The role art can play
Reprinted from the "Body Image" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (1), p. 32
There isn’t a particular day or moment that I can look back on and say, “That is exactly when I became anorexic.” Many things came together to facilitate my anorexia. I can identify a tipping point, though, when an eating disorder seemed inevitable.
My mother told me in the fifth grade that if I didn’t lose weight, she would teach me how to throw up my food, just like she had done when she was younger. She said this as we stood at the bathroom mirror together. She was looking at my reflection with revulsion. I knew then that I was disgusting. To my 11-year-old self, this did not feel like an opinion. It felt like a fact, the way that gravity feels like a fact.
I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in my mother’s magazines or on the television shows we watched. No one in these stories was both fat and happy. I wanted to be pretty and thin. It seemed like if I could only be pretty and thin, then I could be happy.
In school I was teased about my weight and I constantly felt ashamed. There wasn’t any relief from the teasing and the shame when I got home. When my mom suggested I start purging my food, it didn’t take long for me to act on it. I discovered calories and began to count the calories of everything I ate. I started going to the gym with my mom and exercising obsessively. I went without food. My weight loss was met with compliments and excitement from friends and family—a sharp contrast to how I had been treated before.
But I didn’t stop losing weight. I lost, and lost and lost weight. I felt proud of myself when I went an entire day without food. I stopped seeing friends and stopped talking in school. Losing weight and denying myself food became my life. Little else remained, except for my love of drawing.
I made my first self-portrait when I was 12. I was used to looking in the mirror and judging myself, thinking fat or ugly at my reflection. But when I was drawing myself, I didn’t think that way. Instead, I was thinking about shapes, value, colour. It’s hard to hate a shape. As I drew my reflection, paying special attention to the shape of my cheek bones and eye sockets, I began to really see myself. I had dark circles under my eyes. My face was incredibly thin. I looked very sad. I had thought that if I was thin I would be happy, but that idea crumbled as I made this self-portrait. I realized then that my weight loss hadn’t made me happy—and it wasn’t ever going to.
This doesn’t mean that I instantly began eating regularly again, or thinking that I was beautiful and had value. But it was a turning point—the beginning of a journey towards health.
Later, in my seventh-grade health class, I learned what an eating disorder was. I recognized myself and my eating patterns in the definition of anorexia. Before that, I hadn’t really known how to express what I was doing. Being able to name my anorexia meant I could talk about it directly, which made me feel empowered.
I first openly addressed my anorexia in an essay I wrote for my eighth-grade English class. I called the essay “Those Big Sad Eyes” and put my first self-portrait on the cover. Around the same time, a close friend began to challenge me whenever I said hateful things about my body; she would counter my negativity and tell me I was beautiful.
Gradually, things began to change. I let go of counting calories. I started eating foods that I had previously forbidden myself. I returned to a healthy weight with the increase of calories to my diet. I was still obsessive about exercise, but started to put that energy into playing tennis for my high-school varsity team. My mom no longer commented on my weight, but there was always something to get into a fight about.
I see now that I grew up in a very unstable environment; my relationship with my mother was volatile, and my home life was chaotic. Anorexia was my way of controlling something amid that chaos. When I was fifteen, I moved out of my mother’s house and chose to live with my father full-time.
I began to talk and write about my experiences with anorexia, and I continued making self-portraits. Finding people to talk to about my experience has been central in my recovery. Art has also been incredibly important. Creating art lets me process my emotions, memories and experiences in a productive way. Through my art making, I also started to create my own definition of beautiful, one that could include me.
As a college student, I started to tackle the concept of body image head-on with my painting. First, I created paintings that reflected my own experience with eating disorders and body shame—as well as my experiences with trauma (in college I was sexually assaulted). While it was hard to address these issues publicly, it was also a release.
When I had the courage to show my work publicly, an incredible thing happened: people came up to me and said, “It happened to me, too.” These people shared with me their own stories of survival—surviving eating disorders, sexual assault and body shame. As a young girl starving herself, and later as a college student coping with the aftermath of sexual assault, I had felt alone. But when I shared my artwork, I realized there was a community for me.
I went on to create The Body Joy Project with my two friends, Charlotte Dean and Gabriela Ayala. The Body Joy Project is a feminist artist collective, a group of like-minded artists who create art together from a feminist perspective. We create pieces that critique how our culture thinks about the body. We strive to reveal the beauty in all people, no matter their body type, race or gender. Together, we’ve learned that developing a positive body image takes practice. Daily practice. As I continue to paint myself and other survivors, my own ideas of what it means to be beautiful and strong continue to change.
I would love to say that I’m no longer anorexic. But that wouldn’t be the whole truth. Anorexia feels like a possibility that lives inside of me still, even though I am healthy and happy and have found a way to love myself.
Anorexia is a form of self-harm but it also feels like an old friend—a friend whom I know isn’t good for me but with whom I feel comfortable. When I am really stressed, I often find myself thinking things like, “Maybe I need to detox. What if I just try a juice fast?” I know that, for me, a juice fast is something I should not do, in much the same way that an alcoholic knows not to take that first drink.
I became anorexic gradually. Learning to love my body has happened gradually too. Day by day, I deliberately choose to love my body and to value myself. I do this by continuing to make self-portraits, by eating well, by playing tennis and doing yoga.
If you find yourself struggling with body image, take it day by day. Find something that you love to do and do it often. Pay attention to how your body feels instead of what it looks like. Eat food that is delicious and makes your body feel good. There may be moments when you feel bad about yourself, but know that you are always worthy of love. The positive things you do for yourself will add up over time. You will begin to see yourself as you are: beautiful, valuable and strong.
About the author
Chloe is a painter, writer and co-founder of The Body Joy Project, a feminist artist collective. She creates work that reconsiders how our culture thinks about the body. Chloe is also co-creator of Daisy Donk, a body-positive online clothing store. Chloe is pursuing an MFA at Laguna College of Art and Design