Anorexics Aren’t Mad About Your Size, Tess

Trigger warnings across the board, I’m coming in hot.

Original image from The Guardian

“It’d be better if you bring her back in in a month,” the insurance agent told my Dad. I was only five pounds underweight for my height, and my period had just stopped. “In a month, she’ll be safely underweight and have had two or three months without a menstrual cycle, and we can authorize her to be admitted full-time.”

“So when someone shows up at the Emergency Room with a fever of 104, you tell them to come back when it’s 108?” my Dad barked. “Or 110? Or when they’re unconscious and seizing?”

Insurance backed down and authorized a day treatment program, and I began my recovery from anorexia. I was by no means the thinnest — the women there were of many different sizes, from the painfully emaciated to overweight. The bulimics, in particular, looked healthy from the outside, and many of the anorexics passed as fashionably slender. It was a very small percentage of women who were truly alarming at first sight.

In photos from that time, you can’t tell how sick I am. But once I popped my clothes off, I could see all my ribs, every vertebrate cracking the skin of my back, my clavicles popping out. I was too weak to go to school, and I could no longer exercise without coming close to backing out. My body temperature had dropped. And even when I wanted to, I couldn’t eat.

But I’d still failed my ultimate goal of becoming the ideal anorexic, a woman who, I believed, didn’t need food at all. It’s deeply screwed up, but I felt like a failure.

Make no mistake: Eating Disorders are competitive. They’re a full-time profession, and when you’ve completely devoted yourself to one, you want to be the best. Eating Disorders thrive in good company, because surrounded by women who are thinner, stronger, eating more without gaining weight, it translates to a constant bombardment of self-loathing, which gets all the symptoms activating in full-force.

Treatment is also a place where a lot women will swap their current ED for a new one: anorexics begin to purge, purgers begin to binge, bingers begin to fast.

Women take bits and pieces of others’ habits and glom them together to make hybrids, and wind up back in treatment two or three times battling new symptoms and relapses of old ones.

Anorexics are bitterly fat-phobic of themselves, not others. And every woman whose every grappled with a serious ED understands that the size of you, and those around you, isn’t a measure of your health. We can suss each other out, like the rumored “gaydar.”

So when I saw famed plus-sized model Tess Holiday was going public about her eating disorder, I wasn’t remotely surprised: I was relieved. I’ve followed her Instagram for years. I love her red hair, her incredible makeup, her great, funky style. She’s obviously a loving Mom, and she has a husband who adores her. She was advocating for larger women’s fashion and embracing who you are.

But I started to turn on her when she began to promote herself as healthy. There’s a disturbing trend in the body-positive community to completely deny that weight is a factor in health at all, even so far as to say there’s no proof or science that it impacts our risks of diseases.

This isn’t to say I support the abuses heaped on the plus-sized: I’m savagely opposed to anyone being picked apart for the body they were born in, for any reason. Having grown up in the age of heroin-chic, I love seeing magazines feature all new types of men and women, many whom resemble people I know rather than the sweaty waif-ideal of my childhood.

The problem I’ve had with Tess was more than her science denial: it’s that I never once bought that she had a healthy relationship with food.

As beautiful as she is on camera and as exciting her life looks on Instagram, I could never look at her body and see anything less than a woman with some significant trauma and pain that she was most likely medicating with food. I remember being alarmed by the size of her legs when I watched her walk a runway, and, while I love a tattooed girl, the amount of dark ink has always seemed less like a celebration and more like an attempt to conceal cellulite and excess skin.

And I’ve always been continually disappointed that, rather than role model an open discussion about health struggles, she chose to label any addressing of health as “fatphobic.”

I was thrilled when I read that she was addressing her eating disorder: until I read she’d chosen to go with anorexia as her diagnosis.

No, I’m not mad that a plus-sized woman has come out with this — she’s not the first. I’m not mad that she doesn’t fit the rigid criteria the insurance agent provided either, because, as my father argued, better to stop the fever before it rages out of control.

I’m mad because she chooses to position herself as an anorexic, out to destigmatize eating disorders, rather than a binge-eater, out to do the same.

I’m mad because she continues to pander to the society she claims to be reshaping by vilifying anorexia, but refusing to acknowledge or embrace the struggles of medicating with food.

When someone is unable to control their eating, or manage their weight, that person is caught up in the very same cycle of self-loathing, guilt, and desperation that those who starve themselves reckon with. But Tess isn’t choosing to talk about that. She isn’t choosing to push back on the false-messaging that the morbidly obese are in no way risking their physical health, or that binge-eating is a completely valid ED that demands all the care and compassion those with anorexia and bulimia receive.

I support expanding the clinical definitions of anorexia and bulimia so more women can receive treatment. I have always supported, and advocated, for binge-eating to receive equal recognition and inclusion in treatment.

Tess Holliday is a not a crusader for our cause. She is actively participating — and monetizing — misinformation about critical women’s health issues.

“Look at how many of us have suffered so long, sometimes in secret and sometimes openly and disbelieved and unseen,” Holliday writes on her Instagram. “Look at our pain. Look at how you may be complicit in a culture that creates that, then denies its very reality. If you care about our health, care about our mental health too, because that directly impacts our physical bodies and relationship with it.”

I do see her pain: I’ve always seen it. It’s the pain of an Eating Disorder Unspecified, the official diagnosis I received since anorexia was 5 pounds and 1 period away.

I stopped being ashamed of what that meant 10 years ago. Then, and only then, two years into treatment, did I start to find recovery. Shame was the biggest weapon my ED had, and once disarmed, it finally began its retreat.

I hope the same will one day come for Tess. But more importantly, I hope her consistent misinformation doesn’t harm too many young women desperate for a role model. Do not look to one who is complicit in a toxic culture, then denies reality. Look at her pain, fill your heart with empathy, then look in the mirror, and tell that woman you love her enough to change.

New Orleans based writer, reader, history lover, and occasional hothead.