‘How to Disappear Completely’ most insightful eating disorder memoir ever published

There are many disturbing passages in Kelsey Osgood’s memoir about her struggle with anorexia, How to Disappear Completely, but one of the most chilling is the description of her active pursuit of the disease:

I would get so thin that I would be the physical embodiment of sadness, and there would not be a flicker of doubt in the universe that I was exactly that: thin and sad. I would be consumed and ravaged by thiness, by the pursuit of it…I didn’t need something to have; I needed something to be…It never occurred to me to lose weight in any healthy way, to strive for a body that ‘looked good.’ I wanted to be repulsively thin, and I knew how people got that way, by being anorexic.

With this passage, Osgood debunks the myth that anorexia is dieting gone too far. In reality, anorexia is its own entity, an identity, a discipline, a religion.


Osgood grew up in suburban Connecticut, and she longed to be unique and special. In her local library, she devoured books by women or about women’s lives including Girl, Interrupted, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Prozac Nation, Sybill, and Wasted. Osgood writes:

It wasn’t a particularly well-stocked establishment, but there were still many books about young people, mostly girls, who felt crazy or who were crazy. I didn’t think I was crazy, but kind of wished I were. Crazy people were privy to a universal truth, I thought, destined for artistic greatness, their words indelibly scalded into the collective unconscious.


Combining those two goals, for artistic greatness and identity, anorexia seems like the perfect solution:

Becoming a professional patient, a ‘hopeless case’ seemed akin to  selling one’s possessions and dropping out to live on a commune or defecting to Canyon Ranch for a long term detox. And besides, one of the most ‘hopeless cases’ I read about actually ended up confounding the doctors’ prognoses, recovering, and then writing books, so what were a few years lost to psychosis if you ended up a famous author on the other end? If I were actually crazy, I would be allowed to exit, at least for a while, the real world, a place I found at once deeply overwhelming and utterly lacking. I wouldn’t have to do the things I always considered pointless, like take math tests or sit up straight or tell white lies. I wouldn’t have to be what I thought I was: short, stumpy, decidedly unglamorous, not outstanding in any particular way. Normal. Or maybe nothing at all.

With these descriptions of anorexia, Osgood has written a hugely important and unique book. I’ve read so many eating disorder memoirs myself, and as Osgood points out, again and again, those stories romanticize the sickness.

The lowest weight one reached remain a point of pride, not shame…Nine times out of ten, writing about anorexia beguiles the at-risk population for all the wrong reasons and the person writing about his or her own struggle fuels the fire by producing a long, hubristic poem, a elegy, an ode to  a presence gone and dismissed. An homage. The writers know they’re up on the invisible podium to speak out about their journey to the brink of death (oh, yeah, and back) and they know too, that the ones listening closest are the young ones eager to enlist in the starving armies.

Eating disorder memoirs just like the internet’s “proana” and “wannarexic” communities, act as a how-to, showing girls how to be best anorexic they can be. Recovery communities are  full of people who trade tips on how to be a better anorexic, comparing weights, a competitive training ground. Osgood’s book is different because she never acts as if sickness is cool or desirable or inspiring or beautiful. Here’s a typical description of a patient:

She would lift the phone off the receiver and dial with the ends of her long, yellow fingernails…her skin was covered with stretch marks, jaundiced and flaky. The room stank of dead cells…


Osgood attempts to do what no other eating disorder memoir I’ve ever read has done: she de-glamorizes anorexia and exposes it as the ugly, stuck, boring, waste-pool that it is. How to Disappear completely also illuminates the paradox of the narrative females too many females in our culture are stuck in: only as victims can they be heroes, only when practically invisible can they exist.

So intrigued by this original and insightful book, I went to Osgood with some questions. Here’s our interview.

I started my blog Reel Girl because I have three daughters, and I was appalled by the lack of strong female protagonists and female heroes in kid culture. What do you think about the lack of female heroes, how the thin, “pretty” girls are the ones who get to star in the limited roles offered, to exist at all, really? Part of what “inspired” you wanted to become anorexic was the stories you read when you were a girl, the eating disorder memoirs and crazy girl memoirs. If young women’s stories involved other narratives besides the thin/ crazy/ pretty victim, do you think that would make a difference as far as girls’ attraction to anorexia?


