I read this book called Privilege about St. Paul’s, the elite prep school, and the part that really interested me was about the girls who go there and how they all have eating disorders. Well, you know, not ALL of them, but a shocking majority. They suffer from depression at a much higher rate than the boys. They also don’t get elected to leadership positions or win prizes for creativity, even though their test scores are just as high or higher than their male peers. Even though they are getting into the school at the same or higher rates.
The girls at the elite boarding school want desperately to be thin. Thinner than they already are.
I have sometimes wanted desperately to be thinner, even though I know, and I knew then, that I am not heavy. I have felt too heavy despite this.
What is it about being thin? Why do we want that? Why do the prep school girls want it badly enough to harm themselves in pursuit of it? What is it about this intensely competitive environment that triggers so many eating disorders, so much body-hatred, so much appearance fixation?
I wanted to be thin the most when I hated my face the most. The thinness was supposed to make up for my other beauty failures. I felt that I always understood Sarah Jessica Parker’s extreme thinness because of this. Her face was a target for disdain, dismissal, mean humor, even loathing. It wasn’t the face of a model or a TV star, even though she was a TV star. So of course she was intensely thin. It made sense to me. I wanted to be thinner to distract people from the rest of me.
I was sometimes painfully different, I thought, and successful femininity seemed to be about looking enough like the girls and women other people had decided were beautiful. And looking more like them meant being less like me.
I wanted to be thinner as an apology.
As a defense.
And because my body felt awkward. I think I thought, mostly unconsciously, that if there was less of it, it would be easier to be in it. My anorexic roommate was short in addition to being wisp-thin, and she could curl up in a chair and practically disappear. I was jealous, because my body seemed to take up too much space, no matter what. Because I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. I’m still not. What does anyone ever do with their hands? It’s possible that this is the real reason I’m having a baby. To occupy my awkward hands.
There are so many reasons why girls and women want to be thin—but mostly when we want it, I think we can only vaguely explain. It just LOOKS better. It would feel better to be me if I were thinner.
Really, it’s winning, on some strange, highly present level. Winning, somehow, at being a girl.
And this is maybe why the prep school girls starve themselves. Because they are competing, like the boys, to be the best. Because that whole environment is about success, about standing out for being better. And for girls, cruelly, being better is too often about looking better. And looking better is too often about looking thinner. Maybe especially because weight sometimes feels more controllable than the other parts of beauty.
I want to talk to these prep school girls. Maybe we could talk all night. But that probably wouldn’t even do anything. I want instead to fix the world for them. To change the way we understand success and beauty, and to separate those concepts, to yank them apart until they’re barely able to touch. I want to tear off the shiny packaging and set the truth on a pillar in the middle of everything.
Being thin doesn’t make up for anything else—that’s the truth.
We need to make that clear to girls, so we need to be clear about it ourselves. For so many of us, being thin is like the quest for the golden city—where the streets are paved with it, gleaming, everything you see will make you rich. But it’s an illusion. It’s a waste of time. It’s dangerous. It’s a set-up for failure. A vicious trick.
Sometimes I start to forget what a big deal beauty is, which is maybe weird, because I write about it a lot. But because I write about it a lot, I’m also used to people dismissing it a lot. I also sometimes wonder if it’s just me—am I thinking about this automatically now, because I write about it? Do I notice it in places where I don’t need to? Where it doesn’t matter?
And then someone suddenly corners me to tell me that it’s important. Or that it nearly killed them. Or that it has always been there, stalking them, even though in general, everything should be OK. I read a book about a prep school where the unspoken rules for girls strictly demand body compliance. Where being thin is women’s law, and that law is wringing girls out, pressing them into exhausted quiet.
And sometimes I realize that it’s extremely important to think about and talk about beauty, precisely BECAUSE it’s so easy to dismiss. The fact that people can wave it off with one hand can render its victims invisible.
I wanted to be thinner because I wanted to be more invisible, because I wanted to be innocuous and inoffensive. I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, but I understand it better now. There’s a safety in invisibility. It’s a catch 22—the relationship between attractiveness and disappearance. You imagine that you will come into yourself, become clearer, sharper, prettier, more able to be present, as you shed your fleshy, heavy parts. You will become more like the you you’re supposed to be by being less of you, physically.
But you won’t.
And the prep school girls won’t win.
None of us are winning, because the contest has been rigged from the start.
* * *
If you are already thin but you want to be thinner, why do you think that is?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look in purple.