The Worst Little Book In The World

Once, early in my career, I was killing time on a business trip by browsing a bookstore. I was traveling with a colleague, and when she saw the armful of novels I’d picked up off a table featuring titles about anorexics and various other broken heroines, her interest was piqued.

“I should read some of those, too,” she said. We both worked with teenagers, we reasoned as I checked out. It would be helpful to find some path to understanding, even through a work of fiction, how the eating disordered mind worked.

Except that I wasn’t really reading out of professional interest. I was actively bulimic and hungry for eating disorder porn.

Book cover of The Best Little Girl in the World

Stories To Feed An Eating Disorder

There are plenty of books out there about eating disorders. Some of them are well written, some of them not so much. One thing that’s true about all of them is that they are dangerous.

Let me back that up: They can be dangerous. I’m sure they’ve all been written by well-meaning authors who just want to explore the fragile psyche of the disordered eater and probably also present some kind of cautionary tale to scare the reader away from falling into the same behaviors him- or herself.

Here’s the problem, though: If you think a scary book about eating disorders is going to scare an anorexic straight, you have severely underestimated the ability of a truly disordered eater to find inspiration in the darkest and most twisted of places.

At the peak of my most intense phase of active bulimia, I devoured eating disorder porn like it was a box of Devil Dogs followed by a half gallon of ice cream chased with a bag of Doritos washed down with a liter of Diet Coke. Books, movies, Very Special TV episodes, websites, magazine features… if it came across my field of vision, I was all over it. And much like my food binges, I regurgitated these media binges — as dark and damaging motivation.

In fact, I read my first anorexia book — The Best Little Girl in the World — in the first place because it was so incredibly popular on the pro-ana message boards I frequented as my bulimia was taking root. (Seriously, Google it. Anorexics love this book. Just thinking about the title makes me thirsty for the grapefruit juice the protagonist drinks in one scene instead of ordering a hamburger.)

Eventually, as I tried and failed and tried and failed and tried to get my behavior under control, I recognized these stories for the trigger they were (are) and started avoiding them. Except when I didn’t. (I would have to use the phrase “and failed” a lot more times to convey just how relapse-y my life has been for the past 17 years.)

A Cookie-Cutter Narrative

One of the problems I have with eating disorder narratives in media is that they tend to follow a similar arc, with our heroine (almost always a heroine, or anti-heroine) experiencing some sort of near miss or rock bottom before landing upon a path to recovery. Often she’s scared straight by the loss of a friend or sister to an eating disorder, or by a friend or sister’s comparable tragedy. And they almost always end with a light at the end of the tunnel: Our heroine is going to be OK now that she’s figured out that food doesn’t have to be the enemy.

Even very good eating disorder books, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, can be very bad for readers with eating disorders. (This New York Times piece from 2009 sums up the issue well, and the comments are worth reading, too, for more personal stories from disordered eaters who used books as how-to manuals.)

For someone like me, who saw bulimia as something I’d do temporarily until I hit my goal weight and then self-recover, it seemed simple enough to just stop short of rock bottom, and these books provided what seemed like a blueprint to do just that. I didn’t need to be deathly thin, just thin enough. I’d engage in my broken, brain-damaged approach to nutrition like it was just another crazy diet, and when I was happy with the way I looked, I’d find the light at the end of my own tunnel and everyone around me would be so happy for me, and because I was so much smarter than the girls in these books and movies, I’d keep it under control and stop before things got out of hand.

And in the meantime, I’d get inspiration and ideas from the books while appearing to simply be indulging my interest in youth development.

In fact, I almost didn’t start this blog, knowing the very real possibility that someone with an eating disorder would find it and use it as inspiration (or, more realistically, reverse motivation, since as I have made very clear, bulimia did not make me thin). And then, as I thought it through, it became a driving reason that I did start this blog. People with eating disorders need to hear my story, I decided, because there are so few stories of eating disorder failure that are told honestly and fully.

In real life, eating disorders don’t follow the neat arc in books like The Best Little Girl in the World, dainty heroines starting out losing a few pounds for ballet class and gradually spiraling into dangerous thinness only to be rescued in the nick of time by intervention and therapy. Real life eating disorders are all-consuming and messy. They may or may not result in weight loss. They do not necessarily lead to interventions with tearful family members who suddenly realize their complicity in your unhappiness, 13 Reasons Why-style, and who weep over their concern and regret as they cling to your sylphlike frame and beg you to eat.

