Q: Dear Kate, I was inspired by your story after watching the program "Dying to be Thin" on PBS. I am a 17-year-old female, and I've been dissatisfied with my body for as long as I can remember. I wanted to know how you were able to accept your body. Do you think it was cultural influences that led to your eating disorder, peer pressure, family, or any other possible influence(s)?
Why do you think women and teenage girls feel they must be thin? Thanks for your time.
Andrea from Missouri
Dillon: Andrea, eating disorders are so complicated. I don't believe it was any one single event that caused me to develop an eating disorder. My PE teacher sexually harassed me when I was eight years old, I have a personality predisposition to perfectionism, my family moved to weight obsessed Southern California when I was 10, and I was made fun of mercilessly as a young girl for being chubby.
I think most women feel they need to be thin because thinness, in our culture, somehow represents strength and self-containment. To lose weight is to have ones life in order, while to gain weight conversely means one's life must be falling apart. It's ridiculous! I know that when I gained weight was when I began to heal and come alive. I also believe that social conditioning has a lot to do with the creation of cultural ideals. If we see the same image again and again, we can learn subconsciously that it is the only acceptable image. These are my theories.
As for how I found comfort and freedom with my body and myself, it also wasn't one thing, and it wasn't overnight. But, essentially, I made a decision to be true to myself no matter what. I wanted to be someone I admired, not the person I thought I should be. So I committed myself to a journey I'm still on, a journey in which I embrace every ounce of who I am, the good parts and the less groovy parts! I enjoy life, and I realized the most important things were to laugh and be healthy.
Q: I am a high-school teacher, and I have three all-girl classes. While previewing "Dying to be Thin," I heard a young woman say that she read self-help books on anorexia, but instead of helping her they gave her new methods to loose weight. Another said that she watched a movie about bulimia and rationalized that since it was on film it was alright to try. Is there danger in exposing adolescent girls to this topic? Does it give them ideas? (I have noticed several girls in the past write that the class readings and discussions about eating disorders made them curious, but most recognized the dangers for themselves and others.)
Tom from Greene County
Dillon: Tom, you raise a very important issue. I learned about anorexia from a TV movie designed to warn viewers of the perils of eating disorders. The anorexic girl died in the film, but that made less of an impression on me than the fact that anorexia seemed the solution to the trouble I was having at school. I believe it's important to talk about eating disorders as UNspecifically as possible. I never talk about what I ate or didn't eat, and I never discuss what I weighed. It's a delicate balance I realize, and I try to be as careful as possible, but it's a tricky question. Obviously, the approaches we've used in the past are fallible, and hopefully as we begin to understand eating disorders better, treatment and awareness methods will improve.
Q: I just don't even know who I am. I don't trust people because people that I think are my friends have abandoned me. I am 12 years old, and I wear a size 9 and am 143 pounds. I am so obsessed with nutrition, and I work out at least two to three times a week. I am depressed when I don't get to the gym enough. One thing that really angers me is that I am jealous of other people at school, even though I have the top grades in the class. If I get a 97 on a test (%), it isn't good enough. It wasn't 100. Then I get depressed. Depression is something I often succumb to, and I just cry. I feel terrible when I look at other people who are so much prettier, skinnier, more popular. I know this sounds stupid but no one understands.
Rebecca from California
Dillon: Rebecca, I can completely understand the feelings you're having. I think I've written every word you wrote to me! You are a perfectionist just like I was/am. I constantly need to fight the high expectations I set for myself. When I was younger, I too fought against my body's natural digression from the cultural ideal.
I know it may seem hard to believe, but I can't imagine having those feelings now. When I see skinny people I can see their beauty without needing it myself. I exercise regularly, but if I can't get to it, I can't get to it... Also, I'm beginning to understand that what makes me an interesting, fun, or lovable person, isn't about my achievements. Everyone is special just as he/she is. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. You won't like everyone you meet, and not everyone you meet will like you, and that's fine. It's really OK!!!
You already can see how irrational you're being about your grades. You know you're doing well—you're #1 in your class, and you're still unhappy. Do what makes you happy. Forget about who you think you need to be. Who do you admire? What are your dreams? This is what's important. For so long I would seek challenge after challenge. Each challenge was like a mountain, and after I climbed each mountain, I'd look for the next higher one. I never took the time to enjoy what I'd done. I couldn't just be. It's no wonder you feel lost...
You move too quickly to sit with yourself, and try to understand yourself. You are undoubtedly an accomplished person, and have enormous potential to continue your success, but you must learn to manage yourself. If nothing is ever good enough, nothing will ever be good enough. Relaxing a little bit doesn't make you a lazy nothing! Cutting yourself a little slack makes you smart.
Q: Hi Kate. It's good to see someone recuperated form eating disorders. Congratulations. The most important thing is that you are helping to promote more natural anatomies. Modeling is a job, and you have to do what is necessary to work. What do you think is the influence of newspaper advertising in the development of bulimia? Should they be held accountable for the direct promotion of eating disorders? Smoking ads are banned—do you think that ads promoting thinness should be banned as well? Thank you.
Alan from New York
Dillon: Alan, I think the media, rather than banning thinness, should be forced to reflect the diversity of the populous. Thinness is a natural and beautiful state for some bodies and shouldn't be exiled anymore than a fuller figure should. We need to celebrate our individuality as well our culture's diversity.
Q: Kate, I just want to tell you what an inspiration you are. I myself am 29 years of age and have been struggling with severe bulimia for eight years and off and on for about 15 now. Your outlook on life and words of encouragement are uplifting and fill me with hope. My husband and I would like to have another child in the future, and I am battling myself to get better and healthy. You mentioned that you wanted to be free to be you no matter what, and it is as if something lit up within me and I said "Hey, I can do that!" I also have an eight-year-old daughter, who currently has no issues with her body at all. She even likes seeing herself weighing more (she says it shows she is growing up!). I want her to be able to maintain that positivity. And if society can begin to slowly evolve and see things as you do, that will be very instrumental. Once again, thank you.
R. from Tennessee
Dillon: R., Thank you so much. I'm beyond touched by your email. You can do it. Watch your daughter, learn from her. She knows what you need to relearn. Our bodies give us life, love, sight, sound—all that beauty needs to be treated with respect and care. Be good to yourself and know you're on an amazing journey to freedom.