“Charlotte! You’re even more beautiful in person!” He didn’t miss a beat, despite the fact that I’d just called him by his last name as if we were old college buddies. His name is actually Miguel Sancho, producer for ABC’s entertainews’ show 20/20, and he had been sitting outside my house for the past 20 minutes in a little red sports car the like of which my suburban Minnesotan neighborhood never sees. It was as awkward of an introduction as they come. Rather fitting as he had come, along with a film crew, to interview me about a dark period of my life where I’d become consumed with healthy eating – a phenomenon the media dubbed as orthorexia.
Sweeping into my house in his Bogart trench coat and fedora, he took in our mismatched IKEA furniture, fingerprint-smudged walls and half-finished do-it-yourself remodelling projects with a critical eye. I cringed inwardly. You know how you never notice those little things until you watch someone really watch you? He honed in our book collection – a source of great pride for avid readers such as my husband and I. “Ah, Josephus,” he remarked and I blushed realizing that all these years we have said it wrong, pronouncing it with a Gentile long e in the middle. Turning towards our antique – craig’s list code for broken – piano, he asked politely if I played. I do but I had a feeling it would be chopsticks compared to what he was used to.
Declining his invitation to play a little something, I tried the smile again. But I was nervous in the way that all people who are not accustomed to being on tv must be and besides I’d been up until the wee hours of the morning cleaning, arranging and, yes, worrying. Gym Buddies Allison, DarLee and Candice had gone way above and beyond the call of Gym Friends and had helped me paint, clean and decorate one night until 2 a.m. and yet it still felt unfinished. We’d lived in this house for a year and a half and it still looked like a rented apartment. Decorating is not my strong suit. Neither is being calm. And so I cleaned and worried and worried and cleaned. I don’t think I ate, save for a homemade granola bar from DarLee, for two days. Particularly ironic, considering the subject matter I was supposed to be talking about.
But today was the day. The “film crew” – a sound guy and a camera guy – arrived a minute or two after Miguel (Mr. Sancho?) and despite the cameraman having the most delightful Australian accent, they were as midwestern as Miguel was New York. They sweated in the cool April sunshine. I don’t think Miguel took off his suitcoat the entire time he was here.
The first “scene” to be shot was an athletic one: me running outside in my neighborhood. It also had the highest potential for physical comedy and as they set up the shot I debated the merits of running like Phoebe. I was sorely tempted. But my nerves won out and I played it straight. Well, as straight as one can while running down the sidewalk whilst being followed by a van driving on the wrong side of the street with a camera and a mike boom hanging out the side of it. “The sound is tricky out here,” Miguel yelled at me. “Try not to say anything profound.” Right, not going to be a problem.
ShouldersbackstomachinchinupandforheavenssakeDON’T TRIP. It was the most self-conscious run of my life. But the neighbors were mightily amused. I think we almost caused a few car accidents. Have I mentioned I live on a very quiet street?
We returned to my house to a lawn covered in equipment and an unmarked van. It looked like we were the subject of a crime scene investigation except instead of dusting for fingerprints (of which my house has an abundance in every flavor, peanut butter and jelly being the perrenial favorite), they were dusting me with face powder. So I wouldn’t be all shiny.
As I changed out of my running clothes and into something normal (really, what does one wear to appear normal? I already knew I was going to sound crazy, so maybe I should just play the part and whip out my knee socks and cumberbund?), Miguel played something beautiful and unrecognizable on the cracked piano. I was right about the chopsticks.
After filming a short scene involving me standing on my deck trying to look pensive with a camera examining my pores (I now know that if you have to try to look “pensive” then it’s going to come out two grunts shy of “constipated”) , the crew decided the kitchen to be the ideal location for filming the interview. They “dressed” the room by taping together my curtains, arranging a bowl of fruit and putting up really really bright lights by my garbage can with the poopy diaper in it (sorry about that guys). There were still dirty dishes in the sink from the whole wheat fat-free vegan banana muffins – irony!! – I made for the crew.
Placing a chair in the middle of the room, they turned all the lights on me and then instructed me to answer all the questions to some vague spot off to the right of the camera. That’s right, for the entire interview, I was answering questions to a wall. A very brightly lit pretty green wall, but a wall nonetheless. Occasionally Miguel would wave his hand over where I was supposed to be looking to remind me to stop talking to the actual people in the room. The voices in my head applauded.
