I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Anorexia

You Are Beautiful

1024px-La_danse_(I)_by_Matisse

Beautiful Girls

I was at a modern dance performance the other night. Talented young girls from a nearby dance conservatory. I marveled. There was a range of ages and ability levels and body types. All beautiful. From the lean and graceful ballet-types to the curvy and sturdy athletic types to the more gawky and awkward types, striving to be more comfortable and graceful in their bodies. Well, that’s it isn’t it? We’re all striving to be more comfortable and graceful in our bodies aren’t we? What those girls don’t know and can’t appreciate yet is how beautiful they are. Every single one of them.

My heart was with them. I feel. I remember. The 10,000 hours of grinding and repetitive technique classes and rehearsals. The thrill of getting singled out for a solo. The devastation of not getting singled out for a solo. The excitement and anxiety of the weeks leading up to the performance. The costumes. The makeup. The theater. The lights. The audience. Practicing. Worrying. Not eating. Because that extra pound lost would make a psychological difference in how I felt about myself. In the costume, on stage, in my body.

Chatting before the performance with a mom in the audience, the conversation turned to anorexia. Of course. Girls and dance. What else would we talk about? A girl, not one of the dancers but she is in the circle of high-achieving New York metropolitan families who appear to have it all, is struggling with anorexia. Her mother was a dancer. Aha! Familiar territory. I wanted to pounce, to rush in and solve the problem. The mother must have eating issues. How could it not wreak havoc on her daughter and the whole family? I felt for the girl, the mother, the family. I don’t know them. I hope they are getting help. Because…

Anorexia can be deadly.

So much of it is shrouded in shame and secrecy. It starts innocuously enough. You notice that if you eat less and lose weight that your breasts and hips get smaller. That’s a relief because you’re not really sure you want breasts and hips and a butt anyway. Besides, you have to watch out for men, because they only want one thing. Much better to get those curves under control. Besides, you start getting compliments, maybe even from your mom, about how good you look. Then, maybe you start exercising more. Dancing, running, sports. Now you’ve lost weight and added muscle. Looking good girl! Besides, if you work out every day, you can burn off more calories. Yes! Then, you start getting off on feeling hungry. Feeling hungry means you haven’t overeaten. In fact you’ve probably lost more weight. All good, right? Well, now you’re in dangerous territory. You enjoy being hungry and don’t want to eat. Your dysmorphia intensifies. You look in the mirror and like how thin you are, with no awareness that having your ribs show is not attractive. And you want to be even more thin. And even more hungry. It is a vicious and dangerous, sometimes deadly cycle.

The family panics and wants you to eat, but that is terrifying to you. The absolute worst possible disaster to befall a girl with anorexia is to gain weight. It is very difficult to treat. Recent research is showing that rigid anorexic behavior is linked to increased activation in the area of the brain that controls habit and is tied to anxiety. Her brain is stuck in a groove that doesn’t respond to medication or therapy and is prone to relapse. The girl has to replace her habitual patterns around food with something else. Her family needs to help by changing familial patterns. It is tremendously complicated.  And difficult.

And the sadness of it is that these girls do not realize how beautiful they are. In their world, there is pressure to look good, pressure to succeed, pressure to appear to have it all together. Everyone else seems to have it figured out. But the secret truth is that no one has it figured out. It takes years to gain perspective and experience – resilience – to appreciate you.

You are beautiful.

There is increasing awareness of eating issues. Mybodyscreening.org has a 3 minute quiz to screen for whether or not you may benefit from clinical help related to an eating disorder. My teen self would not have passed. The enjoyment of food and the fear of gaining weight remain an on-going conversation that goes on in my mind and makes me sympathize with the thinking that one never fully recovers from an eating disorder. It hovers in the background.

So, beautiful girls, here is my wish.

May you feel strong and be healthy. May you move with grace and ease. May you stand tall and enjoy your breasts and hips and butt. May you taste food with pleasure. May you dance with confidence and enjoy the exhilaration of moving to music. May you know that you are not alone. May you know that you are beautiful.

Image:  La Danse (I), by Henri Matisse

“Enjoy the Food!”

