Being Thin is Just Another Way We Try to Follow 'the Rules'—but at What Cost?
At first glance, Mary Cain and I do not have a lot in common. She is a running superstar who, at age 17, was the youngest American track and field athlete to make a World Championships team. I am a former indoor child who is moderately flexible in yoga, and once held the record for slowest ever completed mile for my middle school’s 8th grade Presidential Physical Fitness testing. (15:45, in case you’re wondering if you can beat that.)
But there was a moment, in the video she made for the New York Times opinion section last November, where I recognized myself. After describing her teenage running career, Cain looked straight at the camera and added, with a slight smile: “And I was a straight A student.” She included this detail to mean that she was hyper-disciplined, a rule follower — a Good Girl. This made Cain great. And this made her vulnerable. Because once she joined Nike’s elite Oregon Project team, Cain says, she was subjected to three years of emotional and physical abuse from coaches who pressured her to make her body as small as possible because they believed it would improve her performance. Instead, it nearly destroyed her.
I was a straight A student too. But this isn’t about grades. Every woman recognizes the Good Girl thing when we see it, because we live it. The Good Girl was who we were trying to be when we got those grades and did all our homework; when we learned to share and sit quietly at our desks and raise our hands while the boys shoved each other and spoke out of turn. And the Good Girl is who we’re still trying to be when we white-knuckle through the deprivation of yet another diet, when we apologize for taking the second brownie, when we laugh off the creepy comment of a male colleague, when we smile and clear the plates at a dinner party while the men continue to make their loud and important points, when we get up with the baby again because our husband “just doesn’t hear him,” when we drag ourselves back to the gym even though we’d rather sleep because we haven’t lost the baby weight yet. I haven’t done all of these things, but I’ve done most and many others and I know you have more to add to that list. A Good Girl makes herself smaller in a thousand different ways, a thousand different times a day, because she knows that’s what the world expects of her.
In one sense, a lot of us are luckier than Mary Cain. We make ourselves just small enough but get to keep our menstrual cycles and our careers, if we’ve chosen one that doesn’t depend too much on the size or shape of our body. Some of us don’t feel that lucky though, because we never get all that small — and if your body is big or brown or queer or all of the above, then it doesn’t matter how hard you try to follow the rules. Laura Westmoreland, now a therapist in private practice in Century City, California, remembers trying to make herself smaller to please other people. “I was a curvy teenager, so I was sent to a dietitian so I wouldn’t have a ‘weight problem,’” she recalls. “I went, I lost a lot of weight, and I gained an eating disorder.”
Westmoreland learned lots of tricks for restricting her food intake, and then, tricks for disguising how much she was restricting, so nobody would worry about the lengths she was going to, to get the body they wanted her to have. And everyone praised her “success” — until she started to regain the weight. It took almost 20 years of extreme dieting to realize she needed treatment for her eating disorder. After all, most of the diets she tried were advised by adults she trusted or later, prescribed by healthcare providers who claimed to only want what was best for her and her body. “As women, we’re trained to be nice, do good, and be thin,” she says. “Whenever I lost weight, people would be so happy, and it tapped into that good girl thing of ‘this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ When it didn’t work, it was, ‘I’m so lazy, I have no willpower, there’s something inherently wrong with me.’”
In this way, the extremes meet in the middle: Cain’s eating disorder was ignored because she was fulfilling everyone’s expectations for her. Westmoreland’s was denied because she didn’t look sick enough. And they were both viewed as somehow complicit in the problem — Cain because she was too driven, too competitive, Westmoreland because she must be too lazy and lacking in discipline.
The #MeToo movement (and decades of activism before it) has worked hard to teach us that rape victims don’t “ask for it;” that it doesn’t matter what you wear or how much your drink or whether you married him—you always have the right to refuse sexual activity. But when we talk about women with eating disorders, it’s always with a degree of blame. “Why can’t you just eat,” we say to the restrictor. “Why can’t you just stop eating,” we say to the binger. We don’t understand that their struggles are the same—that binges are triggered by restriction, that the person in the big body has restricted just as intensely as many very small people with anorexia, but just isn’t genetically programmed to get that small. We don’t understand that women are not willfully participating in the destruction of our bodies. We have been coerced and shamed and pushed there by our culture. Rape isn’t about sex and diets aren’t about health—they are both about control.
