image credit: Vera Wang
One of the most exciting parts of getting married is thinking about the other person being bound to you forever. It’s also one of the most frightening aspects. It’s almost as frightening as shopping for a dress to wear on this blessed occasion. If you are a man or a non-traditional bride-to-be, then this isn’t really an issue. You’ll slap on whatever they hand you, or you’ll don a jumper with pedal-pusher length pants, or maybe you’ll wear a black sequined minidress with blood red lipstick and dark penciled eyebrows. Whatever. The point is, you won’t be doing what I did last weekend, which was get up at 8:30 on Saturday morning in the soon to be once-great city of Nueva York. You won’t be jumping in the shower, snipping your bangs, shaving your legs and doing twenty push-ups in your towel. You won’t be hopping in a cab and zipping across town to Bella Bridesmaid, with your best friend from childhood in tow, and your future mother-in-law and sister-in-law en route from Long Island. For the “I don’t give a fuck” bride, there will not be a day spent at four separate salons, alongside three grown women with widely differing views about what you should be strapping around your bod. For you, there will be a day of brunch, followed by a matinee, then a walk in the park and, finally, the much earned two glasses of Petit San Josef with bread and salad.
Meanwhile, in Vera Wang’s bridal salon on the Upper West Side, I'll be doing this: trying the never-before attempted technique of sucking in my chest. You see, bridal gowns are not exactly kind to those of us with the dubious blessing of being well-endowed. The zipper seems to revolt as it nears the top, and an attendant alongside a friend need to press the sides towards each other, as a third party steps in to pry the zipper to its natural resting point. Success! The interesting thing about this kind of success is it comes at the agony of other parts of your anatomy. Suddenly your sternum seems ripe for a crack and your arms feel as if there’s an invisible wire connecting your triceps, pulling them oddly together behind your back. The wind rushing from your lungs, not soon to return, causes the expression on your face to look something like a fox trapped in a hole. And as you gaze across the room to find three faces nodding in approval and hands clapping while a single tear trails down a stranger’s face – it’s at that time you hear the following two words echo somewhere deep inside: abandon ship.
You see, it’s not as if I’m huge. I’m not. I’m average. I’m not skinny. I’m probably not even thin. But I am not overweight. Not according to the current schema delineating average height to weight ratios. I’m not even a pound over-weight. But according to the reflection that day in the mirrors dotting the bridal salons of New York City, I was not only larger than normal, I was a monster about to take over the world. I made a pact in my mind: lose ten pounds by the time you parade down the aisle. You know, or die trying.
I’d anticipated this being what I would take from the experience. I was pretty sure I would walk away wishing for the metabolism of a gazelle and the will-power of David Blaine. In fact, I’d prepared. For the two months prior, I’d walked three miles five times per week, gone to a spinning class once or twice a week, done yoga and tae bo videos on the weekends – and, yes, restricted my food intake. I bought a scale from Target and learned to hate myself if I ate after 9 p.m. or indulged in something fried. I basically reverted to myself ten years ago, when I was a gymnast, profoundly afraid of never meeting a guy who would like me “for me”, and worried about becoming old and fat. It seems that I am experiencing a renaissance of those glory days. (Did it help when mid-day the future mother in law noted, “you’ve lost weight—you were getting a bit of a tummy”? Probably not.)
Eating disorders are common in the worlds of dance and gymnastics. The girls on my gymnastics team were vigilant about what everyone was eating: is she eating enough, is she eating too much, is she eating right, is she puking? Someone who is more dear to me than myself was a gymnast and as she approaches thirty, will have struggled with bulimia for nearly two decades. A girl who was on the team a few years before I was passed away in her teens from anorexia. The world of ballet was recently critiqued by Black Swan, and although the movie is hyperbolic and mawkish, it’s not pulling shit out of its ass. These girls starve themselves. And suffer lifelong consequences from this starvation.
But dance and gymnastics aren’t the only arenas where the body is put on stage and looked at, examined, pushed and poked and prodded. The catwalk is the ultimate forum for the ascetic. I mean, we aren’t talking about thin. We aren’t talking about “normal” ideal weights, like you might think of the lady at the bar in the tight jeans and trendy sweater. We are talking about a weight that is 15-25% less than that—a weight that is achieved and maintained through starvation. And if the runway is the high stage, the magazine rack is the common medium. As is the latest rom-com with actresses who seem to disappear as they move from a Lifetime movie or CW sitcom to leagues of Hah-lywood. Suddenly they have a “high metabolism”, “can’t gain weight and have always had to struggle to keep weight on”, and at the age of twenty-six claim to be “just losing my baby fat.”
