GAINING:
The Truth About Life
After Eating Disorders

Essays, Articles, & Nonfiction Works
by Aimee Liu

RESOURCES
These treatment facilities offer specialized programs for eating disorders, including men and women over age 21.
Discover the many ways others are using their voices, talents, and passions to turn suffering into creativity and hope.
Links to websites and organizations that provide information and referrals.
References cited in GAINING
Books
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
"I've read countless books about eating disorders, but I've never seen one like this. Combining the professional wisdom of leading experts with personal experiences from women and men all over the globe, this book fills a gap on the recovery bookshelf. Anyone who has been touched by an eating disorder needs to read this."—Jenni Schaefer, author of Life without Ed
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979

Newsletter

What's RIGHT with you?

September 25, 2007

Dear friends,
I've been preparing for a talk with a group of students at a girls' prep school here in LA, and I thought I'd share with you one line of thought that I want to offer them...

Have you seen the Cingular ad tagged “Mother Love” that “changes the conversation” about cell phones? “I have NOT had it up to here with you, young lady,” the mother shouts, to which her daughter replies, “Why do you insist on treating me like an adult?” As the mother hands her a cell phone, the teen snarls, “I love you,” and the mother answers, “I know you really mean that...you grateful little --”

The commercial makes vividly clear that we need to change the conversation about much more than cell phones. We need to challenge the script that so many of us follow without thinking in our families, our culture, and with ourselves. Instead of screaming, “What’s wrong with you!” we need to pay attention to what’s right -- in all of us.

This is not easy to do in a society that bombards us with images, messages, standards, and demands that fake perfection. We grow up thinking that models and movie stars actually look like their air-brushed and digitized photos. We tell ourselves that a lower-middle class kid from the Bronx has the same chance to graduate from an Ivy League college as the child of wealthy executives in Greenwich, Connecticut. We pretend that every American has the same chance to become President that George W. Bush had. Then, when we discover that, no matter how hard we try, we never seem to look like those magazine photos, or leap freely across class lines, or rise to the same position of power as those to the manor born, instead of questioning the definition of “perfection” our culture has sold us, we ask “What’s wrong with me?”

We don’t all ask this outright, of course. Some proclaim to anyone who will listen how “well” they are doing because they’ve just been promoted, or had their picture in the local paper, or bought a big house on the better side of town, or enrolled their kids in the same school Donald Trump’s kids attended. Others pretend that fashion magazines and American Idol, reality TV and talk shows are “just entertainment” that have no effect whatsoever on how they see themselves. Still others withdraw to small towns or the country in order to block out the constant chatter of look-at-me-be-like-me influences. But in our culture it takes a tough hide not to suffer some version of a media-induced inferiority complex.

Women, in particular, tend to express this sense of inferiority by punishing themselves – through eating disorders, compulsive exercise, substance abuse, cutting, and social isolation. If we are ever to stop this cycle of self-abuse, we must change the conversation we have with ourselves and with our society. We must stop asking “What’s wrong with me,” and start demanding, “What’s RIGHT with me.”

I’m not proposing that we all turn into narcissists, admiring ourselves in our vanity mirrors. Far from it! By what’s “right” I mean what comes naturally; what feels real and true; what brings genuine joy and creates calm; what gives each of us individually a sense of purpose and meaning. This changed conversation has nothing to do with looks or achievement or possessions. It has nothing to do with how we appear to others. It has everything to do with the inner sources of strength that we are born with and that we can choose to cultivate – or neglect.

I cannot see in any mirror what is right with me. But I can feel it in the way I respond to the rhythm of waves at the beach, the stretch of my muscles as I swim, the curl of my toes in the sand. I know it from my satisfaction when I turn out a well-crafted or insightful sentence, when I find the right words to mentor a student out of confusion. I bask in it when my son confides in me and listens to my response, and when I fall asleep holding my husband’s hand.

What’s right with you cannot be found in any photograph, report card, or shopping mall. It cannot be bought or sold. What’s right with you can be nourished and nurtured, but not if you are constantly asking, “What is wrong with me?”

