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french fulfillment: my dream of studying in france helped me let go of my eating disorder

Posted on February 12, 2014. Filed under body image, eating disorders, firsthand stories | No Comments »

I wrote this essay when I was 21, for the student magazine at the University of Kansas. The following originally appeared in Jayplay, a supplementary publication of The University Daily Kansan, on Sept. 13, 2007.

Run 4 miles every day. Nibble the skin of an apple for dinner. Ignore the weakness, the dizziness. Just keep running. This race never has a finish line.

For two of my years at KU, my closest friend, my full-time job, my god was an eating disorder. I knew what passed my lips better than I knew how to put breath in my lungs.

Carrot. Toothpaste. Holy Communion.

I didn’t eat a morsel without passionately deliberating, then feeling a terrified guilt that each crumb would become skin.

After every meal — typically half an English muffin and five grapes — I would rush to the mirror, hands pressing desperately across my stomach, as though fingers against flesh could somehow make sense of my life, lost in hopeless chaos.

Every bone in my back showed. I awoke each night to burning muscle cramps, my body feeding on itself. My hair fell out, and what remained was brittle and broken. My fingers and toes were perpetually cold, bluish and frail. I blacked out twice in public.

I didn’t know how to explain to friends that I couldn’t go out because I was fatigued by 8 p.m. from starving myself and planned to wake up before dawn to exercise. I drove friends away because of my obsession, my complete focus on myself. Their leaving puzzled me at the time because my eating disorder was, after all, what I thought would bring me into some surreal state of grace in which everyone would be magically drawn to the New Me.

I would be able to connect with people once I was thin. Life itself would finally begin.

Once I was thin.

But in my mind, thin never came, even when my body mass was low enough for hospitalization.

And I wanted to go. To give in to the disease. Let it define me. Make myself safe within the firm walls of anorexia. I wanted to be the girl with so much self-control. The girl above all human hungers. The girl who simply didn’t need.

Untangling all of life’s layers to unearth the root of this psychosis — which made me truly believe that my value as a person would increase as my body gradually vanished — would be impossible. While my driven, obsessive and perfectionistic personality no doubt played a huge role in fostering my eating disorder, I also found myself up against a culture that shamelessly prescribes starvation. A culture that, with its fetish for fad diets and hollow-eyed, stick-thin, asexual models, screams that the absolute worst way for a woman to fail is to be overweight.

The perfectionist in me would accept no form of failure. So I threw myself headlong into a maze of mirrors, scales and enduring emptiness, physical and emotional. I was set on the slow suicide of an eating disorder.

But when a team of doctors hired by my distraught parents hit me with the realization that my eating disorder would ultimately cost me my progress in the French language and the opportunity to study in France, I began, with no great ease, to claw my way out of a quicksand that nearly had me covered.

French was the only thing that gave me purpose — the one thing I’d invested too much of my life in to trade for white walls, a paper gown and a feeding tube.

I wasn’t afraid of never being able to have children. I wasn’t afraid of the wrecked immune system, the heart murmur, the premature aging, the chance of dying. Death isn’t real to a 19-year-old. I was afraid that, if I did live, I would never be able to reach a goal I’d started working toward long before I was intent on pounding the treadmill to an early grave.

And I would have to live with that fact — that I had given up a part of me so special and promising to be just like every other super-skinny wannabe model looking oh-so-blasé-and-wasted-and-vain. Because the world doesn’t already have enough of those girls.

I underwent treatment at an outpatient eating disorders clinic. Finding different ways to deal with the storm of fears and insecurities inside me was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’d never had to face anything real when I thought weight was my only problem.

As months of treatment passed, an idea slowly came alive within the part of me I’d been trying so hard to kill: Maybe letting go of my eating disorder would mean I had succeeded, not that I had failed. Maybe days should be spent doing other things besides counting calories, miles, pounds. Maybe my worth wasn’t contingent on the mirror and some arbitrary point in time when I was sure — absolutely 100 percent positive — that my thighs were thinner than they are right now.

