Saturday, May 25, 2024

Boys, Bullying, Boomers, & Body Image


From a very early age, attention from boys was critical to my survival. It was a primitive desire tethered to my self-worth. 

In my family, being Attractive, Social, and "having good marks," as my parents and grandparents called grades, were the most essential achievements one was expected to make. Although I nailed "Attractive" and "Social," I failed when it came to grades because mine ran the gamut of the first six letters of the alphabet.

As a younger sibling to an older sister who "made excellent marks," I constantly compared myself to her. There was a point early on in my childhood when I realized competing with her would always render me a loser, so I needed to try to be good at something else. The best anecdote to underscore this was the Car Game my dad would force us to play on long car rides. He would pose science and math questions to us (mind you, my sister is five years older than me, so this game was ridiculously unfair). I never won. Not once. In my young mind, I decided I wouldn't compete with someone I couldn't beat. So I had to lean very hard into my other desirable attributes: Attractive and Social. 

Was I conscious of my oh-so-valued traits while I was young? No. What drove my sociability was innate curiosity and conversation. My earliest memory of this is being under the age of four, walking up and down the Amtrak train cars, saying hello to people, and asking if I could join them for a chat and snack. My mother allowed this—Boomer generation parenting at its finest! She was half-paying attention to me, distracted by her beauty magazine and siping her Tab cola. As far as the Attractive thing, I never actually saw myself as pretty, but my mother and grandmother often told me I was "gorgeous," and my mother even took me to model at Lord & Taylor when I was seven. I hated it. I wanted to wear this "twirly" dress, but another girl snatched it from me, and her equally nasty mother got into it with my mother, who was not one for confrontation. So, that was the end of that. However, my mother's favorite activity every year was back-to-school clothes shopping, where I was the doll that she dressed up in "outfits." I always had to buy "outfits". Not until I was in college was I allowed to purchase pieces of clothing that weren't all supposed to "go together." To make matters worse, Mom liked things tighter and more cinched than I ever did.

Looking back now through the lens of a forty-eight-year-old therapist (and long-time consumer of therapy), I get it. Part of it was societal (see the Barbie movie). Another was that my mother and the Boomer Generation taught us that women get their worth through their beauty (attractive=thin and pretty) and how many men they can attract. As far back as second grade, I can recall competing against a girl named Rose for the heart of Mitch Z and thinking, with a mix of desperation and competition, he will be mine. Losing that battle wasn't an option. He did, in fact, become mine. In fact, he loved me so much that when another suitor, Guido (real name!), proclaimed his love for me at my birthday party that year, a brawl almost ensued. And what did my mother do about it? Not stop it, but beam with pride. Years later, at my bat mitzvah, two boys almost fought over who would dance with me first. And, again, what did my mother do about it? She did nothing but brag to her friends about what was happening and left my friends to break them apart. Not long after that, she chaperoned a school dance and later observed with great enthusiasm in the car ride home, "The boys were swarming around you all night!"  

She would tell everyone—my friends, other family members, and even boyfriends I would go on to have as a teenager—that "The boys always love Hannah." Receiving validation from boys that I was special, starting as far back as second grade, became, over the years, essential to my self-esteem. 

The messages I received from my mother convinced me that it was my looks that landed these fellows. So when I got Fat (and developed the first of two eating disorders) freshman year of high school, which was equivalent to Ugly, I panicked. What was my value? What was my worth? As I got Fat, I was also demoted in Social Status and swiftly kicked out of the Popular Crowd (and straight into the Theater Crowd, which, truthfully, were my people anyway.) 

However, during my freshman year, when I transformed into a Fat Girl, I learned an ironic truth—being Fat doesn't make someone unattractive; I received the same amount of attention from boys when I was Fat as I did when I was Thin. 

What a relief that my mother was dead wrong! It wasn't my looks (sadly, I was still equating beauty with thinness!) that made boys like me. (Notice that my self-worth was still proportional to how desirable boys found me). Despite being demoted in social status, I was the same open, curious, chatty person as in my popular middle school days. I fearlessly (and naively) talked to anyone, regardless of their social group. Throughout high school, I leaned less on my looks and social status (because I was Fat and not part of the Popular Crowd anymore, I thought I had none!) and more on being myself. 