You need to change the conversation. So do I. So do all of us – now.

Take care to thrive,
Aimee
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Anorexia's Red Herring

Too-skinny models may be a factor in spawning eating disorders, but they're just one of many.
By Aimee Liu

Published in the Los
Angeles Times,
September 22, 2006

THIS WEEK in Madrid, heroin chic was prohibited. For the first time, the organizers of a major international fashion show recognized that by showcasing emaciated models, the fashion industry promotes eating disorders. Under pressure from the Madrid government, medical associations and women's advocacy groups, the Assn. of Fashion Designers of Spain finally rejected morbidly thin models.

When selecting models for this year's Madrid fashion week, which ends today, the designers set a minimum body mass ratio (calculated on the basis of height and weight). Their required ratio was 18 — meaning a minimum of 119 pounds for a 5-foot, 8-inch woman. The bar was by no means high. For ordinary mortals, a ratio of 18.5 qualifies as underweight. Even so, five of the 68 auditioning models flunked.

To understand why they flunked, we need to look beyond the fashion industry to the true causes of eating disorders. These include genetic predisposition, temperament, family dynamics and personal trauma. I know; modeling fueled but did not cause my own adolescent eating disorder nearly 40 years ago.

Twiggy was my generation's Kate Moss. I fixated on her at age 13, and by the time I started modeling one year later, I'd dropped 30 pounds. Being skinny became my identity. At 5 feet, 7 inches, I didn't weigh more than 100 pounds again until I was 21.

My anorexia ultimately destroyed my career.

Models were — and still are — paid to make fashions look good, and that meant fitting sample wardrobes. Reigning teen cover girls Shelley Hack and Colleen Corby understood this. In dressing room lunches between shoots, I'd watch them wolf down tuna salad sandwiches while I pretended not to be hungry. They were lucky, I told myself, they could get away with eating. I began to lose jobs when I became so thin that stylists couldn't even pin dresses on me to look right. Still, I felt I couldn't eat.

Like many anorexic models, I was drawn to the fashion world because it reinforced my anorexia. I would be willing to bet that most, if not all, of the runway models disqualified in Madrid fit the same pattern — as do many emaciated gymnasts and ice skaters.

Three years ago, I began interviewing medical researchers as well as middle-age women and men with histories of anorexia and bulimia. I wanted to find out what we know now that we didn't know in the 1970s, when I quit my self-imposed hunger strike. I learned that researchers now are discovering genetic links between eating disorders, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Genes also shape the temperaments of people who are prone to anorexia and bulimia, although the mechanisms for this are still poorly understood.

A landmark 2003 British study found that certain innate childhood traits, such as perfectionism, inflexibility and cautiousness, each increase an individual's risk for anorexia by a factor of seven. Someone like me, possessing all five traits measured in the study, is 35 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than a daredevil who happily wears mismatched socks.

Further, eating disorders are triggered not by pictures of Kate Moss but by sudden or cumulative experiences of intolerable emotion, such as shame or fear. Puberty unleashes a natural tidal wave of these emotions. Adolescence also happens to be the age when rates of sexual abuse soar, academic and social pressures intensify and parents become a source of embarrassment rather than solace. It makes sense that this is prime time for eating disorders. Obsession with weight offers a distraction. Extreme weight loss signals distress.

It also makes sense that rates of anorexia and bulimia spike in middle age, when many women again face emotional turmoil. Women over 30 now make up a full third of residential patients at the Renfrew Center, a Philadelphia treatment facility specializing in eating disorders. Divorce, grief, the empty nest — all can trigger illness if the individual possesses a genetic predisposition.

The onset of eating disorders is like the firing of a gun. Genetics form the gun. Cultural influences such as the fashion industry and familial attitudes about weight then load it. And intense emotional distress pulls the trigger.

Healthier figures on international catwalks may help to disarm the gun. However, of the more than 40 women I interviewed, only a handful had ever paid any attention to fashion. When they started starving, they were asking for help, not admiration. Those models who failed the test in Madrid need treatment, not rebuke.



Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times