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Molly Jong-Fast's Mode piece

Some of you have shown interest in Molly's literary career. Thanks! Posted here is her third published article from May's Mode magazine. It's a powerful personal piece on the subject of eating disorders and young women. If you wish to write Molly about it, you may reach her at: MollyJF@webtv.net. I'm so proud of her! --Erica

From Mode magazine, May 1998

A World Apart
Molly Jong-Fast shares her personal battle with bulimia.
(Illustration by Tim Bower)

mollyjongmode.jpg (13168 bytes)I was 13 when I launched a full-scale war on my body. I began a trend of addictive and self-destructive behavior that would carry me through my teens and teach me all I needed to know about myself, about my family, and about the nasty nature of self-loathing. I learned that without loving myself, I could be as fat--or as thin--as I wanted and it would not matter. Without a healthy inside, I could never be happy with what I was on the outside. This may be a simple, overstated, obvious cliché--but it is just that simple. There were no extraordinary tragedies that led up to my bulimia. I felt the way all of us with eating disorders do. I strove for something unreachable. We may have different reasons, but the end result is the same: impenetrable loneliness and shame.

I had the perfect setup for bulimia. My mother is a famous feminist, a fighter for women's equality. My father is liberal and overeducated; he had lived a Haight-Ashbury-style life in the '60s. He himself had grown up with a famous bohemian, Communist father. As a child of famous parents and therefore always in the public eye, I was raised to believe that you have to be thin. Pressured to lose weight by my father and mother at a young age, I soon discovered that weight loss was synonymous with praise and attention. At 13, I was pushing 200 pounds on a 5-foot 4-inch frame. I would overhear family members saying, "How will she ever get a date?" or "How will she ever have a normal life?" People started describing me as big. Kids in school called me names and singled me out for all those other social not-niceties of early adolescence.

What I did not know when I went to war was that I was not the only person who felt like this. I did not know that my mother, Erica Jong, had battled these demons at the same age. She was such a severe anorexic, she denied herself even the simple necessity of water. Without water, the skin on her face broke out in boils. Eventually she had to be hospitalized.

(When I started working on this piece, I went to my grandparents' apartment looking for photos of my mom when she was sick. I imagined pictures of a pale blond girl looking like a concentration camp survivor, with big blue eyes and boil-ridden skin. But there were no photos. It was as if my mother had not existed during that time. My grandparents had treated the situation as if she had been away in some foreign country for all those years.)

When I weighed 200 pounds, I got everyone's subtle hints and their not-so-subtle hints. But the most devastating event occurred when I was 13. I was living in London and my parents had dragged me to a lunch with my mother's friend and my stepfather's client, the television star Joan Collins. I was unenthusiastic about going; I tried to get out of it, but I was stuck.

I remember most of the details of that afternoon. I was wearing a rust-colored sleeveless shirt and long black elastic-waist pants. Joan and my mom started talking about visiting Valentino's yacht. I asked if I could come along. Joan said I was too fat to go on Valentino's yacht. I was shocked. I wasn't sure that I had heard correctly. "I'm too what?" Being told that I was too fat to go somewhere with everybody else made me feel a special kind of alone. What Joan did was crystallize the social isolation and loneliness that I felt about my weight. This was key to my beginning my crusade against myself and my body.

Today, I can look back and acknowledge the insanity of it, but I still feel a twinge of shame--every comment stays with me. Even when I was at my sickest, tipping the scales at 110 pounds, 5 feet 81/2 inches tall, I could hear Joan's voice resounding in my ears. Anyone who tells you that damage like that goes away is lying. It's been four years since I last purged, yet negative voices continue to haunt me. Though it does get easier with time. Now that I am in recovery, I find that these comments do begin to fade; time does help heal the pain.

During the height of my illness, after I had been bingeing and purging for three years, I decided it would be "healthy" to date a man who spent all his time looking at and critiquing women's bodies. I started going out with a fashion designer. He was young--27 years old. He had become very successful for designing a couture collection when he was in his early twenties. He liked his models thin, his clothing small.

