Maybe you've inherited your relationship with your body from someone in your family. Your mom, your sis, your aunt... even your grandma can influence how you satisfied — or dissatisfied you are — with your physicality. Maybe you grew up knowing women in your family had amazing hair or weak chins — and that knowledge informs how you see yourself. What might surprise you, though, is how body image is a two-way street: your self-assessment affects your kin, too.
In Elena Vanishing: A Memoir , Elena Dunkle and her mother, writer Clare B. Dunkle, recount Elena's struggle with anorexia. Although Elena's eating disorder begins when she's 17 and persists into the first half of her 20s, her illness affects her family, her parents and her older sister, Valerie, who witness and wage war against the internal demon that harangues Elena, the voice inside her head that calls her "a stupid, fat bitch," even when a feeding tube snakes down her throat.
Even if you've never struggled with an eating disorder, odds are you've had experienced some body image issues. The Dunkle family's story sheds light on the ways your relationship with your body — and food — can impact those who share your genes, too.
Your Self-Hate Is Toxic to Everyone Around You, and Affects Others More Than You Think
"You're still too fat," thinks Elena, even though she's been and out of two eating disorder units, even though she coughs blood and purges everything she eats, even though her "teeth are crumbling," her "voice is hoarse, and [her] nose burns all the time now from the [stomach acid]." Elena's self-hatred is so destructive that her parents force her to sign a contract that "ties everything ... to how much [she weighs]." And even if your family has never had to go to these extremes, odds are your parents or siblings have felt powerless in the face of your body image.
You Bring Tension Around With You
For instance, meals can get tense... really tense. Between hospitalizations, anorexic Elena dreads every mention of eating. Even a stop at Subway becomes an arduous ordeal for the Dunkle family. Elena eats a sandwich and chips to appease her parents, who watch her every move. "Out of the corner of my eyes," Elena notes, "I see Dad exchanging meaningful glances with Mom. He thinks I'm doing great." What her parents don't know, though, is that Elena is eating to appease them; she excuses herself to the bathroom, where she "[bends] over and [closes her] eyes, and it all flows smoothly out — soft bread, edges of chips, and hard knots of pickles." And although her parents are none the wiser ...
...Lies Eventually Lead to Guilt, Which Can Burden Everyone
Constantly lying to herself about her health leads Elena to have a miscarriage that haunts her throughout her eating disorder: "YOUR fault! YOUR fault! ... Dead BABY! Dead BABY!" But Elena's lies aren't all so grave; even a simple promise to her mom — that Elena will drink a caramel macchiato — gets broken. And those broken promises wear on Elena, who feels hopeless, especially in the face of her mother's support. All of the guilt and the lies aren't just Elena's burden — they put in jeopardy the special trust that lie within the bonds of a family.
Your Distorted Mirror Skews Everything...
and everybody, even the ones you love. Elena doesn't trust her own reflection — "The girl in my mirror lies to everybody else ... I can make my photos look like anything I want" — and that leads her to be super-critical of the people around her, even her mother. "Mom's hair is very short and mostly gray," Elena observes. "I've tried to her to color it, but she says she likes gray hair. She's not wearing any makeup, as usual, even though makeup would hide the starts of creases in her forehead and the tiredness in her eyes. Mom would look better if she didn't every body she how she's feeling." Ouch.
Your Obsessions Can Pry You From Your Family
"There's fat, and there's thin, and there's no in-between," thinks Elena, when her eating disorder is in its early stages. Her family doesn't think in black-and-white like she does, though, so this puts distance between them. Although Elena wonders, "Where does fat become thin? And where does thin become fat?", it's hard for her family to relate to Elena's world.
But Tough Times Can Bring People Closer
Even while Elena is in treatment, her family rallies to support her. Her older sister, Valerie, and her brother-in-law, Clint, bond so much with Elena that, while Elena is out of treatment for a visit, the three get matching tattoos. "A circle of stars, and the letters V, C, and E." Though Elena's recovery is still a long way off, she knows that the love and support of her family is permanent.
Images: Katie Landis; Carl Johan Heickendorf; Randall Langenhoven; Celine Q; heartblossomgrl; Laura Lewis; Lotus Carroll/flickr