Yes, I definitely think it would make a difference. Or at least, I think it would be a good start! I read an article recently that pointed out that even in books for very young girls––under ten, that is––the heroines are more often than not “scrappy” or “very small.” I think that might have started from a good place, but one that assumed a more male logic––big is better, so the underdog, who should win in the fable, should be small––on a female population. Eventually, it kind of curdled into what we have now, which is that no heroines are anything other than slim. As for me, what attracted me to the narratives of mental instability as a teenager was this idea that in order to be creative, one had to be melancholic or tortured. In some ways, I think I thought if you were psychically tortured, you wouldn’t have to work; that was a creative output on its own, and if you wanted to write a book post-facto then it would just pour out of you as if divinely inspired (insanity as a state of religious transcendence was also something I very much believed it.) Now, having been tortured and subsequently written a book, I can safely confirm that this is NOT what happens! It’s just as difficult a slog as ever.


While you go out of your way to describe not to glamorize anorexia, to show the ugliness of the disease, you’re still writing a book about it. You went to visit all of your former hospitals and you write about Googling people you were hospitalized with. Is it possible to write a book about how boring anorexia is and not be fascinated by the disease? Are you still fascinated and compelled by it?


I think no, it isn’t possible to do it without being, on some level, fascinated by it. I was hoping to reverse the narrative and to ask some questions about the disease that had never been asked before. But ultimately, yes, I am still interested in it, though I think “fascinated” might be a little strong. A writer often works on a book for years before it gets published, so by the time they’re invited on radio shows and panels, they’re often a little bored of the topic by virtue of having wallowed in it for so long! That was my experience, anyway. I am interested now not so much in anorexia as a disease but in the ways we define mental illness as a culture––because I believe it’s very much still culturally defined, particularly with regard to behavioral problems like anorexia and addictions, though the establishment would love us to believe they have more of an idea than they do that it’s biologically locatable.


When I had an eating disorder (I was bulimic, not anorexic) I was often told– in the recovery community, no less– that I would never get better. The best I could do was “manage” my disease. Today, I am 100% cured. My eating disorder is gone. Did you have the experience of people telling you the same thing? Do you consider yourself cured? Was writing the book part of putting the sickness to rest? The recovery community is so sick, so how do people get better? Is it possible?


Yes, this absolutely happened to me! I don’t know if I remember anyone saying that I would never recover point blank, though I’m sure it happened over my ten years in treatment. The eating disorders recovery community has completely absorbed the 12-step belief that once you are sick, you are always sick. I cannot fathom why anyone would find this empowering––comforting, maybe, because you don’t have to use your agency or blame yourself or give up your safety blanket completely, but empowering? No, no, no. It drives me insane (pun so not intended) these days to see personal essays about anorexia or bulimia in which the writer states that, “Eating disorders are like alcoholism––they never fully go away.” And there are many of them. I become literally enraged. I used to blame the writer, but then I realized, he or she was probably told this by some group therapist at a treatment center and thought, “Well, she must know what she’s talking about, because she’s a counselor and I’m one of the ‘crazy’ ones.’” But the truth is that how we define sick and well and normal and aberrant and psychiatrically compromised and stable is still mostly cultural, which is not to say that it’s “made up,” but rather that we have a choice as to how we want to shape our narratives, and what we want to tell struggling young people that they are capable of. Do we want them emerging into the world believing they can only have part of life? That, to me, is crazy.


I consider myself fully recovered, definitely, and I am not afraid to say that when asked. There is perhaps one cell in my whole body that pines for the days of starvation, but that cell is considered a total weirdo by all her cell friends. In all seriousness, though, there was a time when I would have considered being “recovered” unfathomable or, more importantly, shameful––that is, I believed it meant the crumbling of the will, not the assertion of it. Now, I see all the passivity and misguidedness and wastefulness endemic to anorexia and it baffles me that I ever considered devoting my life to it.


Perhaps writing the book helped me to bring my personal struggle to a close, although I would have to point out that one needs to be at least mostly well to write a book (it’s almost a test of endurance, psychologically and physically!) Does that mean I think everyone needs to write about his or her journey to recover? Absolutely not. My book is paradoxical in that the narrative I created was about resisting narratives––a friend once compared it to David Foster Wallace’s attempt, in The Pale King, to write about boredom without being boring (and yes I took that as an enormous compliment)––which some might see as impossible. I mean, even if the narrative is oppositional, it’s still, at its core, a narrative. So I still was seduced by the prospect of telling my own story, but in the end, recognized and continue to recognize that the story will never be fully knowable. If that makes sense, which I’m sure it doesn’t.


