Photo: Courtesy of The Overlook Press.
Kelsey Osgood's first book, How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, changes the conversation when it comes to eating disorders. She explores the glamorous appeal that cautionary tales and rock-bottom stories have for aspiring anorexics, or "wannarexics," distilling why treatment can be so difficult.
Osgood paints an illuminating and incredibly honest picture of the struggle so many young women face, and it's eye-opening. We highly recommend you pick up the book when it debuts this Thursday, November 14. But ahead of that, the author is sharing an excerpt of her chapter, "Blurry Lines," where she introduces readers to some of the "wannabe anorexics" she's met at treatment centers and in life.
From Kelsey Osgood's How To Disappear Completely. Chapter Six, Blurry Lines:
People who may also have been considered "wannarexic" or “anorexic” or both:
1. Isabel, my middle school friend who spent most of eighth grade pouting at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “If I had to describe myself using one adjective, it would be sultry,” she cooed. She asked me to buy her laxatives one day and the next chastised me for complaining when people made a “big deal” out of my eating habits. After my first hospitalization, she peppered me with questions. How much weight had I lost? “You know what I thought of when I first heard you had gone there? I thought that maybe if I did that, people would stop expecting so much of me.”
At the time I found this horribly offensive. How could she imply that I would have put myself and my family through so much just to coast for a while? But I also knew that there was some truth to it. I was sick partially because I wanted out of school and field hockey and other activities I didn’t care much for, and terribly guilty for having that manipulative agenda. I wouldn’t have been the first to use anorexia as a way to call in sick from life. Cherry Boone O’Neill, the daughter of folksinger Pat Boone, recalls in her memoir Starving for Attention that she began purging as a teenager to convince her parents she was actually sick so she could avoid attending high school. Malingering, essentially, led her to severe bulimia and anorexia. When Isabel and I encountered each other years later, both sophomores at the same prestigious university, her clenched teeth and bag of powdery party favors mirrored that thing in me, a desire for an out that made my manifested anorexia not really any different from her wannarexia.
2. Molly, from an article about anorexia and issues of control and blame in Britain’s The Independent on April 1, 2007. “Francesca and her daughter, Molly, understand better than most. Molly developed anorexia at the age of thirteen, almost deliberately, she says. ‘I wanted to get out of this controlling relationship I had with my mother,’ she says. ‘I almost thought, “I know, I’ll develop anorexia.” Then it spiraled into a serious illness.’” Operative word: develop.
3. Jennifer. One day, a new girl appeared in Silver Hills' living room. “Who’s that?” “Jennifer,” my friend Laura responded. “She’s thirteen. She’s here for cutting and depression, but they put her in this group because she wasn’t eating or whatever.”
Laura didn’t seem convinced, and I said so. “Yeah, I don’t think she has an eating disorder.” Jennifer sat in a corner of the room, gnawing on her nails. Her eyes darted rapidly from girl to girl. Her skin and hair were the same sallow yellow, but nothing about her frame shouted poor nutrition. She wore her hair in a high ponytail, and the sleeves of her red sweatshirt were rolled up to her elbows, perhaps to display the large, raw scars that ran horizontally up and down both forearms.
When the therapist asked Jennifer why she was there (always the first question), she launched into a rapid, cloying monologue. “My dad is really worried about me because I never eat, and so are my friends because I always throw my lunch away at school and at home I feed it to my dog and all I eat are apples, and my therapist said I was really bad.”
The following group was about “eating behaviors.” The therapist handed us a worksheet. The first section was titled: “Eating Behaviors I Have.” It listed a number of typical anorexic/bulimic behaviors done to prolong the process of eating, examples being: shaking your feet, cutting food into small pieces, counting to certain numbers before swallowing, and so on. The second section listed tactics to improve these behaviors. The therapists assumed that because it was all in front of us, we would give equal weight to the entire sheet. It took our undivided attention and faith for granted, which you should never do with (a) children or (b) people who are mentally ill. When we were finished, we shared. Jennifer had checked every box in the first section. At dinner that night, she took her fork and knife, drew her elbows back quite far, and dramatically sliced at the spaghetti. She was told repeatedly to stop, but she only stared blankly at the supervisor. Instead of eating, she made a big show of pushing the clumps of cut-up spaghetti around her plate. It was her first and last day in the eating disorders program.
“We shouldn’t have to see that,” someone said. “Especially because it’s so obvious that she’s just doing it for attention.” I heard some time later that she tried to hang herself in her closet with her shoelaces, which didn’t hold.
