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Solutions in Sight: Self Image

Girls Against Body Hatred Club

A Conversation with
Caitlin Ryvlin

At age 17, Caitlin discovered that much of what young girls, including herself, had bought into about how their bodies were "supposed to" look was destroying their chances of ever being happy and loving themselves. She decided to do something about it, for herself and for other girls.

The InSite: How did your body image work start?

Caitlin: Since I am a counselor in a summer camp I get to see, first hand, what it is like to be one of these young girls. I'd hear 7 or 8 year old girls talking about how fat they were! It would just break my heart and I really wanted to change it. I wasn't totally loving my body yet, but I knew that I deserved to love my body. I was politically at the place where I knew "Everyone should love their body no matter what size."

TI: How did you help the girls?

Caitlin: At the beginning, my co-counselor and I started bringing in a bunch of these really gross magazines like "YM" and "Seventeen" and "Teen" and "Cosmopolitan." And we'd show them to the girls and talk about the media and the effects it has on us.

TI: That sounds like a pretty powerful exercise!

Caitlin: It was good, but it's a painful thing to talk about. It was also hard for these little girls to understand, but the 14 year olds, which were the ages that I worked with a lot, were really interested. Coincidentally, I had a teepee of nine girls who were all 14 and every single one of them was actually kind of big. And they all despised their bodies and talked about it all the time! It was very weird. So my co-counselor and I would first do some simple things to make the girls aware of what they were saying and doing.

TI: Like what kind of things?

Caitlin: We would be rewarded with ice cream for doing the dishes. And all the girls would say, "Oh, I can't eat ice cream! I'm too fat!" I would ask them, "Do you like ice cream?" And they would say they loved it. And I would tell them that they really deserved to eat ice cream the same as any thin person. "You are beautiful. You are powerful. You deserve ice cream! Enjoy it like you've never enjoyed it before!" And that's the kind of thing we would do on a regular basis.

"It's so amazing that you're not skinny
and you really like yourself!
How did you do that?"

TI: I'm sure you were also a role model in the way you spoke and acted about your own body.

Caitlin: Well, I would wear clothes that were fitting, even though I am not a small person. I would really take pride in my body and I would never put it down. And a few of the girls would say, "It's so amazing that you're not skinny and you really like yourself! How did you do that?" (laughing)

TI: And how did you do that? It's really difficult in a society that bombards us, from the moment we're born, with images of what women are "supposed" to look like.

Caitlin: I was raised by my mother and father who always told me I was incredibly beautiful and powerful and never put me down, but the society and the media took over telling me I was not okay. So it's been really hard. And I was anorexic for a period of about 7 months.

TI: What turned you around?

Caitlin: I got to a point where I couldn't do things that I loved to do because I hated my body. I love African dance, but I couldn't dance anymore because I hated myself so much.

TI: You mean you wouldn't "let" yourself dance?

Caitlin: Exactly, I wouldn't let myself! I'd start dancing and I'd be, "Oh, I look so disgusting. I'm so fat."

TI: When did this "I'm so fat. I hate my body." stuff start for you on a conscious level?

Caitlin: I remember a lot of self-loathing in 7th grade. People are really cruel in 7th grade, even in my wonderful little private school. I was having a hard time socially. You know, I look back at pictures of me then, and I would consider myself thin. But I hated myself probably the most that I ever did in my life, even though I'm bigger now. Of course, it has to do with your brain. It's amazing how you can manipulate your brain to believe these things that aren't true! My friends didn't help either.

TI: In what way?

Caitlin: I have never had big friends. And still I am surrounded by very skinny friends who are really proud of me, because I do body image work. But at the same time they really don't understand. And they have a defensiveness about it, because they're thin. I mean I don't insult thin people while trying to tell big women to love themselves. I know a lot of thin girls who hate themselves too!

TI: You're totally right.

Caitlin: And if you're a large woman and you're told that you're disgusting and you're a glutton and you're unattractive and you won't get love or anything, then of course, you're going to feel awful. But after I was anorexic, which was 9th grade... I feel bad saying this, but it started because of a guy, or that's what triggered it. I was really in love with this guy and he broke my heart. And I got into a really big depression and my self-esteem went really low, my grades... everything went bad. And my friend moved in with me. She was a large girl and she was bulimic. It was very hard for me because I'd watch her starve herself for a couple of weeks and then I'd watch her eat pounds of food! And it kind of affected me too. I started only eating salads then not eating salad. And drinking water. A lot of bad stuff was happening then. So I quit school, which was a really hard decision for me, but I got a lot of support from my mother.

TI: What did you do when you quit school?

Caitlin: The first thing that I felt I needed to do was work to really love my body. I thought, "I'm willing to do anything. I don't know if it is really possible to like my body, but I'm going to try!" So I joined this group called Beyond Hunger. And that was really good.

