I saw an emery board in a gift shop that was inscribed, “Lord, if you can’t make me skinny, make all my friends fat.” It brought tears to my eyes. Because after almost two decades of working with individuals suffering from eating disorders, I have learned that eating disorders thrive on comparisons just like these. The good news, however, is that they wither with connections.
We compare bellies, thighs, arms, legs, noses, cheekbones, toes. And if we can’t be the best, we can at least feel a bit better if others don’t measure up quite as well. When we come out on “top,” it seems to spike our self-esteem, and when our comparisons leave us feeling inferior to another person, we experience our good feelings about ourselves sinking. Few of us are immune to this kind of thinking. It is human nature, with or without an eating disorder.
For someone who struggles with eating disorder behaviors and/or body image distress, sacrificing connection at the hands of comparisons can lead a person to admire another’s “discipline” and weight loss, often neglecting to consider that they may have praised or felt jealousy for someone who has lost weight because of a grave illness. Eating disorders thrive on comparing, and they don’t care that the object of their comparison may be ill or suffering. Eating disorder thinking floods the mind with envy when those suffering from it judge someone else as “skinny.” It increases its demands to “do better” and “work harder” to lose weight.
In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, eighty-three percent engaged in dieting for weight loss while forty-four percent of them were already at a normal weight. (Nutrition Journal, March 31, 2006.) Another study showed that eighty-one percent of ten year olds were afraid of being fat. (Mellin et al., 1991.) I interpret these statistics as evidence that we as a society focus on comparing at the risk of connecting. Sadly, teens are more frequently “connecting” with one another as they discuss dieting and weight loss and, sometimes, as they purge together. Then they compare their “progress” in each of these areas against one another. These are the damages of disliking our bodies and secretly, or not so secretly, hoping others will not do “as well” at losing weight in order for us to feel better about ourselves.
When we are not busy comparing ourselves to others, we are often comparing one person to one another. This harms the recipients of our comparisons, as we may say things that leave others feeling “less than” or judged, like: “I’m trying this new diet, and it’s really working. Do you want me to tell you about it?” In addition to opening the door to body dislike, dieting, and, in the worst of cases, eating disorders, comparisons can result in the ultimate price — disconnection and separation from oneself.
Worse, few people actually value being critical, unkind, judgmental or focusing on external qualities over the intrinsic aspects of people. My patients usually tell me they want to be the kind of person who values a human being as a whole person — not on physical traits alone. Many of my clients feel guilt and shame when they compare themselves to others, saying they hate themselves for looking at people (both themselves and others) in such a “shallow” and “superficial” way. Just experiencing the emotions of shame and guilt in response to living outside of their values decreases their self-esteem. This is how the ill effects of comparing can contaminate and take over our thoughts, emotions, wellbeing…and our very spirits.
If you want to better understand the effects of comparing yourself against others, just notice when you do it and when others do it. Sometimes you will come out on top, and other times you will lose (rarely does comparing result in a tie). You will begin to get a sense of how it affects you, immediately and afterward. Comparing and body dissatisfaction can lead to decreased self-esteem and body image struggles and can invite eating disorders — and it won’t stop until we make some changes. Dieting and other efforts to become “better” or “skinnier” aren’t a long-term solution to the problem. Are you willing to try something different? Are you willing to try connecting versus comparing?
Here’s a tool you can use to build your skills for connecting versus comparing:
I’m not talking about thinking loving thoughts about your own body — just yet. That can feel a little extreme for some. I’m talking about being aware of one comparison thought per day and shifting just that one thought to an appreciation or connection thought. Why? Because eating disorders thrive on comparing and wither with connecting.
Today, I will refrain from comparing myself to those around me.
I will open my eyes to the magical world of many shades of beautiful.
Where all definitions are unique and worthy of being seen: