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

LOVE, TO LIVE II

April 30, 2008

My last blog, LOVE, TO LIVE, seems to have hit a nerve! I’ve received so many comments and notes at once that I want to reply to you “at large.”

My point in the blog is that we all are better served in life by making choices out of love – or passion – than out of fear of error or rejection. Love stimulates a positive, constructive approach to life, while fear compels a negative retreat from the full experience of living.

But the comments to this blog point out how distorted our perceptions of love can become, especially among those of us who are prone to eating disorders. Here are a few of your notes:

- the big question remains, how do you tap the internal resource?

- I know how to GIVE love...but I have no idea how receive it .I felt applause was love. And that is as close as I would let love get to me.

- I find it very hard to break from looking to others for what is needed, what is best, and have a hard time knowing what I love and like. I'm not sure how to find myself again.

- You have to also add fear of finding out who you really are.



In response, I want to share with you a few of the principles I’ve learned in my recent study of mindful self-awareness. I hesitate to give “how-to” suggestions, because every one of us is different and up against different issues and experiences. However, I have found the underlying principles of mindfulness to be profound, both in my own daily experience and in the current spate of scientific research that is proving the effectiveness of this ancient way of being.

The first, and to my mind most critical, principle is compassion. When I talk about love, I am talking crucially about compassion. Love of self is NOT conceit. Love of self is not even self-esteem. To love your self is to feel kindness toward your body, heart, and mind. By kindness I mean an emphatically nonjudgmental patience and generosity of spirit. Compassion is what we all ideally (but sadly, sometimes can’t) feel toward a newborn infant or beloved pet. It is not competitive or critical, threatening or hurried. It is curious and accepting.

We do not live in a compassionate culture. Instead, we live in a culture motivated, even obsessed, with competition. Many of us do not grow up in compassionate homes, either. We do not learn to listen to each other accurately, let alone to ourselves. We are fed a steady diet of judgment, as if being “critical,” and especially self-critical, were a positive trait of character! That’s why so many of us do not know what simply feels good, what we genuinely love to do or experience. We think of – and react to -- love as a gut-wrenching display when, really, true love is a free and effortless state of grace.

The second principle that I’ve found life-changing is the principle of attention. Mindfulness is a process of paying attention with all one’s senses, but without judgment. Mindful self-awareness is a process of paying attention to the sensations, feelings, habits, and thoughts that shape our sense of self. In other words, our identity. I’m talking about noticing when you raise your voice, when you feel the urge to manically clean closets, when your heart begins to slam against your rib cage, when you feel as if a lead weight were bearing down on your skull. I’m also talking about noticing when your heart lifts, when tears spring to your eyes, when the sky seems ecstatically blue or the tulips the color of gumdrops. Without needing to do anything about it, without feeling obligated to fight or flee the feeling, just stop occasionally and notice how you feel in this instant and all the factors in your environment that are contributing to this feeling. There is no right or wrong to feelings that are real. We need to remind ourselves of this on a daily basis, though, because many of us have been taught otherwise.

Which, of course, brings me to the third principle, which threads through all of mindful awareness, and that is suspension of judgment. Neutrality. Neither embracing nor rejecting but simply observing what is. For many, this is the most difficult part of mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, or tai-chi. “How do I know when I’m meditating right?” is the question most often asked in meditation classes I’ve attended. But there is no “right”! The very question is judgmental. Mindfulness meditation is simply the act of witnessing what happens inside your mind. You become the quiet observer of your own thoughts, your own physical and emotional sensations, your own brain in motion. You may gently lead your mind, but you do not fight it. In the best of senses, you treat your mind in meditation as a loving parent would lead a child, listening attentively and curiously, suggesting paths away from danger, offering kindness and tolerance.

Neuroscientists such as Daniel Seigel at UCLA and Robert Cloninger at Washington University are proving that mindfulness practices actually can rewire the brain to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and change lifelong habits and patterns of thinking. Whether or not they constitute a “cure” for suffering, they certainly offer us powerful tools for reducing our daily suffering. Most important of all, they can help us discover and exercise the basic principles of love.
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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