Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What's eating you? Wednesday, December 1, 2010.

"I'm just afraid I'm gonna miss it all ..." –Karen Carpenter, to her therapist

When singer Karen Carpenter died on February 4, 1983, of an anorexia nervosa-induced heart attack, it was the first time many people ever heard of the eating disorder. Karen had an angelic face and voice. She was 32 years old. At the time of her death, Karen was 5’4” and weighed 108 pounds.

That same year, I was 5’5” and weighed 101, making me considerably thinner than Karen. But I was not anorexic. I suffered from anxiety, which killed my appetite, and I’d been shaped like Ichabod Crane all my life. I was terribly ashamed of my scrawny, boobless and hipless frame (I’ve since grown boobs, hips, and a good-sized ass – thank you for asking).

Because of my self-image as a teenager, I’ve always had a hard time acquainting extreme thinness with beauty. When I see an extremely skinny woman, I don’t think “How beautiful she is!” I think, “She needs to get some meat on those bones!” Mary-Kate Olsen and Calista Flockhart make me cringe. I like that Marilyn Monroe was 5-1/2” and weighed 140 pounds.

A flurry of Hollywood performers have come forward to share their stories of anorexia, bulimia, and cutting (an unholy trinity of disorders that often go together). Most recently, Brittany Snow of “American Dreams” announced that during the taping of the series, she battled anorexia, depression and self-mutilation. Just a few of the others: Margaux Hemmingway, Paula Abdul, Fiona Apple, Sandra Dee, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Tracy Gold, Audrey Hepburn, Janet Jackson, Alanis Morissette, Sharon Osbourne, and Christina Ricci.

For many years, eating disorders were seen as a rich, white girl’s disease. Young women who were spoiled and surrounded by abundance wanted their bodies to be perfect, like models’ bodies are perfect, and so they were starving themselves like bratty little children at the dinner table refusing to finish their Brussels sprouts.

But thinking has evolved. Researchers are coming to the realization that many of those who suffer from eating disorders are not Caucasian, not privileged, and sometimes, not even women. Interestingly, anorexia is popping up all over the globe, even in rural communities in Africa where food is already scarce and people are not exposed to the Western media.

I’m no expert in eating disorders, and I’ve never been diagnosed with one, although I shed 20 or 30 pounds very quickly during my bipolar mixed episode. I had several reasons for not eating: I had a medical condition that made it hard to eat; I was extraordinarily anxious and so had no appetite, and I was severely depressed and so believed that I did not deserve food. However, looking like Angela Jolie was not on the list of my priorities. (I’ve since gained back the weight, plus a good deal more. Hello, yo-yo.)

The fact is, emaciated women aren’t sexy. So I have a hard time believing that “looking good for guys” is really at the heart of most women’s eating disorders. Ask most men and they’ll tell you. They like ‘em some tits. They like ‘em some ass. When I was a too-skinny teenager, I was told by one “boyfriend” that hugging me was like holding a skeleton. He never called again.

Instead, I think there’s something to the self-mutilation connection. One phenomenon that occurs among very religiously pious women is that they stop eating as a form of self-denial, or self-punishment. Why would self-injury so often appear with anorexia and/or bulimia? No one cuts themselves to look sexy. They’re expressing self-hatred with a razor blade. They can do the same by refusing to eat, or purging what they have eaten.

Self-hatred – for all the reasons it occurs – is an equal-opportunity tormentor. Ironically, famous women might be even more inclined to self-hate, if they feel guilty or undeserving of their great fortune.

It’s not about the pounds. It’s about the pain.

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