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The Perfect Pantomime

Aimee Liu

What are our bodies telling us when we have an eating disorder?

Let’s say you cannot speak. You don’t
dare ask for help, but you can’t resolve your problems alone. What
do you do?

strategy might be to act out your distress. You might go hungry, shaping
your figure like an empty spoon, as hollow and lifeless as you feel.
You might secretly stuff your body with food the way you’ve stuffed
down fear and shame, and then violently purge, as if to get rid of those
unspeakable emotions. Or you might just keep on eating more and more
until the outside world seems to shrink by comparison, each new binge
mimicking the onslaught of feelings too huge to contain within the mold
of acceptable expectations.

viewed as wordless cries for relief, the psychological pantomimes of
anorexia, bulimia and binge eating make perfect sense. The mystery is
why the afflicted so often misread the messages their ailments embody-as
do the people around them. Eating disorders are often unrecognized or
belittled by parents, teachers and doctors, misunderstood as choices
made by girls and women obsessed with their weight. But they are mental
illnesses, and they can be as lethal as guns-shaped by genes, loaded
by culture and triggered by emotional pain and existential dread. Recovery
must be measured not only in pounds, but also, crucially, in the discovery
of a sense of self. 


Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Between the ages of 14 and 21, I spent
countless hours cross-examining the emaciated reflection in my mirror.
"What’s wrong with you?" I’d demand. "Who are you, anyway?
And why don’t you know who you are?" Yet instead of recognizing
my obsession with weight loss as a sign of an identity crisis, I told
myself my problems would be solved if I just lost a few more pounds.

most girls with eating disorders in the ’60s and early ’70s, I never
received treatment. Then, at 22, I fell in love. My lover knew how to see and hear and touch me.
He fed me pasta, wine and laughter, and, in so doing, taught me how
to nourish myself. Suddenly, starving my body made no sense.

shadows of self-doubt remained and, within them, the half-life of my
eating disorder. I no longer deprived myself of calories, but for decades,
I "could not" eat meat. Evenings and weekends, I "had to" work,
while everyone else had fun. And although I thought I was content with
my husband, the slightest marital disagreement would render me mute.
Instead of confronting our problems, I would run away, literally, often
running through injuries for hours. By the age of 36, this relentless
physical punishment had permanently crippled my right ankle.

my marriage of 20 years fissured and, at age 46, I once again became
a stranger to myself. The woman who lived in my skin would stand blinking
blindly in front of the bathroom mirror. She would burst into tears
in the drugstore. More familiarly, she went days without eating. Hopping
on and off the scale, she’d mutter, "At least you’re losing weight."

separation was accompanied by long-overdue therapy. I saw that the threat
of divorce had hurled me into another paroxysm of uncertainty. The plea
behind my attempt to make less of my body should have been obvious to
anyone, including myself, but it took a skilled psychologist to help
me interpret my own signals. I emerged from this crisis with a more
powerful voice in my marriage and a new respect for the eloquent conditions
we call eating disorders.

Over the years I’d noticed that virtually
all the women I knew with histories of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating
were intensely self-critical. When I mentioned my observation to eating-disorder
researchers, they went me one further: The risk for eating disorders,
they explained, is largely genetic. And while no one has fully solved
the puzzle, science has shown that the contributing genes often express
themselves through a signal personality trait: perfectionism.

I’d known the curse of perfectionism since childhood. I knew there
must be a right and a wrong way to do everything.  Nothing created
more anxiety than the feeling I was wrong, and it didn’t take much
to set it off. I believed in the imperative of perfection as
my culture defined it; the less perfect my life felt, the harder I worked
to perfect my body.

girls, as I imagined them, didn’t talk about fear or shame. To admit
any vulnerability or ask for help would be wrong. So my beleaguered
subconscious found a way to turn perfectionistic stubbornness into a
nonverbal alarm. And what could be more primal than to articulate distress
through extreme eating behavior?

I think of all the women who’ve told
me they wish they could be "just a little" anorexic. My reply that
that’s like wishing they could be just a little bit dead is usually
met with uncomfortable laughter and an abrupt change of subject. It’s
as if the connection between mind and flesh were a fact these women
would prefer to forget. Our culture has been trained by the media and
the fashion and beauty industries to view the female form as a perfectable
and depersonalized commodity, but our bodies beg to differ.

and blemishes are part of the human condition. We may not look exactly
as we would wish, but our bodies contain us. They carry us and work
for us and give us pleasure. They speak for us when we dare not admit
the truth. We owe it to ourselves to remember how to listen. 

the full version of this essay, pick up a copy of the Spring 2009 issue
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