IMG_1504

Secret Eating

When I got engaged to my husband, 20 years ago, perhaps my biggest worry was how I was going to keep my eating weirdness a secret.  I recall that I also had more typical concerns, like:  are we still going to be in love 20 years later?  (Yes, but it takes work to navigate the differences as we have matured into our older, more distinct selves.)  Funny, the eating concern is vivid and fresh, like it was yesterday.

Food was and is a big part of our relationship.  In the beginning, dates and weekends together revolved around either eating out at a new restaurant or eating in by picking a recipe and planning a meal to cook together.  We were both very active and thoroughly enjoyed eating a lot to offset all the physical activity.  Cocooned in our relationship, we developed a repertoire of delicious meals together.  Before our engagement, we spent the weekdays apart, where I happily could revert to eating alone my secret meals.

I would eat alone, secretly, so I could indulge my desire for gorging.  I learned to gorge on food that has few calories so I could eat a lot of it without gaining weight.  A classic strategy for a ballerina.  Some of my favorite foods for gorging, because they can be consumed in large quantities with little adornment except for some olive oil & vinegar or plain yogurt, include:  Shredded Wheat, Oatmeal, Quinoa, Lentils, Baked Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Escarole, Broccoli Rabe, and FRUIT.  Staggering quantities of fruit.  So sweet and refreshing, I still eat a lot of fruit every day.  Now I am better able to manage portion sizes and enjoy what I eat mindfully.  Back then, I would make the meal last by reading while I ate and not letting myself take another bite until I finished a paragraph.  There is so much food I did not savor because I was reading and so many books I did not retain because I was eating.  Both the eating and the reading were stalling devices – I was avoiding dealing with whatever anxiety I did not want to face at the time.  Avoiding human contact and conflict, avoiding taking risks to put myself out there in the world to claim who I really was instead of who I thought I should be.  Or who I thought they wanted me to be.  Anyone other than me.

In those happy years of early marriage and those busy years of raising young children, I did not have time to be so anxious and did not miss being lonely.  My husband accepted and ignored or laughed at my food oddities.  I adapted my rules, strategies, and preferences to our life together, eking out some secret eating time when he had his tennis nights.  But when the weight gain of mid-life settled in and the anxieties of mid-life settled in, I found myself pulling out my bag of tricks.  But this time, my kids were watching.  Desperate to model healthy food choices to my son who would prefer to eat macaroni and cheese exclusively; desperate to model “normal” eating behavior to my daughter who regularly lounges in front of the tv, eating alone;  I became obsessive with healthy food choices and regular meals with minimal snacking.  I lost my 20 pounds but am not convinced there isn’t collateral damage.  I can no longer control when and what my children eat.  Perhaps I never did.

When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, 18 years ago, perhaps my biggest worry was how to raise a girl without an eating disorder.  I vowed to raise a daughter with a happy sense of her self and her body and a healthy approach to eating that included enjoyment of food.  I recall that I also had more typical concerns, like:  will she be healthy?  Will she be happy?  Will I be a good mother?   (She is healthy.  I hope she is happy.  And, good or bad, I certainly am the mother I was meant to be.)  Funny, the eating disorder concern is vivid and fresh, like it was yesterday.

As girls, it makes complete sense to me why we eat alone.  There is too much pressure to eat socially.  Like Scarlett O’Hara, we have to eat a private meal before (or after) the public meal.  We are so laced into our form-fitting party attire and so expected to eat properly, pretending we don’t need or enjoy the sensual pleasure of eating to satiety.

There is too much pressure to eat what everyone else is eating.  Either too much or too little.  What if it doesn’t taste good?  What if it does taste good, so good I can’t stop eating it?  No, better to sit quietly with a vat of fruit, filling up on something healthy and tasty that won’t make me fat.

There is too much pressure to make food choices that are what “normal” people would choose to eat.  The homemade pasta with short ribs sounds delicious, but I am afraid of the calories and am cutting back on meat.  I’d really rather have the vegan farro with grilled vegetables.  Does that make me weird, someone to look askance at?

When the meal arrives, it is unseemly to devour the entire plate load of food.  “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat another bite” is what the good girls say, covering their plate with a napkin or mushing the food so that it is no longer appetizing or (my personal tactic) simply dividing it in half mentally and using their tremendous self-discipline to stop.  I don’t believe the thin celebrities who brag that they eat burgers and fries without guilt.  They go to the gym to work it off – or worse if they are bulimic.  They pay a price for their bodies.

