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.
What I discovered later was that most of those who were severely sick had experienced major trauma. The eating disorder was how they coped with the trauma. Their bodies were trying to express that they were in tremendous pain.
In my case, what I hadn’t realized, was my attitude about becoming female. I’d been molested as a seven year old, and had blocked it out. I had no conscious memory of it as an anorexic, but in retrospect I could see how my molestation had caused me to be disgusted with sex and that aversion extended to emotional intimacy.
My molestation was relatively mild. I’d been molested by a couple of older boys; these boys told me to keep it a secret, and not tell my parents. That was perhaps as damaging as the physical aspect. My parents had been in the house when it happened. Breaking trust with my parents, mistrust began to weave itself through my life. As a child, I began to do bizarre things. Falling into the typical pattern of children who’ve been traumatized – I broke into the house next door. Children will behave shamefully after being treated shamefully. They do this in order to make sense of their shame.
Parents blame and punish the children when they know they’ve done wrong. This is comforting in a perverse way.
How old are you today?
How do you keep anorexia at bay?
For one, write this new book. It goes a lot deeper though. The best way is by developing a flexible diverse identity; I use other interests as sources of satisfaction. A person with an eating disorder’s only source of satisfaction is what the scale tells her.
Closely linked to obsessive-compulsive disorders, eating disorders have strong family histories. It is thought that 60% or more of the risk is genetic. Our DNA shapes certain temperament traits that make some of us vulnerable to anorexia or bulimia. These traits are core to our personality, and we cannot simply turn them on or off, but we can learn to redirect or channel them toward interests and behaviors that are healthier and more fulfilling. In other words, we need not change who we are, but become aware of who we are at the deepest levels. By directing ourselves in ways to satisfy ourselves, we’ll feel well, rather than satisfying others and feeling bad.
Scientific research on genetics is very new, within the last 5-7 years. No prior books incorporated information about the role of genetics and eating disorders. The assumption was that culture makes us sick and anyone can get an eating disorder. This is not true now.
Your marriage unraveled. Was your anorexia part of the problem?
Yes, but in an unpredictable way. My first response at separation was to restrict my eating. This had nothing to do with food or my weight. But had everything to do with a pattern of withdrawal. People with a history of anorexia, are adverse to conflict and personal criticism. They withhold themselves in marriage from their husbands, sex, and pleasure, just like they do with food.
After a while it takes a toll on marriage. Some women marry men who don’t want an intimate marriage; some are ok with this. It wasn’t working with my marriage. It played a big part. We worked with a tremendous therapist who helped us sort this out. Now we’re back together and the marriage is light years better; it’s totally different. I reveal myself by being honest and sharing with my husband. Fear and anxiety had kept me separate from him. This involved so much more than food, but food is the basic deep metaphor for life itself.
Is perfectionism “the single most consistent trait among both anorexics and bulimics,” the eating disorder utopia?
Yes. It’s the trait most common, because both strive toward perfection.
What are the signs in children for a potential eating disorder?
With anorexia there is a higher genetic component. We are still discovering the genetic markers. Traits in children are: an extreme sensitivity to criticism, perfectionism – as in needing to have everything lined up, a strong expression of disgust for colors, food, substances that others consider to be ok, or a kid who can do anything forever.
Another sign is when there is a disturbance in the family: A child withdraws, and goes to a corner, and does some work. I did this.
Aimee, is your struggle with who you are and who you’d like to be a dangerous journey?
It’s dangerous because some people are single-minded and focus on an artificial rule. You have a choice of roads in life. If you choose a road to nowhere over and over again, eventually it turns into a superhighway, eliminating all alternatives until you have no choice but to take that road. That’s the danger. People with eating disorders that start early and last a long time need to get help early on, before the cow path turns into a superhighway.
Why can’t some people face the conflicts of daily life?
For vulnerable people, the way they deal with anxiety and depression is huge. Those predisposed to anorexia, even when well, have high levels of serotonin, even when resting; those with serious bulimia show low resting rates of serotonin and are more impulsive. This occurs naturally in the brain. Self-awareness is critical; anorexics need to develop healthy ways of coping to calm down, and bulimics need to find ways to pick themselves up.
No one has been teaching children how to find coping strategies. Kids kind of happen on behaviors which make them feel better. Purging falls into that pattern.
Aimee, what is the correlation between anorexia and plastic surgery?
It is an artificial idea of perfection. There’s an emptiness inside, or no core sense of self. Ideally we develop as a child, with a strong sense of who we are, a parents’ reflection of nurturing. Then when we enter the world, we know these are just images in magazines. Something goes wrong with women who fall prey to eating disorders and plastic surgery.
They are empty inside, and desperately ashamed of who they are naturally. They try to show the world they’re different than who they feel themselves to be inside. This happens more in status or image-conscious families. They are surrounded by people who judge them by how they look and what they have, rather than what they think. They become confused with who they are.
Your recovery you say is an “ongoing process of restoration and discovery.” Are you gaining more than just weight?
I think at the risk of sounding sort of new agey, I’ve discovered principles of scientific mindful awareness. It’s been relegated to spiritual-psychobabble, but researchers are now proving how and why mindful awareness holds the key to many mental problems, such as OCD and eating disorders, and also helps to raise auto-immune levels. With mindful awareness deep attention is given to everyday life – the moment I’m living in, what’s going on inside my head, and who I am physically in this life. It is central to more and more recovery treatments. Pay attention as more science comes out about this; it is a rapidly expanding field.
Aimee, what do you consider yourself – a recovered anorexic, a recovering anorexic, or another category?
I consider myself to be a healthy human being – people can’t recover from being who they are. You can’t recover from having an innate temperament, but you can redirect it. This is a tricky thing, particularly with eating disorders.
Thank you Aimee, my best to you.
Thank you Kelly.