Many, many hours of film later in which Miguel displayed an uncanny ability to remember every single detail of every little thing I had told him over the phone and e-mail (note to 20/20: he’s scary good at his job), we had covered pretty much my life story. It was like therapy. But on camera. And no eye contact. There were things I should have said but didn’t such as how if I’m being really honest, the obsession with eating healthy was my way of trying to get some control during that trial against my ex-boyfriend who sexually assaulted me and it turned into one year of trying to heal myself from the outside in. There were things I did say, but shouldn’t have like “You’ll tell me if my bra strap is showing, right?” and talking about my weird menstruation cycles and birth control (thank heavens they cut that!).
The question that stood out the most to me, however, was asked not by the producer but by the unassuming camera man. After listening to me detail the rigidity of my eating habits – at my worst I was a vegan who didn’t eat grains (cue cute squirrel picture!) – he asked, “But what about your kids? If you really believed it was a healthy way to eat, did you make them eat that way too?”
“Oh, no!” I exclaimed, realizing the absurdity of that all at once. If I had really thought my eating was healthy then I was being neglectful by not feeding my kids the same way. And yet somehow, even in the worst of it, I knew that it was crazy because I never did impose the same rules on my children. For which I am grateful. And mystified. And grateful all over again.
Miguel’s questions and the minutae of my eating habits finally exhausted, we paused for a break so they could film the inside of my fridge (thank you Jody for cleaning it!). “How am I doing?” I asked timidly. “Did you get everything you need?”
“You’re fucking fabulous!” Miguel raved. “You have a face made for T.V. They’re going to love you!”
I blushed, both at the obscenity and at the compliment as I don’t hear either very often. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“I do,” he grinned unabashedly. “But this time I really mean it!”
My nerves exploded. The camera man kindly reassured me, “You’re doing great. You really are. Don’t worry about anything.”
We finished with some computer shots (to whoever commented that I’m a really fast typist – you want to know what I was typing? “I can’t believe I’m sitting here on TV typing nothing over and over and over.” And thanks – I get a lot of practice;)) and the story about my grandmother’s journals that got cut. As the crew cleaned up, Miguel chatted with my husband and I. I gave him parenting advice that felt ridiculously inappropriate the second it left my mouth. He told us little anecdotes from his job. And then they were gone.
The show was originally slated to air in June but for reasons unknown to me, it got pushed back all the way until September. Which was probably for the best as it gave all my acquaintances six months to ask me “Hey, when is your show on?” every time they saw me. In the interim there was some minor drama about photographs, details, my interview on the Fox morning show, and a trip out to New York to do more interview with John Stossel that got cancelled at the last second and led to my throwing a minor hysterical tantrum.
Just when I had begun to wonder if ABC would really spend all that time and money to film a segment they never intended to use, it aired. And I think it was good. The overall message of orthorexia as a real disorder got a bit obscured by the sensationalism of raw foodism – the one diet I’ve actually never done – and some of its more colorful proponents but the message was still there. That this is a real problem. That it is getting more prevalent in a society ever more focused on food and how we eat it. That even “normal” people like suburban Minnesotan soccer moms can fall into this trap. That healthy eating can be taken to an extreme. But that there is a way out. Eating disorders do not have to ruin your life.
For the most part I’m comfortable with the way they portrayed me. They overdramatized the effects (“she ignored her children”!!) and made it seem present (“what will happen to Charlotte now??!?) when it is mostly in past but I’ve already received a lot of positive feedback from the show. Several people wrote (one even called!) to tell me they recognize the illness in themselves or their loved ones. They wrote, asking me for help or advice, which I’m not sure I’m qualified to give, but I do believe that talking about it – and removing the “healthy” label from it – are the first step. I’m proud to be a part of that.
The one quote from me that I really hoped they would use (and I even practiced it in the mirror before the interview) ended up being the closing quote of the segment: “After all, nobody gets to choose how they die. You only get to decide how you live. And I wasn’t living.” For me, living includes being able to eat cake at my son’s birthday or homemade trifle at my friend’s house. I’m not healed of all my food issues but at least now I can enjoy these small luxuries.