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

BETWEEN WORDS

June 9, 2008

Some of us struggle with gaps. Memory gaps, energy gaps, gaps between lovers, jobs, marriages, or friends. Some of us fall into the gaps and land in deep depressions, accompanied by whatever symptoms of self-abuse, starvation, alcohol, or bulimia come most naturally. Others reach out so fiercely for help that we pull others with us into the gap. And a few learn to breathe softly and float for dear life.

I seem to be forever trying to mind the gap. I’m a middle-aged woman, an empty nest mother, an unemployed wife and writer currently “between books.” Most of my days seem comprised of gaps, and filling them is not always an option. As anyone my age knows, when the mind springs a gap – also charitably called a “senior moment,” the least effective response may be a rush to fill it with words. That effort to find the misplaced word can be contagious, even entertaining, turning – in my family -- into a sort of verbal charades. But the exertion of willpower over memory can also freeze circuits with frustration and rage against the aging machine. Only later, during the float of slumber or a warm shower, will the missing word snap to attention, gleaming and naughty like new!

Sometimes the most effective way to mind the gap is to relax and trust in oneself even when the evidence is not encouraging. This is a lesson, I’ve found, that applies to so much more than faltering memory. It applies to failure of just about any kind. I try to train myself on the small gaps so I will remember the lesson when I’m faced with the truly overwhelming losses that almost all of us are bound to face sooner or later in our lives.

This is not an easy lesson for people accustomed to ordering their lives, striving to perform at the top of their game, measuring and weighing their accomplishments so that there is no doubt about their discipline and drive. It’s not an easy lesson for me, as I realize all too often when I sit down to write and my voice fails me. The words don’t come. The ideas don’t flow. I must be a total failure. Sound familiar?

We all want desperately to be seen accurately and heard clearly. When we’re not, some of us do terrible things to our bodies and minds. But in order to be seen and heard we have to get comfortable in our own skin and calm down enough to hear our own voices. Panic, anger, frustration, hurry, blame, and shame make it impossible to feel comfortable or talk clearly. These negative emotions turn our words into sharp pointy objects that we turn against ourselves. When this happens, the refuge we most need may lie between the words -- in that very gap that our words are railing against.

Sometimes we can hear ourselves most clearly in silence. Learning to sit with that silence, without struggling to fill it, is one critical key to minding the gaps in our lives without falling into them.

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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