Tag Archives: Eating Disorder

Feeling, Living the Black in Biracial

This post is something I lifted from a novel I once began and then abandoned.  The character is quite obviously speaking for the author. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA younger friend, who is also biracial, has said before that she’s just never felt black, which I understood very well.  It’s hard to feel black—the way you think black is supposed to feel—if you grow up with more advantages than most white people have.  Especially if one or both of your parents is white.  You might get looks when you’re out together with the white parent—but everywhere you go, you go under the shield of the parent’s whiteness, even viewing the world through a white lens.  You can’t see yourself, so you may forget you’re different at all.  To be fair, the mirror will remind you, as will a stray comment from a stranger to your white parent (she’s yours?).    Each time, you’re jolted into awareness: you stand out.   Depending on your environment (better if you live near the coasts, where different is more likely to be status-quo), you may have some self-esteem issues.   Maybe you’ll become self-destructive as a teen: date some bad guys or develop an eating disorder.  You may become a tireless people-pleaser, allowing the world—black, white and other—to walk all over you.  But there will be nothing off limits to you because of your race; nothing a white person gets that you don’t.   Racism itself will be an abstract concept that you read about or hear about—and when you do, you’ll feel not outrage, but guilt.  On those odd occasions when racism is directed at you yourself, you may not notice because it’s the last thing you’re expecting.

I never felt black either—not until I got that black is not a feeling at all.  It is a part of you that you wear and are; it never goes away.  I was still dancing professionally when it all finally clicked for me.  Ballet dancers spend most of their working lives in a mirror-lined studio—company class in the morning, the rest of the day in rehearsal.  The only time you’re not looking in the mirror—comparing yourself to everyone else—is the tiny fraction of the time when you’re actually on stage.  So, maybe I had an advantage: I never got to “forget” that I was the black girl, usually the only one in the room.  (Though I was always told I “washed out” under the stage lights: you couldn’t tell unless you looked at my photo in the program.)

Ballet companies usually have affiliated schools, full of little girls in pink and black with ribbons in their hair.  Each one’s biggest dream is to be you.  When the company is rehearsing, you can see these tiny aspirants watching through the glass doors, hoping, wishing they’ll be in your place one day.  When you pass these girls in the hallways, you’ll hear them sigh with awe (she smiled at me! No—she was looking at me!).  After performances, they come to the stage door, begging for a smelly, used-up pointe shoe with your signature on it.

img002The little black girls—sometimes there were only one or two—always came to me.  I had plenty of white fans—particularly the shorter girls—but the black girls looked only for me.   I remembered the few such role models I’d had as a kid: what they’d meant to me—even on a subconscious level: hope and validation.  I saw myself in the girls—no matter how many shades darker they might have been—they were mine.  I liked most of the kids; I had smiles for all of them but the black girls were always first to get my discarded shoes.  I remember thinking for the first time, thank God I’m black; thank God I’m here or—who would they have?  I’ve single-handedly integrated three different corps de ballet in my career.  Maybe it was an accident that there were no black girls when I got there, but I like to think I opened doors.   Opened their eyes to the fact that—contrary to what George Ballanchine declared—there were skinny black girls out there with “feet” and turn out and all the other non-negotiables a ballerina needs.

It’s like Obama (how does everything circle back to him?).  This country is home to many, many black people who are educated, accomplished, refined, and yes: articulate!  Our president is all those things, as well as being capable of reaching people of all races—all nationalities—without making any of it about race.  And still, he wears his race with pride.

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Lady Gaga: Eating Disorder Aftermath in the Spotlight

When I first heard about Lady Gaga, it was from my daughter, who kept singing Bad Romance and Alejandro and Edge of Glory, making me play the radio stations that played these songs until I have to say I was fairly addicted to them myself.  The girl is talented.

Next, I began to see photographs of Lady Gaga all over the place, particularly the supermarket and the waiting area at the Counseling Center where I worked, where People Magazine was an absolute staple.  Her crazy outfits and makeup didn’t faze me, seeing as I grew up in the heyday of Boy George, Grace Jones, Robert Smith, Cyndi Lauper and, yeah, everyone in the eighties.  What I found alarming about Lady’s photographs were how skinny she was.

Maybe she doesn’t look terrifyingly thin to you in the above photograph.  But consider that she’s five feet one inch tall, and proportionately looks like a 6 foot supermodel.  If you look this thin in photographs and you’re this short, you’re really skinny, often by unnatural means.  I know this from experience.  Here I am at 18.  I was struggling with a form of anorexia at the time.  I look too thin, in my opinion, but I was somehow not considered emaciated.  (I’m just two inches taller than Gaga.)

