Aimee Liu, the author of over 10 books, spoke with me recently about her new work, Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders (Warner Books, 2007), and how her life with anorexia impacted the words within.
Kelly Jad'on: Why the title, Gaining?
Aimee Liu: That is the word which strikes fear and loathing in the hearts of those with eating disorders. It is associated with gaining fat. It has richer meanings, though. Gaining pleasure, gaining independence, gaining confidence. All of these appetites are connected. To gain freedom from eating disorders, you have to gain in power and maturity. This is central to recovery from eating disorders.
In our culture, women are told implicitly to be afraid of gaining weight both in pounds and purpose; a lot of women portrayed as celebrities or in fashion magazines are encouraged to remain in a state of immature adolescence. The unspoken message has long been that an “ideal” woman is a perennial child whose sole value and responsibility is to look cute. But today, with the creation of Size Zero clothing, the message is even worse. Now the “perfect” woman is a zero - in other words, nonexistent.
Aimee, where did the anorexia begin? How old were you when you began losing or wasting?
Wasting has multiple meanings related to one’s life and body. I originally began dieting in 7th grade. I developed what is now considered true symptoms of an eating disorder in the 8th grade. That was back in the 1960s, when few were diagnosed. I was obsessive, and at 5’6”, remained below 100 lbs until college, around age 19-20.
I was never as severe as some anorexics, near death; I maintained a weight that was too low. Like a vast majority who hover on the brink of anorexia, the real damage is psychological.
We tend to focus on the physical when people talk about eating disorders. This is problematic because it’s really a psychological problem. The misunderstanding occurs when a person appears to come back to normal weight; the anorexia is a distress signal or an expression of an under-lying emotional problem. If not addressed, the symptoms or eating disorder, will recur later in life.
As a teenager, what effect did your dieting have on your peers?
I was in the early vanguard, influenced by Twiggy and Audrey Hepburn - all who clearly had eating disorders before eating disorders were diagnosed. They were ideal, perfect, driven women.
As I lost weight in junior high, being thin became my identity. I was the girl who could lose weight, and was known to only eat yogurt for lunch; it felt great. I had no other identity to help me stand out in the crowd. I had been the chubby elementary school pupil, and not good at sports. As weight became a bigger issue in our culture, I realized that others were imitating me. In particular were some peers who were severely thin and withdrawn.