The Bastardization of Beauty: Sick or Sexy?

Several years ago, my sister-in-law died of a rare form of cancer.  She was strangled from the inside out by something called pseudo-myxoma peritonei, or jellybelly.  A gelatinous cancer grows and cuts off inner organs, in her case, her digestive system.  Every few years, over a decade, she would have surgery to scrape out the substance, until there was just too much to remove.  Then, she quite literally starved to death.  Horrifying and sad. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, ever.

However, being a woman who could go up and down in her weight range, especially as she aged,  Lori could enjoy at least one thing during the final years when she was sickly thin: the compliments, the size zero bragging rights.  “You look so Fabulous!”. And she almost seemed to forget that this had nothing to do with her choice. She was proud.  But then the end came near, and she was thinner, then even thinner, too tired to enjoy her model-like figure.

Yet the compliments continued.  She could only eat certain foods pureed, which would then mostly be emptied through a thick tube surgically attached to her belly.  Chew, swallow, remove. Not everyone knew that.  So you’d think that the people who asked, “What’s your secret?” could be forgiven.  However, our attachment to the svelte image is so powerful, that no, even those who knew Lori was dying, were an eesny bit envious of the fact that she was wearing  a teenager’s leggings.

This five foot seven woman who wasted away in front of our eyes was America’s standard of beauty. The constant imagery of The Thin has really screwed up our value system.

A year after she died, her sister, another of my dear SILs,  (which we affectionately address one another as Sissel) began having health problems of a different sort.  She has always had food issues, one week allergic to something, the next not.  Can’t eat chicken, can eat chicken.  Avoided sugar, yet jammed anything sweet into her mouth before she could stop herself. She, like the majority of women, began to battle her growing weight as she moved closer to middle age.

About six years ago, she was diagnosed with IGG deficiency. an autoimmune disease.  This helps explain her fluctuating food reactions.  Then last year, her Celiac artery was semi-blocked. Surgery successfully opened it.  Though no tests can show that her system has shut down, no test can illustrate a blockage anywhere, she is certain that she has gastroparesis or an intestinal blockage; she is able to eat hardly anything.  Gastroparesis is when the duodenum, the sphincter at the bottom of the stomach is paralyzed.

Her doctor goes along with it and uses the term gastroparesis loosely, believing my Sissel when she says she is full, nauseated, unable to eat another bite. My  SIL will swing between a diet of certain extremely bland (and fat-free) foods, a total liquid diet and nothing, stating that she just cannot eat another bite. The other day, my mother-in-law threw her annual corned beef and cabbage party, complete with Shamrocks and Irish Ditties.  When the rest of us, who ate like kings complained about “tickin'”, my SIL chimed in about how huge and uncomfortable she was, complaining about how hard it is to eat and nourish herself.

She had indulged in a calorie free bottle of Sobe, a soft cooked baby carrot, and half a water cracker (and those last two only because she just couldn’t resist.).  Her brother, my husband, asked her why she was drinking calorie free drinks if even water fills her up?  Good point.  If one supposedly cannot get sufficient calories without pain and effort, shouldn’t every sip have a calorie if possible? Well, she answered, she just doesn’t want sugar to be her calorie load.  She reports that her body can only digest about 800 calories a day and then seems to shut down, get backed up, become painful, nauseated. She wants her drinks to be for hydration only.  Yet even the calorie free drinks fill and block her.

Confusing.

Though the only evidence of a medical issue at this point is anecdotal, though we get conflicting illogical info from her all the time, we are all expected to play along, and feel sympathetic to this gastroparesis.  And we do.  The woman weighs herself every morning and evening.  This supposedly tells her if she is facing a few days of severe indigestion as her food just sits in her bowels, unmoving.  This weight change of a pound or two upward, lets her know she is about to be backed up.  Who cares that. EVERYone weighs more at the end of the day; she sees this as a sign and stops eating anything but a low calorie liquid diet.

I know that she might be right. She might really have a true medical event going on; she and her sister have had the rarest of conditions.  But then again, she might have an eating disorder.  Or she very well might be reliving her sister’s experience, sort of like men who suffer phantom pregnancies.  The two were very close, and Lori’s loss was painful for everyone.

Sissel has dropped 45 lbs. She hovers just beneath 100 lbs. Five foot 5..  If she drops below that, she will be forced on a feeding tube. Her legs look like a child’s, her ribs pronounced.  I feel sympathetic pain believing they might break just looking at them. She sleeps too much now, struggles to work because she lacks energy, literally.  800 calories ain’t much.

But again, everyone thinks SIL looks great!  (And they aren’t being kind and mannerly. They mean it. They wish. They envy. . . They joke about how to catch her “disease.”) SIL has been happily posting fresh pictures of her newly slender frame on FB.  Before that, she never bothered with Selfies. She has taken to wearing clinging clothes.  Her husband says how bitter sweet it is to see her wear things she hasn’t been able to fit in for over twenty-five years. Her mother’s friends compliment her on looking like a teenager.  My SIL loves this attention.  So do they.

Another close friend of ours spent last summer with a fever,  vomiting everything. Doctors finally found a perforation in her bowels. A possibly deadly diagnosis. They saved her, but not before she lost fifty lbs. Again, the compliments rolled in. She felt like hell for months as she healed, but even her mother began sniping about how beautiful she was now; don’t regain the weight. (Her mother has actually been hospitalized for an eating disorder.)

My husband and I discussed how insidious this imagery-this thinking- is. When we reverse the gender, the underweight physique is so obvious, even deplorable.  If my husband weighed 120 lbs., or even 140 lbs, comparably adjusted for his height and gender to match my sisters’ puny sizes, would anyone ogle him with delight?  Would any woman admit that this man would then be her sexual ideal the way some men can only be sexually attracted to emaciated women?  Tony loses three pounds, and the whole family thinks he is sick or working too hard.  But folks everywhere find malnourishment in women intoxicating.

I can’t. Not anymore. Take the show Modern Family: I see voluptuous Sophia Vergaro as a beauty; I now watch Julie Bowen uncomfortably, who if you review her career, is a skeleton of her former self. She didn’t get that way as she aged, naturally.

I know there are certain people who are genetically thin-ectomorphs make up a small portion of the American population.  But my two sisters and my friend, even Julie Bowen, aren’t those people.   My Sissel says she is already looking at a menu that will help her keep her new figure should she ever eat normally again. . .How does she not see the flaw in her design? To remain that small demands she doesn’t eat normally.

I’m also aware now of how few calories someone must choose to eat if they are middle aged and want to be as thin as my sister. Way too few.  Undernourishingly few.  To do so, those dieters are denying themselves not only the pleasure of food, but health.

I know that culture often defines what we perceive.  But seriously, has culture gone so far down the skinny path that we no longer recognize illness, physical (or even mental).  We now think, oh, such beauty, when we are actually seeing self-denial, self-punishment, anorexia, even death?

I know this is not an original complaint.  But really, just like we had to push to change the habit of getting a dark tan to remembering to wear sun screen, can we change the image of sexy back to something safer in women?  Can we look at a woman who weighs 142 lbs. and think, lovely, healthy, centered, sexy, ever again? I’ll bet Sophia Vergaro isn’t 100 lbs.

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