I have never been entirely sure why I became bulimic. The questionable things that people
do are always less interesting to me than the reasons for why they do them. I have decided
that mine is more a story of an entire family's unhealthy attitude about food and physical
appearance than it is an isolated tale of my own behavior.
May paternal grandmother was obese the entire time I knew her. She didn't start out that way. The ring she wore when she married my grandfather fits like it was made for me, and I have slender fingers. I now believe she suffered from compulsive over-eating as a result of depression and an unhappy life. But for many years my judgment of her was much harsher than that. I refused to feel sympathy for a person whose unhappiness was caused by her own obesity and lack of self-discipline. I was raised to feel this way by a father who feared becoming like his mother, who convinced himself that unhappiness like hers could be prevented through self-control. Physical appearance, control and happiness were inseparably linked in my mind. I was a skinny child, which suited me fine. In fact, I was a little smug about it, secure in the knowledge that I had mastered control so early in life.
My younger sister's struggle began in childhood when my parents perceived her as chubby and put her on a diet. No doctor ever suggested this, and when I look at old photos, she looks healthy to me, but not particularly fat. Their constant, demoralizing battles with her about weight disturbed me. The thought that I might ever get fat actually frightened me. I was very relieved to be thin.
Everything changed when I started high school. I don't know if it was puberty or because I was unhappy, probably a little of each, but I suddenly had an insatiable appetite. At first I thought it was funny. It was a way to get attention, to shock my friends. But soon I had to undergo the disappointing and shameful experience of out growing my clothes. I refused to shop for new ones. The discomfort of waist bands that pinched into my flesh was like the voice of a cruel disciplinarian, constantly reminding me of my growing failure, and I felt that I needed or deserved this. Self-discipline turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. I couldn't stop eating, and I started to panic.
I wasn't the only person who was concerned. I remember the first school photo in which I looked heavier. It was my mother who pointed out the difference, pulling out a photo from the previous year for comparison. My parents were both attractive people, especially my mother, who was slender and beautiful. Both imperfect perfectionists themselves, they sought perfection in their children. I don't believe they did this to be cruel. I think they simply believed their own mythology, that they were somehow saving us from ourselves, from a life of something less than we deserved to become.
At first I thought that if I could ever become thin again, I would remain that way for the rest of my life, and would then be free to move on to other pursuits. But it never worked out that way. At a time when I should have been thinking about the type of person I wanted to become, what sort of life I wanted to pursue, I was consumed with the occupation of controlling my weight, which, at least on the surface, seemed a much easier endeavor than controlling the outcome of a life.
Bulimia is most common in adolescents, but I was a late bloomer. I threw up once when I was 17, after a friend unwittingly told me about vomitoriums in the Roman era. By my early 20's I was a full-fledged bulimic, bingeing and purging a few times a week, sometimes more than that a day. I never bought food with the intention of throwing it up. I tried to keep my house free of fattening foods. But I could always find something forbidden to eat, and eat in excess. I felt tired, ill and depressed. The glands in my neck were swollen, my eyes were blood shot and I almost always had a headache. But I learned to remedy these with decongestants, eye drops and pain relievers.
I knew what bulimia was, and was concerned about my health, especially the appearance of my teeth. But apparently, in addition to inheriting the stocky genes of my ancestors, I inherited someone's strong dental genetics as well, because my teeth never grew yellow or noticeably weak. People might have guess that I was unhappy, but they weren't likely to guess that I was bulimic. I was never especially thin or fat.
The quality of my life improved when I went back to college, along with my sense of self-esteem. Episodes of bulimic behavior great farther apart as I discovered new means of feeling a sense of control over my life. But I noticed that the community of artists, of which I was becoming a member, was filled with very slender, attractive people. My excuse for my obsession only shifted from a desire to pursue happiness to the need to maintain a successful, professional appearance, which seemed much less pathetic and justifiable. While I was in school, I became aware of the similar struggles of other family members. I watched my father's sister wither into an emaciated form curled into the fetal position beneath hospital blankets. She died of lung cancer, but as an asthmatic, doctors had warned her for years to quit smoking. She refused, mainly because she was afraid she would become fat like her mother. My sister was waging her own battles, with periods of cocaine addiction, first attractive to her as a form of weight control, and obsessive dieting and exercising.
Knowledge can create powerful changes in a life. But deeply ingrained feelings of inadequacy are not easy to completely eliminate. There is still a voice that whispers at the back of my mind that I could be more; more attractive, more successful, happier. When I manage to remain thin for an extended period of time, I feel more in control of my life and I still get a euphoric thrill from the feeling of having my clothes fit loosely. I find it irritating that a mature, educated woman has not yet managed to resolve such simple issues. But this is no longer the primary focus of my life. As an artist, I have found healthier things to obsess about. I have started to teach, which I find especially rewarding and my career is doing well. But I have never shared this part of my history with either friends or colleagues. In fact the name I am using here is not my own. I don't want their image of me associated with the stigma of illness and shame that eating disorders evoke. Who would trust such a person with a professional position, a person who once allowed her life to become so out of control?
My sister is doing well. We've talked about all of this, and serve as a sort of support group to one another. My parents also realize that they made a mistake and now take the annoying opposite stance of insisting that I look marvelous, regardless of how haggard I arrive at their door...which is an improvement, I suppose.
I don't consider myself "cured." There are still times when I start to snack, like everyone does, but at a certain point, it slips into something else. Without an appetite for anything in particular, I start searching for more and more to eat and I realize that I am crossing some sort of a line. That's when I find it lurking there as an option, and I know I have a choice to make. What bothers me most about all this is all of the time I wasted, the time so many women waste, consumed with dissatisfaction and an obsession for achieving some kind of physical perfection when there are so many other more satisfying ways to spend a life. If I consider my choice a political one, it makes it easier to just stop and close the refrigerator door, decide to eat light for the next few days, or enjoy a slightly more voluptuous version of myself.
For me, the key to happiness lies in creating a peaceful, balanced life, spent doing the things that bring me pleasure. And I am doing this. I am in control. I now enjoy good food in moderation as one of those pleasures. I think of my grandmother who I believe, for various reasons, never got the chance to figure out who she was or what she wanted from life. Her name was Marguerite.