People who have a mental illness carry a great weight around with them most days. Certainly, there are moments of brevity and laughter but these are often fleeting, floating away like a butterfly; you enjoy the beauty of the moment but can't quite hold onto it. It's just beyond your grasp. The majority of the time when you are living with depression you feel like you have a dark, heavy wool blanket weighing you down. The weight feels such a burden that you struggle, and often you give in to it. Unable to carry it, you sink into your bed and pull the covers up over your head.
Kind of 'heavy' to read that, huh? It's my truth - it's how I felt the majority of the time that I experienced depression. Then there's the other kind of weight. The kind that we seem obsessed with in Western society.
Weight and depression seem to go hand in hand. You often can't consider one without the other. Some of the symptoms of depression are either weight gain or weight loss. Some people lose their appetite and can't bring themselves to eat. Some use eating (or not eating) as a control mechanism - they have no power over their mental illness so they exert control where they can, with food. And some use food as comfort.
Then there's the side effect listed in the 'small print' when you start a medication for your mental illness: weight gain. The big drug companies don't really want to highlight the reality that you, very likely, will gain weight. Being overweight, or, God forbid, fat, is bad for business. We all know that it's better to look good than to feel good, right?
I developed an eating disorder about ten years ago when I was in the midst of a moderate depression and working in a very unhealthy company (that's another blog post!). I would binge eat once I got home from work and then feel so horrible both physically and mentally that I would then purge almost immediately afterwards. Weirdly, I felt better. Disgusting as it was, and it felt shameful as hell (I kept that secret for a long time), I kept doing it for about two years.
I am telling you all this about weight for a reason. I am mad as hell. Here's why...
For the first time in history, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has a 'plus-size' model on its cover, Ashley Graham. Let's save the discussion for why the swimsuit issue is still a thing for another time (I mean, really? It's 2016...). Frankly, kudos to SI for putting the photo of the stunning Graham on the cover. To see a gorgeous model who is both a) an actual adult and b) representative of the average North American woman (and me, to be honest - Graham and I are both a size 16) in a bikini on such an important issue for the magazine is remarkable. I love it. Period.
And then Cheryl Tiegs 'weighed' in.
"I don't like that we're talking about full figured women, because it's glamorizing them. Because your waist should be smaller than 35 inches."
Glamorizing?! Yes, because everyone wants to be 'plus-sized'.
For those of you who have no idea who Cheryl Tiegs is, she is a former 70's supermodel who was also featured on the cover of the SI swimsuit issue in its early days. I understand the point that she was trying to make. While she may be accurate about the guidelines for a healthy waist circumference (there are certainly many studies that reflect that), her comments are dangerous. Let's remove Graham from the conversation for a moment (I am going to assume that she is a healthy and happy human being). It is possible for a larger woman to be healthy. Let's talk about women, weight and society. I have questions.
Why is it OK for us to deconstruct a woman's body and comment on her weight? Why is it that weight seems to be the last socially acceptable form of discrimination? Why do we not subject men to the same standards? And why, of why, do we still do this?
There are many reasons why each of us is the way that we are. Why is the woman who lives across the street 20 pounds overweight? Maybe she really loves food. Or maybe she has other things going on that have contributed to who she is and how she appears. Is any of this really ANY of our business? No, not really.
I have gained about 40 pounds over the years that I have been battling depression and anxiety. Some of that can be attributed to comfort eating but most of it has to do with medication. Am I happy about that? No. Would I like to lose that weight? Absolutely. Do I enjoy taking meds? No - they are strong chemicals that I would like to do without. But here's the honest, hard truth: I had to make a choice between my mental health and my weight. I chose my mental health. And to be clear, when I refer to my mental health I am talking about life or death. So, overall I am really OK with those 40 pounds. I measure life and my well-being as a whole and not just in pounds.
Every month or so someone that I know will say something to me like, 'Oh, have you lost weight?' (nope - I haven't) or 'That's really flattering on you.' I guess I looked fat before, or you see me as overweight - that's the conclusion that I am left to draw from these comments. I know these people mean well. But I also know that I am overweight - thank you for your reminder. I also see and hear beautiful, slender women talk about the weight that they 'need' to lose. I guess every woman has the same fun-house mirror that they look into each day. I am going to let you in on a secret: it all makes me sad, frustrated and disappointed. But these comments say more about society than anything.
Here is my final question on the subject: Why don't we change the conversation? I think we can. And we must, if not for ourselves then for the next generation of women. Live your best, most healthy life - do it for YOU. That feeling of imperfection and that you just aren't enough, that you are 'less than', is an awful weight to carry around. Let's give each other permission to set that down and walk away from it.
Oh, and Cheryl Tiegs? 1976 called - they would like you and your attitudes back...
P.S. Here is some positive body-image inspiration:
35 Body-Positive Mantras
How To Raise a Girl With a Positive Body Image