"I don't deserve love because I can't be picked up and swung around."

TI: What did you get out of the group?

Caitlin: Just to be around other girls who knew what I was talking about! I read this very powerful book: When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies. It basically said, you are incredibly beautiful the way you are. I started consuming these books. I read The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Consuming Passions, and The Invisible Woman: Confronting Weight Prejudice in America. Then every day I talked to myself a lot in my head, about trying to love myself. I had always thought "I don't deserve love because I can't be picked up and swung around. I don't deserve pleasure. I don't deserve to wear beautiful clothing."

Women are taught to put all of their problems on their bodies. Because it's something we can "fix." We can't fix everything emotionally.

TI: The other lie is that if you manage to get your body looking like some skinny model then you won't have any emotional problems!

Caitlin: Exactly! I also never had big women around me who liked themselves. So I tried to find my role models in other places. I started reading stuff that was written by Nomi Lamb. She's 22 and an activist for fat phobia. She's one of my idols because she's incredibly powerful. I don't have television which I think is a real plus, because if you watch these shows, with those images of women, it's going to get in your head, even if you don't want it to.

TI: But you must go to movies?

Caitlin: Yeah, I do. I'm actually more into the foreign film thing. It's not as ridiculous [as Hollywood films]. I do sometimes watch those Hollywood movies but I have a really hard time watching them without going, "Ohmigod! That girl is dying!" [starving herself]. It's a hard thing because movies are really a social thing, "You want to go to a movie?" And I say, "Okay. I'm going to a really sexist, degrading movie." That's why it's hard to look at the movies and get any role models. Rosie O'Donnell is pretty cool. I've read some good stuff about her. She's a large woman but she doesn't diet. And Oprah! I used to really like her but now it's hard for me to watch her. What was that thing she said? The best thing she ever accomplished in her life was losing weight! And this is a woman who has accomplished an amazing amount of stuff.

TI: Let's get back to your story.

Caitlin: Okay. I was starting to do a little better. At the group I was fine but at home I was alone and in a lot of pain. One day I was sitting at home, maybe my blood sugar was low because I hadn't eaten a lot that day but I dropped into this incredibly awful space. The kind of space that if I was a really unstable person who hated myself I would have killed myself. And I called every one of my friends so I could talk, and coincidentally no one was home! So I started typing on the computer because I felt I needed to talk.

"...I'm so disgusting. No one will ever love me...
no one will ever want to have sex with me ever..."

TI: And what came out?

Caitlin: I read it later and it was really weird. The spelling is all weird and there's no punctuation. It was something like, "...I hate myself. I'm so disgusting. No one will ever love me. I have the most disgusting body. I'm so gross, no one will ever want to have sex with me ever..." And all of these disgusting, hateful things that I hadn't said out loud in three months. And then I took a pin and I carved into my arm "I hate my body." Not really deep, no blood or anything, but I did scrape into my arm. I have a little bit of a scar. Then I threw up after because the adrenaline was so up in my body. Then I ate. After that I felt totally fine. It was really strange. I think it was partly low blood sugar, but that isn't the only thing because my blood sugar has been low before and I haven't done that. Then I went out and had a walk and it was like nothing happened. I wasn't going to tell anyone. I was going to wear long sleeved shirts until it went away, which wouldn't have worked because it lasted for a really long time. My mother came home and she was all happy, "I brought you some fries!" And I said, "Look what I did." And I was smiling when I said it, because I was kind of disconnected, you know? I couldn't believe I had done it really. And my mother freaked out! She's a nurse and she put on gobs of disinfectant and it really hit her for the first time how serious I was into this stuff. And how painful it was. I kind of had to hit that point to go up.

TI: And did you go up after that?

Caitlin: Yeah. I said, "I have to love my body. This is not okay. This is ruining my life! I want to change it!" Then I started reading all these books again and going to the group and really started to talk a lot about body image stuff. I started changing my language. I don't use "fat" unless I'm using it in a good way. And it's hard because there aren't that many good adjectives. "Big" is so bad because big can describe the earth! (laughing) It also can describe a woman! Or "large." I just feel weird using these words, but I don't know what else to use... Because the other words are...

TI: ...Very negative.

Caitlin: Yeah. Fat is a very negative thing. I could use a very nice word like "voluptuous" or "Rubenesque" but it's hard. I also got really into the feminist movement. I think for me, that's what helped. Being a feminist. You know, we deserve to love our bodies. I knew for women it was a sexist thing, that we didn't love our bodies.

TI: So you were dealing with this negative programming, from day to day? That must have been very difficult.