Nothing was as saddening as finally gathering the strength to walk away from it all, only to find that the void in my life I thought I could fill by losing weight had only become larger. What I thought was my route to success had really been holding me back. What was supposed to at last give me an identity ended up stripping me of any shred of personality, leaving me, at the time, just a shrunken human shell — a nonbeing — too wrapped up in her jutting bones to value or be of value to anyone else.

I continue to battle my eating disorder every day. It won’t give up without a fight. But I know this fight is worth it. My dream of studying in France and the fulfillment I find in writing help me stay in the fight.

Words are my future. Silencing myself no longer interests me, nor does backing out of life because sometimes it’s stressful and messy and confusing and dealing with it would mean taking a long, hard look at myself and for once not taking the easy way out.

I know dying is much easier.

But living — with its missed alarm clocks, muddy shoes, faded friendships and those itchy regrets that just never go away — is infinitely worth the hassle.

Illustration by Becka Cremer, from The University Daily Kansan

georgia’s youth fat-shaming smacks of the familiar

Posted on January 7, 2013. Filed under advertising, children, eating disorders, government, health, media, obesity | 1 Comment »

Georgia Childhood Obesity Campaign

When I first saw the billboard ads for Georgia’s anti-childhood-obesity initiative — which debuted to much controversy toward the latter part of 2011 and were discontinued in early 2012 — the wordplay and pun-fulness of the text accompanying the stark, sad photographs actually reminded me of some of the well-known “pro-anorexia” mantras out there.

You know, things those of us who starve ourselves whisper in the back of our minds — cling to like a life raft in a violent surf, clutch like a talisman in our back pocket just before the winning lottery numbers are unveiled — in an effort to contort our willpower past the urge to eat a Dorito. These include such gems as:

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

“A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.”

(If you didn’t know, welcome to the anguished, illogical, creepy world of an eating disorder.)

The singsong tone of these sayings so artfully disguises their viciousness, the destructive shame they conjure. Yes, they are just words strung together in wee sentences that sound positively foolish and thus seem of little consequence. They are quite powerful — insidious — however, as the eating-disordered mind (or any addicted mind) will grasp at any sort of “logic” to keep itself safe, contained, thriving. To make self-destruction seem like hands-down the best idea that could have ever possibly existed ever.

[On a side note, from the annals of I’ll-never-again-get-to-mention-that-I-know-this-useless-factoid-so-I’m-going-to-put-it-in-here pop culture: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” was allegedly the brainchild of ’90s heroin-chic model Kate Moss, and, since its birth into our catalog of catchphrases, it has rightfully been condemned, ridiculed, stomped on, banned from T-shirts, etc.]

À la Miss Moss’ proclamation, the quips in the Georgia ads — such as “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” — have a nice, tidy ring to them that masks their cruelty, their condescension, the way they compact a very vast, tangled problem into a shipshape slogan. And the slogan goes: You’re different because you’re not thin. You should be thin. You should want to be thin. You should be trying to be thin. Otherwise, you’re a punch line.

According to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the pediatrics organization behind the billboards, the purpose of the ads (which also aired as TV spots) was to get people’s attention. To wake them up to the seriousness of childhood obesity — this buzzword of an “epidemic,” this utmost burden on our society, this crisis worthy of government intervention. If the goal is to get the youth of our nation of slovenly scale-tippers and their parents on a path toward a lifetime of healthy eating, however, motivating them via shame seems a tad plenty ill-advised.

The desire to have an honest, un-sugar-coated conversation about childhood obesity is a fine objective. But tapping into shock value and shame in lieu of presenting actual solutions clouds that goal, and, I believe, can have unintended consequences.

how to give a body-free compliment

Posted on March 20, 2012. Filed under body image, psychology | 3 Comments »

I recently ran into a friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in about a year and a half. Cooing hellos and exchanging hugs, my mind began grasping for something more to say that would convey how happy I was to see her, how awesome I think she is, how I value her being in my life still. And I wanted something that would make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, too.