One thing that I said about getting better in the book I think is really key, and that is moving away from the eating disorder as a topic on which one dwells. I mean this as much in regard to recovery––and the psychoanalytic instinct to wonder where the “origin” of one’s problems are––as I do with regard to the dwelling necessary to being actively ill. What I mean by this is: at some point, get out of therapy, and try to conceive of yourself as something other than a patient. (This is easier as you get older––when the same people you were once doing bong rips with are now becoming clinical psychologists, you start to realize that the adult-child dynamic you once thought present in therapy was not quite as clear as you once thought!) If your therapist is good, he or she will be leading you in that direction already.   I said the opening statement in the book with regard to my little friend who is now a grown-up; I immediately noticed, when we met up years after being hospitalized together, how curious of a spirit she was, and how much I could tell she wanted to experience. She learned, as I did, that if you are actively anorexic, you simply cannot have a wide variety of experiences. I found that for me personally, becoming a spokesperson for “awareness” felt in many ways similarly constricting in that I was still forcing myself to identify as an anorexic (recovering, recovered, whatever.) It’s still succumbing to the desire to label ourselves, which I’d like to push back against, personally. So that didn’t really work for me. But it works for some people, I guess?


You write that anorexia is unique in that people seek it out, they want to be sick, whereas alcoholics, for example, wish they could drink like normal people. But sickness, especially mental illness in the artistic community seems comparably romanticized. One of my favorite books about this phenomenon is “Against Depression” by Peter Kramer. He wrote this book, because while touring for his best-seller “Listening to Prozac,” people often asked him: What if Van gogh took Prozac? What about Kierkegaard?” Kramer believes that artists created not because of mental illness but in spite of it. He writes that while qualities of the disease of depression– alienation, hyper-sensitivity– are romanticized, other common and frequent symptoms such as disorganization, poor memory, irritability, difficulty changing intention into action, paranoia, anxiety, lack of resilience, vulnerability to harm, paralysis, hostility, impatience etc are often downplayed or ignored. Kramer believes that alienation– the ability to step back and look at the culture or political bodies while separate from them– can be a useful skill. But getting stuck in alienation is a sickness. Depression is a ‘stuck switch,’ an impairment in the stress/ response system. When I blogged about his book, I wrote “Basically he’s saying artists don’t need a little bit of depression to create art any more than women need a little bit of anorexia to be fit.” Long intro, but here are my questions: Did you write your book, in part, to show the other symptoms of anorexia, the ones not glamorized?

I did, particularly the existential torment I found so hard to live with. Now, I often speak at schools, and I’ve had to rethink yet again what is effectively dissuasive. I remembered as a teenager not caring a whit about things like bone density and heart damage and lanugo––almost like a rock and roll, I’m-so-dark-death-doesn’t-scare-me kind of thing––so I never lead with medical consequences. Instead, I tend to start with social stuff; I tell them about how, right after I graduated college, I became painfully aware of the fact that my friends were growing and maturing and I was not. I couldn’t go to a restaurant, let alone have a romantic relationship! So I started to really conceive of what my life would look like: attenuated, though my death would be long and slow; painfully boring and isolated; and basically not very meaningful. By that I mean, I wouldn’t be able to do anything significant in the world, because I would likely be too tired. Childless, also, that was very depressing. When I say this to kids, I can tell they hear me; they want to be in lock-step with their friends, and I’m basically telling them that will never happen if they choose this path. (Granted, it probably won’t happen for a whole other host of reasons, but that’s for them to find out!)


Given this comparison, do you still think anorexia is unique in being a disease that people seek out?


Yes I do. That is, I think it is unique in that the population attracted to it is perhaps the most conscious of its aspirations. But I do think that generally, while it’s unlikely someone may endeavor to become depressed or to nurture the behaviors of a depressive, there is a certain pride in being diagnosed––with basically anything—these days, which is very bizarre. Not so long ago, people fought tirelessly against being put in a box. Now, I feel like people are THRILLED to be in the box. So often people report to me with palpable glee that their therapist told them they probably have x, or y, or z. Recently a friend of mine bragged that her therapist told her she was a little psychotic. (She isn’t.) And I was like, “Why is she so happy about this?”