Take a look at a spread in a high fashion magazine or a weekly tabloid – these splashy spreads aren’t about someone struggling with a psychiatric illness – they are about idealized beauty and perfection of a very specific type. As stated, a model’s body weight is about 25% less than the average American woman, if we put that average weight at the number: 140 lbs. This is considerably thinner than ever before in history. So what is the deal? What the hell is driving this trend? Natural Gas leak? Hormones in the milk? Genetically modified corn? Roman-style lead poisoning?
Women have been depicted in art, in the pages of literature and in society pages for centuries. The form of the woman described has varied from age to age, but the type revered by the Victorians seems to most closely accord with the figure we see pasted on billboards today. What did it mean to SHOW your thin, taut physique in the 19th Century? It meant you had conquered your carnal appetites – desires including food and eating. It meant you were not an animal. It meant you had a control and reserve that made you the object of affection for a specific kind of partner. A woman who doesn’t need to eat! What a catch! She probably doesn’t use the bathroom either!
On the way back from New York, my fiancé and I stopped at a Barnes and Noble in New Jersey. I did the ritual perusing of the Criterion Collection aisle, and the cartoons, and the bargain bin, and then the documentaries. And it was here that I found something that five months ago wouldn’t have even registered as interesting. Dying to be Thin, narrated by Susan Sarandon. I plucked it up, along with (I shit you not) The Middle Ages, Hush, Hush,…Sweet Charlotte, The Brave Little Toaster, National Treasure Two, and Addiction, an HBO Special (yeah, I’ve had my share of probs with the bottle, as well).
What’s interesting is how easy it is to slip into, for the first time or after a long hiatus, an obsession with one’s body. It’s been years since I actually counted calories, or cancelled or delayed plans so I could slip in a workout. And yet how easily I found myself doing push-ups that night, touching my toes to my hands during reps and reps of something I call V-Ups, and saying “no, thank you” to anything more than coffee for breakfast. I mean, what the fuck? I can’t stand that kind of shit. I’m appalled by it. Who the fuck benefits? The only one who is punished, ultimately, is yourself. So is that it? Is that who you’re mad at?
I don’t know. Since I don’t drink, my mind and thoughts and feelings are much clearer, and I have to admit, I don’t feel that mad. I also have to admit, when I stopped drinking, I thought: one of the awesome incidental benefits will be that I’m no longer ingesting empty calories. I’ll probably lose a few pounds. And I did. Victory, right? But enough of a victory? It doesn't seem like it. It should be stated, I’m not trying to be stick-thin. I don’t think that could happen even with rigorous exercise and severe calorie restriction. I mean, perhaps it could, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to be the elusive size 2 of my twenties (a size 6 in bridal wear). That that body type is not in accordance with my “curvy” physique is a technicality. At this point, I seem to believe that if I work out right and eat well, I can have my old body back. For someone who believes "nah, it won't be the same -- but it shouldn't be" I'm worried I might be getting a little nuts.
Anorexia can express, physically, a number of things beyond this tremendous ability to control oneself. It can express fear. The struggle to grow up and the fear of maturity can be combated by keeping the body in an immature state. It can express pain. More than not, women and girls who suffer from anorexia have experienced trauma, which could be sexual abuse, abandonment, or a single, isolated incident that was scarring. It can express anger, rage, perfectionism, desperation.
There have been interesting studies done regarding the brains of people with eating disorders. In these individuals’ brains, unusually high levels of serotonin are found. Serotonin is associated with obsessing and harm-avoiding or nervous behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Over-activity of the serotonin system reduces appetite and affects your mood. Moods are funny. Remember that time you missed lunch and when your boyfriend called you answered the phone and screamed: WHAT?! But not eating can also make a jittery person feel better. Not eating may be a way of the body attempting to lower these levels of serotonin, thereby reducing anxiety. Dieting and starvation may be an attempt to reduce intense anxiety. Unfortunately, the brain adapts, and the food needs to be decreased further and further.
Perhaps this is why anorexia is one of the most difficult illnesses to treat, with a relapse rate of 50%. Despite the consequences, someone suffering from an eating disorder may be principally ignorant or ignorant by principle of the effects of starvation or induced vomiting. Dangerously low blood pressure, severe osteoporosis, damage to the kidneys and liver, and heart failure. Low estrogen levels, equal low bone density, which equals osteoporosis. There is simply no way of reversing bone loss. Giving up the addiction is hard. In fact, it sucks. You know the addiction. What you don’t know, is what life would be like without it. You know the check is in the mail, you can see the edge of the cliff is just ahead, but you can’t seem to turn the car around.
