Why back-to-school shopping ads were so dangerous for my eating disorder
Content note: This essay discusses eating disorders, toxic body image, and the online communities that encourage disordered eating.
Growing up, “back to school” was synonymous with reinvention.
Between television programs and magazine pages, seasonal back-to-school advertisements not only marketed new outfits and backpacks, but new lifestyles. They floated the idea that if you can purchase a whole new wardrobe for the school year, a new likability would accompany it, playing into the myth that a makeover alone can earn you a seat at the popular table.
In grade school, I had only a handful of close friends. I didn’t get along with my classmates and felt constantly type-casted as the “fat girl.” My overweight body was hypervisible, constantly put on stage for torment. During sixth grade, I was labeled “doughnut girl” because, one day, my fat body had the gall to eat a baked good in public. This continued into seventh grade. By eighth grade, I was skipping lunch regularly. When offered candy and snacks by teachers, I’d always decline. But I didn’t see anything wrong with this. I’m just watching my weight, I thought. No one commented on that behavior, either.
I’d already been immersed in social media when I was as young as 13. When not at school, I was most likely coding a new layout for my Myspace profile or roleplaying as high school characters on Xanga. (Mind you, this was before middle schoolers had iPhones). It was normal for me to spend the entire day in front of the computer without stepping outside if I wasn’t at school.
Towards the end of eighth grade, we had less and less homework, so my internet surfing time gradually increased. That June, just days before my middle school graduation, I stumbled upon a new community.
On Xanga, I found “pro-ana” blogs dedicated to “thinspiration” and “thinspo” tips. These accounts were maintained by users with anorexia and other eating disorders.
Many would post pictures of thin celebrities, or just thin people in general, as “inspiration” for those currently fasting—the idea being that if people fasting were constantly exposed to thinness, it would motivate them to keep fasting. Other blogs featured “thinspo tips” or tips for those with eating disorders. For instance, if you had a check-up and needed to be weighed by a nurse, these blogs would guide you through ways of fooling the medical staff into thinking you weighed more.
At first, I was appalled. How could these sites be allowed on the internet? But more than that, I was curious. I was familiar with fasting, but I’d always cave by dinner time—my parents and I typically ate at the table together. Maybe these blogs could help me. So I explored.
The majority of these blogs, I came to learn, were personal. They were extremely detailed first-hand accounts of calorie counting and exercising. Comment sections were filled with encouraging messages—most often “stay strong,” which often translated to “keep fasting.”
Within no time, I had a pro-ana blog of my own.
I documented every bite I ate and each workout I managed to finish. I also weighed myself daily. Even before school got out for the summer, I was dropping pounds. “This is amazing,” I recall blogging. I couldn’t believe it. I’d always wanted to lose weight—who knew it was as easy as starving myself?
On the night of my eighth grade graduation, I despised getting my photo taken, as per usual. I still felt like the same “fat” person, but I was ready for a change: high school.
That summer, I was going to reinvent myself. Not only was I going to shop for new clothes for high school, but I was going to be thin.
After the graduation ceremony, my family took me out to eat at one of my favorite restaurants in Atlantic City—a pricey night out. I ordered crab since I loved shellfish and looked forward to every occasion where I could eat it (I grew up working class, so we ate crab or lobster once a year). I also didn’t want to blow my fasting cover, but as soon as the dish came, my stomach grumbled. I took a single taste and my heart burst. I can’t eat this, I told myself.
“I’m feeling sick,” I said as I retreated to the restaurant bathroom. By the time I looked myself in the mirror, there were already tears in my eyes. What have I done?
I returned to the table and explained to my parents that I was too sick to eat, that the crab must have upset my stomach. I watched the server pick up the plate and walk it back to the kitchen. My stomach grumbled again, but my emotional pain over my weight felt greater than anything my stomach could ever do to me.
That was the first of many similar events that summer. I could write an entire book about those months. During them, I dropped nearly 30 pounds. I could fit into a size six by my first day of high school.
I attended a new school where I didn’t know at least half of my freshman class. I had the chance to be a new person. I had the chance to be thin.
As a teen, I consumed all of the messages the media told young women about their body image. Likewise, every summer, I consumed similar messages about the back-to-school season. That, somehow, if I reinvented myself into a thin person, I would be liked.
I want to say that I learned, very quickly, that appearance alone wouldn’t earn me likability—but it did. My new frame was validated by not only my peers who’d seen me in middle school, but by my family, including my own mother.
Soon enough, I couldn’t keep up with fasting. The hunger affected my ability to think, communicate, socialize, participate in class, etc. Eventually, fasting all day at school turned into binging—and occasionally purging once I got home.
Today, I still struggle with eating. In a fatphobic culture where the narrative of “revenge bodies” is prevalent, where shows like Insatiable continue to be defended, I sometimes feel that I will always be battling an eating disorder. But I have a better consciousness around media literacy and patriarchy. When back-to-school commercials market new outfits as a new personality, and that I need a new body that will fit into those outfits, I know they’re selling a myth. They’re profiting off teenage insecurities. And I know now that’s wrong.
If you need help battling an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline at (800) 931-2237 and visit NEDA’s website.
Author’s note: The author identifies as genderfluid, but speaks from their experiences performing as feminine before they had the language to describe their gender identity.