Your eating disorder might not make your dad feel bad about that time he said you looked like you were gaining weight, but it will make you feel bad every single day.

In real life, you get to experience all the sickness, all the obsession, and still not feel good about yourself. In fact, you might wake up one day in your late 30s and realize you’ve spent more than half your life hating your body and it hasn’t made you thin or beautiful or happy — just tired.

Questions (But Not Answers)

I’m not going to sit here and say no one should ever write a novel about a character with an eating disorder. I don’t think these books have to be damaging, although it’s important for writers, publishers and others to realize that books about eating disorders can and will be read and taken to heart by readers who experience eating disorders, and they should weigh whether a book has the potential to do more harm than good.

So what’s the answer? Listen, if I had answers, I’d be on a beach in Bora Bora right now feeling good about how I looked in a swimsuit, not typing away at an anonymous blog about my life as an eating disorder failure. But I do have some questions, and that’s the first step on the path to answers.

For writers: Why does the story you want to tell matter? What purpose does the character’s eating disorder serve? When people with eating disorders turn to your book for inspiration — AND THEY WILL — will they find it, or will they come away with doubts about what they’re doing? What have you done to truly understand the disease you’re writing about?

For readers: Is picking up a book about eating disorders a healthy thing for you to do? Are you truly trying to understand the psyche of the disordered eater, or are you looking for diet inspiration? Should you really be reading this book?

 

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Diets I Have Been On

**Trigger Warning**

If you experience an eating disorder, read with caution. And if you’re looking for diet ideas, this probably isn’t the post for you. Read my post about what it’s like to be a fat bulimic if you’re curious about the long-term effectiveness of any of these plans.

The first time I can remember deliberately altering the way I ate in order to get thinner was in high school. I was a freshman, and my best frenemy (who herself, I believe, was in the early stages of an eating disorder) would compare notes — how long had we gone without eating. It wasn’t a long-term pattern, but it did provide a sort of twisted fortitude I would later draw upon as an adult bulimic. If I could starve myself so easily at 14, I figured, I should be able to manage it at 24.

When I was a young child, my mother quit smoking, and after that there was a period of a few years when I can remember her frequently being on some kind of weight loss plan. There was Diet Center, and maybe Nutrisystem? She did Jazzercise for a bit. She ate cabbage soup. None of these lasted very long that I can recall, but they left a strong impression on me, clearly, since I’m still thinking about them more than three decades later, and since I have my own history of wacky diets of varying effectiveness.

Slim Fast

The ultimate in gateway drugs, I think Slim Fast was my first official “diet.” You probably remember the ads — a shake for breakfast, another for lunch, and then a sensible dinner? I can’t remember if I was in high school or home from college over the summer, but I bought into the Slim Fast Jump Start program, which was basically the regular Slim Fast plan except that instead of a sensible dinner, you had another fucking shake. I blended mine with ice or frozen strawberries so I could call it a smoothie, or I pretended it was a Carnation Instant Breakfast (which was somehow better?) because I instinctively felt the need to hide it from my parents.

The Zone

I put on the Freshman 15 plus in my first year of college, and at the beginning of the spring semester I bought and skimmed The Zone, which was the It eating plan of the moment. I was a vegetarian at the time, and for a few weeks I ate things like plain veggie burger patties dipped in barbecue sauce. I didn’t lose any weight that I know of, but the other girls from my dorm wing told me later that I had at least been in a really bad mood.

The Cabbage Soup Diet

Yes, the very same! It resurfaced in my mind when I found the plan on a pro-ana message board I used to frequent in the early 2000s, and I gave it a try. You’d think I would’ve known, having seen it fail firsthand, just how ineffective it was going to be (especially because bananas were the “treat” food you were allowed to have, and I don’t like bananas), but a big part of my mindset during the peak years of my eating disorder was convincing myself that my mother had failed at weight loss because she lacked willpower, and I was stronger than she was so I would succeed. So I cooked up a huge pot of cabbage soup in my tiny New York apartment… and then left most of it neglected when I burned out on soup after a day or two.

