Do you owe anyone your looks?

“He made me sit and listen to him for hours and hours while he was going on about how unattractive he thought fat was, how he could barely stand the loss of my skinny body, how he thought I had tricked him into believing I could be thin. He made constant remarks about my weight, my intake and my lack of exercise, made me look at pictures of myself as underweight so I could see for myself how beautiful I looked.”
Deviant Art: alicexz

Deviant Art: alicexz

The above quote is from someone navigating her recovery process from an eating disorder. What follows is an edited version of the response I provided on the discussion thread where this quote originated:

Chattel comes to mind: an item of property other than real estate.

If the person you love is an item of property and not a living being in your framework, then that item cannot deteriorate, break or lose its cash value without it needing to be discarded and likely replaced.

We are complicit if we refer to this denigration of ourselves as “he loves me, but..,” or “she loves me, but…”

Most assuredly chronic illnesses are tough on relationships. And we can certainly say that an internalized loathing of fat can create levels of insecurity in patients undertaking recovery, such that their partners may find the constant need of reassurance somewhat exhausting and emotionally draining. Not to mention that the long periods of swelling, pain and exhaustion during recovery mean it’s hard for recovering patients to be full-fledged partners for quite some time as well. But that does not make them chattel.

Ragen Chastain posted this blog entry: Online dating in a fat suit in response to an original story on Huffington Post where both men and women went on dates set up through an online dating service where they were, in person, much larger than their online photographs suggested. A definite double standard showed up where the men really had little issue with being much larger in person when it came to the date itself, whereas the women were pretty much shunned and outright abused.

Ragen observed: “One man compared it to being a “breach of contract” which I think is pretty telling – the idea that how women look is a contract for services that they should not breach and that a reasonable response to the breach of that contract is a complete suspension of basic human decency.”

Services rendered and breach of contract: “Remain as an unchanging thing that I own and you shall have my love and devotion.”

If you have inadvertently ended up with a partner who believes your looks are a contract you must uphold, then it is wise to assume that the contract is not just about fatness. It will also be about aging, disability, illness, vulnerability and dependency.

Divorced or separated chronically ill and disabled adults comprise 20.7% vs. 13.1% for those without disabilities. 1, 2 The interpretation of these survey data suggests a lifetime 75% divorce rate for those with chronic illnesses compared to 50% for the population at large. The reality is that most of us can say “in sickness and health” in the abstract, but when the rubber hits the road it’s a whole different story.

But here’s the thing: you are the one doing all the work to get a chronic illness into complete remission. And if those nearest and dearest are not for that, then they are, by definition, against it. And chances are really quite good that they would not be there for you when the progression of that chronic illness starts to really impact your quality of life and generates progressive disabilities which is the known trajectory for an active eating disorder over time.

They want the thin and emotionally acquiescent person, but not the progression of sexual organ atrophy, bones too brittle for sex, papery-dull skin, straw hair, broken nails, nor the financial dependence that disability involves either.

The ski-boot analogy (that I use often) works well here too:

When you are at the top of the mountain trying on the rental boots, if you ignore the slight pinching of one boot and head down that mountain, then you can be sure you’ll be halfway down with a blood-blisteringly painful foot.

Partners who believe your shape, looks, weight, or physical attributes are extensions of their status are going to fail you horribly halfway down that mountain. And importantly, it is indicative of boundary issues that go beyond your need to keep your eating disorder active for them.

By all means, if your partner is willing, then seek couples therapy to determine whether appropriate boundaries on both sides might be attainable. But in the absence of any recognition on their part that they would like to be able to salvage the relationship (when you make it clear you will not comply with their requirement that you remain thin) then that leaves you both pretending that the demilitarized zone between you enables you to stay a couple in some sense.

All those with an eating disorder, whether they pursue remission or not, deserve more than a chattel-based primary relationship— especially when that’s not likely to have been the understanding you had of the relationship at its outset. If you did knowingly sign up for being chattel, it’s also more than okay to change your mind; extract yourself from a contract that has outstayed its welcome; and move on.

And if you are navigating recovery and you don’t have a partner who is in absolute awe of your efforts to reach remission from such a deadly chronic condition, then he (or she) just isn’t welcome in your forever home. And I’m not saying you won’t have things you likely need to work on, on your side of the relationship, but being proud of our partner’s achievements and respectful of their struggles is love for a living being and not love of an item of property.