One of the amazing things about this sort of expat life is the opportunities we are given to skim in and out the culture of so many different places. We don't really embed ourselves, right, but rather just move just above 'real’; we are in a place far longer than a tourist would be, but certainly not long enough to absorb and assimilate. So our inherent 'American-ness' remains mostly intact, and easily identifiable. Wherever we are in the world, I can pick out the Americans. Our clothing, our straight white teeth, our (usually white) socks, our big smiles, our blanket assumption everyone speaks English... some characteristics charming, others a little annoying. I am certain other cultures have their distinctions, as well; I am speaking only to our own.
One of the things that we do not talk about is eating disorders. Sure, sure, we will hop on our social media platforms and snipe and snark at any flaw we (believe) we see, but to have open and honest conversations about eating disorders? No way. A true heart-felt and honest discussion about maybe we have experienced in our own lives as well as what we think we know to be true? No, it’s just too uncomfortable, and maybe hits too close to home. I read that as many as 2% of women and 0.9% of men at one time in their life will suffer from an eating disorder. The numbers are even higher in athletes, especially for men. High school or college athletes suffer still higher, especially in those sports where physique is most critical (e.g. dancers or wrestlers). Friends, the trauma an eating disorder wreaks on a body goes on long past the period of acute symptomatic suffering from the disorder; bones, ligaments, internal organs and body structures start to decay and fall apart. The tyranny of the disorder spreads its harm throughout the body, imprinting mental, emotional and spiritual health, as well. Basically, it’s a wrecking ball, breaking down any structures in its path.
Eating disorders are characterized by 'abnormal eating habits that negatively affects one's health.' Eating is supposed to be for sustenance. Eating is supposed to provide nourishment, helping us to grow, to get strong, to flourish. Eating disorders, instead, slowly erode piece after piece of our body, leaving behind brittleness and feeble fragility. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, as do the people who suffer from them. This is not just an American phenomena; eating disorders can be seen all around the globe and those who suffer from them don’t fit into one particular mold or description. One can be exhibiting 'sub-clinical' (suffering from minor symptoms) to full-blown. One can suffer from pieces of different types of disorders. One can be asymptomatic for extended periods of time, only to have the disorder rear its ugly head again years later. That is not to say one cannot fully heal and recover, and move beyond.
I am especially worried about our young people. I am especially worried about how our obsession with body shape, with physique, with our cultural obsession with what is on the outside and how this impacts our messaging for our children. I watched my sister spiral down through multiple bouts of anorexia and bulimia. I watched her bounce from treatment to job to substance abuse, looking for her value, and not seeing and knowing that it was right there, just inside all along. Control. Literally, she was seeking for answers to questions I didn’t even know existed, for years and years, looking for something that would make her happy. That was perhaps her biggest flaw, the inability to find happiness or contentment within herself.
Questions we overhear from our kids are toxic: ‘Am I fat in this?’ ‘Do I have enough likes to be considered popular?’ ‘Do I look ugly in these pants?’ ‘Do the cool kids notice me?’ … Toxic, and completely focusing on non-important qualities. ‘Do I enjoy what I am eating for lunch?’ ‘Did I eat enough to have energy for my day?’ ‘Am I ready for my adventure-filled day?’ ‘How many new people can I be friendly to today?’ ‘How many acts of kindness can I do today?’ ‘What new thing can I try today?’ ‘What can I do to find joy today?’ ‘What am I grateful for this morning?’ I realize my years of life experience have given me the gift of being able to ignore the wrinkles and the gray hairs; what is on the outside is not important. I realize that what is on the inside is important; I wish I could help every young person understand that. The image in the mirror is just that, an image. It is nothing permanent, nothing of lasting importance. Skinny and wrapped in expensive clothing does not equal pretty. Muscular and popular does not equal handsome. Those are arbitrary labels that mean nothing if what is on the inside is not admirable. None of those labels matter; what is inside is what matters.
I am not sure what I am saying here, except ...messaging. When we tell our kids what is outside is most important, they stop seeing the beauty of what is inside. What can we say – or stop saying – that will help our children continue to see what is beautiful about them, and how that beauty is completely unique and incomparable? How do we help them to stop trying to fit into a predetermined (by whom?) box that is the only way they can feel appreciated? How do we enable them to appreciate the unique qualities we each have, and, further, embrace this in themselves and in others? THAT is the manifesto I want to spread like wildfire.