The Beauty War


A friend of mine, talking about a friend of hers, said, “She was bulimic.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, and shook my head a little. “That’s too bad. I hope she’s OK now.”

“She’s doing a lot better. It’s been a couple years.”

“That’s good.”


The conversation moved on. But now I’m sitting here, thinking about that. About how simple it was, to mention it, to comment on it, and to let it slip away. Because, in a way, it’s become normal. Or at least, it’s common enough that it doesn’t make you go, “WHAT?! WHY?!” If you said that, you’d look like an idiot. You’d look like someone who hasn’t lived in the world. When girls live in the world, they sometimes destroy themselves in order to be thin. It’s complicated. Much more complicated than that sentence. It’s a tough world. If you don’t understand, it can’t be explained to you.

But if you try to step back for a moment, you might imagine, as I suddenly did, throwing up. I was sick last week. I threw up twice. I’m a veteran vomiter. I used to take medication that made me throw up practically every night. I react like that to the pill. I react like that to heavy duty painkillers. My stomach has a lot of opinions about what’s supposed to be in it when, and it isn’t shy about showing me exactly what those things look like after I’ve been foolish enough to test its patience. So throwing up twice shouldn’t have been a big deal. But it was. Because throwing up is sort of horrifying. Every time. Even when you’re really good at it.

Before I was good at it, when I was fourteen, I used to lie on the bathroom floor, talking to God. “God,” I said, “Please. Don’t make me throw up again. Take one of my fingers. Cut it off. You can have it. I just don’t want to throw up anymore.”

To this day, I have no idea what God would’ve wanted with a severed finger. And evidently God felt similarly, because I still have all ten.

Once I got good at it, I could just calmly get up, go into the bathroom, kneel down, and – Yup. But it was still terrible. The taste lingers, in your throat, in your nose (it’s more than a smell). The clawed rawness. The hollowed out sensation. And, of course, the basic wrongness of the moment when it happens, and everything is turned inside out, and everything is wrong, and your body is fighting madly against itself.

It’s the details that matter. The gory, uncomfortable details. Women, girls, will do this on purpose. All of this. To change themselves. To be beautiful. To be better at being female. Throwing up—an act of abject desperation. Like stabbing yourself, over and over. Each time, your body recoils in terror and self-defense. And each time, you want something else enough to divorce yourself from the instinct that fights for your literal survival.

And we can say, “Oh yeah, she was bulimic.” Like she had a cold. Like it’s ever completely over, or cured. Like it was ever not a tragedy to begin with. And not an individual tragedy, but a layered ball of tragedy. A tragedy of the definition of beauty. Of the definition of womanhood. Of success. A tragedy of casualness—the collective ability to conveniently ignore, conveniently walk away. Conveniently disassociate.

I picked up The Beauty Myth again the other day. Hadn’t read it since college. I didn’t want to write about it yet. I want to do a real post on it sometime, a whole post. An article, maybe. But I can’t help but mention it now. I was scared, just opening it. I didn’t want any of it to be true. I wanted everything to be better. At least a lot better, if not completely better. I wanted to laugh a little and say, “Wow….Can’t believe anyone lived like that.”

But here we are, in a world where it’s normal for women to starve themselves. Where I can’t open my email or search something on the internet without being bombarded with “news” about female celebrities that’s completely focused on their bodies (mostly their weight). So-and-so shows off bikini bod! Whatshername loses the baby weight! Superstar lets herself go, gains 30 lbs! Was it her weight that made him stop loving her? Breast implants! Diets! THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS ABOUT YOU IS HOW YOU LOOK!!!!

It feels like war propaganda. And look, it’s a war. Because women are dying. They’re dying of being women. And even if most of us survive, physically, we’re still wounded. Emotionally, we’re limping, struggling, feeling guilty about eating, feeling guilty about our fat, feeling like we’re always failing. Even if you’re one of the ones who isn’t actively dieting, or actively wrestling your appearance into something that more closely matches the distant, ever-present, suffocating, unattainable image of feminine beauty and success, even then— can you really just eat the piece of chocolate cake without thinking about it?

