It is nice to be able to take a step back sometimes from viewing the world through the lens of a mental health practitioner who treats eating disorders. I generally do not pay attention when I am in restaurants except when the person, typically a very thin female, at a nearby table is telling the wait staff to make sure that no butter or oil is used in the preparation of her meal. I then take notice and observe when the food is brought to table that the meal is picked apart and what is eaten is done so in a controlled and seemingly not pleasurable manner. I have trained myself to first consider other possibilities. Perhaps she had flu and her stomach is still sensitive so her choice of food and manner of eating are the result of medical illness. But the more informed me (a/k/a cynic) returns and I find myself feeling sadness, compassion and desire to say something like, “Eating fat is good. Fat is the building block for estrogen production. Not eating enough stalls metabolism. Eating with gusto is pleasurable. Life is about pleasure, love and work. Don’t worry; bad stuff finds us. We don’t have to manufacture more of it on our own through deprivation and denial.” I have never said any of these things and more importantly, I know that eating disorders, body image distortion and chronic dieting, are all serious and complicated issues and no one wittingly volunteers to be plagued with illness, self-loathing or self-defeating behaviors.
Armed with the perspective I have formulated and carry after many years as a clinician and member of a media driven culture, I tried, somewhat successfully, to take another step back from the eating disorder running commentary in my head as I watch the 2012 Olympics. As many Americans, I watch with pride as our countrymen and women swim, run, hurdle, score and stick landings. I am tearful as our National Anthem is played. I notice bodies moving, twisting, contorting and gliding through air—nothing stopping them. I notice the athletes’ strength and hope that their eating, weight and body image is equally strong and reflects what is so apparent on the television screen. They are beautiful, powerful, accomplished and awesome. I notice their teeth, hair, skin, eyes—all the aspects that I notice in my office when assessing someone with an eating disorder. I notice that for most of them their weight is solid and they have looks of vitality and health.
I thought about how the images of our Olympic athletes vastly differ from the images of female and male models that slam the covers and inside pages of fashion magazines. If only the health and vitality that we value during Olympic season could prevail and be preferable to the waif thin, chronic dieting mentality that is ubiquitous in our culture. I am sure that there are Olympians who struggle with body image distortion, chronic dieting and eating disorders as there are waif thin individuals who eat normally, but just for once, perhaps forever, we can embrace the shift that occurs in our thinking about body size and shape during Olympic season and allow it to prevail long term. I wonder, as a result, what could become the shape of fashion magazines in the future.