In haste, I came up with the painfully unoriginal, instantly regrettable, “You look so great!”

Inside, I cringed at the words — not because I didn’t mean them, but because my means of communicating the serendipitous delight, the rush of sweet nostalgia I felt at suddenly reuniting with my friend hinged on her physical appearance.

Complimenting someone’s appearance is the knee-jerk approach. Acknowledging what’s right before our eyes — a person’s exterior — doesn’t require leaving autopilot, nor does it require we even know a person well, which is why I (and why I suspect many of us) lean on the appearance-based compliment quite often. The effortlessness of complimenting someone’s looks opens the floodgates for us to heap compliments on anyone in eyeshot, and giving compliments feels good, and so on.

But I want to give better compliments. I don’t want to express admiration, gratitude, love on autopilot. I crave alternatives not so much for myself, but because I believe we, however unconsciously, learn to value about ourselves what others indicate we should. If I am noticed or praised most often because of some aspect of how I look, I could naturally translate that to mean that what meets the eye is the most important part of me — my strongest suit, my wisest investment, who I am. And as the ladies of Beauty Redefined so perfectly put it: “There is so much more to be than eye candy.”

So I asked myself: What am I trying to say that I’m glossing over by mentioning something physical? What if I didn’t sidestep that thought?

Uncloaked, the compliment I want to give is the simple yet powerful, “I’m so happy to see you.” It’s precisely what I intend to say via my appearance-based compliment a good 90 percent of the time, so why not just go with it? Variations on the expression are many and flexible, and, although I’m not attaching my words to anything concrete, something about this compliment feels much more rooted, real.

My hunt for body-free accolades met a remarkable ally in blogger Elizabeth Patch, who has assembled an invigorating list of 10 ways to compliment a woman without mentioning her looks.

And I plan to keep pursuing even more alternatives. Sure, sometimes someone really is just wearing an awesome pair of boots or has a gorgeous new haircut. But being more mindful of the messages I send via compliments feels empowering, because sometimes even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments — brief reunions, water cooler banter, passing in the hallway — count a lot toward the big picture.

airbrushed bodies (officially) not a good thing — now what?

Posted on October 23, 2011. Filed under advertising, body image, celebrities, health, magazines, media | 4 Comments »

In June, the American Medical Association (AMA) took a stand against the retouching of photos in advertisements, stating, “such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image — especially among impressionable children and adolescents.”

Many activists and organizations that promote positive body image quickly lauded the gesture — at last, validation from the medical community what so many of us have been saying for years. As affirming and as powerful as the AMA’s declaration was, I couldn’t help wondering how we’d arrived at a point where the country’s largest physician organization felt the need to go on record saying that “correcting” bodies to align with a homogenized, unattainable, “perfect” standard of beauty probably isn’t the best idea.

Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook magazine, July 2007, before and after digital retouching

Digital nipping and tucking in print media — whether in advertisements or editorial content — has become such the status quo and such the worst kept secret ever that egregious before-and-after examples of it show up frequently on pop culture blogs. Unlike other modes of public deception, our awareness of Photoshopped images hasn’t hindered their prevalence over the years.

In other words, tampering with the facts is OK when it comes to the body.

The Photoshop wand has become so brazen that even some of those who benefit from it — mostly young, female actresses and musicians — have spoken out against it, among them Kate Winslet, Rachael Leigh Cook and Britney Spears.

“I’m constantly telling girls all the time everything is airbrushed, everything is retouched to the point it’s not even asked,” actress Rosario Dawson recently told Shape magazine. “None of us look like that.”

