When it comes to eating and image disorders, the lion’s share of attention goes to the body. It is about the physique: how large it is, how thin it is, sized up against any particular person and/or cultural image standard.
So, it appears, there is no attention given to the face.
Yet, within the eating disorder context, my negative experience with the punim was just as painful as the unforgiving perception of my body. And it started early.
As an overweight child, several adults repeatedly made the same comment. Perhaps you’ve had it spoken to you.
“... ‘You have such a pretty face, if you’d just lose some weight…’ This comment dangled the hope of beauty, and yet placed the blame on me... for not achieving it. It was my fault...”
(Excerpts taken from Cruse’s book, “Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder”)
“Such a pretty face...”
To me, it is the epitome of the backhanded compliment. It has built-in judgment, expectation and pressure present, waiting on the owner of said “pretty face’s” response to “correct” the situation.
But sometimes, that results in an eating disorder. That’s how I responded, anyway.
For, each time that comment was made, I heard I was inferior. After all, adults made this statement. They knew what they were talking about. Certainly, they couldn’t be wrong. Therefore, I had to be.
So, whenever I looked at my face, I saw fat. My chubby cheeks were grotesque; any trace of a double chin was further evidence I was hopeless.
Yes, maybe, underneath these hideous layers of fat, I was, somehow, considered to be a “pretty face.” But it still didn’t change that, in the meantime, I possessed my ugly, overweight body, for which I had no excuse. If I were simply a better caliber of girl, the face and body could both be the way they were “supposed to” look.
So, as childhood grew into adolescence, I constantly dieted, attempting to make that happen. I had a gun-shy reaction each time someone called me pretty. I braced to hear the face qualifier. I waited for the “helpful” advice of the diet-and-fitness plan offered. I could never just rest in the pretty remark. There were strings attached. Those strings were always weight loss.
And, after many a failed diet and fitness regimen, come freshman year of college, my self-determined need to achieve “reinvention” dictated I must lose weight everywhere, in both face and form. No baby fat was seen as adorable or acceptable. Therefore, with commitment in place, I shed the much-detested weight before college’s start.
And, as I believed, I was reinvented. I was treated differently; I was treated better. Flirtation and compliments abounded in my new college life. And no “such a pretty face” comment was uttered. The reaction I received was genuine and sincere. I was intoxicated by this and even more determined. I could not lose this progress. I had to keep going. I needed to be even more chiseled, face included.
“... Each comment, lost pound, and lost inch gave me more of an incentive... I eventually became convinced that death—at least the look of starvation—was beautiful. I was envying the ‘beauty,’ the look of the malnourished, the tortured—even those in concentration camps... Each time I looked at myself in the mirror, all I saw was a fat baby picture of me with fat arms, legs and double chin. I’d spent most of my young life being that photograph. I’d do whatever was needed to make sure that it wasn’t the case now...”
So, I eventually dropped to a two-digit weight. And, with that emaciation, my gaunt face materialized. Sunken-in cheekbones and exaggerated “bug eyes” were just as evident as my jutting collarbone and thin limbs. It was difficult to know, exactly, what people were freaking out the most to concerning my appearance: my face or my body. I received numerous horrified gasps and stares from adults, as well as pointing fingers from filter-less children.
Yet, I reveled in my thin being, whether it was body or face. It was a revenge payback to all of those individuals who burdened me with “such a pretty face.” Do you see how pretty I am now? Deal with THAT. I dare you.
With anger and other toxic unresolved issues driving my behavior, I eventually morphed into my bulimic phase, which, very quickly, brought on weight gain. Physiologically ravenous, as well as emotionally desperate, frustrated and suicidal, I became an eating machine, scrounging college dumpsters and stealing my roommates’ food. I was out of control in a different way now.
It was devastating as I underwent weight gain in both my body and my face. I had ample experience with an overweight body before. That was familiar despair.
But the face changes seemed to have a pain all its own. “Such a pretty face” now roared back, putting me in my place for ever even daring believe I could be worthy.
And, I had a daily, constant reminder from which I could not escape. As I gained weight, I could cover my body. I could hide under baggy sweatshirts and layers. But my face? That was out there, changing, distorting, for everyone to see. I could not avoid that.
“...Puffy ‘chipmunk’ cheeks replaced the hollow, defined cheekbones I’d worked for... I’d lost my sharp jawline and had acquired a double chin. Each morning I woke up and starred in horror at this fat girl’s face...”
The English proverb asserts “the eyes are the window of the soul.”
But, that is the tip of the iceberg concerning disordered eating and image issues. For, we often underestimate the face’s importance in its telltale symptoms of a troubled individual. Written here, on their face, we can also see the afflicted mind, personal will and unhealthy emotions which drive the life-threatening disease. As hallmarks of an eating disorder, we look for the skeletal limbs and the underweight body. But how much time and attention are spent considering the face?
With anorexia, it may be easier to detect the disorder, as, again, we go to the obvious thin criteria. A face is just too gaunt to be thought of as healthy or unaffected.
But bulimia and ednos (eating disorders not otherwise specified) may be more easily disguised in matters of the face. Still, symptoms which point to disorder are there, if we know what to look for.
Medical experts studying eating disorders confirm swelling and puffiness exist because of swollen salivary glands (parotid glands). It’s indicative of purging.*
So, to focus only on the body, at the exclusion of the face, for a valid diagnosis, is to do a disservice to the sufferer.
Disorder involves the entirety of the person: spirit, mind, body and yes, face. Do we take that into account as we each comfortably associate for ourselves what an “eating disorder” looks like?
There’s more to disordered eating and image issues than what we assume. And, when we make any cavalier statement about someone’s appearance, be it body or face, we can never tell just how that may trigger an individual. “Such a pretty face” can be the beginning of a painful, difficult lifetime of self-rejection or oppressive qualification.
“Such a pretty face” is not a harmless comment. We need to stop seeing it as such.
*“Subtle Signs of Eating Disorders,” Amanda Gardner; www.health.com/health
Copyright © 2017 by Sheryle Cruse