The world wants it to be over, this war about women, about femininity. It’s supposed to have been won already. It’s not supposed to have slyly, expertly metamorphosed into this other form. And the new form looks so harmless. “We can’t help it,” the advertisers might say, “If women care a lot about makeup and hair!” And the content providers agree.

So that “women’s news” means celebrity gossip and fashion, along with whatever else. And celebrity gossip revolves around bodies and so does fashion.

And we shrug and say, “Yeah, she was throwing up a lot back in college.”

And we let it go. Because, well, of course she was.

*  *  *  *

Un-Roast: Today I love that some days, some awesome, awesome days, I really do just eat the damn cake. Speaking of which, send me photos of yourselves doing the same for the Cake Gallery. Acts of defiance, people! Rebel against the system by eating cake!

P.S. My post from the other day was syndicated on Huffpo, if you missed it here, or feel like seeing it there, or something.

P.P.S. Shelby, I thought of you, writing this. Let’s write something together sometime! And people, read the post of hers I linked there. She’s fighting back by refusing to even want to fit into the jeans she’s supposed to want to fit into.


Kate on September 15th 2010 in beauty, body, feminism, food, weight

30 Responses to “The Beauty War”

  1. Wei-Wei responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 11:35 am #

    I feel sorry for the sufferers. It always surprises me how nonchalant some people can be when you tell them that you have an eating disorder, or that you’re depressed, or that you make yourself throw up, or that you’re on a new diet. In fact, they might even be jealous.

  2. zoe responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    “If you don’t understand, it can’t be explained to you.”

    so true. so painfully true. people who escape the eating disorder world just cannot ever quite understand. they can only go so far as sympathy. the only people who have the ability empathize are the fellow sufferers. and sometimes two people struggling with the same issue should not talk. because all they focus on is their issue. when weight and food and appearance dominate your life, it, quite obviously, becomes difficult to simply enjoy. it sucks. and i feel at times we view people struggling with eating disorders as a show. think of it like an episode of intervention, just not on the television.

    the issues (usually) all hinge on self-worth. and in our society, our worth as a woman, as a human being, tends to be measured in our appearance. in our weight. once that idea squirms into your head it becomes, unfortunately, incredibly hard to kill. i’m working on it.

    unroast: today i love the fact that i had the strength to acknowledge that i had a problem. and that i tackled it head on. i love that i’m trying.

    (p.s: i was just thinking about that article shelby wrote about! i saw it in a magazine and did a double take — if levi’s is so “all inclusive” now, why are all the models wearing size 25 jeans? so what, no women past size 25 have ass issues?)

  3. caronae responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    I’m with Zoe. That is so true — it is something that I have been thinking about explaining to my loving, kind, sweet boyfriend and I realized the other day that there are no words for it. There is no way to say to him that I would rather take a knife to my body and carve out all the disgusting parts than leave the apartment some days. There is no way to say that the scale and the food and the calories and the workouts sometimes consume me and I hat myself for it. There is no way to tell him that sometimes my own body makes me want to die.

    It’s ridiculous. It’s crazy. I am educated and fit and creative. It’s bizarre. The hatred has to stop.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

  4. San D responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Here’s my rhetorical question to all: Who sets the standards for women’s beauty? I would venture to say it is the magazine editors of fashion magazines like Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire that young women snatch up and leaf through like a bible. And, continuing with my line of questioning, who are the editors? Women. I think the broader question might be, why do we let them dictate to us what beauty is?


    As for eating disorders, I have always thought they was a direct connection to “control” of one’s life. It has been my experience that I have witnessed that the person wants to take control of their life, as everything else seems to be spinning out of control. I wonder if with the economy in dire straits, and less and less fulfilling careers available, will we be seeing more?

    And, as for the act of throwing up, when I was going through chemotherapy, I threw up daily for 6 months. The doctors were surprised that I never threw much before in my life. They assumed I drank alcohol.