Our children watch us, learn from us, imitate us, reject us.  When all is said and done, they take parts of us even as they separate and evolve into their own selves.  I am regularly terrified that some characteristic of me that I can’t stand lives on in my children.  Cuticle picking, secret eating, and all sorts of obsessive-compulsive and perfectionistic anxiety.  But they are not me.  They did not have my parents, my life.  They are loved, I think they know they are loved, and they have different life experiences and coping skills to grow into emotionally strong and honest adults.  Still, I can’t help but have a frisson of terror when I see myself mirrored whenever they exhibit anxious behavior traits.

When my brother-in-law urged me to “enjoy the food!” on a recent trip to New Orleans, I laughed.  He had no idea what a complicated feat that would be for me.  (Or did he?)  Balancing my fear of getting fat with my desire to eat, it used to be easy to lose track of what really tastes good and what really satisfies my body.  Now, though, with years of eating behind me and an increasing yogic sense of awareness of my body, I am more able to choose what I really want to eat and to enjoy it.  Nothing beats a delicious bowl of fruit.  Now, though, I prefer to share it.

Beautiful Girls

I Am a Prude

The New York Times style magazine, T Magazine, published an issue with a cover photo and inner photo spreads that sparked some controversy:  Too Tough To Handle – Harnessing the dark side with black bikinis and a leather cover-up.  I actually missed the physical issue, because it was Mother’s Day and I was busy not running errands in a very determined way.  So I followed the controversy after the fact in the blogs with intense professional interest.  I market magazines for a living.  Beautiful girls and sex help sell magazines.  I have worked with the editor of T Magazine, Deborah Needleman, and was curious about how she would present her point of view publicly.

In short, readers complained that the girls were too young and too thin and that the imagery was too referential to sexual bondage.  The commentary from Jamie Peck at thegloss.com and Margaret Sullivan as Public Editor of the NYT was remarkably benign about the images.  Peck acknowledged liking the look.  Sullivan focused on the issue of photo-shopping images in fashion photography (forbidden in journalism, but practically de rigueur in fashion photography).  Needleman was quoted as saying she also thought the cover model was too thin and considered photo-shopping some plumpness to her but opted not to do so.

Given my personal experience with too-thin-ness, I decided I really should look at the images and check in with my own gut.

My professional distance dissolved.

Two young too-thin girls, perhaps they are all of 20, dressed in black bikinis with a leather cover-up (you know, “harnessing the dark side”) with an aloof and unsmiling gaze.  Their skin is pale.  Their expression is almost hostile (you know, “too tough to handle”).

I imagined the photo shoot.   I imagined myself as one of the models at 20.  Eager to please.  Flattered they think I am beautiful.  Lucky to be wearing couture.  Anxious to be considered grown-up, sophisticated, sexy, not naïve.  Obedient – I, too, would have endured, willingly, the scrutiny of my body, if it meant I was special.  Can’t you hear the photographer (Craig McDean) and the stylist (Joe McKenna) commanding them to be sexy?  Why does sexy equate with haughty and aloof, hostile and hard, breastless and bony?

Shouldn’t sexy mean bare souls connecting with intimacy, love, passion?  Shouldn’t sexy be happy?  These girls don’t look happy.  These girls don’t look like they know anything about love, joy, and happiness.  Shouldn’t beautiful girls be smiling?  Who are the people that think these girls are sexy?  Who are the girls that want to look like this?

Sadly, we are everywhere.

In the magazine world, whenever we engaged in serious self-questioning about what kind of models and celebrities to use on the cover and on the inside spreads, we bemoaned the fact that white blonds sold better than ethnic girls and that thin sold better than curvy.  I always cheered when a magazine would take a stand against too-thin models.  Alas, the readers might say they want to see real women in their magazines, but they don’t buy the magazines with the real women.

I did have some genuine conversation with the editor of Teen Vogue, Amy Astley, across several years of working on that title.  Like me, she had been a ballerina.  Like me, she was a mother.  Like me, she understood issues around body image and eating.  In my experience of her, Amy loves all things related to girls and works hard to create a magazine that encourages healthy and positive, honest and open points of view – though within the framework of a fashion magazine.  She advocates for no smoking.  She advocates for no drinking and driving, no texting and driving.  She addresses important issues of body image and bullying and sex.  Once, when I came to her requesting images of happy girls making eye contact for a marketing piece, I remember her saying – poignantly – something like: Oh Sally, these girls don’t smile.