There is so little tolerance for non-pathological “bad feelings” that I think people either create the pathologies or fall into the psychiatric establishment’s hands and allow their behavior to be labeled pathologized. Being diagnosed (again, with basically anything) kills two birds with one stone, too: it allows you to feel special/different, but also to fit in, because psychiatric problems are the contemporary norm. This all sounds very conspiracy theory-esque, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is not such a thing as organic mental illness, or that all psychiatrists are out to medicate us into a Brave New World-style stupor, but I do think we compulsively ferret out the wrong in people even when it’s not there, or when exposing it and obsessing over it is potentially more harmful than helpful.


What do you think about the cynical/ skeptical world view: If I’m miserable, I’m smart and unique but happy people are stupid? The idea that joy is superficial rather than a profound choice? How do your views on this relate to anorexia and eating disorders?


I think this is a very real belief many people have, and I myself had it for years, and that any expectation of feeling ONE way all the time is reductive and stupid and possibly harmful. Something counterintuitive happened to me on my journey to wherever it is that I am now: I realized that for me to be “happy” meant to be intellectually engaged, and I happen to be more interested in things that many people might consider dark or depressing. So in some way, I still think a lot about objectively “sad” topics, but the end result is with me feeling more fulfilled than I would be if I were to convince myself that it had to be sunshine and rainbows all the time.


Are you writing another book? What are you working on now?


I tell myself every day I need to start on book two! And I want to, I really do, but I keep procrastinating by writing essays and shorter pieces. I was going to write another memoir, about the time I spent as a writer’s assistant to a true crime author who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but I’m sort of second-guessing it. Requests taken!




Kids and God

What do you tell your kids about God? And praying? Anything?

I didn’t learn how to pray until I was 26 and someone taught me this simple skill (and I do look at it as a skill) that changed my life forever. I’d love to teach my kids so they know about it much earlier than I figured it out. Praying can be so incredibly cool and calming. But the prayer I was taught, the only one I do really, seems way too grown up for them.

I was told to get on my knees every single morning and say:


I am totally powerless over people, places and things and my life is unmanageable. I’ve come to believe a power greater than myself is restoring me to sanity and I’m turning my will and my life over to that power.”

I did not believe a single word of this prayer. Most of the time, I still don’t.

But I was told then: what you believe doesn’t matter. If you want to get better, try getting on your knees and saying this. You’ve tried everything else, and nothing has worked. So, why not this? Is it any stupider than sticking your finger down your throat and making yourself throw up several times a day?

I had to admit, it was not.

I don’t know how praying works or why it works. I don’t even care anymore. All I know is that if something is bothering me or obsessing me, and I get on my knees and ‘turn it over,’ instantly, I feel calmer and happier. Remarkably and paradoxically, I also get the energy and focus to move forward and ‘do the next right thing.’ After praying about how powerless I am, I act. Happens every time.

So I’d like to teach my kids about this because it’s so damn useful.

Also, my seven year old daughter has started to ask me about God. What she’s picked up, somehow, somewhere, just as I did when I was a kid, is that praying is all about asking for stuff. And then if you’re ‘good,’ you get what you asked for.

But the kind of praying I do isn’t like that at all. More like the opposite. Still, those things I say– which as I wrote, I often don’t believe– seem way too heavy to put on a little kid. As is the whole powerless/powerful paradox. I don’t even get it!

I could tell my daughter: just tell God what you’re grateful or thankful for, but that seems sanctimonious, and it’s not what I do either.

Please let me know if your kids have asked you about praying or God, and if you’ve had any luck in teaching them anything. Especially if you don’t know if you believe in God.

In defense of candy

Across America, there’s a movement afoot. The New York Times reports that candy may not be as bad for you– or your kids– as you may think:

Russian Hill's The Candy Store

“I don’t think candy is bad for you,” said Rachel Johnson, a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont who was the lead author of the American Heart Association’s comprehensive 2009 review of the scientific literature on sugar and cardiovascular health.

Johnson’s allies in her quest to redeem candy from its bad reputation include Candy Professor blogger Samira Kawash. She started her blog after a playdate gone bad: at snacktime, she brought out some candy for her three year old, and the other mom freaked out; her kid had never tasted sugar.

“It was clear to me that there was an irrational equation of candy and danger in that house,” Dr. Kawash said…From that train of thought, the Candy Professor blog was born. In her writing there, Dr. Kawash dives deep into the American relationship with candy, finding irrational and interesting ideas everywhere. The big idea behind Candy Professor is that candy carries so much moral and ethical baggage that people view it as fundamentally different – in a bad way – from other kinds of food…”At least candy is honest about what it is,” she said.

