‘Miss Americana’ and my disordered eating journey
Ashton Weber | Monday, February 24, 2020
Armed with a doctor’s note that forbade me from returning to classes for three whole days, I spent the quarantine time lounging on my futon, watching movie after movie after TV show after movie. One of the films I watched during my 3-day influenza bender was Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana” on Netflix.
It was good. Like really, really good. It made me laugh and it brought tears to my eyes. It was honest and real and I exclusively listened to Taylor Swift music for the next six days.
But it also made me think for the next six days about my disordered eating behaviors.
I recognize how sensitive this topic is and would strongly advise anyone who might find the next several hundred words triggering to just stop reading and go do something nice for yourself. As one of my icons, Glennon Doyle, says: “I love you, warriors.”
I’ve always had an unhealthy-ish relationship with food. When I was younger, I ate a normal amount of a diverse range of foods and didn’t think much of it. Except, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I live with obsessive-compulsive disorder. So I guess nothing I do is “normal.”
In 2005, the USDA launched a new program to teach kids about food and health. It was called MyPyramid (now, it’s MyPlate) and it was released alongside a snazzy website that my 5-year-old self was beyond stoked to scour. I started filling out food logs and reading up on calories. I learned how to read a nutritional facts label somewhere between 2005 and 2010. I’d say that in hindsight, my struggle with food began there.
When I was in the pre-pubescent age range, I started to really understand that being skinny made you “good” in the eyes of the world. And people called me skinny all the time, so I must’ve been good.
In her documentary, Swift speaks to the fact that she based her entire moral code on being a “good girl.” I felt like she was reading my diary or something because, for the longest time, that’s what I did too.
This whole “good girl” complex is problematic not only because it’s grounded in privilege, but also because it just isn’t real. It’s not possible to make everyone happy all the time, and if you spend your life trying to please the whole world, you’re always going to be disappointed. And I’ve always known that.
But when I was 12 years old, 5’8” and still growing, I hadn’t gotten my first period yet, and it was still physically possible to have no body fat. In that year, the first comment every family friend or distant family member or stranger in the line at Costco would make upon seeing me was:
“Wooooooow! You’re so tall and skinny! You should be a model.”
So, during my formative years, that’s what I grounded my identity in being. Tall and skinny.
Sophomore year of high school, I finally gained that weight everyone does after a few years of menstruation. My woman body had arrived. I was horrified. I was still tall. I was still skinny. But I was no longer underweight.
I found a diagram on Pinterest later that year. It showed how tall female celebrities are, relative to their weight. It claimed that Taylor Swift was 5’10” and 120 pounds. A quick run through a BMI calculator said this would mean she was underweight. That didn’t matter to me. I immediately set the goal weight on my Fitbit tracker to 120. I was 5’10”. Why couldn’t I be 120 pounds, too?
Throughout high school, I experimented with “healthy eating” every few months. One day, I would look in the mirror and feel a little more bloated than usual. That afternoon, I would sit down and write out a whole plan to get myself on a healthier (read: skinnier) track. With my rainbow of gel pens, I scribbled out meal plans and fitness plans and I’d get excited to live my new lifestyle. After a few weeks, the novelty of the plan would wear off and I’d stop adhering so strictly. But then I’d have costume fittings for ballet class or it would be summer and I’d need to buy a new swimsuit or I’d just look a little puffy in the mirror one day and the cycle would repeat.
I know that these stories probably make me sound awful and privileged and I’m still struggling to figure out how to overcome that part, but my experience was real. And I didn’t realize how common it is until this school year.
At one point in “Miss Americana,” Swift explains that she encountered a time in her life when an image of herself on a magazine or TV that she deemed unflattering could send her into a spiral of disordered eating.
“That would just trigger me to just … starve a little bit,” she said. “Just stop eating.”
And I got it. It’s not like I would ever quit food altogether. Instead, I’d start restricting and limiting and counting. I’d eat a protein bar for breakfast and an apple for lunch and salad for dinner. Always enough food to survive and enough to keep other people off my trail. But never enough to keep myself in a good mood. Never enough to be happy.
Last semester, I got used to having starvation headaches by 3 p.m. every day. I was dehydrated and my stomach grumbled all the time.
I realized I had a serious problem, but I didn’t binge or purge and I wasn’t actually starving myself, so my problem wasn’t an eating disorder — not necessarily. Instead, it is disordered eating. I met with a therapist in the UCC for a few months and connected with a nutritionist to create a more properly-informed eating plan. I’ve been doing much better since then, but some days I’ll look in the mirror and the thoughts will come back and the calorie calculator will get pulled up on my phone and I’ll feel hopeless all over again.
As I sat on my futon two weeks ago, watching “Miss Americana,” I heard the woman whose body I tried to model my own after for so many years say that she was unhealthy and unhappy when she looked like I wanted to. She said that life is better now that she’s gained weight and that she doesn’t hate herself for it. That she eats now to feel full and happy and to be better at her job.
It was incredibly cathartic and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. It almost felt like I was given permission to stop caring so much about my food choices and my weight. Which is ridiculous. I get that. Taylor Swift should have nothing to do with how I treat my body, but she did. And now she can’t anymore. And, in a weird way, that gives me hope.
Ashton Weber is a sophomore with lots of opinions. She is majoring in econ and film, television and theatre with a JED minor. Making new friends is one of her favorite things, so feel free to contact her at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.