One of the tropes that I hear most often about mental health, particularly eating disorders is that when you are behaving in a disordered way you are not yourself: you’re not the real you. I see this kind of rhetoric everywhere, in exhortations to fight the eating disorder, to make the eating disorder separate from yourself, to remember what you used to be like. We bifurcate ourselves into the “bad” self that is disordered and the “good” self that is real, true, happy, honest, vulnerable, and open.
This doesn’t just happen with eating disorders though. We hear it about weight loss, about all kinds of illness, about poverty, about education, about nearly every state that we wish we hadn’t been. In all of these cases we pick one state (usually one that comes with privilege and societal status) and decide to identify ourselves with that status: healthy, educated, skinny, wealthy, independent. The other versions aren’t us. We weren’t ourselves. It was all a fake.
Unfortunately this just isn’t true. Of course there are all kinds of philosophies about what makes you who you are, identity, whether you remain the same over time or not, and I don’t really want to address those here, but what I will say is that your behaviors, your thoughts, your body, your tendencies, your emotions, and your chemistry are important elements that are part of who you are. Simply not wanting something to be part of who you are is not enough to take it out of your identity. I might wish that I was not white, but that’s not going to change the fact that I am and that is part of my experience and part of who I am. Even if I do in some future change to another race (if for example we were to create some sort of technology that could completely change skin pigmentation), that does not erase the history that I had or the experiences that I had as a white individual and does not change me into a wholly new person, the real me, the me that replaced the old me. The new self will always include elements of the old.
This might seem like I’m making a big deal out of something small and semantic: if some people find it helpful to think of an element of their life as a rebirth then why do I care? There are two main elements to the language of “real self” that appear to cause harm. The first is that it keeps us from validating the feelings and experiences we truly did have in the past. To draw again from the eating disorder community, this often comes in the form of individuals who have recovered denying all the thoughts and feelings that they had while in the midst of the disorder: I was stupid, I was crazy, I thought I knew what would make me happy but I didn’t, I was totally illogical, I was unreasonable, I was not in reality. There might be elements of this that are important to recognize such as disordered thinking, but it’s also important to know that our feelings were not wrong, that our wants were not the enemy, that our emotions are not the enemy. Particularly when we extend this denial into other areas such as obesity it becomes far more harmful in undermining the respect for individuals who have not yet changed or who will never change.
One of the most important things that we as a society can do to improve mental health and to fight against oppressive structures is to validate people’s experiences, even when they seem utterly foreign to us. This includes validating our own experiences as real and acceptable. If we don’t do this, we end up with things like gaslighting, the denial of harassment or racism, and a society that’s willing to say an individual who disagrees with them is just crazy.
But in addition to creating a culture where people’s emotions aren’t safe from criticism and questioning, when we have a narrative of “real me”, we reify structures of privilege. This might seem like an overstatement, but there are many ways that narratives like this can contribute to privileging one type of individual over another and can even go so far as to deny personhood to other types of people. The most important element of this criticism is that people almost never identify the “real me” as the one with the oppressed identity. If you have a choice between fat and skinny, abled or disabled, sick or healthy, you will always say the real you is skinny, able, and healthy. By saying that we can choose our identity, or that we’re not really ourselves when we’re in an oppressed condition, we both blame those people who remain in the oppressed condition and hold up the privileged condition as something to praise.
Even worse is that when you say you weren’t you when you were fat/sick/whatever, you deny yourself personhood in that oppressed condition, and by extension you deny others in that same condition personhood. You tell them that they’re not actually the way they are, there’s something wrong/broken/off about them that must be fixed before they are actually a person. Who were you if you weren’t yourself? Did another person take over your body for a while? In all likelihood you’re simply denying that you were a real, honest to god person who was deserving of things.
None of this is to say that we don’t get to choose our identities or say that we didn’t like who we were at a given time. However it’s important to remember that history is always a part of us and when we deny that it becomes much easier to scrub our history of anything that doesn’t appear perfectly white, cis, straight, thin, healthy, stable, middle-class…when we erase those moments from our history, we tell others that those are stories not worth telling, they’re selves not worth having.
Being open is of course a vulnerable place to be, and being open about moments in your past when you were oppressed is even more vulnerable. Unfortunately we need that openness to embrace all experiences. We can no longer have before and after narratives that erase the “before” as a fleeting, unreal state: I lost weight and I’m a new person.
I’d like to try embracing all the moments that make up who I am and who I have been, whether those moments are who I want to be or not, and whether those moments are ones that society privileges or not. I will not deny that identity is a complicated question, and that there are narratives that defy this privileged “real me” narrative (that of trans* individuals is a wonderful example), but I challenge each of you to think of what selves you’ve hidden and why.
but it also keeps us from validating our own experiences and feelings and reifies the structures of privilege that tell us a certain status is what a person should be: we refuse to even categorize ourselves as people until we’ve reached those prioritized statuses.