But will opposition from the AMA and a handful of celebrities usher in any meaningful change in the grand scheme of our conspicuously cropped, corrected world? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The “revolution,” so to speak, cannot be brought about by external factors such as policies, campaigns, a famous person going against the grain. If these fixed anything on their own, we’d have all been “cured” long ago, now striving to have the strongest, healthiest bodies and revering images of bodies in their natural, truthful form.

We must first and foremost adopt internal policies, which can no doubt be inspired by the many terrific positive body image initiatives and dialogues going on at present. The AMA’s policy and comments from women in the spotlight are significant and have drawn worthwhile attention to the assault on the body at the hands of digital manipulation. But the difference between lasting change and an ephemeral headline on The Huffington Post will be each of us, on our own, deciding we value and would rather look at what’s real and “imperfect” than what’s fake, redundant, unattainable and subliminally hisses, “You’re not good enough.”

The time to start fighting back against unrealistic body ideals is now. Step No. 1: Change your mind.

petite actresses with gargantuan appetites

Posted on July 24, 2011. Filed under celebrities, gender, magazines, media, popular culture | 4 Comments »

Every once in a great while, a piece of writing comes along that conveys to a hilt some inner sentiment you’ve always had but were sure was unique unto you. Such instances are pure magic, and it happened to me with the Feb. 15 New York Times commentary For Actresses, Is a Big Appetite Part of the Show? by Jeff Gordinier.

The context of my sublime moment was the familiar sit-down magazine interview with a female celebrity on the cusp of the release of her next movie or album. The scene seems innocuous enough, but after the perfunctory headline is out of the way, it happens, seemingly always: “The starlet, usually of slim and gamine proportions, appears to thwart our expectations by ordering and consuming, with conspicuous relish, a meal that might satisfy a hungry dockworker,” Gordinier writes.

As a magazine enthusiast, I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened up Glamour, Cosmo or some other women’s mag with a beautiful, stylish, thin female celebrity on the cover hoping to read something about what makes her tick (or at least what’s in her Netflix queue). Instead, I’m informed outright that this gorgeous, impeccably fit woman always orders the jumbo stack of pancakes or loves her some mac and cheese.

The a-ha moment for me came when Gordinier explained that one Hollywood insider has actually coined a phrase for such occurrences of overt gastro indulgence: the “DIPE,” or “documented instance of public eating.” In other words, these frequent displays of decadent dining are no coincidence, and I wasn’t hung up on them because I’m perhaps more struck than the average person by a markedly featherweight actress claiming she never passes up extra bacon on her double cheeseburger. We’re all supposed to notice.

Unlike Gordinier, I never questioned the DIPE. I would instead think, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not able to eat like that and look like that?” I think this mindset is quite common among people with eating disorders. “This is normal,” I would tell myself of any given DIPE. “I’m clearly the weird one for not being able to feast fearlessly on any and all food and still be a size 0 and have a $1 million CoverGirl contract. After all, every magazine interview with every female celebrity can’t be wrong.”

I fell for the DIPE without qualification.

I’ve found throughout the years that so many of the media influences that make me insecure about my body are really pushing some other agenda. Most often it’s to sell me something — and with the DIPE, it’s selling an idea. “Ultimately, the DIPE is meant to convey that a starlet is relaxed, approachable and game,” Gordinier writes.

And why shouldn’t she be? And why shouldn’t we believe that she is? The problem arises in that publicists, journalists and the stars themselves think the way to convince us of this is to have the star chow down with abandon on foods one would think off-limits for a skinny, successful, desirable woman. The disconnection in this logic is abrasive.

“Any individual DIPE may not shed much light on the inner life of the latest actress,” Gordinier writes. “But collectively, their frequency seems to tell us something about societal standards, judgments and yearnings.” If food, size, weight and appearance weren’t so central to our culture and to our evaluation of female beauty and, ultimately, female worth, perhaps the DIPE wouldn’t exist. And maybe we could actually glean something practical and — dare I say it! — inspiring from the ladies in these magazine articles.

Illustration by Michael C. Wittee, from The New York Times