Beautiful girls who don’t smile.  Sad.

I revisited the T magazine fashion spread and the commentary about it.  Blasé, the bloggers commented that the images were unremarkable.  I too wanted to be blasé.  Not a prude.  Yea, these images are unremarkable and the controversy is ridiculous.  Everyone wants $500 black bikinis and $5,000 leather jackets to wear to the beach.  And then it hit me.  Yes I am.  I am a prude.  An outraged prude!  These images are remarkably ridiculous.  These images are insidiously dangerous.  These images are sad, not sexy.

Now pejorative, “prude” actually means “honorable woman” and was originally a noble compliment, associated with wisdom, prudence, sound judgment.  Where are the prudes protecting our beautiful girls?  We should be creating a world where girls can allow their bodies to feel.  Feel hungry.  Feel pleasure.  Feel pretty.  Feel safe, sexual intimacy.  Feel happy.  Happy enough to smile.

(Photo is from T Magazine: The New York Times Style Magazine)

My name is Sally and I weigh 123.4 pounds.

IMG_0073

Addicted to the Scale?

I weigh myself on Monday mornings.  I am the first person up.  I tip-toe into the bathroom.  (I still move like a dancer.)  I turn on the shower so that the water gets really hot.  (I love getting lost in the shower with hot water surrounding me.)  I pee. (It’s important that all possible fluids be eliminated.)  I strip naked.  (It’s important to not be weighed down by any clothing…my threadbare pajamas must weigh at least a pound!)  I pull out the scale from its somewhat unobtrusive and hidden location.  (I don’t want my daughter to get the scale addiction.)  I step on it.  I hold my breath.  The digital numbers flicker back and forth before settling into this week’s verdict.  Aha!  Under 125 pounds.  My current magic boundary.  I weigh as little as I’ve weighed since I was married 19 years ago.  I feel ridiculously proud and virtuous about this dubious achievement.  What a way to kick off the week.

My mother’s scale was in their walk-in closet – a small, dark, private room that always fascinated me.  My mother’s clothes on one side and my father’s clothes on the other side.  Hidden treasure boxes of old jewelry, old photos and other mementos on the shelving high up.  This was where the Christmas presents were stashed away.  She was not particularly modest.  Dressing, undressing, bathing with doors open.  I liked to sneak in when no one was there.  Trying on her clothes.  Trying on her shoes.  Curious about her bras and under-garments.  Examining the old jewelry, wondering if any of it fit me.  Wondering about what I would be like when these grown up womanly items did fit me.  She weighed herself every morning, naked.  I did too.

At 10, I already weighed over 100 pounds and was “pleasantly plump.”  (My father’s words.  He used the same phrase for the Rubenesque nudes in the art he loved so much.)  He loved ice cream and we had it every night.  Usually Baskin & Robbins French Vanilla.  Or Peppermint – my favorite flavor.  He carefully measured out a precise serving.  No over indulgence allowed.  Or we had 2 cookies, usually Oreos or Fig Newtons.  My mother had none.

In Paris, during our one truly extravagant family vacation before high school, my father and I sampled chocolate mousse at every restaurant.  That trip was where I developed my taste for intensely dark chocolate and strong coffee.  In Florence, the men wouldn’t stop touching me.  It was an early taste, at 13, of sexually aggressive unwanted male attention to my “pleasantly plump” curves.