Given my own experience in the ballet world, where skinny was the norm and people got there any way they could, given my own eating disordered past, any time I see photographs of extremely thin models and celebrities, I can’t help wondering: is that starved-looking girl okay?  Is she just naturally like that because she’s six feet tall and seventeen?  Or is she struggling?  Does she slave for hours on the elliptical or the treadmill?  Does she limit her caloric intake to harrowingly low numbers?  Does she rely on illegal drugs to keep her body humming away while failing to notice the need for food?

Lady Gaga is young, so I didn’t jump to any conclusions right away, though of course I suspected there was something going on.  Pop stars have access to cocaine, which keeps you rail thin and hyped up (and on a crash course for, well, crashing).  Young pop stars have youth—which is always great for weight maintenance–possibly good genes–good jeans too, for that matter.  But seeing as Gaga was a rich, successful celebrity, I wasn’t especially worried about her.

Then she disappears and gains twenty-five pounds which I have to say, probably brings her into the range of healthy.  (Yes, it’s true.  It may look smashing in a bikini, but being seriously underweight, as physicians will attest, puts your health at risk.)

Be that as it may, the media was abuzz with reports of Lady Gaga “ballooning,” the tabloids temporarily relegating Kate Middleton’s posing nude and/or sporting an alleged “baby bump” to the second page.

I know, when celebrities gain or lose weight, it’s always big news, because we’re all weight obsessed and starstruck.  We love to know that stars are human just like the rest of us, but at the same time there’s this special American brand of schadenfreude, this glee when misfortune befalls the outrageously fortunate.  In any case, I must state for the record that this:

is not a photograph of a fat person.  I’ll own, it is a picture of a woman in a really silly outfit photographed from a less-than-flattering angle.  But fat?  Really now.

In interviews, Gaga confessed: she has struggled all her life with eating disorders.  Lamenting the caloric bonanza of the food at her father’s restaurant, Gaga confessed that she stays out of New York to avoid the place, claiming she needs to be where she can “drink green juice,” safe from temptation.  Gaga, whose album, Born This Way, celebrates individuality and loving oneself, warts and all, is clearly not one of those very rare souls who is an effortless size double zero.  Still, until the much touted twenty-five came on, she’d appeared in public to be just that size.

As Huffington Post blogger, Michelle Konstantinovsky puts it:

“Mixed messages much? While I wholeheartedly appreciate the rare transparency, I can’t help but wish the “eat less, exercise more” ideal had never been blasted out to so many undeniably impressionable fans. Moreover, I wish Gaga had never subjected herself to fitting a narrow, predetermined pop star mold if she truly hadn’t been born that way.”

The mixed messages continue.  On one hand, Gaga says she’s not a bit bothered by the “extra” weight; referring to the curves she says her boyfriend prefers.  On the other hand, says she’s dieting hard to lose it.

But I don’t blame her for saying one thing and doing another.  I do not fault a young, way-too-famous 26 year old, maybe-or-maybe-not-ex-bulimic for being confused about the meaning of food, size and hunger in her life.  I give this girl a break.  And hope she gets some gentle, supportive help from an eating disorders specialist soon.  The good news is that Lady Gaga has begun The Body Revolution, a campaign on her website inviting fans to share their body struggles in the interest of healing.  Let’s hope it helps.

Recovering from an eating disorder is so challenging.  When you are recovering from bulimia especially, when you are even at the stage of considering recovering from bulimia (the lingo is “I’m trying to stop,” or “I’m thinking about stopping”), you have no idea how to begin, unless you are in very good treatment.  You don’t understand food, you don’t understand what hunger is, you have to learn everything from the beginning.  The result is often weight gain.  Sometimes significant weight gain.  I say often, not always, because I can’t find the statistic, but I can’t think of a single case when this was not the result.  Food is scary, eating is scary, mirrors and scales are scary.  I was only able to recover when I looked in the mirror and said to myself: I would rather be overweight than bulimic.  Did I mean it?  Was it that simple?  More on that in another post, but I was on my way to being free.*

Whether you are anorexic, bulimic, or a tidy combination known in the therapy world as EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), the addiction to thinness—however elusive your idea of thinness is—and the coinciding dread of fat can be paralyzing.  You communicate mixed messages to yourself all day long.  Food is too good for me.  I’m too good for food. In addition, you have lost your connection to food, lost your sense of nurturing your body and virtually shut down your metabolism.  When you go from drinking only green juice, or in my case, consuming only apples and an occasional cup of popcorn, (throwing up anything over and above) to eating normally, you will get much fatter than you were before.  I put it in those terms because that is how eating disorder sufferers think.  This is your mindset: To have fat on my body is to be fat.

For me, challenging that way of thinking took three years of cognitive-behavioral therapy (which ultimately is how I overcame my illness).  But how dare the media inflict that same kind of language on the public, especially young girl fans of Lady Gaga.  And imagine–just imagine–what it must be like to live the journey of eating disorder recovery in the public eye.