  5. San D responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    oops…should read “THERE was” not “they was”….

  6. Cindy responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    It’s all so sad. I agree with “San D”
    it does have a lot to do with control, self-loathing and even abuse.

    and than again, Kate…this whole imagry issue it’s just maddening.

    I hurl over too much Tylenol. I hate vomiting. I am always queasy!

    let’s all just be good to ourselves finally, and AND to each other.

  7. Katie @ Health for the Whole Self responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    It’s just that it’s all so totally complicated. To talk about an eating disorder authentically requires peeling away so many layers; it requires going so far beyond the food and the beauty stuff, because there’s always so much more underneath that. I know when I think about trying to discuss my food/weight issues with someone new, the mere thought exhausts me. It’s just so MUCH. So, unfortunately, it gets brushed aside, especially since it’s so common now. The depth of the situation gets totally lost.

  8. Eimear Rose responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    Oh hell, I *hate* throwing up. You’re right, it is horrifying, you’re being emptied out in front of your own eyes, you’re watching your body rebel against what you’ve tried to nourish or heal it with. And I always think, you have to hate yourself so deeply to do it deliberately. So tragic:(

  9. Brittany responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    I really liked this post.

    And just wanted to add that the other day I shared with a good friend that I had an eating disorder for about a year…which I sometimes still deal with. She replied “no I don’t think you had an eating disorder…you were just trying to be healthy!”

    I feel like some people will never quite get it?

  10. Lauren responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    GREAT post. Now I’m all misty-eyed…

  11. Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    Just wanted to pop in and say hi and that i had no idea you were unschooled…and I just wrote for the past 2 days on my blog about unschooling and that, so far, that’s the path we’re taking w/ raising our daughter. ANyway dont even get me started on women’s magazines…oy.vey.

    Happy new year too…looks like from your other post that i skimmed you’re celebrating :)

  12. B.T. responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Wow. So passionately written. So well said!

  13. Kate responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 9:40 pm #

    Thanks for letting me know! And good for you. I’m always around to talk, if you want to!

  14. Holly responded on 15 Sep 2010 at 11:07 pm #

    thank you. that’s all I can say.

  15. Medical Stuff, Part II, Or “A Slightly Happier Post” « Run. Write. Therapy. Life. responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 12:20 am #

    [...] wrote a lovely post today that really resonated with me, about disordered eating and body-consciousness.  Unfortunately, for [...]

  16. claire responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 5:11 am #

    This is the best blog post I have read all year.

    You’re right. This is about so much more than endlessly debating the evils of ‘size zero’. We know these images are harmful – propaganda. but it’s about what we’re doing to ourselves. It’s painful, destructive and so so sad.

    But I say this as a woman dieting. Albeit sensibly, with a diet that permits and encourages the regular consumption of cake, or whatever it is that floats your boat (on the basis that any diet that does not, will fail).

    It took me a long time to be mature enough to understand what I wanted to be and how to understand my body. A friend once said to me that no one under 20 or maybe even older should be on a diet, because they don’t know their body. I thought it was wise then, and still do now. I should write about this, sometime.

    Thank you for your blog, which makes my day, every day.

  17. Kate responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    That means so much to me. Thank you.

    And yes, you should write about it.

  18. Noel responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    I really, really like the visceralness of this post (is that a word? Let’s pretend it is). The thing I hate most about all the advertising and the magazine articles and the photos spreads is how they sell the beauty myth and make it seem so easy. Like it’s easy to have 3 children and stay a size 0 and lose the baby weight in two weeks and still have perky breasts. It’s just so damn easy, if you can’t do it, you must be doing it wrong!

