Beauty Redefined Blog

Starving and Stifled: Women are Counting Calories Instead of Changing the World



By Vanessa Garcia (Originally published Sept. 5, 2014 in the Washington Post

quotation-marksI was lying in bed in my New York City apartment when the world went black. My breathing had gotten sluggish, and my heart felt like it was slowing down. I didn’t feel pressure in my chest, and I didn’t feel pain, just an overwhelming sense of tiredness and fatigue. A complete depletion of energy and the absolute inability to move. And then: black.

shutterstock_118593904I hadn’t eaten anything but gum and coffee for three days. Even before that, I’d been eating very little for weeks, months, even years. I was 24 years old and a full-fledged anorexic-bulimic.

It was 2003, and I was trying to launch my career as a writer. I had dreamed of publishing my first novel by then. Instead, between the ages of 15 and 29, I suffered from numerous bouts of anorexia and bulimia. I wasted my most promising years and what little energy I had obsessing over my weight.

My problem reached the extreme, but these kinds of unhealthy relationships with food are hardly uncommon for women. At every turn we see them: a woman counting calories, a woman dieting despite her normal weight, a woman cutting carbs or pretending she’s allergic to gluten so she doesn’t have to eat that slice of pizza at the office party. I have friends who spend three hours at the gym and run marathons on a diet of bananas. This isn’t an exaggeration. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 25 percent of college-aged women binge and purge as a form of weight-control.

College-educated women are leaning closer to the toilet bowl than to Sheryl Sandberg’s boardroom table. In the past several years, women have been speaking louder about gender discrepancies in the workplace, unfair pay and the paradoxes that arise out of trying to “have it all.” On the surface, 21st-century feminism seems to be booming. But even as writer Hanna Rosin proclaimed “The End of Men” in 2010, women were really the ones disappearing. Quite literally. According to a 2009 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

Women are starving themselves. They’re spending more time thinking about their calorie intake than how to change the world. It’s not just the severe disorders that we have to be wary of. In a 2008 survey by SELF magazine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 75 percent of women reported disordered eating patterns, 37 percent regularly skipped meals to lose weight, and 26 percent cut out entire food groups. The report concluded that “eating habits that women think are normal — such as banishing carbohydrates, skipping meals and in some cases extreme dieting — may actually be symptoms of disordered eating.”

More than just bodies magazine imageThe drivers of this illness are all around us. Models weigh as much as 30 percent less than their recommended weight and plus-size models are often as small as a size 6. The press tells us that Victoria Beckham lost her “baby weight” with the Five Hands Diet, which means she ate five fistfuls of food a day. And there are actresses such as Elizabeth Hurley, who notoriously told Allure magazine that she’s always “thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat.” Monroe was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and fluctuated between 118 and 140 pounds.

Even now, when songs like “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor hit the pop charts, I have to wonder if they are the solution or the problem. The song, touted as a healthy-sized woman’s anthem, is actually pretty demeaning considering that the only reason Trainor gives for being happy with her curves is that guys like them: “Yeah, my mama she told me don’t worry about your size/She says boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” 

Women have to take their bodies back. We can’t close gender gaps when we spend endless hours counting calories instead of cracking glass ceilings. We can’t gain self-assurance when body dysmorphia is so abundant. It takes a whole lot of strength, fuel and energy to push all of inequity’s baggage off of us.

I know exactly the kind of life that weight obsession leads to. I was shaken out of my blackout by an enormous push on my back, a big jolt and something — perhaps my inner voice – whispering, “You have too much left to do.” I realized that I was alone and that I could very likely die that way. I could waste away, along with my brain, my thoughts and everything I could possibly become. I put on my coat, went outside and bought a wrap. I tried to ingest it. It was painful, both physically and emotionally, but I wanted to live. This was the beginning of my recovery. Back then, I was 5 feet 5 inches tall and 100 pounds with a winter coat, sweaters, long underwear and boots on. (I only weighed myself fully dressed in winter, so if I weighed too much, I could blame it on the extra clothes.) It took five years from that moment — two of those in weekly therapy — for me to truly gain normalcy in my eating patterns. 

