E-mail is one of the central fixtures of my day. This is partly because I’m a child of the 90’s and I still can’t get over how freaking amazing this whole Internet thing is. (For those of you who’ve never known a world without it you can’t imagine how bleak things were – I actually attended my very first official concert, New Kids on the Block, without being able to memorialize it with a video on YouTube or pics on Facebook! Okay, considering my most salient memory of that evening was my best friend getting her first period at the concert – Joey made us all simultaneously ovulate – maybe it’s for the best.) But part of it is because I just get so much of it. Lots of it is from you guys which can be in turn fun, heartbreaking, amazing, breathtaking, hilarious and weird (and heaven knows I love them all!) and I’m generally pretty good about answering them (as long as they don’t hide in that stupid “other” folder I didn’t even know existed). But a couple of months ago I got an e-mail that I officially couldn’t answer. I didn’t have the words. I still don’t. I finally had to just delete it – and I’ve never intentionally done that before. I feel terrible about it.
It was from the mother of a girl with an eating disorder who, by the sounds of the e-mail, was dying of it. The mother’s e-mail was short but unexpected. Usually in these situations I get people asking for advice about how to help their loved one but this time she had a new question for me: “Why is my daughter doing this?” and then “What did I do to make her this way?”
I was speechless. A million thoughts ran through my mind but the omnipresent one was this: While I know deeply the pain of being the one living with an ED, I know absolutely nothing of the pain of being a parent of a person with an ED. And even worse, because one of the defining characteristics of an eating disorder is how self-focused it makes you (and I’d even make the leap to “selfish” sometimes), I’d never even thought about what it was like for my parents from their perspective. Never once. I couldn’t answer her.
But I couldn’t ignore it either. To answer her second question, I would say that she did not do anything to “make” her daughter have an ED. There are so many causes and factors that go into the making of that tunnel of destruction. But as to the question of why? I don’t know that either but I think this plays a huge part in it: Dieting, even extreme dieting, is the lingua franca for girls and women these days.
The scene: Ten women seated around a conference table. Cameras and microphones recorded our every word and gesture. Diet paraphernalia was scattered around like so much detritus. Six obese women faced four thin ones. We eyed each other warily across water bottles, coke cans and a plate of mostly untouched cookies.
Two older, overweight women pointed at Allison and I and whispered behind their hands. I couldn’t tell what they were saying but the message came across clear enough. I was embarrassed and felt suddenly defensive. A few of the other women stared. One buried her face in a magazine and hid in the corner. I was fixated on the cookie platter that seemed like such a strange feature to have at such a meeting that I kept waiting for a hidden camera to be exposed. And the meeting hadn’t even started yet.
We were all gathered in the tiny cheerless room to be part of a paid focus group on weight loss programs (we have already discussed how I sell out) and the only criteria was that we were women who had ever tried a weight loss product. Other than that, we came from all races, ages, socioeconomic strata and even BMIs. Ostensibly we were there to merely discus our reactions to a new weight loss program marketing campaign – which I can’t write about per the confidentiality agreement I signed – but to do that we pretty much had to bear our souls, insecurities and all, to a bunch of strangers. Dieting, it turns out, is one of the most personal things you can talk about today. You’ll see celebrities speak openly about their sex lives and then turn cagey when asked what they eat. Heck I’ve personally done an interview with a celebrity who ‘fessed up to an affair but flat-out lied about eating a hamburger. (I only think she lied because I also got to interview her trainer and he had a much different story about her diet habits… For the record, she said she loved them and ate them all the time. He said she hadn’t touched anything resembling junk food in 10 years and had a panic attack if she even smelled a hamburger.)
At last, the awkward silence eating away at me (hah!), I cleared my throat and said to the woman next to me the first thing I could think of, “You have the prettiest red hair I have ever seen!” And it really was: auburn, curly, well-moisturized. The hair I have many times tried to dye my hair to be like, before I decided forever forsake my desired Ariel in favor of my natural Snow White.
She smiled. “I was thinking of dyeing it but…”
“Oh you shouldn’t! It’s just gorgeous!” everyone chimed in.
The mood lightened a little. Then we got down to the business of introducing ourselves. We were supposed to say the diet programs/products we had tried and why. A young woman across the room started, “I have an 18-month old son and I just… can’t lose the weight. I’ve tried everything. Right now I’m on Atkins. And it’s working. When I stick to my plan. Which lasts about two weeks.” She dropped her eyes in shame and her voice quivered. “I just want to be healthy but its so hard, you know?”
Immediately every woman in the room spoke up to comfort her and sympathize. And from then on we were all on the same team. Previous prejudices were forgotten as we unraveled our torrid dieting histories. I’d tell you everyone’s stories except they were all the same: weight lost and regained, exultation followed by embarrassment and depression, and then desperation leading us all to the aisles of our nearest GNC/grocery store/weight loss center in search of the balm that would heal us and allow us to be the person on the outside that we were on the inside. No matter what our skin color or age or weight was, we all had this in common.
It was painful. It hurt listening to everyone else’s stories, especially the one woman who spoke so glowingly about every diet she’d ever tried from Herbalife to Slimfast to Jennie Craig gushing, “It really worked for me! It was really great! It really was!” only to add, “It’s me that’s bad. I just keep gaining the weight back again. See?” And she took another cookie and ate it, whether in defeat or defiance I couldn’t tell.
It also hurt telling my own story. I forget how freaking crazy I sound until I say it all out loud. There I was in my straight-size jeans, talking about how I always feel fat and how grocery shopping is a positively excruciating experience for me because I must read every label and compare every product, paralyzing myself with indecision (for reals – ask my husband if he likes grocery shopping with me. He’ll drop bowling balls on his foot and light his hair on fire in response.)
The worst moment for me was when the group moderator asked us, “What was it that first got you interested in diet (or “health” as they kept calling it) products in the first place?” I didn’t know how to answer her because for me there never was a “first” time. I’ve never not been interested in weight loss products. I honestly cannot recall a time, even as a child, when I thought I was okay just “as is.” It’s been in the air I breathe and the Crystal Light water I drank since the day I was born. It’s inextricably interwoven into our shared TV shows, pop music and news. So many women’s stories swirling around me until they became my own.
Dieting and weight loss are the lowest common denominator for women in our society. Go to any locker room or Girl’s Night Out or scrapbooking party and you will find it. It’s a strange thing though because it isn’t socially acceptable to be “on a diet” anymore – it’s “making a healthy lifestyle change” now. We’re not supposed to care so much but we do. So we hide it from each other or poke fun at ourselves or even, sometimes, break down and cry on a shoulder about it. We rebel against the restrictions of our diets together on New Year’s Eve only to become weight-loss buddies first thing New Year’s Day. Occasionally we sabotage each other. We laugh about it, blog about it, cry about it, write books about it and call our sisters about it because in the end, we all speak the language.
I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s necessarily wrong either. Women need other women and because of the huge emphasis in our society on weight and looks, I think it’s important that we talk to each other about it. After the group concluded, Allison and I walked out to our cars with the two women who had been so hostile towards us at the beginning. We were chatting like old friends, sharing recipes and websites – and of course, which protein bars tasted the most like real chocolate. We’d bonded over nothing more than dieting.
All of which isn’t to say that I think eating disorders are inevitable (although I’m guessing that most women have at least one or two disordered habits?) – my point in relating this story is to tell that suffering mom that it isn’t her fault. It’s all of ours. We’re victims and we’re perpetrators. We’re all in this together. And I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing.
To my e-mailer: I’m so sorry. I hope with all my heart your daughter is doing better. I hope you are too. I wish I could hug the both of you. I wish I had an answer for you. Which really is no answer at all.
How would you reply to that mother’s questions? [Certainly she deserves a better one than the not-answer I just gave…) Do you think the diet bond is a good thing or a bad thing? Mixed bag? Have you ever been in a situation where you bonded with someone simply over a diet??
P.S. A while back I got sent a review copy of Food to Eat by Cate Sangster and Lori Lieberman. It’s a recipe book designed specifically for people recovering from eating disorders. I was really impressed with her gentle treatment of something so fraught for this group – food – and with the simple recipes. I remember at the very beginning of my recovery being absolutely paralyzed when confronted with meal time. Nothing seemed “right” and I wished I just had someone I could trust to tell me what to eat. Lori uses her own experiences as a clinician to be that safe person.