    The truth is that the women with the so-called “perfect” bodies often pay a big price, as elucidated in this post. The vomiting, the hair loss. The dull eyes and yellowing skin. The damage to their fingernails, the damage to their teeth. (I knew a girl in college whose two front teeth literally rotted from repeated exposure to stomach acid.) If you have ever know someone suffering from anorexia or bulimia, or even who has recovered from plastic surgery, you know the quest for what our society calls physical perfection is anything but beautiful. It can be painful and horrifying. It can damage your body in ways that may not be reversible.

    The magazines and the commercials and the advertisers don’t show this ugly side of beauty. But the war wounds and scars are still there, they’re just covered up with makeup.

  19. Jessica responded on 16 Sep 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    You are a true powerhouse with words .. there’s something very lyrical in your form. I love when layout meets content :)
    and they are dying of being women. it’s so loaded.
    Would love for you to contribute sometime to! let me know..

  20. Rachael responded on 18 Sep 2010 at 4:17 am #

    Honestly, we are all bombarded by media images–its just some girls and women take them to heart and choose to starve themselves whereas others are comfortable in their own skin. We can’t only blame the media–there is something in the minds of girls that is going on. Low self-esteem. I’m not saying the media isn’t to blame partially. Obviously there is something wrong with our society’s focus on weight in the media.

    The thing is…anyone who opens their eyes can look around them and differentiate media images from real people. Girls should have self-esteem and confidence enough in themselves that they don’t induce vomiting or forgo food. Why aren’t girls able to find confidence in their own skin? –This is the important question.

    Another question–why do girls think starving and throwing up is healthier than diet and exercise? That’s something I can never wrap my head around.

    I don’t feel sorry for girls with eating disorders. I cannot understand them.

  21. Angela Jones responded on 18 Sep 2010 at 11:39 pm #

    Kate, I think you have read my story on the the blog. I honestly didn’t hesitate when I was asked to share my story, in fact it was the perfect time and I was ready. But to say yes and agree to come forth and share and to actually do it, is another thing. Reliving those dark days was extremely difficult for me. I would sit in bed and write, cry, write, cry. I would look at my babies sweet faces and think to myself “I can never let them get to the place I was…ever.” After I came forth and shared my personal story of my struggle with body image and bulimia, many women, fathers, girlfriends, have come to me and shared their stories with me. It was almost as though they had been waiting for me. I think it takes people to come forth and lead and to stand up for what we believe in and others will follow. I will never forget a woman who lives in the same town as I, came up to me and was crying, she said all of her teeth were fake and she had been in an eating disorder rehab for 3 months and 3 of her friends had passed. I never realized how common it really was, and then at the time, I thought I was the only one. That is why I want my voice to be heard, so others know they are NOT alone. Tomorrow on our blog,, we are interviewing Sierra Lisa, she is the writer/director for the film STARving. She is AMAZING!! The film is about her life, going through acting school, her teachers telling her she needed to lose weight in order to get roles and how she turned to bulimia. It was because of one teacher, that she decided to stop. This teacher had faith in her, cared enough for her to be her support and help her through her bulimia. The film is dedicated to her.
    You never know who’s life you could touch. It only takes one person, it could be a smile you give someone that day, it could be a story, or it could be just listening to someone.
    As a mother, my husband and I want to do what is best for our kids and what we believe, is that the best way is to be real with them. Children need to be educated about sex, drugs, eating disorders, etc. They need to be aware and know what is out there. I never even knew what bulimia was,until I saw a friend doing it. I feel that if I would have been educated about bulimia and the health risks, things may have been different. Thank you for talking about this very important topic.