The 2/4/6/8 Plan

Another gem from the pro-ana Web, this plan was intended to keep your metabolism from slowing down by eating a set number of calories on a four-day rotation. On Day 1, I ate 200 calories (or fewer, obviously; this was at the peak of my restricting phase, and I had days when I would get by on Diet Coke and a bell pepper), on Day 2 400, on Day 3 600, and Day 4 was my big 800-calorie binge day. The beauty of this was that I didn’t have to count all the calories I consumed if I purged afterward (that’s bulimic logic for you), so if I slipped up and accidentally downed a half-gallon of ice cream, I was OK as long as it was an 800-calorie day.

Cleanses

I didn’t become a full-blown bulimic until after I graduated from college, and as a young adult I quickly learned that if you had a few pounds to lose, you could easily conceal an eating disorder behind a veil of “healthy” intentions. In fact, at that point, people praised and encouraged you. So when I tried a “cleanse” I’d found in a “bikini body” book at the Washington Square Barnes & Noble, my coworkers and roommates were supportive. (The same bikini body book also advised sitting in a tub of ice to reduce the look of cellulite or burn fat or something, but I didn’t memorize that as closely as I did the cleanse. I was, of course, too cheap to actually buy the book.) The plan involved two days of strictly liquids (broth, tea, juices, water), after which solid foods were added back in at two-day intervals: fruit, then vegetables, proteins, dairy, grains. Theoretically, it was supposed to “purify” your body and rid it of “toxins,” but I saw it for what it was: a get-thin-quick scheme. I made it about a week before the constant diarrhea got to be too much for me. I tried it again a few years later and it ended up being the experience that led me back to eating meat.

The $5-A-Day Diet

This was a scheme of my own invention, designed to make me both thin and rich (because, as you know, you can never be too much of either). I decided I would limit my spending on everything non-essential (food, obviously, was considered a non-essential) to $5 per day and put the rest of my money in savings. If I spent less than $5 a day, I could bank the remainder for the next day or week. For several weeks, I ate mostly rice and beans for dinner (a complete protein!), which I could prepare for about $5 a week. Breakfast was a roll and coffee at the train station. I spent most of my evenings alone at home, watching MTV and feeling monastic. Eventually I gave up and switched to a new plan wherein I ate only Tasti-D-Lite for dinner.

The Full Bulimic

The worst and most extreme of my diets, this one was pretty straightforward: I ate whatever I wanted and then threw it up afterward. I do not recommend this as a lifestyle. Neither does your doctor, your dentist, or your accountant. If I had back every dollar I spent on binge foods during these periods, I’d never have to make another student loan payment again.

Vegetarian/Vegan

I know the cool Instagram kids prefer the term “plant-based” these days, but when I was a vegetarian, that was what we called it. I stopped eating meat as a teenager for ethical reasons, then started again during college, then stopped again after college and cut out cheese for a while as well. My rule through my early 20s was that I kept a vegan home but relaxed my dairy restrictions outside of the house. My vegetarianism was largely ethically motivated, but if I’m being fully honest with myself, the restrictions on dairy were rooted in my eating disorder. Ironically, this meant I ended up eating a lot of bread and pasta instead.

The South Beach Diet

I tried this one after I had my first baby because it lets you have wine, and then I hopped off the bandwagon in fairly short order. You can’t have fruit (at the time, my go-to diet food), all the breakfast recipes called for eggs, and I got tired of chicken breasts really quickly.

The Ketogenic Diet

This one was a more recent endeavor. I tried following the ketogenic style of eating for a few months last year. If you’re not acquainted, a ketogenic diet is a very-low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat way of eating that is designed to encourage fat loss by keeping the body in ketosis. When you’re starting out, this involves carefully paying attention to how many grams of fat and protein and how many net carbs you’re consuming each day. I was worried at first that tracking my food intake so closely might trigger a relapse, but it didn’t. It was mostly just time-consuming. And despite two months of obsessing about my macros, I lost very little weight.

The Whole 30

Founders and followers of the Whole 30 will take issue with calling it a “diet,” but it’s kind of disingenuous to refuse to use that term when you’re talking about a set of rules that govern the way someone eats. It’s not a drastic weight loss plan or an unhealthy gimmick, but the Whole 30 literally is a diet, or at least the structure for one. And unlike most of the other “diets” I’ve been on, it’s not — for me, at least — a gateway to failure and self-loathing. I’m doing my second Whole 30 this month, and although there are challenges (like I would literally knock someone over for a glass of wine right now), it feels like a positive exercise in being more thoughtful about how I eat. It also has an explicit rule forbidding weighing yourself, which is hard for me to follow but also sort of a relief because it takes the focus off the scale and turns it back toward feeling good about eating.