All I can think now is: What a waste of life. I think about the missed opportunities and the unmet goals I sacrificed because of the time and energy I wasted on cutting my weight. If I could talk to my 25-year-old self, I’d tell her,

“Your time is precious. Get help. Do it now. You have too many important things to do.”quotation-marks

Vanessa Garcia is a writer, playwright, and journalist. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of California Irvine. 

Amen, Vanessa. When girls and women are constantly fixated on calories, carbs, weight, shape and appearance, they are stunted in every other thought process or pursuit. Our health, happiness, relationships, education and contributions to the world are damaged and stifled when we are dedicating a steady, invisible stream of mental and physical energy to monitoring and controlling our appearances. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can take our power back by recognizing the forces that push us to fixate on our bodies and recognizing the amount of time and energy we often unwittingly devote to these distractions. Once we recognize how unnatural and stifling it is to prioritize the look of our bodies above all else, we can reject those messages, beliefs, and actions that keep us in those chains. We can fulfill the potential each of us have to contribute good to a world that needs our unique awesomeness.

You can use your pain — your dark, unhappy, hurtful thoughts and experiences relating to your body — as a platform to grow stronger. You can see more about yourself and the world, and be more than you could be without that pain. Not in spite of those hard experiences, but because of those hard experiences. This process is called Body Image Resilience, and it is within anyone’s reach who is willing to face body image problems head-on rather than coping with them through harmful means like disordered eating, cutting, abusing alcohol, or any other means of attempting to hide or fix our bodies.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.


  1. Wendy

    This is so interesting to me. I am now feeling a little sheltered. Most of the women I know who are watching what they eat, self included, are NOT counting calories. We ARE trying to be more health conscious. We are following the trends to eat more raw, whole, or real foods, to avoid processed foods. That takes TIME.

    Personally, I do it because I’m trying to fight pre-diabetes and an auto-immune disease. I am enjoying the subsequent benefits of a smaller waist but that was not my end goal. And I am surrounded by women who feel similarly, many of whom also have health concerns. We are reading the science, we are tired of being tired, we want to ward off modern diseases, and we are getting healthy.

    There are two points in your article that are speaking to me: the unnecessary fixation on appearance, which I agree with, and the amount of time wasted with efforts to get healthy, which I take issue with–though maybe if we sat down together to talk about it we wouldn’t see things so differently.

    Yes, there are definitely unhealthy diets out there that take time, and calorie counting without real guidance in what TO eat seems like a waste (ie., when I was eating my healthiest and most whole-foods diet, I never counted calories, but I ate enough oils, avocados, nuts, and grass fed beef that I’m sure my calorie count was sky high . . . and I lost a lot of weight). The reality is that eating truly healthy, non-processed foods does take time. But it is valuable time. Time we can spend with our family in the kitchen. Time enjoying the process of preparing good meals and eating them together. Time that will result in healthier bodies and minds that have the energy to reach outside of ourselves to make a difference for good in the world.

    And I suspect that time will also create stronger relationships in our families, which is the beginning of changing the world, isn’t it?

    • BR Admin
      BR Admin09-18-2014

      Wendy, you are talking about making healthy eating choices, but this article is addressing the huge percentage of girls and women that are doing the opposite of making healthy food choices — they are struggling with disordered eating and full-blown EDs that rob them of their health, their happiness, their lives. EDs have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. That is scary, and this unhealthy relationship with food and weight and looks obsession is part of what we focus on at Beauty Redefined. Healthy eating is GREAT, healthy lifestyle choices are IDEAL, but resorting to unhealthy extremes to fit unattainable looks-based ideals is incredibly dangerous. And that’s what this post is addressing.

  2. Jake

    Why are we always mentioning eating disorders like bulemia and anorexia but it seems forbidden here to talk about the rising obesity in this site? The rise in obesity in the Western world is alongside with the rise of metabolic diseases. Not only that, you arent hammering enough the processed food culture in the US to developing nations which now has created a dual problem: malnutrition and obesity. This site only criticizes processed food when its related to “dieting”.