Caitlin: It was. I'd go to the store to go shopping in one of those ethnic stores because I like to wear beautiful flowing kinds of clothes from different countries and they wouldn't have my size! And I'd complain, "There are a lot of women my size and bigger and we can't shop here."

TI: What kind of response did you get from the people in the stores?

Caitlin: They'd say, "Yeah, well, we get a lot of complaints." Actually the one that I complained to a lot has now changed their sizes!

...women and men, need to love their bodies.
...it is such a deep painful thing to hate yourself!

TI: It's great that you are letting people know how you feel.

Caitlin: Well, it took a lot of time for me to get up the guts. I believe on a political, whole world level, that women and men, need to love their bodies. It is so important because it can just ruin your life, hating your body. If you have that kind of self-loathing, it is such a deep painful thing to hate yourself! It is the worst thing in the world. So loving your body is one of the most important things.

TI: You know, the feminists have been talking about this since the early '70's but here we are in 1997 and we still have national and international beauty pageants and we still have magazines with pictures of anorexic models on every page, so clearly the message hasn't gotten through yet.

Caitlin: The core of what helped me was reading about the ancient goddesses. About the matriarchal culture that supposedly existed in pre-history. And I started really getting into the goddess spirituality. That actually saved my life because these women, who were the goddesses, were mostly big women! You know, the fertility. The beauty of the big woman was so honored. And those kind of role models really helped me because then I realized, "It hasn't always been like this! Skinny anorexic women haven't always been worshipped." And also in these goddess cultures there was such a wide variety from very thin to really large. All diversity was beautiful! What I realized was that if I hate my body I am loathing every other woman's body, and I am loathing my womanliness.

TI: Is there something anyone could have said that could have made your path less difficult?

Caitlin: If I had had someone who told me it was possible to love my body, being the size you are and not changing it. And that they had hated themselves at one point but then had learned to love themselves. That would have inspired me. Because I believed, on a really deep level, that I would never get to the point where I am now. I can honestly say, "I love my body!"

TI: Is there a first step to start ignoring those self-destructive messages that are bombarding us from the outside and more, to change those negative things that we say to ourselves when we look in the mirror?

Caitlin: Yeah! I think the first thing to do is to notice how cruel you are to yourself. You'd never be that cruel to anybody else. Do not insult yourself out loud. Because words have a lot of power.

TI: Then what's the next step?

Caitlin: You need to have at least one other person with you who is also in this whole process of learning to love themselves.

...the first thing to do is to notice how cruel you are to yourself. You'd never be that cruel to anybody else.

TI: Okay, so it's you and your support group of one or more. Then what do you do?

Caitlin: After you start noticing what you say, you should start noticing all the messages you get from the media. When you're reading a magazine or watching television. That "fat is bad" and "thin is good." Or other messages you are getting that are anti-woman or anti-big.

TI: How about the way you eat? Any changes there?

Caitlin: Try to start noticing when you are hungry. And to eat when you are hungry and eat what you want. Like, if you are craving ice cream, eat ice cream! Honor yourself. Also notice when you are full and stop. Have a lot of compassion for yourself. This is a really hard process, but it can happen.

TI: How about the idea of buying clothes that make you feel good?

Caitlin: You should get rid of [donate] all of the clothes in your closet that don't fit and are uncomfortable. I know this is really difficult but if you are keeping those clothes you are still not accepting who you are. You are wanting to be something else. Only buy clothes that are comfortable and that you feel good in. It is so powerful to wear clothes that are beautiful.

TI: Are we there yet?

Caitlin: No! (laughing) You have to realize how ridiculous the whole thing is. Like I am not as good or as smart as someone else who's thin just because of my body type? Like I don't deserve to eat food? Yeah, right! (laughing) This is the point when you should probably read a book about it.

TI: And the next step?

Caitlin: You should start speaking out loud. And then you start believing it on an emotional level. That might be the last step. I probably shouldn't say this, but especially if you are a large person, it can be an ongoing thing. It can be subtle but you basically need to always be thinking and saying good things about yourself.

TI: So you are in this really great head space, but what happens when you are faced with someone who does not show you any respect? You know, someone who is making totally rude comments?

Caitlin: This is a time when it is hard, if you don't really believe that you deserve to love your body. The most powerful thing I have ever done is get mad. Not just mad at them but mad at the culture that created that. It's hard because I don't want fat to be this thing that people don't talk about, because that makes it shameful, and it's not. It's ridiculous that I shouldn't love my body. I have the same body as my mother and my grandmother. This is my body. I don't want to contribute to a culture that tells me I'm not beautiful the way I am because it has taken me way too long to think I am beautiful.

TI: And you are!

Caitlin: I know!

I don't want to contribute to a culture that tells me I'm not beautiful the way I am...

Contact Caitlin at

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