W.W.A.E.? (What Would an Anorexic Eat?)

What would an anorexic eat if she gave herself carte blanche? That’s the juicy question Liz Jones, a writer for the UK’s Daily Mail, attempts to answer in a new essay, “Fatten me Up! For 40 years I have battled anorexia - so what happened when I had to eat normally for three weeks?”  In the piece, Jones, who says she has suffered from an eating disorder for 40 years, discusses a recent experiment in which she ate pretty much anything and everything she could get her hands on for three weeks: Mac 'n cheese, Yorkshire pudding, bread dipped in olive oil, peanuts, avocados (her anorexic forbidden food), even a Snickers bar. She tastes mayo for the first time since 1972.  Despite having “never pigged out… never eaten a whole bar of chocolate, a whole banana,” when Jones learns from her doctor that she headed into straight into the bone-crushing jaws of osteoporosis, she decided an upcoming visit from her sister – an amazing cook – would be the perfect opportunity to, well, eat. She wants to see “if my world falls apart and I become fat, and bloated, and lazy. To see if I can no longer think straight (I never eat if I'm writing, it slows my brain), or if I become happier.”

At 5’8” and  just over 120 pounds (up from an all-time, hospitalization-worthy low of 84), she begins her journey with a grocery trip, during which she procures basics like eggs, yogurt, potatoes, OJ, brie,  full cream milk, fruit and vegetables – and is shocked by her bill (no doubt higher than normal when “normal” is severely restricted.)  Her sister adds to it flour for pastries and scones, good quality chocolate, full-fat Greek yogurt, PB, jam, honey, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, baked beans, pasta, rice, onions, garlic, olive oil, spice and salt and pepper. Sounds like a nicely-stocked, well-rounded fridge and pantry with a few treats thrown in.

Her breakfast changes from plain black coffee to three scrambled eggs made with cream, butter and salt and pepper on buttered white bread with butter on it, which makes her feel “”like Michael Phelps, training for the Olympics.” Lunch goes from cereal and juice to a buttered roll filled with brie or PB and honey. “My jaws are actually aching from so much chewing, and I'm beginning to resent the mess, and the time I spend washing up. I feel incredibly fat, and lazy, and tired.“

Shockingly (sarcasm), Jones finds that despite her self-loathing, she soon starts to perk up, feeling energetic mid-afternoon, rather than her normal black outs. Her mood improves, she’s less snappy with people, she smiles more. In the first week, she gains no weight, but by week two, she swears her stomach is expanding internally because she is able to eat even more food. She also voices a concern that the fact she has skipped making her bed twice may be a sign that she is losing her characteristic control.

Towards the end of her experiment, Jones reports she needs to lie down on her bed to zip her jeans. She weighs herself and finds she is up to 9 stone – 126 pounds. “My stomach is huge, like I'm pregnant. I'm horrified, because I've been exercising more to compensate  -  walking up and down hills several times a day.  I'm afraid I find all the extra flesh disgusting. I start imagining myself thin again, savouring how much I will enjoy losing this weight. The thought gives me focus. All this eating has proved what I thought all along: food makes you soft, lazy, undisciplined.”

Me: Loud sighing.

Look, I’m sorry, but this article does so much more damage than good and just does not ring true to me. I want to be empathic and feel for Jones and her plight…but I don’t. Even though I have been there, I just…don’t. I feel like I want to shake her and say, “You’re over 40 years old! You’re a grown up! Go find a therapist. Start taking medication or read a cognitive behavioral change book. Learn how to eat an entire banana without needing to run three miles. How can you still be such a cliché after all of these years?!”

I know, I know, not what you would expect from me at all. I sound old, callous, heartless. If I were talking to a college student or a young girl, things would be different. But this woman has exited the time period during which this kind of behavior really seems to make any kind of sense. She is an adult. She has a plum job and must have access to resources like HELP.  For lack of a better explanation, I just feel like she should know better already.

She makes all the textbook statements:

“AII wanted to be like the women in the pages of Vogue. I wanted to do what the pages of 19 magazine told me to do, and that was to count calories.”

“I might not have been good at anything else  -  relationships, sport, conversation  -  but I have been really good at being thin.”

“Food has always been the enemy.”

“For me, being super-thin has never been about being attractive to men. It's about being invisible. “

“That's the thing about being a borderline anorexic: it makes you feel superior, clean, morally unimpeachable.”

This all comes off sounding – in my mind, at least - like Charlie Brown’s squawky teacher: “Waa, Wa, wa, waaah, wahhh, waaaahhhhh.”

Like so many other ED sufferers (present company not excluded), Jones ate peanut butter sandwiches to gain weight when she HAD to (ie to gain weight for a doctor) She has always been fearful of getting pregnant because she confuses being pregnant with being fat. She loves watching cooking shows like Nigella.

But instead of this all making her seem more relatable, it alienates her from me. While I’m sure her essay is honest in her eyes, to me it sounds like what she thinks we want to hear. I don’t really believe she gained 14 pounds in two weeks. I’m sorry, but I, too, have lied about gaining weight with these kinds of dramatic over-exaggerations. When I was in college, I mean. I don’t believe she actually couldn’t zip up her jeans. Or that her stomach really looks like it does in the photo she showed. How could she truly be smiling so brightly if she hated her body so much? She still looks like a very thin woman sticking out her tummy after eating a big dinner. One poop and that puppy will be back to flat in no time.

What is wrong with me? Why am I feeling so ruthless? Maybe it’s because so much of what she says, I have said before – at times when I was just giving lip-service myself. Maybe it’s because I’m growing up, too, and don’t have the patience for it any more. Now I know how my friends and family must have felt all those years as I ate plain pasta and salad with no dressing. Like, Just. Give. It. Up. Already.

Jones’ essay ends with a warning to all those women out there struggling with anorexia (many of whom she no doubt just triggered with her “experiment”): Please don’t fall into this trap, she pleads. “Because you never know if you will be able to stop.” But it’s clear that it is SHE who has not been able to stop, and perhaps she is calling out this desperate appeal to no one but herself, in her own head.

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