I’ve had many experiences like Kawash’s, where other parents have gotten nervous because my kids are allowed to eat candy. Not only are they allowed to eat it, they get to eat it whenever they want! And they decide how much to eat! My kids (ages 7 – 4) have food shelves they can reach on their own with candy on them. And yes, sometimes they eat gummy bears for breakfast or Reeses right before dinner, or oreos with their dinner.

But guess what– candy isn’t a big deal to them. My seven year old’s absolute favorite food is Korean sushi. And seaweed.  She has close friends who are Korean and that’s the food they get but she doesn’t, the unavailable “treat” that fascinates her.

My kids don’t overeat sugar. On Halloween, they won’t be freaking out because they have bags of candy. There won’t be tears and fights and struggles for control, because candy isn’t forbidden and, as much as possible, I don’t control what they eat.

Inside Russian Hill's The Candy Store

My kids have lots of “healthy” foods on their shelves too including nuts, carrots, sliced apples, hummus, kidney beans– my 4 year old’s favorite because she thinks they’re smiles. Hopefully I’ll get to the Korean Market that sells kimbap and add that to the home menu.

If parents would calm down about sugar, their kids would too. I think the best thing parents can do– especially parents of girls who get so many negative messages about food, hunger, and weight– is to relax around eating.

These aren’t my own ideas by the way. After I had my second daughter, I read an amazing book: “Preventing Childhood Eating Problems” by Jane Hirshmann and Lela Zaphiropoulus. I read it because I had an eating disorder and the way I finally got better– after years of ineffective therapy and programs and nutritionists, most which repeatedly told me I had a “disease” I’d live with forever– was to stop listening to “experts” and start listening to my body. I hope my kids are learning the same skills much earlier by tuning into themselves, and not me, to tell them what or how much to eat. You can read more about how I learned to do that and how I raise my kids here.

San Franciscans will be happy to know we have some powerful local allies in the movement to rehabilitate candy. Brian Campbell, co-owner of Russian Hill’s fabulous The Candy Store along with his wife, Diane, agrees that candy is an “honest food.”

“Candy doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t,” Campbell says, “unlike several of the highly-processed foods that line the aisles of supposed health food stores like Whole Foods.”

“Many people confuse corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup. Very few candies use high-fructose corn syrup, which is mainly used by the processed food industry as a cheap alternative to sugar.”

Campbell warns that, “Candy is often demonized because it’s mostly sugar and therefore is seen as a contributing factor to our national obesity ‘epidemic’. However, as noted in the article, the vast majority of our country’s sugar consumption comes from other sources, such as sodas. There are other countries, such as Sweden, that consume far more candy per capita than the U.S. – and you don’t hear much about the Swedish obesity epidemic.”

Now get yourself over to The Candy Store on Vallejo and Polk in Russian Hill, the best sweet shop in the city!

When Oprah called, SF non-profit answered

About-Face is a San Francisco based non-profit whose mission “is to equip women and girls with tools to understand and resist harmful media messages that affect self-esteem and body image.” About-Face has received all kinds of recognition for its great work. Most recently, as you can witness all around San Francisco, teenage girls in About-Face’s programs led a project to put “static-cling” stickers on dressing room mirrors with empowering messages such as “YOU: absolutely no Photoshopping necessary.” This effort is going national and was just featured in O The Oprah Magazine.

Jennifer Berger, Exceutive Director of About-Facewww.sfgate.com 

Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of About-Face, “Quit Playing Barbie” shirt available at About-Face

Jennifer Berger is the Executive Director. This is my interview with her:

What is the main challenge for About-Face right now?

There’s awareness of media’s impact on girls and women’s sense of self-worth and some notable positive examples, but not enough action to really create change. And somehow most people seem to think that sexism is over. We can hear about celebrities who admit that they have had eating disorders, or that they feel pressure about their weight or appearance, but they aren’t going so far as encouraging an improvement of the system itself. And Lane Bryant’s lingerie commercial does something positive for women of size and challenges fatphobia. But that needs to be more than a one-off campaign here and there. About-Face is leading the charge in terms of actually changing culture. Awareness is awesome: action is better.

I blogged about Lane Bryant — I was happy to see another body image on TV and shocked that network executives were so offended by real breasts that they censored that commercial, but I was not so psyched about the whole idea that larger women can be exploited on TV too! Yay! Getting women of all sizes in the Victoria’s Secret show is not a goal of mine. I don’t get the whole fat women beauty contest thing, like Mo’Nique hosted a few years ago. I don’t think that’s empowering.