The underlying causes, however, are not always known. We might see the symptoms and hazard a guess. “She’s trying to bend to the pressures of Hollywood” or “a producer must have insisted she lose weight” or “she was mocked for the way she looked in those paparazzi pictures.” Or if she’s a woman we know we might say, “she’s going through a divorce/bad break-up” or “she has a big event coming up (ha!)” or “she’s a fuckin’ control freak.” But of course, we’ll probably never really know. I know that during one of the most profound periods of anxiety/depression I’ve ever known, I couldn’t eat a damn thing. A family member had unexpectedly committed suicide, my boyfriend was a lecherous, verbally abusive and threatening graduate student at the same school where I was getting my MA, and I was living in a city where I had no friends or family. I would eat because I knew I needed to eat, but sometimes swallowing made me gag. I was such a nervous wreck that even when I exercised (to combat the anxiety) I felt my heart race and my thoughts race and the whole human race conspire to let me know that I was a fucking mess. My weight plummeted. Not a moment passed that I didn’t feel like I was in agony. I was clinically depressed and didn’t feel like I had anyone to reach out to. On a trip back to Minnesota to see my parents, I got on their scale. The number shocked me so much I made an appointment with a therapist for 8 a.m. the next morning (my mother flipped the phone book pages until we found someone). The doctor confirmed my suspicions: I was in trouble.
I had a thought during that time that has come back to me when I’ve seen friends or acquaintances or women and girls on the big screen start to disappear. At that time in my life I remember thinking constantly about death. I made this connection between my body’s inability to manifest desire or appetite as its attempt to die. I saw my body/mind as an organism that was trying to kill itself. I wasn’t wishing to have no desire to eat. I had no desire. The feeling of “no desire” is sort of like a living hell. That’s probably why I started drinking heavily. That kind of offset the awareness of my apathy. (I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a dream existence, right?)
So when I see girls getting smaller, I don’t think: she’s a vain bitch. I think, she’s not happy. Or she’s probably a ball of fucking nerves. (Now you’re probably thinking: oh, you’re pretending to feel sorry for the rich, skinny girl.) But I don’t feel sorry for her. I just think she’s got some shit going on that truth be told, is not so pleasant. People who are grieving tend to lose weight. People who go through divorces tend to lose weight. People who are suffering from severe anxiety and depression tend to be underweight (as well as overweight). This is not my personal opinion. Powerlessness is an awful feeling. Whether you stop eating consciously or unconsciously, your weight goes down, your organs suffer and your one precious life is spent in more pain than I’d wish for someone, anyone.
“Not eating” is not a characteristic of a “naturally skinny” individual. The stories that come from publicists, trainers and the people themselves who describe their body type as naturally thin are frequently hard for me to believe. Most of us are not naturally obese or even over-weight. But most of us are also not size 0’s. If you have to skip a meal, workout twice a day and/or not eat fat to fit into size 2 jeans – you are not naturally skinny. You might be naturally fabulous and naturally intelligent and fun and hilarious and interesting and talented and generally just fucking terrific. And what about those things...what is the value placed upon those qualities? In a memorable scene from PBS's version of Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley asks, "which would you rather be, divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?" What is the value of your intelligence, your humor, your kindness and compassion towards others? What is the value of being a blast to hang out with and be around? What's wrong with a culture that valorizes a thin woman without a voice?
To return to all that bullshit about my future wedding dress. I hope I am able to keep myself aware of what I’m doing and why—in terms of what I ask of my physical body. I am a healthy person. I’m active and I am very cognizant of what I feed my body and mind. In the documentary about eating disorders, Erika Goodman, a former ballerina with the Joffrey said “the scale becomes your alter. It becomes the site where you pray every morning.” She said, “you pray that it will be down a pound or an ounce – something to show that the work that you’re doing, the work of starving, is working.”(1) It’s about transformation. From this…to that. Weddings are so fucking tied up in the idea of transformation, whether we’re talking about the bride being revealed at the end of the hall, or the belief that your relationship will become immutably solid, or the hope that you’re existential longing will be sated. Growing up I always said: I don’t want to get married, and if I do, I don’t want a bullshit wedding. When I got engaged to one of the nicest, funniest, coolest people I've ever met, I thought, well, ok--but I'm not going to get wrapped up in that nonsense. Yet here I was, last weekend, with my piece of shit Target scale and my obsessive thoughts about how my ass will look in the dress, and a file full of photos of dresses that are cut to fit a twelve year old. And I thought: I am buying into it. In spite of my better sense. In spite of the hard fought freedom from cultural ideals. Ideals that my education and parents and friends—as well as my own experience—taught me to despise. My fiancé would be elated to see me wearing a potato sack tied with bejeweled sash--so when I look at bridal fashion photos, I have to ask: whose fantasy is this?