    Bad eating habits resulting obesity seem to be a taboo here. You have to address that ALONGSIDE with the increase in obesity to create a more accurate picture of a healthy person – one that is not starving to death but not literally eating themselves to death either.

    You also need to address the demonization of size 0. Size 0 in the US will fit a person with 24 or 25 inch waist which is perfectly normal and healthy for people who are 5’2 and below. But hey, the average waist of American women is 32 inches which has already went over the healthy limit. Waist size for women 30 inches and above is at higher risk of metabolic disease due to more visceral fat.
    In this case, numbers DO matter. Body fat % matter too and they’re numbers too. Too many excess fat does not do good to ones health

    Also, i would like you to dig up the history of skinny shaming. Contrary to popular believe, thin people weren’t always the “beauty standard”. This is evidenced by many ads in the 40s and 50s portrayed them as unattractive especially in “weight gain” products that are likely not even effective. You can google many of those ads. So “thin privilege” is an illusion. The perceived thin privelege stemmed from thin shaming in the 40s and 50s.. up to Twiggy. Things just got reverse that time…which is the same thing we are seeing now. The shaming is switching back to thin shaming from fat shaming. And when people say they are not happy with the growing thin shaming, people shout “thin privelege”. If we follow that logic, we can say there fat privelege from the 30s up to the 60s…

    If you are for real positive body image, thin or fat shaming should be condemned without throwing the phrase “thin privelege” when people put the thin shaming into the discussion table

    Which brings me to my point: the media is merely a SYMPTOM of the society. Blaming the media will hardly make a change as they at best just follow trends. The bigger problem is the Western materialistic attitude of “keeping up with the joneses”. If people arent comparing themselves to tv stars or model, theyre comparing themselves to their neighbors with the desire to outdo their imagined competitor.

    • April

      I think this comment is completely missing the core purpose of this website and its founding organization. As far as I can tell, this organization’s purpose is to help individuals to realize the amazing value and gift that their bodies are and to realize that we should not embrace a diet, exercise, or surgery for the purpose of changing the way we look physically. I think that the belief of the founders of this organization is that if we do healthy things for our bodies, that is wonderful, but let’s not make the change in our physical appearance the MOTIVATION for doing healthy and wonderful things for our bodies.

      I don’t think that deciding whether or not processed foods are good for us, whether or not a size 0 is healthy, or what percent body fat we should all have, is the purpose of this organization. Whether it is “skinny shaming” or “fat shaming” the issue is the same; it results in people taking measures to change the way they look so that they will be accepted by others and even by themselves. (Again, it is the motivation that is harmful here.) Either way, society and media has defined what beauty is, and as individuals we are prone to accept those definitions, and from that point on, we do, say, and think harmful things to ourselves and others.

      When a person dismisses the power of media in this issue, they are either uninformed, or are not willing to see the truth of the matter. When you take the time and energy to REALLY look into it in depth, it is more than clear that the media problem is not just a symptom, but is very much a driving force in this cultural problem. It IS a huge problem in our culture, with money-making (either directly or indirectly) at the core, and it pervades every layer of our lives. And yes, keeping up with the Joneses is also a problem as well (also influenced by media).

      I am grateful that this organization is taking a stand and trying to help individuals see their way out of the emotional and mental mess (and even physical) that these social and media lies have left them in. So thank you for all you do.

    • KK

      I could not have said it better. People these days feel the need to tell a skinny person they’re starving themselves for the sake of looking good, and to go eat a sandwich to be “normal”. Normal is different for everyone, and someone who strives to have a healthy lifestyle should not be demonized. BR is not a bad organization, as I agree with a lot of their views, but I feel like thin shaming is not addressed as much as fat shaming is, therefore perpetuating the idea that fat acceptance is okay. Being obese is not okay, it is unhealthy, just as much as being anorexic, or bulimic is.

      Thin privilege is not a thing. Let it go.

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