We need to talk more about this control. Because it’s easy to label women as control freaks—if we’re obsessive about our diet or our workout routine or how organized our kitchen cabinets are. The Good Girl cares a lot about these things; she follows an elaborate evening skincare routine and packs perfect Bento box lunches for her children so they too can “eat the rainbow” (which is code for, eat fruits, vegetables and not much else). Taken individually, any one of these habits may be healthy, soothing, an act of “self-care.” But collectively they offer the illusion of control that the Good Girl accepts in lieu of the real thing. If she really owned her body, she could decide for herself if she wanted to eat a salad or a plate of salami for lunch; if she wanted to go for a run or sleep an extra hour, if she wanted to girl, wash her face like the Christian mega-influencer mom and lifestyle guru Rachel Hollis says she must, or just fall asleep already.
Mary Cain isn’t the only brave female athlete to speak out about her mistreatment in recent years. In gymnastics, Olympic gold medalist Aly Railman and dozens of her teammates exposed decades of sexual abuse by the team’s doctor, Larry Nassar (now serving a 175-year prison sentence for these crimes). In soccer, Megan Rapinoe is leading the fight to end gender-based wage discrimination. In tennis, Serena Williams has become arguably the best athlete in the world by smashing just about every sexist, racist preconception anyone has ever had about what a female body can do.
Together these women have the power to improve conditions in their individual sports but also, far more broadly, across the diet and fitness industries that profit off their bodies while selling the rest of us running shoes, workout tights, and unrealistic body size expectations. But to get there, we need to see a knitting together of some seemingly disparate conversations. We need to recognize that it’s the same spectrum of toxic power dynamics that enables the long-time cover-up of sexual abuse, the long-time normalization of an enormous pay gap, and the long-time reinforcement of disordered attitudes about weight and health. The way we tell girls to ignore their hunger or push through the pain of a workout dovetails completely with what we teach them about sex: That it’s something that happens to us, and that it should be some blurry experience of feeling ashamed about your body and your natural instincts, boundaries, and needs. It’s time to reject this version of control and instead, help girls and women listen to our bodies and trust both our appetites and our boundaries, without shame.
Not everybody having these conversations is ready to connect these dots. The Body Positivity movement began as social justice, but on social media, too quickly, has become about pretty-if-plump, mostly white women posing in swimsuits. (I should know. I posted one.) These photos are intended to celebrate body diversity; to adjust our eyes to the very normal human truth that women’s bodies are not all tiny, taut, and pore-less. But we use filters, lighting and certain poses to maintain our sense of control over these images and when we do, we continue to reinforce the idea that a Good Girl’s body is her power.
That’s the kind of woman we see in power, after all: Oprah, for example, has long championed the rights of sexual assault survivors while also investing in Weight Watchers, now branded WW, so she can perpetually lose, gain and re-lose the same fifty pounds. Gwyneth Paltrow helped investigative reporters with the New York Times take down Harvey Weinstein while continuing to build her GOOP empire on cabbage soup detoxes and goat’s milk cleanses. And Beyoncé, who made the word “feminist” cool again when she performed in front of the word on a giant screen during her 2016 world tour, talks openly in her 2019 documentary “Homecoming” about starving herself to lose weight after the birth of her twins in 2018. But to be a woman holding onto an Oprah/Gwyneth/Beyoncé level of power in this world, right now, involves a super-human level of control—they may be trailblazers, but they are also the very good-est of Good Girls, playing our culture’s games of power and money like they elite athletes they are. The rest of us don’t have to try that hard. We don’t have to be that good.
And that means, we can fight back.
Virginia Sole-Smith writes about food, body image and feminism. She’s the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and makes excellent pasta sauce.