AM I WHAT I SEE IN THE MIRROR?
When did creating a flawless façade become
A more vital goal than learning to love
The person who lives inside our skin?
Ellen Hopkins
Let me take you back to the mid-thirties when I was old enough to realize that my mother was imprisoned by her appearance and her weight. I saw her cook lavish meals and watch hungrily as we devoured her beautiful creations. I grew up hearing how important it was to dress correctly and to look “good.” “A man can be uglier than the devil,” my mother told me. “But a woman must be beautiful. And YOU…You simply do not know how to wear clothes.”
And so it was that I grew up believing that to succeed in life (by my mother’s definition) was to buy beautiful clothes and have the body to show them off. My mother spoke constantly of my big feet, my funny walk, my stringy hair, my disgusting posture and I bought into her opinions because …well, because she was my mother and mothers in those days were always right.
When I didn’t get invited to a party, when I didn’t make the team, when I wasn’t asked to anyone’s home for lunch and, as I got older, when I didn’t get invited to the prom, or the boy I loved didn’t notice me, I knew it was because my clothes hung on me and I was awkward.
It didn’t take long before I began to believe that this was also the reason why I didn’t get a good grade on a test, why I never had anything to say to the other girls in my class and why I wasn’t as popular as I wanted to be. As I grew older, I grew more convinced that my appearance was the reason that I failed at anything at all even my inability to ride a two wheeled bicycle, swim or drive a car. It was all because I was a physical mess.
It was in high school that I realized that I could punish my mother by not eating her food. My mother created huge meals for us that she served promptly at 6 (NOT 6:01) and since my father had ulcers, my mother was on a diet (always) and my sister was obese, I was the only one who could eat her food without guilt or pain.
It was also in high school that my body didn’t function the way other girls’ did. I menstruated when I was 13 for eleven days and never again had a period unless it was artificially induced. I believed I was not a normal girl.
My mother and I did not get along. She made it very plain that I did not live up to her expectations of what a good person, a good daughter or a successful woman should be. I was a failure and I was a mess not because of my brain or my intentions. I was a disaster because of the way I looked and the way I wore clothes. I have to say I never really got what she meant by that. If you put on a dress, button the buttons and don’t let your slip show, why aren’t you wearing it properly? My mother would expand on my inability to put on a garment the way it should be worn by pointing to my sister, who was always at least 20 pounds overweight, and say, “Now, Marsha Dee has style. She can put on a rag and make it look like a Dior creation.”
When I got to college, I began to use food as a reward when things went well and a consolation when I failed a test, didn’t get a date, had a fight with a sorority sister. Now food stopped being a means to satisfy hunger. It was a weapon I could use to punish my mother; it was a reward and a consolation; it was the one thing that I could love and not have to worry about it loving me back.
My sophomore year in college, my roommate was a girl named Ginger Livingston from Ashtabula, Ohio. She was an exquisite redhead, with a sophisticated sense of style, a healthy ego and limited intelligence. It was she who took my wardrobe in hand and taught me essentials like color combinations, proper skirt length and what size sweater showed off just enough of my figure to be an incentive instead of a turn off. I became very conscious of my body and I realized that my body was not passing muster. My mother hated it; my roommate objected to the slump, the bulging belly and the big feet; men were not particularly excited by it. That was when the dieting began.
At first, I was just careful. If I demolished an entire chocolate cake because I was sad on Monday, I wouldn’t eat dessert or bread for the rest of the week. BUT as the years went on and the conflicts and challenges of college life became more intense, I started skipping meals or going for a period of time eating very small bits of food. By this time I had no idea of whether I was hungry or not. My intake was governed by my mind and my fears. My weight fluctuated between 97-103 when I weighted myself, which was only occasionally because there was no scale in the sorority house and I was home only for vacations. I took pride in being able to eat rich desserts and still stay thin. My mother and my sister couldn’t do that…it was the one ability I had that they didn’t.
When I was nineteen my mother and her doctor decided to do something about my not menstruating and I underwent a surgery called a Stein Leventhal Resection. I began having periods then for the remainder of my college life and felt very feminine. I even had cramps and could complain with the other girls.
I graduated college without any hope of marriage (and in those days, most women went to college to find a guy) and went to teach in Cleveland. At that point, my eating became even more erratic. It was exacerbated when I met Jerry, a gorgeous guy who owned a candy shop and a standard poodle…I couldn’t decide which of the three things about him I loved best: his looks, his fudge bars or his dog. I indulged in all three.
And then came my epiphany. I want out to buy a dress and could no longer fit into a size 7, or 9 or even an 11. I finally crammed my bulging belly and flabby hips into a size 12, bought the dress, went home, weighed myself and realized that I no longer weighed 97 pounds…I tipped the scale at 127 and I was horrified.
I would have to diet like my mother! Worse I would be fat like my sister! No! No! No! It MUST not happen to me.
I stopped eating. I dieted; I limited myself to an apple, a single lettuce leaf, and I was so tired I could come home from my job and sleep the rest of the day away. After two or three weeks of semi starvation, I would suddenly eat everything in the refrigerator, on the shelf and in the freezer. Overwhelmed with guilt and feat, I would then starve myself for another two weeks. I also stopped menstruating and a doctor put me on estrogen. This did nothing to help the menstruation but it did make me retain water. This water retention is a battle I still fight to this day and still limit sodium and sodium foods to keep my ankles down to a reasonable size so I can wear shoes.
It was this water retention that kept me from losing weight no matter how much I restricted food…but I did not know it then. I was convinced that I was not like other human beings. I gained weight on air.
While this ritual was accelerating, I managed to trap a young man into proposing to me on his way home from Korea to New York in April. We planned a wedding for September. During that time, my mother was in heaven. She took me shopping for my trousseau, my wedding dress and the things I would need to set a beautiful table and run a household.
Now it was really vital that I become beautiful or I would lose my chance to marry. I dieted a bit more, I binged a bit more and I managed to hide all this from my family and from my bridegroom until after the wedding. It was then that my eating disorder bloomed. I knew something was wrong but had no idea what it was. No one in 1957 knew what an eating disorder was. I thought I was crazy…No. I KNEW I was crazy.
The years went on. I dieted, I binged, I divorced , I dieted, I binged and then when I was 36 my body stopped functioning. I stopped digesting food and had continual diarrhea. At first, I was thrilled. I would lose weight!!! But then I realized I was actually dying.
In 1969 I was admitted to The National Institutes of Health because I had severe osteoporosis. No one discussed my eating habits which were erratic and very controlled. I was in and out of that hospital for the next year and then I realized that if I ever wanted to live any kind of life at all, I needed to stop obsessing about my body and about food. I needed to make a happy life.
This process took me well over ten years and gradually my eating though still controlled was enough to keep my weight stable and I was able to find a job that took me away from Toledo, Ohio where I was born, first to Oklahoma, then to California. I still had body image problems and still had binges if I did not control my eating. At first ,I only ate one meal a day because I simply could not face the agony and conflict of dealing with food more than once a day. I ate huge quantities of non-fattening food and swore I was not dieting. I now eat two meals a day and I understand that no matter what I weigh I will think I am fat. I eat a wide variety of food and I have not binged in a very long time…BUT I hate my body and constantly battle the impulse to stop eating or to over-exercise.
I know that I am an addict I know that only I can control that addiction. Only I can make a happy life. I have done that. I did it without therapy and without any support from my family or my friends. I did it because I wanted to enjoy my life. After all it is the only one I have.