I'd always read that eating disorders could be socially isolating, and it's pretty hard to argue with that. By my senior year of college, deep into my own body-obsession, I spent night after night in my dorm room instead of out with friends, because "out with friends" inevitably involved calories and it was just so much easier to stay in than it was to go out and risk temptation. I recall the looks of disgust on my roommate's face when, after a meal she'd cooked for me to celebrate something -- a good grade, a finished paper -- I would disappear into the bathroom, vomiting away all of her hard work. I remember closing my door and looking at my body in the mirror, all alone, certain that no one in the whole world could begin to understand how it felt to look like the way I looked, no one else who hated her body quite how I hated mine.
My body-obsession was isolating, no doubt about it. But it hadn't started out that way. Quite the opposite. After all, how many of us have bonded with a girlfriend -- or with our mothers, or with a total stranger -- over our diets, our bodies, our problem areas? How many of us have found common ground in exchanges like "I hate my body"; "Oh my god, me too!"; "You? No, you have the greatest legs"; "You have the flattest stomach"; "I would kill for your collarbones!"
But, for some of us, the bonding goes even further. Two weeks ago, I watched as a new episode of "Glee" showcased such a scenario; in this case, one girl encouraging another to make herself throw up. On the show, one character, Kitty actually planted the seeds of body-obsession in her rival, Marley. Kitty tells Marley she might grow up to be overweight because Marley's mother is overweight; and when no one's looking, Kitty alters Marley's costumes for the school play so that they're too small. When Marley is feeling her worst, Kitty pounces, encouraging Marley to make herself throw up, cloaking it as a gesture of friendship.
For me, the scene was achingly familiar, although my own experience wasn't quite so scandalous. By the time I was a freshman at Barnard College, I'd tried to make myself throw up countless times. I'd stick my fingers down my throat, I'd gag, I'd wait; and nothing would happen. Food would remain, stubbornly, inside of me, making its way all-to-slowly through my digestive system. There was some trick I was missing, some secret step that I didn't know.
One night, I came back to the dorm after dinner out with some friends to discover that someone had set up a pre-Thanksgiving celebration in the common room: turkey and gravy, stuffing and mashed potatoes. My very favorite meal in the world. Maybe it was because I hadn't eaten anything all day until dinner, maybe it was because the girls in the common room looked like they were having so much fun, maybe it was because I wanted to feel bad about myself -- whatever the reason, I couldn't resist digging in.
But seconds after a plateful, remorse struck. I was near tears when a girl who lived down the hall found me and asked what was wrong. When I told her I wished I could just undo what I'd done, she offered to show me how. I've tried before, I insisted. I've failed. But she took me down the hall to the bathroom and calmly stood in the next stall, offering up instructions like the very best of teachers. And soon, everything was gone; hours and hours worth of calories circled their way down the drain. I was so grateful that I threw my arms around my new friend, certain that she'd just gifted me with the answer to all my problems. She warned me not to get too excited; it was impossible, she said, to really get rid of everything you ate. Some foods begin digesting too quickly. I nodded obediently, thrilled nonetheless. Finally, I thought, someone who understands. It was the first time this girl and I spent any real "quality time" together, but it wasn't the last. Suddenly, we had the ultimate shared interest. We always had something to talk about.
I wrote a version of this scene into my book, "The Stone Girl." The protagonist, Sethie, is taught how to throw up by her new friend Janey. In the novel, I even kept the meal the same; Just as I threw up after eating Thanksgiving food, so does Sethie. And, like my friend -- and unlike "Glee"'s Kitty -- Janey is genuinely trying to be kind. She's comforting an unhappy friend, engaging in what she believes, however mistakenly, is just some harmless girl-bonding.
I was so intrigued by the social aspects of my body-obsession that I wrote my senior thesis about it, poring over essays and articles and books about the social aspects of eating disorders, cheerfully interviewing my friends and classmates as part of my research. It was difficult to find a single girl who didn't have a story of a shared diet trick (drink ice cold water, eat spicy foods!). It was easier still to find girls who'd made a pact to reach a goal-weight with a girlfriend, bonded over dieting rituals (no food till 4 p.m. and then, anything goes!). Almost every girl I interviewed had memories of begging a friend to be "bad" with her over dessert, had made promises to be "good" with a friend at a tempting restaurant. Some girls even promised to keep unhealthy behavior secret from parents, teachers, counselors (at least until she reaches her goal weight!). At the time, it didn't occur to me to be discouraged by the fact that so many of us shared at least a tiny shred of a body-obsession, and actually relished in sharing it. For one, it supported my thesis. For another, it made me, at least, feel a little less lonely. As Naomi Wolf put it in her book "The Beauty Myth," "Once inside the weight cult, one is never alone."
College campuses are notorious breeding grounds for this behavior, and mine didn't seem to be an exception, despite signs on every dorm bulletin board advertising support groups and free therapy. Freshman year, there was one bathroom on my floor where the bulimics went. You could hear us there every night, politely waiting our turn. There was some unspoken code among us that we didn't all throw up at the same time. We sat facelessly side-by-side, each of us knowing exactly what was going on behind our metal partitions, waiting for the toilet to flush, the signal that it was someone else's turn. It was the only club I joined during my four years at Barnard, the only sorority I pledged.
By my senior year, I'd made only a few friends with whom I'd keep in touch after graduation. I can't help wondering, sometimes, if my body obsession had something to do with it. Because though it might have started out social -- shared binges at one in the morning, shared complaints and promises and pacts -- it didn't stay that way. Ultimately, my purges became a secret -- a badly kept secret, but a secret nonetheless. No one confronted me about it, none of my friends urged me to seek help. Maybe they just didn't want to fight with me. Maybe they knew that there was nothing they could have said that would make me stop. I had long since drifted apart from the friend who taught me to make myself vomit; we hadn't talked to each other in ages. I think we may have taken a picture together at graduation, for old time's sake. Turns out that throwing up together wasn't quite the bonding experience I'd thought it was.
I don't know how this season of "Glee" is going to play out. Will Marley realize that she is beautiful just as she is, that Kitty had in fact been deceiving her into thinking she'd gained weight? Will Kitty be punished for encouraging Marley to vomit, for essentially tricking her into having an eating disorder? Will viewers protest that the storyline was too simple, too complicated, too hard to believe, or too achingly realistic? I don't know -- personally, I think the show is doing a nice job of showing how Marley's body obsession began socially and is becoming secretive; showing that it may have originated over tight waistbands and weight gain, but has become more nuanced and complicated, more about her sense of self as a whole.
But whatever people think of "Glee," and wherever this story goes, I like to think that people are talking about it. I'm glad a popular TV show is showing that girls can influence one another into having a body obsession and exacerbate hidden insecurities, all in the name of friendly bonding. Support and sharing can and should be a positive and not pernicious thing; for me, as I recovered, discussing my body-obsession with my friends was part of how I finally, finally let it go. Still, I can't forget that there was a time when sharing my body obsession could and did take a darker, even dangerous, turn. I'm grateful to shows like "Glee" for shedding light on the ways that girls like Marley and Kitty, girls like Sethie and Janey, and girls like my friend and me, sometimes try to "help" each other. I hope it's the beginning of a long conversation, and maybe our social body obsession is becoming part of what we talk about when we talk about eating disorders. Most of all, I hope that girls like Marley and Kitty, girls like Sethie and Janey, and girls like me, will find something else to bond about, will discover shared interests beyond calories-counted and pounds lost or gained.