Lady Gaga has been called a publicity hound (and worse).  To be fair, you probably wouldn’t wear a dress made of meat if getting attention weren’t your thing.  But she’s lived an eating disorder, and possibly, privately still lives it.  It’s a life of fear and ambivalence, no matter what the crowd sees on stage.   So even if she puts nearly nude photos of herself on her site post weight gain, publicly “embracing her curves,” she’s still got a struggle ahead.  Especially if she’s still dieting to get “her body back.”  (Which one is she embracing again?)

Here I am, by the way, after my own twenty-five pound weight gain (I’m far right, in the sunglasses).

Without those essential pounds I doubt I would have my children or my life.  Here’s to “ballooning.”

 

Bulimia Time

A few years ago I met a woman who lived at night.  She was a forty-something suburban mother, like myself, with a kind husband, a dog, and four beautiful children, aged thirteen to nineteen.*  As her seventeen year old daughter’s psychotherapist, I’d summoned her for a family session.   I wanted to discuss something that had come to my attention: this mother routinely stayed up all night and slept the day away.   She was not an insomniac; she was up working, mostly, on her computer.  I don’t remember what kind of work she did, but I do know it could have easily been done during the day, when her children were in school.  She could have met them at the school bus, spent the afternoon with them, joined the family for dinner and so on, engaging in normal family life and hours.  Instead, she stayed up while they slept, then slept for most of the hours her children were awake.   At a time when the daughter was developmentally programmed to separate from her mother, the girl was avoiding her peers, desperately seeking her mother’s company.  The daughter would even sneak out of school early, hoping to join her mother for one precious hour or two before Mom turned in.

The father, though a self-described patient man, was getting tired of being the sole parent on duty; the teenage boys were fighting and cutting school.  The teenage girls, my client in particular, were growing sullen and incommunicative.   It’s my fault, the mother said, tearily.  No one argued with her.

I took in the creases beneath her pretty blue eyes, the familiar, slightly lopsided jaw, the tell-tale jowliness on one side of her face, but not the other.  Though my own eyes are brown, it was like looking into a mirror: this mother was either an active, or recently recovered, bulimic.

I too used to live in those hours, binging and purging the night away while the world slept.  I had no children then, but a job—at first dancing with a ballet company, later teaching at a girls’ school.  I’d live my daytime life, smiling, talking, functioning as called for, deferring my pain or stress to the wee hours when I could stuff them down with food and then expel them, flush them.  In place of the pain there would be this high.  This sense of being invincible, though at the same time, I believed I was living on borrowed time.  I ignored the near-constant heart palpitations, the sweats and shakes; I was used to them.  I’d been coping with life this way since high school.  Bulimia was like breathing.  The days were numb; the late nights were mine alone.

It took three years of cognitive behavioral therapy (which I began at the age of twenty-three) but at last I learned to live, eat and care for myself emotionally and physically.   I’ve been lucky.  Not only do I have a full relationship with my husband, I’ve had two easy pregnancies, where I relished the changes in my body.   When I look at my two wonderful kids, I sometimes shudder to think what it would be like be to manage an eating disorder and parenting responsibilities—how much of each other we’d be missing.

At the next family session, I asked to meet with my clients’ parents alone.  Again, the father complained about the mother’s hours, citing her absence for the daughter’s problems.  The mother wept: I don’t mean to be this way.   I leaned forward and smiled as gently as I could.  I don’t know whether or not she recognized it as a conspiratorial smile—the secret sisterhood of recovered bulimic mothers.  I knew the tears in my own eyes were glistening, though I knew better than to let them fall in session.

I said, “You’re still living on bulimia time, aren’t you?”

She was surprised but looked relieved, not offended.  She smiled despite her tears.  “Yes.”   No one, least of all her patient husband, had understood what that meant.  When we spoke privately, the mother explained that she had a wonderful individual therapist who specialized in eating disorders.  She’d recovered from the bulimia itself, she said, but she could not let go of the nighttime.   Since I was not her therapist I did not ask her why it was so hard to give up those hours.  For me it was the quiet and the peace, but mostly this strange sense that sleeping meant giving up—on something.  I can’t remember what.

Not long ago, I saw the mother out walking her dog in the sunshine, looking strong and content.  I was glad to see that she’d joined the daytime world as I had.

Sometimes the wee hours still call me.  Sometimes I still haunt when my family goes to bed.  I’m more likely to be writing, maybe surfing the internet, reading other people’s blogs, than eating, but still—I’m up.  I think of how easy it would be to go back there, not to the illness itself, but the schedule, the madness of the vigil, which I still don’t quite understand.  So I shut down my computer.  And force myself off to bed.

* I have changed a few details about the family structure for the sake of confidentiality.