[Trigger Warning for disordered eating and cancer.]
Last week my friend Nadia wrote this excellent post about shaving. During the writing process she asked me (by way of research) whether I shaved my legs, and why or why not.
I told her that I don’t shave my legs, because feeling my skin that smooth reminds me of when I was in treatment for cancer and the chemotherapy made all my hair fall out. Feeling hair on my legs makes me feel healthy, robust, victorious.
. . . Most of the time. Sometimes it’s not that simple! Sometimes I shave my legs because wearing tights or pantyhose with hair on my legs feels really weird, and I want to wear tights or pantyhose. Sometimes I crave the ritual of shaving, because in the moment it makes me feel extra-feminine. I have shaved in the past for romantic partners who preferred my legs smooth, because I figured they’re going to be touching my legs more than I am, so why not?
But every time I shave my legs or don’t shave my legs, it’s my choice. My body is mine, to do with as I please. Feminism isn’t about shaving legs or not shaving them – it’s about every person, of any gender, having full ownership over their own bodies and no ownership over anyone else’s.
But Nadia has already written eloquently and excellently on this topic. Today I want to talk more about the thoughts her question raised for me. About how my appearance was different when I had cancer, and how I related to that difference.
So here we go: I am not a thin person. I will never be a thin person! My body does not want to be thin, and besides, I have a really intense emotional relationship with cheese. (I love you, cheese. Never leave me.) I am a strong, healthy, active person – but not a thin one. I am 5’4” tall and for most of my adult life I have weighed around 165 pounds. (The urge to lie and tell you a lower number is OH SO STRONG but considering the secrets we’ve already shared, internet, I think I can give you my real weight).
At the most intense part of my cancer treatment, after I had been too sick to eat for weeks, I made it all the way down to 130 pounds. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? I have friends who weigh way less than that, who are healthy and happy! The BMI calculator thinks 130 pounds should put me right in the middle of the “normal” range for my height. (The BMI calculator also thinks my current weight puts me just shy of obesity. The BMI calculator can go jump off a cliff).
On me, 130 pounds is scary skinny. I was on IV nutrition for several weeks – a big yellow bag dripping calories into my system. I was given Gatorade to drink instead of water, because it was a source of sugar that I could stomach. As soon as I was well enough to eat, my mom would get me high on medical marijuana and feed me a steady supply of ham, Bagel Bites, and Snickers ice cream bars. (No paid endorsements here – I was just always really into those three things when I was high).
And I loved it. I was 19, and for the first time in my life, I was thin! For the first time in my life, I could eat whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted, and not feel guilty. Every time the doctors weighed me and fretted over the low numbers, I celebrated (secretly, of course, because I knew I was supposed to be worried too). Between my treatments, if I was well enough, I would go to the mall with friends and try on clothes just to see what size I was. (A size 6! Finally, a size 6!)
This is how heavy my guilt had been, just for existing in my own body. This is how intense, how omnipresent, its weight on my mind was – that my relief at not feeling it cut through the reality of having cancer. Through the nausea, through the pain, through the dilaudid and the atavan, through the constant specter of my own possible death, was interwoven the blissful thought that at least, at least I wasn’t “fat” anymore.
Of course, when I ended my treatments and was well enough to eat consistently, I gained weight quickly (nearly 30 pounds in two months). My body was in recovery mode, so it told me I was starving all the time, and stored those calories as fat against future deprivations. I tried to fight it. I tried so damn hard. I went to the gym every day, even though I was barely strong enough to get to my classes. I tried to eat less, even though the constant hunger was so bad sometimes that I cried. But nothing I did could stop me from gaining weight, and I hated it. I hated myself.
Gaining weight was the betrayal I hated my body for. Not getting cancer and almost killing me. Gaining weight. And it gave me an enormous amount of guilt and shame to carry at a time when I was already struggling to get back on my feet.
I’m going to go ahead and state the obvious: This is deeply messed up.
But guess what? This happens all the time.
When I expressed concern about my weight gain to one of my doctors, he told me that eating disorders were “really common” among girls my age after cancer treatment, and that I “should really try not to worry” about the weight gain. Can we all take a moment to contemplate how horrifying that is? (Also, please never respond to someone telling you they are anxious with “don’t worry.” It. never. helps.)
When I started writing this article, I looked around for research to support my doctor’s comment about eating disorders being common in young female patients post-treatment. I couldn’t find any studies, which isn’t too surprising – most cancer research resources are devoted to improving treatment outcomes and survival rates, as they should be. In under two minutes, however, I had found depressingly large amounts of anecdotal evidence.
Take, for instance, this article by a woman who had an eating disorder prior to her cancer diagnosis, and talks about her struggles not to relapse while on treatment. The comments are full of people – specifically, women – sharing their struggles with weight gain and loss during cancer, and they are so full of shame and pain.*
Why do these women have to deal with shame on top of everything else in their lives? Why did I have to deal with that? Why does anyone, ever, have to feel ashamed of the body that carries them through this life?
We all do, though. All of us, at some point, have felt ashamed, self-conscious, insufficient. And we shouldn’t have to.
. . .
I’m going to get into the societal forces behind why so many of us feel this way in another article, because this one is pretty long already. For now I will leave you with this:
I’m almost 24 now. I have been in remission from my cancer for four and a half years – the five year “cure” mark is so close I can taste it. And most of the time, I love my body. I have forgiven it for getting cancer, and for not fitting in with an oppressive societal standard. When my brain relives its old thought patterns, and starts spitting hatred at me for having a belly and thighs, I turn away from those thoughts as gently as I can. I take comfort in this poem by Mary Oliver:You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
When I think about that time in my life, I feel so much compassion for my 19 year old self, and so much anger towards a system that had me absolutely convinced that my worth as a person was equivalent to a number on a scale. I feel compassion and anger for all the people, young and old, who are still suffering under the same delusion.
Does it make you angry? Because you know, it really should. It should make you furious.
It makes me want to burn every magazine, smash every television, go up to each and every person who is hurting in this way and will them into believing they are beautiful and worthy.
I get that I can’t do that. But I can share my story. And I can ask for your stories. And I can share the stories of people like this young woman, who is so much wiser than I was at that age. And I can tell you, every chance I get, that you are okay. You are good enough. You really, honestly, are.