Entering high school where boys and girls began to do more than eye each other with curiosity from afar, I became sure that “pleasantly plump” was not what I wanted to be.  Ambivalent about my curves and their impact on men and confused that “Pleasantly plump” became “Better not eat that, you’ll get fat,” I found myself in the mirror-lined ballet studio.  In a leotard.   About 15 pounds heavier than the ethereal tall, thin, breastless ballerinas I began to admire.  Having reached puberty at 11 with a mesomorph’s solid and strong body, there was no way I was going to transform into an ectomorph.  But I could try.  And so I did.  I upped my weekly dance class to twice, 3x, 4x, every day except Sunday.  When that wasn’t enough, I started taking two classes daily.  I learned the calorie counts of every food item and began to mete out allowable calories obsessively.  About 1,500 calories.  (For someone dancing 4 hours a day, 1,500 calories was starvation.)  Starving yourself is impossible to sustain.  So I would swing in the other direction and binge on large quantities of food.  Alone.  In secret.  I couldn’t eat normally in public.  Terrified of getting fat.  Terrified to be thought of as beautiful and desirable.  When I binged, I felt bad.  Guilty.  Ashamed.  Embarrassed.  Fat.  I had to punish myself.  So I would run.  Take another dance class.  Eat even less the next day.  I tried the-vomiting-thing a few times.  It really disturbed me on so many levels.  It was gross.  And I didn’t want to admit I had a problem.  Avoiding vomiting helped me remain in denial that I had an eating disorder.  Maybe other ballerinas did it, but not me.  Instead I figured out how to keep my eating swings tightly controlled in my disciplined way.

Over the course of that year, I became incredibly strong and incredibly thin.  I liked being thin.  I liked hitting weight-loss goal after goal.  Clothes looked good on me.  I liked the breastless version of myself that I saw in the ballet studio mirrors.  I liked being hungry.  It made me feel alert and better than the other girls.  I could resist food.  (Except when I couldn’t.  But I kept that to myself, hidden.)  My weight got down to about 100 pounds.  My parents never said anything.  Did they not notice that their pleasantly plump daughter was now breastless and bony?  It was dear, honest Emily, with the scale dipping to 98 pounds, who exclaimed, with true alarm, that she could see my ribs!  I liked that my ribs were showing, but it jarred me enough to reconsider this aesthetic when she expressed such alarm.  100 pounds became my magic boundary.  The low boundary.  If I didn’t drop below 100 pounds and I didn’t make myself throw up, then I didn’t have an eating disorder.  I carefully put on a few pounds.

By the end of high school I was a healthier weight and had given up ballet.  Off I went to college where I easily gained the Freshman 15.  And hated myself for it.  To punish myself, I returned to ballet and 100 pounds.  It felt good to be in control and thin again!  But I was so unhappy.  Through therapy and time, I learned how much food I could eat and how much exercise I needed to maintain a more normal weight.  Love and my marriage helped.  I was busy and happy.  I was so busy and so happy that I threw away my scale.  Hooray!  I was done with eating issues.  Besides, I wanted to set a good example for my daughter.  I so wanted to have a healthy relationship with food and to model normal eating behavior for her.  But she knows me.  I measure everything.  I don’t allow myself dessert except for maybe a yogurt or some very dark chocolate.  I control my portions so carefully that I can neither tolerate sharing my food (it’s my allowance of food not yours) nor do I have room for any serendipitous treat offered to me (I ate my allowance already).  I can’t just stop when I’m full.  Because I don’t know when I’m full.  I’m too obsessed with weighing what is the right thing to eat; what is the right amount to eat.  I am too busy thinking to feel.

There was an easier time with my eating during courtship and early marriage where we ate out, we cooked in, we enjoyed food together.   And then my 40’s happened.  What isn’t discussed about disordered eating (to my knowledge) is that it COMES BACK!  Just when you think you’ve got the eating thing figured out, its ugliness reemerges when you’re looking at middle age staring back at you in the mirror.   If I could just lose 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 15 pounds, I will look younger, feel better, sleep more soundly, defy death.  When my age creeped over 40 and my weight creeped over 140, I went into action.  Back to the ballet studio, I bought a scale.  I got thin and strong again.

Of course it is different as a more experienced adult.  I don’t swing between extremes the way I used to.  A calmer yoga practice has replaced an obsessive pursuit of ballet.  I don’t punish myself.  I do enjoy food.  But my enjoyment of food remains controlled.  The anxiety hovers under the surface.  Intellectually, I know five pounds doesn’t make a difference in who I am.  Intellectually, I know maintaining that magic boundary on the scales is not what makes me happy.  Now I can laugh at how ridiculous it all is, while acknowledging its presence.  It’s part of who I am.  Stepping naked onto the scale every Monday morning, I am aware that I let the scale’s verdict influence my self-esteem.  Stepping naked onto the scale every Monday morning, I remind myself to breathe, to be grateful for my strong body, to enjoy my chocolate, and to not let the scale’s verdict influence my self-esteem.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: