Now that cutting little slits in one’s arm is the preferred form of self-mutilation, eating disorders seem almost passé. Like Balenciaga bags, everyone in New York has had one, and they’re worn fairly casually.
But what’s more curious to me is that my admission of having once been bulimic has often been met with nods of understanding, downward-cast eyes and the hoarse, melodramatic whisper, “I know exactly what you’re talking about—I was bulimic, too.” At which point, the woman (it was usually a woman, though not always) would look deep into my eyes, before leaning in for a meaningful don’t-worry-sister-love-will-heal-us-all hug. Sometimes there would be brief but conspiratorial eye contact and/or a firm squeeze on the arm. Or, even more oddly, sometimes the conversation would flow just as swiftly on, as though I’d confessed to really liking MC Hammer in grade school—embarrassing, sure, but was there anyone who didn’t like MC Hammer?
“Everyone I see has one. Every single girl!” shrieked my psychologist, Dr. Stein, when I told her that I was writing about eating disorders.
We tried to figure out how this came to be, as time whizzed by to the tune of $145 for 45 minutes.
If, as editors say, three instances makes a trend, then there’s a Macarena-caliber mega-trend underfoot. Upon returning to New York after a seven-month trip, I’ve noticed that it’s not only no big deal to mention my puke-ridden past, it’s almost expected. Of the dozen or so times I’ve mentioned it, in conversations with colleagues, editors, new friends, yoga teachers, only once has someone gasped, “Oh, I’m sorry. How awful!”
This person later commiserated with me in a post-Thanksgiving-binge e-mail about her slightly less extreme form of self-hatred: plain old body-dysmorphic disorder. (On one Web site, body-dysmorphic disorder is defined as when, “no matter how much weight is lost, or no matter how much food is thrown up, the person with anorexia or bulimia will constantly see the same overweight, vile failure in the mirror.”) The BBC describes it, less dramatically, as when a person “continues to believe that a part of their body has a defect despite reassurance about their appearance.” Either way, it sucks.
Most women seemed almost happy that I brought it up, since it provides an instant bonding platform. At an ashram in Umbria last summer, I found myself confiding to the Italian stranger assigned to my room how I had been banking on a week of healthy eating and vigorous yoga to counter the two previous weeks I’d spent assiduously overeating in various northern Italian towns. Instead, we were meditating all day between gigantic, vegetarian buffet meals. My roommate had also been bulimic, hated her body and was hoping for a little more exercise. We bonded instantly, in the way that only desperately unhappy people hiding a shameful secret can.
The same week, my best friend e-mailed me to tell me that she hadn’t written for a while because she’d been hospitalized for “an eating disorder. Several, as a matter of fact.”
My bulimia started in high school, spurred on by nuggets of sagacity from my classmates at Riverdale, such as “sometimes when I eat a one-pound bag of pretzel Flipz, I just like to puke and have a fresh start.” It snowballed my freshman year of college, and I finally bottomed out halfway through my sophomore year, the night of my birthday, the wretched details of which (cake, ice cream, pizza, etc.) I will spare you.
But it was after college, three years into my recovery (which began the day after my birthday), that the torrent of empathy started gushing. With enough distance from and comfort with the ordeal, I began to tell my closest friends. Almost everyone admitted to a similar feeling of abysmal self-hatred. I ran into a high-school acquaintance at a yoga studio: She too had grown up in New York nightclubs, part of a group of girls who were endlessly being offered alcohol, cocaine and sex by older men. A few post-yoga-class conversations later, the elephant in the room was acknowledged: She had also struggled with B.D.D. and an eating disorder. Now we were both on a, um, “spiritual path” of sorts, doing yoga and trying to make peace with our pasts.
When I was struck by a particularly acute fit of self-hatred, due to some tension between the size of my jeans and the size of my thighs, I called this friend. She suggested that I e-mail our perpetually sunny yoga teacher—who I always assumed was too bursting with love for all living creatures to ever think about her weight—and see if maybe she could send some of her cosmic energy my way. I was surprised—although, by that point, it was routine—when even she wrote back with a similar story.
“I feel you, sister,” my yoga teacher wrote. “I too grapple with dysmorphia …. I understand soooo well what you are going through …. We are sisters and I am here to help support you. Thank you for confiding in me and seeing my light so clearly.” Bless her.
My misery found company again in a new friend of mine who works with inner-city girls. The first time we went out for dinner, as I was apologizing for having selected a boring macrobiotic restaurant and trying to explain that I’m not anorexic, I’m just trying to eat healthy, she too pulled the big reveal.
“I can’t eat anything—anything—without thinking of how it’s going to make me fat and how many calories are in it,” she said, staring across a table laden with steamed vegetables. “And out of four of my roommates at Barnard, three of us had some kind of eating disorder.”
As warm and fuzzy as it feels to know I’m not alone in being tortured by irrational, unhealthy standards of beauty, I find it highly troubling that body-dysmorphic disorder and its more proactive companions, anorexia and bulimia, are rampant to the point of banality. “A or B?” a friend asked me nonchalantly when I told her I used to have an eating disorder. She asked it with as much concern as a waitress in a Greek diner: “Coleslaw or potato?”
The sheer unoriginality of it even irritated some people. When I was still in college, I told my sad tale to my boyfriend at the time, a 27-year-old British investment banker whose East Village apartment I was dashing home to every weekend. He chided me for my predictability.
“Look, darling, you don’t want to be just another cliché,” he said: “the New York fashion girl with an eating disorder.”
For those who have had or still have an eating disorder, it’s a lot more involved and draining than that. New Yorkers wear black—that’s a cliché. Tickling your tonsils with a toothbrush until you’re tasting your most recent meal is not a cliché; it’s a bloody nightmare. And while it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only person who has plumbed the depths of this particular form of self-destruction, misery, at this point, has too much company. It’s a crowd.