  22. Amelia Jane responded on 19 Sep 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    This is such a powerful post.
    I occasionally have to deal with the urge to restrict my eating in order to control something, anything about my life, or to punish myself. I was chatting to my mother the other day about food, and she was saying how she always eat cake when it’s someone’s birthday at the office (Yay! Go Mum!) except then she added that she would forgo her sandwiches because she’d already eaten. All food = calories & fat, in that conversation. And fat = bad…even though she believes that she has a ‘sensible’ attitude towards food. It is SO ingrained, even in people who don’t subscribe to all the glossies or pay a huge amount of attention to the media. It’s really hard to disabuse people who don’t believe they’ve been indoctrinated of their beliefs that food = fat and fat = bad. It’s really difficult to change your own attitude, even when you know that avoiding food is one of the most foolish things you can do to yourself (and you torture yourself thinking about the 1.2 billion starving people in the world) and you read people or talk to people who tell you to get over it or snap out of it, like YOU’RE the bad guy. Thank you for this attack on the system, and for calling it a war. I don’t want to be a solider anymore. Got any vacancies for a medic?
    I’m going to make a sticky toffee coffee cake now, with super sticky toffee sauce. Maybe I’ll send you a photo!

  23. Anya responded on 19 Sep 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    I tried to make myself throw up once- I was on a bus and was feeling really ill. I was deathly afraid that the food they had served us had given me some sort of food poisoning. I do not have an eating disorder, but I do have OCD. This means that a fear that I may have been food-poisoned was an overwhelming, all encompassing terror. I could not sit still and my hands were shaking. My brain was cycling through the loop of all the terrible things which could happen to me, so I went to the bathroom on the bus and knelt over the toilet and tried for about half an hour, and I just could not do it. I went back to my seat feeling like someone had just tried to strangle me. It was not just my throat, but all the muscles in my neck, and my stomach. I felt like I had been beaten, and all I could think of was “how do women do this to themselves every day?” and a revulsion for the society that can drive women to this.

  24. eatmovelove responded on 19 Sep 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    Yeah wow. Very powerful.

    You wrote it so well.

    Just like it should be said. And needs to be said.

    Thank you for this. I’ll try to link to it on my blog the next time I post.

    And honestly, throwing up is disgusting. I remember being so scared when I was little when I got sick and telling my mom “I’m afraid” over and over…and she would be “why?” rubbing my back as I sat by the “throne” – and I said because I was of throwing up (or more).

    Society is disgusting at times. We are going to ruination.

    :( .

  25. eatmovelove responded on 19 Sep 2010 at 7:35 pm #

    …oh and I DON’T MEAN THAT THE PEOPLE that do it are disgusting!!! Hope it didn’t come off that way!!

    What I mean is that it’s disgusting/sad/sick , etc. that this has become a norm for so many and that society projects it with celebrities, etc.

    Hope that’s understood ;)

  26. raine responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 8:45 am #

    It’s sad that eating disorders have become so prevalent that they’re casually mentioned like that. What others have said is exactly right- the images the media throws out there are propaganda and are increasingly harmful.

  27. Kate responded on 20 Sep 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    @Amelia Jane
    Way to keep the metaphor going, with your medic comment. Very awesome and I wish I’d thought of it.

    And please, please send me a photo!

  28. cakiebelle responded on 26 Sep 2010 at 11:21 pm #

    I just recently discovered your blog and gosh, I love it! We have have alot in common (I am OBSESSED with cake and I write about self love and body image too!)

    This post is beautifully written and I 100% agree with everything you said. The fact that it has become common place and “normal” for women to hurt their bodies in order to look “beautiful’ is absolutely heart breaking. I live in hope that one day things will change…

    Much love xo

  29. Ella responded on 04 Oct 2010 at 6:47 am #

    This broke my heart, just a wee little bit. I’m 21 and in recovery from anorexia and bulimia. I’ve had the disease since I was 12. Reading this made me a little teary.

    Bulimia is a nightmare – not only is it physical punishment, but it’s pure psychological tourment. We talk about it in hushed tones, giggle over it and say it with such blase – “oh she’s bulimic” “oh yeah, she went anorexic for a bit” but we forget that behind the label of bulimic or anorexic there’s a person. That person is not anorexic or bulimic. That person is a person who suffers with anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

    Thank you for this post – from someone who still lives with it, and struggles with it everyday.

  30. Eat the Damn Cake » Tiny little beauty responded on 05 Jan 2011 at 10:08 am #

    [...] Note: For an older post about how beauty can be a war with real casualties, click here. [...]