A Retoucher’s Eating Disorder Confession

So, something has been troubling me, and we need to talk. There’s a story I haven’t been telling you and it feels like I’m being disingenuous. In fact, a few people in my personal life have even told me I’m being insincere and that hurts. I need to clear the air.

Stephanie Self Portrait

You see, here I am as a blogger, preaching self-love and body positivity, all within the framework of a vanity profession plagued by body image scandal and controversy. My message is one of confidence and of moderation in projecting beauty norms onto ourselves and others. But I have a confession: I’m not living up to the things I try to instill in others. Not by a long shot. My relationship with body positive imagery is complicated at best, and my journey into photography and retouching has always been an exploration with as many questions as answers.

The long and short of it is that I am not body positive when it comes to myself. I have a history of self-image problems going back almost as far as I can remember. People like to claim that retouchers have no perspective on the damage they cause, that they blindly work in the field never knowing or caring about the ramifications of body negative imagery, but let me tell you, that’s not true. I understand the ramifications. I know where the path of body negativity leads, and I’ve hit rock bottom when it comes to self-hatred. These issues hit close to home and that’s why they matter to me.

Young Stephanie

Me around 3rd grade. Elementary school kids are not kind when you look like this.

I have struggled with my weight all my life. When I was 7, I remember being chased around school by mean boys calling me “fatty” and “chub chub”. When I was a little older than that I had a stalker who would send me abusive messages by night and send his friends to mock my body by day. “The great gravity well” they called me. (Clever…) I spent most of my formative years being harassed for being overweight and comparing myself to the world around me. This is not a struggle that is unfamiliar to me. I know that the world is not kind to those who don’t conform to a very specific physical ideal.

My first body image revelation came when I was 13…and it was not a good one. It happened on a week long school trip when I was in middle school. It was then that I realized I could take firm control over my weight. I stopped eating almost entirely during that trip. I can’t tell you how I came to the decision, but it was sudden. I just woke up and realized “If I don’t eat, I’ll get skinny.” On the first day, I limited myself to one gigantic non-fat Starbucks drink and a small order of McDonald’s french fries. No one noticed at all. None of the teachers were paying the first bit of attention to what I was eating. So I did it again the next day. And the next. I kept it up all week and at the end, I had dropped several pounds and I felt high and giddy. At the time, this felt like victory. (In reality it was starvation kicking in and my brain functions starting to shut down.)

Stephanie at 13

Me at 13 before any of this started. I often hid from the camera at this age so finding a photo was hard.

When I got home, I kept up my habits and ate as little as possible. Still no one noticed, and the pounds just melted away. I was ecstatic.

But there was a problem. I could only make so many excuses to Mom and Dad to keep from eating. They were getting suspicious…fast. That was when the whole system broke down. I had to find a new way. So I started purging. I restricted my calories all day, then came home and ate dinner like any normal girl and then I got rid of those calories later. Perfect plan, right? My 13 year-old self thought so.

Overall, I lost about 60 lbs in about 6 months. That’s a lot for a growing 13 to 14 year old girl. Mom and Dad were very concerned, but they didn’t know what to do at first. This is a hard situation for any parent. To make matters worse, I’d also watched someone very close to me struggle with anorexia my entire life and at the time, we still weren’t calling it that. Everyone knew there was something going on, but we just talked around it. I expected to be able to just follow in that person’s footsteps and never be confronted. This is scary because I never saw this very important person in my life over 100 lbs. Ever. But I wanted to be like her in every way. She was the closest person to me beyond my parents; I idolized her…and I thought I could get away with it, just like her.

Stephanie at 14

Me less than a year later. (With my mom in Hawaii.)

But I couldn’t. Eventually, there was a reckoning with my parents, and I was put into therapy. However, as anyone who’s ever had an eating disorder knows, the healing process wasn’t straight-forward. It took until I was 16 or 17 for us to consider me “recovered,” and by then I was blacking out in the shower and all manner of other dismal things were happening. My health was in shambles.

Stephanie in High School

Starting High School. I went into treatment halfway through my first year.

We declared me cured, but I’m not sure that 100% recovery is all that common. We like to read triumphant recovery stories in the media, but we often don’t follow these stories any further than their initial success. They’re like love stories where we see the characters get together and then consider the story “done”. But it’s not done, of course. The story goes on. The same goes for eating disorders. We don’t see the relapses and the residual depression and anxiety, the roller coaster weight struggles, the self-image problems that don’t necessarily ever fully resolve, the abusive relationships that we’re vulnerable to due to low self-esteem. (I’ve never really heard anyone talk about that one, but people with eating disorders are horribly vulnerable to be preyed upon by abusers. That’s a place I’ve been as well.)

There are so many things that people don’t talk about with eating disorders. About how they come to be, about what happens behind closed doors, about the recovery process…and about the life that comes afterward. We like to talk about them in a sensible, linear fashion and we like our eating disorder stories wrapped up with a tidy bow, but life isn’t tidy. People aren’t tidy.

My weight has fluctuated almost 100 pounds over my teenaged and adult life. Currently, I’m plus-sized again and I’m really struggling with that. I’m actually dieting again, and I’m really fighting to do it in a healthy way because it’s very difficult for me to ever diet in a healthy way. I feel I need to do it because my weight has ventured into the unhealthy territory, but losing weight is always dangerous for me. The extreme restricter in me always wants to get back into the driver’s seat, because like I said: I don’t think a lot of eating disorders ever fully resolve. The impulses stay with you. The complexes and insecurities stay with you. I could tell you that my relationship with my body is healthy and positive, but that would be a lie. When I look in the mirror, it’s not the self-love fest that I preach.

