A few days ago, I found myself thick in a conversation with a young woman who, for the purposes of this conversation, we’ll call Maggie. Maggie is your average young woman: Struggling to find her voice, to fit in, to feel comfortable in skin that’s still growing … in all directions. She’s occasionally timid, rarely draws attention to herself, and absorbs the messages all around her with little discernment.
The conversation began as we looked over a menu at a restaurant where a group of us were eating, including one of her parents. Maggie then began to assert several things about her eating preferences at this meal; the statements raised red warning flags for me, so I attempted to push back with open-ended questions to root down at what she was really feeling. It started with a discussion about whether to order an appetizer. Maggie demurred, saying she didn’t want one. I mentioned I was thinking about ordering one. She said, “I can only have one bite of appetizer.”
You’d have worried, too, right?
You’d have especially worried if you knew her, if you knew this young woman as the perfectly healthy person she is. Not even the obese-phobic medical community would look at her and say, “Yeah, you could stand to lose a few pounds.” Even by the famously flawed BMI scale, she’s in the healthy range.
Also: She also sometimes behaves in such a way that makes the adults around her worry she feels like she doesn’t fit in. So these words sounded my alarm bells, and I began to probe. Below is the conversation I jotted down on my phone immediately afterwards, because I didn’t want to forget any of it. Suffice it to say, though, I’m not sure I’ll forget this one for a long, long time.
Maggie: “I want to eat as little as possible.”
Liz: “Why is that?”
M: “To be more healthy.”
L: “Why’s that?”
M: “I’d like to be skinny.”
L: “I’ve thought that many times myself. What do you think would change about your life if you were more skinny?”
M: “I would be happy.”
L: “What about being skinny would make you happy?”
M: “I would be more healthy.”
L: “There’s a lot of research that suggests there’s not a great correlation between being skinny and being healthy. Do you feel you’re unhealthy now?”
M: “OK, I want to be skinny AND healthy.”
L: “You are beautiful, just as you are.”
M: “I want to have a flatter stomach.”
L: “I’m not trying to hassle you, but I’m kind of worried about you. You are already healthy and don’t have a lot of extra weight on you. Eating ‘as little as possible’ at your age can really have negative consequences on your health. I don’t want you to make decisions based on what you think you have to do to fit in. You are beautiful just as you are.”
M: “I just want to be skinny … FOR ME. Not for anyone else.”
What do you say? How do you respond?
This breaks my heart, friends, BREAKS. MY. HEART.
Maggie’s parental unit stood by, quietly, trying not to intervene. I understand the difficult position. I understand the fear of sending harmful signals to one’s child. It’s a freaking minefield that none of us knows how to navigate well, and my heart breaks that this vibrant, healthy, kind young woman has decided that she won’t be happy unless and until she has an impossibly flat stomach.