I have to agree with you. This need for women (and now men) to compete against each other around beauty is so ancient but so useless right now. I would like to see us all walk around, with both men and women finding beauty in each other’s diverse shapes and sizes. Another vision is for us to simply not be so concerned about outer beauty as a culture.

I love how About-Face is action based. Instead of just criticizing and reacting, About-Face is actually doing something to create change. What are some of your projects?

Our Gallery of Offenders, where we give addresses and tips on writing productive complaint letters, is the most visited part of our web site. It’s really interesting to look at and fun to put together.

Activism is at the heart of About-Face, so our major method of creating change is our Take Action groups, where we inspire and enable teenagers to take action in their own ways. The girls come up with all of the ideas for their action, and we help them make it happen. One group created these awesome static-cling decals for fitting rooms and then slapped them up all over San Francisco. There’s a great video on our web site.

Of course, that kind of brazen activism isn’t for everyone, and we introduce the idea of media-literacy and critical analysis in classrooms all school year long. This past school year, we worked with 1,200 young women and young men in schools and we’ve seen some fantastic results.

Panasonic ad from About-Face's Gallery of WinnersPanasonic ad from About-Face’s Gallery of Winners 

About-Face was recently mentioned in O The Oprah Magazine. What do you think of Oprah’s public battles with her weight and numerous talk shows on the topic?

As we all know, Oprah has had a problem with her feelings about her weight for years and years, probably brought on by the intense media scrutiny she experienced earlier in her career. She’s a woman whose natural weight is probably on the heavier side, but she’s in the spotlight constantly, so she feels the pressure so intensely. Every time there was a fashion designer on with models, she’d make a comment about how she could never fit into those clothes. It made it OK for women everywhere to hate their bodies because Oprah did.

Last year, in a show in January 2009, I think it all came to a head when she announced on her show that she had “fallen off the wagon” as far as controlling her weight. It was like she said, “I’ve been so bad, and if you’ve been bad too, you can understand, right?” Personally, I sat on the couch and cried while watching that show. Here was the most powerful woman in our culture, arguably, saying she STILL wasn’t good enough. And the cover of her magazine showed the current Oprah standing next to the skinny Oprah. It was like she smacked herself in the face!

But in a recent show in mid-May and in her magazine, she interviewed Geneen Roth, author of the book Women, Food, and God, and seemed to have a revelatory breakthrough around weight. Oprah blew me away when she said, “What I realize when I look at that cover is that I publicly shamed myself. And in that cover, what I was saying is that the thin me deserves all the praise and the accolades. The thin me deserves to be loved, but the fat me does not…It’s your own self-loathing that does that.”

I have hope for Oprah and her own healing. I support her all the way, but I would love to see her also help shape our culture in a way that incites us to accept ourselves as we are.

Ad for Element skateboard's from About-Face's gallery of WinnersAd for Element skateboard’s from About-Face’s Gallery of Winners 

What do you think about Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign?

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that, because I worry that my answer to the previous question sounds like I think health is not important. The concerns around the “obesity epidemic” are around health, and we are concerned about health, too. But physical health only comes from mental health. Self-acceptance leads to healthier behaviors, because you love yourself more and treat yourself with respect.

Our message is to encourage girls and women to see themselves from the inside out, not from the outside in. That is, eat and exercise healthily because you have respect for yourself and your body, not because you want to get thin or avoid being fat.

Did you see, a few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times cover story on obese moms delivering unhealthy babies? I was thinking: that’s just what overweight women need to hear– you’re bad moms too!

I’m not an expert on OB/GYN issues, but when we see a statement like this, from the New York Times article, we should pick it apart and be fully informed:

“And medical evidence suggests that obesity might be contributing to record-high rates of Caesarean sections and leading to more birth defects and deaths for mothers and babies.”

And unfortunately, there could be some avoidance of fat women happening among doctors. I have heard more than one OB/GYN say to me directly that they don’t want to deal with an obese woman. Could the doctors be deciding to do C-sections because they don’t want to “deal” with a woman’s body that is unwieldy for the medical staff? That’s just a guess on my part, but my point is that we need to look at all sides of this issue and really challenge our own beliefs.

Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, & more fat jokes

Garfield isn’t the only cartoon hero relentlessly mocked for his weight.