Stephanie selfie

A selfie I took at my smallest as an adult. (Yes, I’m a wine enthusiast at any size.)

I’m going to be honest. I don’t know if I will ever stop struggling with my self-image. There’s a lot of baggage there, and people who know me call me on that when I try to tell others they should feel good about themselves; because the truth is, I still diet. I dye my hair. I worry about wrinkles. I pluck my eyebrows. I sometimes wear a ton of makeup to cover up what I see as flaws. I’ll try on a dozen outfits before going out. I hate having my picture taken. No matter how much I work on it, I am still a physically insecure person down to my core. As I write this, I feel horrible guilt about trying to lose weight in the context of this blog. There’s tension between the belief that I should feel content with how I look, practicing what I preach, and a driving need to cater to my insecurities and be thin and conventionally pretty.

But here’s the thing:

You do not need to have won your struggle before beginning to help others with theirs.

Every day brings a new struggle for everyone. If we all wait until we’re perfectly at peace—with ourselves, with others, with the world—then we’ll never embark on anything. You can call me a hypocrite when I can’t look at myself with the same body positive eyes I use to gaze on the rest of the world. That’s probably at least a partially fair assessment. Because the truth is, my struggle isn’t over. It may never be over. That doesn’t mean I can’t look at the world and wish it a better place for others; that I can’t want to want to spare others the same trial I may still be enduring. Empathy is how we grow, both as individuals and as a society. I firmly believe that any difficulty in life can be turned around. We can turn the things that haunt us into muses: inspiration to challenge and change the world and whatever brought us to difficulty in the first place.

I grew up in a system that made me hate the way I look. I don’t want that for children of future generations. I don’t even want that for people my own age or older. I want to do everything I can to shift that paradigm, even if I can’t live up to that same body positive message I’m spreading to the rest of the world. I can want something better for everyone else than I have for myself.

I don’t want people to think that I’m disingenuous in what I say. I’m not. I mean every word of what I write. I can look at someone who looks just like me and think she’s beautiful. The problem is within myself and I know that. I do earnestly see beauty in everyone around me. My quest for body acceptance and beauty diversity isn’t made insincere by my inability to include myself. If anything, it’s made more urgent by the visceral empathy I feel for others who might also be suffering from poor self-image. My desire to help them and to help future generations is driven by my own familiarity with the pain of that struggle.

I also believe in what I do. Retouching is demonized by much of the body positivity movement, but I stand by it. It’s been a tool of empowerment for me and my recovery and I want to share how it can be for others as well. (When done ethically in a body positive way, of course.) I’ve devoted much of my adult life to understanding beauty, self-image, identity, the history of human representation, and the struggle that many of us go through to get to self-acceptance. These things have helped me in my own journey and I believe they can help others. None of the knowledge or opinions I share through this blog are disingenuous. They’re all part of my earnest quest to make the world better through body positive imagery, ethics, and philosophy. Whether or not I am a perfect person in relation to these ideas shouldn’t detract from that goal.

So here I am. I hope that knowing me, as a person, doesn’t deter you from believing in my message, but rather reaffirms to you that I’ve been there and that I speak my words from personal experience. Nothing I have to say is empty body propaganda. It comes out of my own journey, my own inner struggle, and my own earnest quest to understand the very nature of beauty in effort to overcome my own personal relationship with the concept. I’ve made the study of beauty my life’s work because of the impact it’s had not only on my own life, but on the life of someone very close to me, and even beyond that, on the lives of my friends and acquaintances who have gone through similar struggles. I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the concept of beauty and self-acceptance for myself completely, but I can at least pass on what I learn to others and try to improve the status quo going forward.

Thank you for reading.

Model Gigi Hadid’s Answer to her Body Critics

Gigi Hadid is a model of international renown who has been seen in magazines and on runways for some of the biggest names in fashion. She is stunningly beautiful in what most of us would consider a classic, conventional way, and yet, she still doesn’t quite fit the mold of the traditional model of recent years. She’s rocking a few extra curves and that’s been attracting some negative comments on social media. She posted a beautiful mini-essay to Instagram a few days ago admitting that this was initially getting her down. However, she goes on to say that “Your mean comments don’t make me want to change my body…If you don’t like it, don’t follow me, don’t watch me, cause I’m not going anywhere…I love that I can be sexy. I’m proud of it.” All told, it’s a touching and humble response to body trolling. She mentions that she doesn’t want any special treatment and she doesn’t consider herself above or below anyone. That is true body positivity: bringing yourself up without bringing others down. She also makes a point to mention that the fashion industry is currently primed for change. “At least be open if not part of the change because it’s undeniably happening.”

You can read Gigi Hadid’s entire statement below.

BALMAIN BRONZEY. Love you & this new collection @olivier_rousteing

A photo posted by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid) on

A photo posted by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid) on

You may also want to read the following:
– “Beauty Blogger Goes Without Makeup for 3 Months” This article is a true reminder that even the most conventionally gorgeous among us is not spared body criticism. I’ve written about this before.
When Plus Sized Doesn’t Mean Plus Sized Gigi Hadid is clearly not larger than average outside the fashion industry and it’s important that we keep things in perspective when talking about the fashion industry vs. everyday life.