And if this list tells us anything, it’s that feeling good about eating is something that’s never been easy for me to do.

This is the second time I’ve done the #Whole30, and while there are hard things about it (good lord do I miss coffee creamer and lattes), I’m remembering why it’s such a good program for me. 🥗 As a recovering bulimic, an overeater, emotional eater and compulsive eater, anything that makes me stop and think about what I’m eating is helpful. 🥗 On the Whole 30, I have to take time to prepare my food. I have to think about what I’m eating. I have to take that pause that I don’t take when I’m eating my feelings or because I’m bored or because I avoided eating all day and now I’m shaking from low blood sugar. 🥗 On a normal day, would I take the time to plate a salad so nicely and really appreciate it? No, I’d grab whatever was available and eat without thinking. Sometimes I’d make a healthy choice, and sometimes I’d eat something that left me feeling ashamed the rest of the day. 🥗 Bonus: Because I’m not using creamer or ordering lattes, I only had ONE cup of coffee this morning instead of five. Good for my stomach AND good for maintaining a better awareness of my actual hunger level during the day.

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January 1: Searching for Medium

I don’t remember the first time I thought I was fat.

I do remember writing a list of New Year’s resolutions when I was in sixth grade. I had just turned 12. I had two Snoopy diaries, because my grandmother had bought me one a year or two before that wasn’t yet filled up, and for the second entry in the new one, emboldened by the sense of security provided by the cheap, easily crackable combination lock on my Hallmark diary, I wrote a list of promises to myself for the next year. Most of them had to do with normal 12-year-old things — boys, grades — although I did include a commitment to “work for peace,” which seems high-minded of me (I’m pretty sure I didn’t check that one off). I had to dust off the diary to remember what the others were, but there’s one that sticks in my mind, because I’ve thought about it often over the years:

“Stay 95 lbs all year.”

“All year” is circled in blue ballpoint pen.

Ninety-five pounds, in case you were wondering, is just about exactly 50th percentile for a 12-year-old girl. Absolutely middle of the road.

I was, at this point in my life, a fairly active kid. Schools hadn’t eliminated P.E. classes yet. I played outside at recess every day — kickball, swings, jungle gym climbing. I went to dance class once a week. I ate healthy home-cooked meals every day. I was exactly average on the growth curve.

And I knew, somehow, that fat was on the horizon. Clearly enough that on the verge of tumbling into adolescence, a time when nature would demand that I grow and change and get bigger, what I wanted more than almost anything else was to stay small.

Was that the beginning of everything? Almost certainly not. Obviously something had registered in my psyche at that point, some message that I was in danger of being too big, taking up too much space, that I needed to worry about my size at a time when my size was so perfectly normal as to be just right. Obviously that wasn’t the very first moment I had thought about it, because I had thought about it enough to know how much I weighed and be aware that it was something I needed to know and track and worry about. And it wasn’t really the beginning of everything, because “everything” wouldn’t come until much later. It would be a few more years before I tried skipping meals, another few years before I tried fad diets and pills, another few before I started obsessively documenting every bite of food and calorie of exercise, before the websites and binges and purges and stretching half a bell pepper into an entire meal, years more before therapy and nutrition counseling and official rehabilitation followed by more weight gain, more purging, more, more, more.

So here we are.

2018 is a year, for me, that will include one of those big scary birthdays that makes you take stock of your life and consider what you’ve accomplished. There are a lot of things I thought and hoped I would have accomplished by now. But there’s one thing that I have accomplished that has moved “learn to eat like a normal healthy person” to the top of the list.

A few years ago, I became a parent. I have two tiny little children now. And I know they don’t care right now whether I’m fat or thin, pretty or ugly, because all I need to be to them is Mama. But I also know that my attitudes about food and body are going to infect theirs, sooner than I think, and I know that because by the time I was 12 years old my own ideas about my body had been so thoroughly infected by the world around me — a world that was, in almost every other way, supportive and happy and healthy and wholesome.

So yes, because I have a big birthday coming up at the end of this year, but also because I have these two little people who will filter everything they know about themselves and the world through my lens for the foreseeable future, and because I owe it to them to be the healthiest and most-whole parent I can be, this year, for me, is about getting to the bottom of my relationship with food, with my body, with my health. I don’t need to be the thinnest and the fittest. What I need is equilibrium. Balance. A happy medium.

That’s what I’m searching for in 2018.