It seemed to work.

What was problematic, though, was that despite this accidental social experiment in Fat versus Thin and its outcome that Fat was irrelevant to attracting boys, I managed to buy into Thin is Better and Fat is Horrible. I starved myself down to far below a weight that was normal for me, to a place that others noted as "so skinny!" and developed another eating disorder in the last two years of high school.

Also problematic was the bullying by an ex-boyfriend from freshman year. As an adult, I can only use the word "bullying" to describe the dark turn our relationship took after our breakup. It wasn't a word I used back then. Similar to the bra-snapping and schoolyard chasing I experienced in elementary school, my mother described his behavior as a way of showing me he liked me. She referred to it as "boys will be boys" behavior.  


“Derrick” (name changed) harassed and taunted me throughout high school, even when we became so-called friends again. Even when that evolved into (sort of) trying to date again. 

For the first year or so after we officially broke up, despite periods of coming over to my house to hook up, he would scream bitch, slut, or whore at me in the hallways and in the lunchroom, he would shove me into lockers or push someone else into me so I would fall. He and his friends would prank call me (though it's only a prank if you don't know who the person is) and say equally horrible things. 

If I was dating someone and he saw me out socially at the local hangouts, he'd be sure to verbally harass me and shit-talk whomever I was with. But these other guys were good dudes who thought Derrick was a total clown and handled it by not engaging in the bullshit.

Derrick also tried to talk shit about me to my friends, saying how much he hated me and that I was this really terrible person. Mind you, the only transgression I made in our so-called relationship was to go off to camp the summer before freshman year and return Fat. I have no idea why I was the focus of his aggression. I speculate that his abusive and unstable childhood had something to do with it. But I will never know for sure. 

In general, being Fat was not hard on my social or romantic life in high school. Yet, my internal world and sense of worth suffered to the degree that if it happened today, I would have gone to (several) Intensive Outpatient programs. Instead, I tethered together my own Mental Health Recovery program that is detailed in my teenage diaries. I started by seeing a nutritionist who introduced me to what would later be called Intuitive Eating and Body Positivity. Neither phrase was used by this amazing woman named Barbara. Instead, she said things like "trust yourself and your process'' and taught me how to eat based on hunger and fullness cues rather than whether or not Derrick pranked-called me or was nice to me that day. This type of therapy went on for over a year, but my parents stopped supporting it when it didn't get me Thin again. That's when Mom brought me to Nutrisystem, and Dad bought me workout equipment at home. I did both, but neither brought me to Thin Enough. 

So by the end of sophomore year, I tossed aside all of the approaches the adults suggested and went with Starving Myself and eating only nonfat foods (remember Susan Powter?). This continued for about six months, and I finally reached Thin Enough, which was too thin. My parents ordered me to start eating again, but I had forgotten how. I remembered my work with Barbara, and somewhere deep inside, I knew that was the route I should take. Still, I remembered how it didn't get me to Thin Enough. Now, I was terrified of being Fat again. One night, I had a massive panic attack while making a can of vegetables (which had become my every dinner). As I writhed in the symptoms of panic—tingling in the face, numbness of the hands, shallow breathing, and heart palpitations I swore out loud that I would start to eat normally again. The only thing I knew about Eating Normally (and this is hilarious to me now) is that I should eat about 2000 calories a day to maintain my weight (I was an expert in calorie counting by this point), so because I was terrified of Fat, I decided to minus 500 and go with that. I told myself I had to eat at least that much. 

The internal battle of Not Thin Enough evolved into an anxiety disorder marked by frequent panic attacks, which, at a certain point, rendered me agoraphobic. I refused to go to school for almost two months. But this was October/November of my senior year. The same terror that led me to decide to start eating again led me to return to school so I could apply to college, get the hell out of my house, and start my life.  

The benefit of this anxiety disorder was that it drove me to find ways to survive. I told my parents to find me a therapist and psychiatrist, and they listened. I managed to pull myself together enough to apply to college, and I did, in fact, get the hell out of my parents' house.

The internal battle of Thin is Good and Fat is Bad continued to be a struggle for me over the next decade or so. But ultimately, I always subscribed to the motto that Fat and Alive is better than Thin and Dead.

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