weight or shape, either good or bad?] I’d say my friends a lot. I’d say 50 per cent of our conversations are about body weight. [Wow.]And how to lose body weight but …[How do you talk about it?] I’d just be like, oh, it will just come up somehow and naturally the conversation goes: ‘oh, I finally met so and so’. And I’m like, ‘yeah, I guess she’s pretty but’ — and I’m like, ‘oh, she makes me feel so fat or something’! And I’ll be like, ‘oh yeah, one of those girls’ or something, and then I’ll be like, ‘um, oh I wish I could just (da da da )’. And I’m like,‘me too’. [You wish you could just what?] Just, you know diet, I wish I could just stay on a diet. I tried like doing it last week and, and I told my friend, ‘like bulimia doesn’t make you lose weight because what happens is that you eat, your body hangs onto the nutrition and then you throw up the food. You should just stop’. And she’s like,‘yeah, I have to but I can’t!’ ” (Madeline)

The physical and psychological dimensions of ‘feeling fat’ are described in the following passage:

“You feel gross, you feel like you’re one of those people who can’t move properly because they’re so fat like. [It feels extreme.] It’s not just that, it’s like you feel lethargic, you feel like this big, like, whale, that can’t move, you’re not active or full of vitality, you’re just blah (makes disgusted sound). What I mean, I’m like, oh, I feel really fat today. Yeah, I don’t feel good about myself, I feel my legs look disgusting and I can’t move because I’m so gross.” (Madeline)

The second part of the pair ‘I feel fat” is the phrase “you are so thin.” In the following quotation this participant explains when this phrase can be acknowledged as a compliment and when it has to be denied:

“Well it depends. If it was somebody that was … overweight and they lost weight and somebody told them, ‘wow, you look thin’, then that person would be like, ‘oh, thanks!’ My sister’s been like, Oh my God, she’s been glowing for like 10 days straight because everybody’s been noticing. She’s getting all this attention now and she’s just like,’ wow, I look great. Thanks.’ You know? Like people are complimenting her, which is good, but if you’re thin already and somebody says, ‘oh, you look thin’ – then they would definitely negate it. Definitely. [So what’s the difference there?] They worked to get to where they were going whereas if you’re thin, you’re just naturally thin. It seems like you’re not putting any effort into being thin, you’re just thin! [Right. So if I’m naturally thin and you say I’m thin and I say, ‘thanks, yeah I am’ — then what does that say about me?] You’re cocky.” (Louise)