National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: February 21-27, 2016
A few days ago, I was swiveling back and forth in the beauty salon chair, paging through the latest issue of Vogue, and waiting for the timer to ping! so that my stylist could wash the purple-that-turns-black dye from my hair. My gray strands aren't like Emmylou Harris's silvery waterfall, but more wiry crone variety. For better or worse, I fight time, and, added bonus, at the salon I read all the glossy magazines that I don't buy for myself in the forty minutes it takes for the dye's transformative magic to work.
Except this time, as I flipped the pages, what should have been a vapid fashion ad knocked the breath from me. A beautiful model (redundancy) with long, achromatic hair pinned in a disheveled up-do, wore a Nappa leather halter-top and pants, more costly than my monthly mortgage payment. She perched on rickety heels constructed with wire-thin strings crisscrossing her toes and ankles. Her face was glacial, as if she had spent a week scrubbing it with a pumice down to its angled bones. But all of this, really, is ordinary. On most pages of Vogue or Elle you find a similar presentation.
What stopped me was the gap. The gap between her pants and her body. More specifically, the gap between the waist of her pants and her waist. The pants didn't fit. The anorexic gap.
I thought: A.) The stylists put her in pants that were too big; or B.) The model was deliberately too small for the infinitesimally small pants. I dismissed A. The industry already uses a negative integer fit size. This meant B. Or, possibly C.) The ad's point was to make her appear smaller than the already too small clothes, suggesting that she has, how lovely, (under)grown her big girl designer duds. To quell hunger, she might stuff herself with tissues. (See The Vogue Factor http://www.amazon.com/The-Vogue-Factor-Fashions-Illustrious/dp/1452132690 by Vogue Australia editor Kristie Clements.)
Most maturing women develop hips, breasts, and butts. When I was anorexic, and 36, definitely woman and not girl, I lost them all and my period, too, and existed in a space-time compression, no longer suffering the complications, the frustrations, and the humiliations of a body that felt too big and ungainly. Ixnay on leather halter tops when a stomach is soft with folds. But to become a one-dimensional plane, I had to starve, purge, and over-exercise. I had to have the stomach (if I wanted that concave stomach) for erratic heart rhythms, electrolyte imbalances, and death.
Of course, (retouched) images of underweight models wearing exclusive couture and not TJ Maxx rack specials aren't responsible for my eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex, have many causes or triggers which work in chaotic combinations. Underweight bodies are venerated, but what you don't see are the real effects of an eating disorder's diminishing returns. Imagine if the cover of a J. Crew catalogue showed a woman in cute, green ballet flats and flouncy champagne pink skirt hooked up to her feeding tube and clutching her walker because a slip would break a brittle hip. Truth doesn't sell $200 cashmere cardigans.
When I looked at the photo in Vogue and saw that gap, that space between pants fitting and pants not fitting, the space that should be filled by her bigger body, an old trigger reared its ugly head. That was my yardstick. When I traded down pants sizes, I felt accomplished. Too big. Smaller. Still too big. Smaller still. Smaller still. Ever in pursuit of the gap. Close to the end of it all, close to when I was sent away for my last inpatient treatment, I was in a store trying to buy a dress for a party. I grabbed three or four in the smallest sizes and went into the dressing room which had a three-way mirror. Ages since I'd looked at myself in any real way and suddenly I was face-to-face-limb-to-limb-stomach-to-ass with my repeating reflections. I didn't recognize that stranger who looked ill and sad and broken. I slipped Dress #1 over my head. Enormous. Dress #2. Dress #3. Nothing fit. Just like that early '80s Gap jingle sung in basso profundo, "Fall into the Gap," the anorexic gap had swallowed me whole.
Today, my clothes have a forgiving fit and I pursue balance and wellness. Sometimes I wish my jeans would slide down my hips to the floor, or wonder about the point of exercise if I'm not losing weight. It is easy to fall back into the gap, into the kind of slippery-slope thinking that triggers an eating disorder. Recovery requires respectful vigilance. No skipping meals, no holding on to sick (too small) clothes, no over-exercising, no scales, no self-directed body shaming. When I catch myself longing after an impossibly thin body, I remind myself that what I have gained is the necessary weight of happiness. Just like the London's Tube announces: Mind the Gap.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.