I was shocked at the continual stream of fat jokes while watching the animated hit, Kung Fu Panda. The story is about a panda, Po, who dreams of becoming a martial artist instead of a noodle seller like his father. What holds him back is his weight. The Furious Five, a pack of martial artists he idolizes– who are all male except for a token female voiced by Angelina Jolie– constantly make fun of Po’s weight. When these characters mock Po, surprisingly they retain their hero status; they are not portrayed as cruel bullies. Kids watching this movie see that it is OK and justified to put Po down for his body size. It’s espcially odd to witness teasing behavior shown as acceptable and funny, because making fun of others is a constant theme in kids movies; but it’s always potrayed as bad and wrong, acted out by the villians, not the good guys. Unless, I guess, the teasing is focused on fatness. Then it’s OK, just funny and true. Po’s teacher, Si Fun, constantly beats him up to convince him to quit his training, because he’s too fat to succeed. This prediction seems justified also.

In one scene, Po explains that the brutal training and beatings he suffers are mild compared to the pain

he experiences every day “just being me.” Then he looks down sadly at his big stomach, equating “me” with his body size, obviously  feeling a lot of shame.

Po explains that when he’s upset, he eats. The turning point in his training comes when Si Fun realizes that Po can be motivated to perform amazing acrobatic feats by a jar of cookies on a high shelf. They begin to train with food as a reward. Po does pushups over hot coals while trying to slurp noodles from a bowl of soup. Po and Si Fun battle over a bowl of dumplings. It’s good, I guess, that Po doesn’t end up becoming thin in order to be a master. But the way this movie uses fat and food to advance its plot line and character development  is truly odd and confusing if you’ve taught your kids– as I have–  not to experience food as a reward and not to think fat people are bad, or to be made fun of, or that they are not as good as thin people. After about two hours of fat jokes, my kids came out of the movie with lots of questions about why being big is funny and bad why don’t I think so too?

Another popular  animated movie, Wall-E (also named for its star male character) has a central plot line where the fat aliens are mocked. The aliens have evolved into an existence where machines do everything for them. They are fat, lazy, and nasty. Lucy asked me during the movie, “Why do they all look like that?” I guess I was supposed to say, “because they don’t get exercise. They’re lazy.”  The message that fat people lie around all day and that if you don’t work out, you will look like a fat, pink alien is not something I want my daughter to learn. She’s six years old. I’d rather her do the monkey bars and play soccer because she loves it and it’s fun. I’d like my girls to learn to use their bodies out of joy and pleasure, not fear, for as long as possible– their whole lives?

Garfield, Yo-Yo Dieter ***G/S***

There are usually no major female characters in Garfield cartoons. The stories focus around Garfield, his owner Jon, and his frenemy, Odie the dog. Jon has a love interest now and then, as does Garfield, but I don’t think Garfield ever returns the affection.

Garfield gets one G because he sets a rare example by not caring much what other people think of him. His indifference to the opinions of others fascinated me when I was a kid and still does. It’s mostly Jon that worries about Garfield’s weight.

When Lucy and Alice watched the cartoon this morning, Jon put Garfield on several different scales, weighing him along with other animals to show Garfield’s weight was incorrect for his species. I’m not that upset about the constant focus on Garfield’s weight and the accompanying fat jokes on his cartoon. Maybe because Garfield’s male. Or because he’s been in this position for so long– the cat has got to be healthy, he’s been around for at least 35 years. Or maybe because he doesn’t care at all what other people think of him, so why should I?

I am glad that my kids– except for math and science class and annual doctors appointments– are pretty unfamiliar with the bathroom scales, featured all over this cartoon.

Fat Reality Shows

With Carnie Wilson’s “Unstapled” and Kirstie Alley’s “Big Life” debuting this season, I count six reality shows about fat people including “The Biggest Loser,” “Biggest Loser: Couples,” “Ruby” and “Celebrity Fit Club.” As America’s weight obsession baloons into ever larger proportions, so do Americans.

Wilson and Alley’s new programs are strikingly similar, both featuring women who famously, very publicly lost weight (Carnie with a stomach stapling broadcast live on the internet, Alley as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig) then gained it back, now returning to our screens to lose it once more.

A long article in this week’s People Magazine details Carnie’s new show. This time she will be guided by Oprah phenom and protege, Dr. Oz. After dramatically weighing Carnie on camera, Oz reported to his audience that she is “morbidly obese.”  But no worries: Oz and “his team” have  prescribed a 90 day program that includes “daily excercise and food journaling.”