Any halfway sane person would have stopped themselves right there. But I was not a sane person. The designer decided he might be able to love me if I was a size 6. This man was not so different from every other man involved in my upbringing. After all, he just wanted me to be perfect. The idea that this man would love me if I were but one dress size smaller seemed, at the time, perfectly rational.

So, being the people pleaser that I prided myself on being, I worked hard. I worked out like a maniac, ran until I got shinsplints. I counted calories, binged and purged. My designer friend was happy. But his happiness was short-lived.

He decided that I should watch a fitting. He wanted me to see just how good a girl with a size 4 body looked. The model was about 13 years old. He took her measurements. She had a 23-inch waist. I don't know if I've ever met another woman with a waist that small. But, at that point, my thinking was so skewed that I believed that all women had 23-inch waists. "Look. She's thin. She must be really happy." There was not a doubt in my mind that thin people were never lonely and that they had wonderful lives filled with love. I had a life filled with privileges, but it meant nothing. Thin was what had value in my life.

I decided the next logical step was to get even thinner. So I went on the always-effective starvation diet. When I could wear a small size, the secret of happiness and the meaning of life would be revealed. I would get the key to the executive washroom of the world. The skinny people would embrace me in their bony arms. They would finally say things to me like, "Your family will love you" and "You are good enough to be loved and respected." Needless to say, this did not happen. What happened was--nothing. Everything stayed exactly the same, except that now I was pencil-thin. I was just as insecure as I had been before. Nobody gave me any key. Ridding myself of the weight did not rid me of my problems.

During my illness, I'd walk down the street and in my mind believe that everyone who looked like me was confined to her own private prison--her body. Obsessive thinking was easy: Thin equaled happiness; fat equaled misery. The main flaw was not my polarized thinking, but my belief that my troubles stemmed from the fact that I was fat. The truth was that my most intense pain came from my bulimia.

You would have thought that having a feminist mother, a hippie-esque father, and a liberal education would have saved me. But I realized that it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, whether you're famous or whether you're not. Bulimia doesn't care. In the end, it takes all. It starts by taking your mind, then your body, and eventually everything else in your world.

I suffered so much emotional loss from my bulimia. I missed so many things, so many opportunities, so many friendships. I spent so much time sitting at the dining room table of my parents' home. Sitting there deciding what not to eat. I remember the late-night binges and the entire days spent at the gym. The thing that I remember most is the enormous amounts of time spent alone. Overwhelming loneliness is the feeling I remember best.

I was in a doctor's waiting room the other day and I picked up an issue of Mode. It was filled with photos of women like me. One of the photos was of a dear friend. She had become a successful plus-size model in Britain. I thought back to the time when we were growing up. I thought back to her own harrowing experience with anorexia. I was filled with a sense of pride and belonging. Seeing her round, beautiful body and her soft curves, not unlike my own, made me gleeful. We had found a place where we were accepted.

Through therapy, I found a way to escape the prison of my bulimia. I've seen several friends get better using a 12-step program. These programs feed the spiritual hunger bulimics have; a 12-step program, like Overeaters Anonymous, is helpful because it breaks the loneliness and isolation of the disease. It lets others in and turns a world that was once so solitary into a world filled with people who can relate to your experiences.

About a year ago, a close friend and I were having lunch. She ordered a chicken Caesar salad with no dressing, croutons, cheese, or chicken. In other words, she ordered lettuce. I looked at her. She had lost a dramatic amount of weight. I saw the signs. I asked her if everything was okay, and she smiled, "Everything is just fine." I still meet her from time to time; she's still telling me she's fine. The last time we went out to lunch, she spent ten minutes in the bathroom after eating. When she came out, her eyes were red. She smelled the funny way we do when we've just been to the depths of despair. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to explain to her how her addiction was ruining her life. But I couldn't. She needs to find her own way. I stared at her back as she turned away from me; I watched her walk down Third Avenue. She got smaller and smaller as she started to disappear beyond the horizon. And all I could do was watch.


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