Carnie tells People, “I made these beautiful, lean ground meatballs,” but Dr. Mike Rozien, Dr. Oz’s “enforcer” told her: “Dump the meatballs.” People then asks her, “Do you like to excercise?” She says: “I loathe it. I just want a big tub of buttered popcorn, and I want to lie on the couch and watch a movie.” Carnie goes on to say, “I don’t eat what I bake. I’ve never had a slice of my own cheesecake. I’ve only had a bite.”

Carnie sounds to me like a woman who has never once in her life lay down on her couch with a bowl of buttered popcorn without feeling horrible and guilty and ashamed. I’d bet the same is true for her meatballs– lean or not. And can you imagine baking a cheesecake and only allowing yourself one bite?

Carnie doesn’t have too few rules about food, she has too many. I worry about her recovery, because I honestly believe that there are more concentrated crazies in the eating disorder/ recovery world than anywhere else on the planet. Think about it– who wants to grow up and become a nutritionist? Food obsessed people. And those are the ones supposedly advising the “sick.”

I know because I was a sick one, not overweight, but bulimic. In my journey to get better, I was told by almost every therapist-expert-nutritinionist from New York to California that I would never recover, but be “in recovery” for life. At best, I could “manage my disease.” Now I think I understand why they say this. Health, to many eating disorder experts and maybe to America, means being just the perfect amount of sick; we’re supposed to be obsessed with food and dieting and our appearance; we’re supposed to have the knowledge and skill to calculate fat grams, calories, time spent excercising and BMI equations like modern day Einsteins. Understanding basic nutrition can be useful, but obsession with it– “healthy” people writing down daily food intake, multitple TV programs on fat people, a first lady’s national campaign that includes the President publicly calling his young daughter chubby– becomes unhealthy, especially confusing and damaging when it’s portrayed as it’s opposite.

Even though I was told I would never get better, I am 100%, over ten years later. What got me healthy was escaping from all the “experts” I encountered over the years; and all of their rules, restrictions, regulations, and diets they all prescribed– all different and contradictory, by the way, just like today with Dean Ornish vs Atkins vs the ever-changing food pyramid vs counting fat grams or calories or whatever’s going to be the trend in 2010– eating local? Works for me, I live in California.

When I was submerged in the eating disorder/ recovery world, I was told off the wall stuff– just like what Oz may be telling Carnie– that I was  “addicted” to certain foods (or “allergic”) like sugar and flour; these were white powders that had an effect on me just  like cocaine. I paid people $175 an hour to tell me this– that just like a coke addict, if I took one bite of any food that had white powder (bread, muffins, cereal– we’re talking wheat here) like any addict, I would lose all control, eat and eat and eat and never stop. This, by the way, is what every bulimic fears: if she starts eating, she will consume the whole planet. This is a central misconception she must abandon in order to get better; that there is, in fact, always a natural boundary, an end, a stopping.

This is how I recovered– already briefly written about in this blog but summarized here. I stopped writing down what I ate. I stopped trying to convince myself sugar and flour were like cocaine. (by the way, right when I got healthy, I did testing for food allergies, something not one nutritionist or therapist ever recommended to me– guess what? not allergic!)

I stopped thinking being thin was good and being fat was bad. I read an amazing book caled When Women Stop Hating their Bodies and went to a program called Beyond Hunger in Marin. This is what they taught me there: if you eat a loaf of bread, go out and buy more loaves. Same with a bag of chips. Fill your house with anything you’ve ever wanted in abundance and eat whetever you want and replenish it.  As I did that and for the first time in my adult life, allowed myself to eat what I wanted, whenever I wanted, without feeling bad or guilty, I got back in touch with real hunger and real fullness; my eating disorder vanished.

It’s true that I was never “overweight” but I believe obese people, so often, along with bulimics and anoexics, regulate food more than most other people, are more conscious and more knowledgable about health and fat grams and calories than the rest. Most don’t need a national campaign to educate them further.

Oz tells Carnie she “needs to break her addiction to food….she fears passing on her addiction to her daughters. That will motivate her more than a magazine.” Carnie agrees, “I have to be a teacher to my daughters. Lola started to notice commercials on TV with people who are trying to lose weight and she looks at me. She’s thinking about this stuff and its getting to her.”

I wish Carnie would learn to listen to her body and teach her daughters to do the same instead of listening to all the noise on commercials and reality shows, including, sadly, her own. People with eating disorders don’t need more instruction and facts, they need less. Food is not a drug or a moral barometer. Food is food is food. Can we have a reality show about that?