An early reader once asked me why I disapproved of Jennifer so much: “Her biggest crime, after all, is spaghetti.” As I considered this, I realized that there wasn’t much I could point to to distinguish Jennifer from the rest of us, the “real” ones, save a few extra pounds and a more apparent exhibitionism. I recall throwing nasty comments her way as she performed her noodle massacre, but it wasn’t just me. The whole group had pounced on her and decried her actions, especially after she left. Recently, I emailed Laura to ask if she remembered Jennifer. “Ah, yes,” she wrote back, “I do remember Jennifer!
What a nut! I remember being so mad at her for just that, being a wannarexic. It was like, we are all here trying to get help and struggling through our meals, and you’re going to come in..."act out," and say you’re one of us?”
Still, how does this make Jennifer any different? Was it the transparency of her desire? The clumsiness of it? The immediate and seemingly prideful openness? And are these things that she could have, with time and practice, learned to eradicate? Definitely.
4. Ashley. A few days into my second stay at Cornell in 2004, a new girl arrived. The long-faced doctor stood next to her at the threshold of the dining room, where we sat drinking our liquid supplements.
“This is Ashley,” he said. She was wearing flannel pajama pants, sneakers, and a fleece pullover, and had obviously been crying a good deal: her eyes were red and puffy, and snot wetted the bottom of her nose like dew. Her hair was ruler straight and piss blond, and the rest of us did the requisite up-and-down and breathed a sigh of relief. Solid limbs, small paunch. Nothing by which to be intimidated. The first night Ashley was there, I heard her ask another patient if she thought the staff would let her bring in her thinspiration journals.
“Your what?” the patient asked, clearly unaware of what thinspiration was. “My thinspiration journals. My notebooks where I paste pictures of models and skinny people so I can be motivated to lose weight.”
The other patient just stared back silently for a minute.
“You’re in a hospital. So no. I don’t think they will,” she said, deadpan.
Ashley offered an excuse for her robust form, a slight variation from those I had heard from myriad other normal-weight hospital patients, anxious about being the healthy-looking fish in a sea of scrawny minnows. “Two weeks ago, I was a size double zero,” she told anyone who would listen. “Everyone was always threatening to fatten me up, so I just did it myself.” We rolled our eyes and among ourselves we doubted that she had ever been a regular zero, let alone a double one.
Ashley embraced her superficial-teenager persona with gusto. “I like things because they’re popular!” she announced sincerely during a group. “I like guys who are buff!”
When her favorite pop song came on the radio (“1985” by Bowling for Soup), she would blare the volume and dance maniacally around the living room until the nurses told her to turn it down and sit. “But it’s my soooooong,” she whined.
During visiting hours one day, a friend of mine overheard a conversation between Ashley and her mother. Ashley’s younger sister was also present.
“Maybe I should take away your stickers before you come home,” Ashley’s mother said meekly. Ashley stood up, stomped her foot, and began to yell. “That is not fair! Don’t you take away my Barbie stickers! I am Barbie!”
Ashley clearly equated anorexia with things like conformity and popularity. She wanted to be anorexic because being anorexic meant being thin and a cheerleader and a part of her high school’s upper echelon. When she was admitted, she wasn’t anorexic—or maybe wasn’t anymore—but rather yearning to be. What effect does hospitalization have on someone like this? On a wannarexic?
5. Jodi, a character from an acquaintance's manuscript, entitled Pretty Little Actress, which tells the story of the author’s struggle with anorexia and inpatient hospitalization. The following describes Jodi, who was a patient at the same facility.
Jodi was . . . special. She was desperately attention seeking, and none of us truly believed she had an eating disorder. Everything she said or did was an exaggerated mimic of something that one of us did. If someone didn’t finish her meal, Jodi would refuse to touch a bite of her next one. If someone was caught exercising, Jodi would undoubtedly be jogging in circles around her room. It got to the point where she had to have one-on-one supervision — meaning that a staff member had to be within arm’s reach of her at all times. She had to sleep on the sofa in the living room so she could be watched. She loved it. She relished telling everyone who visited that she was so sick she wasn’t able to be trusted. She eventually stopped eating enough that the staff gave her a feeding tube, although I honestly think they did it to teach her a lesson. We couldn’t stand her.
Not only was she making a compete mockery of a very real illness, but she was extremely needy and clingy. She was constantly getting chastised by the staff, repeatedly yelled at by one of the girls—but all this was attention, so she continued to do it. I personally tried to ignore her. I was of the opinion that she had not fully mentally developed, and while I felt bad for her, she drove me nuts. So when she volunteered to be the subject of a psychodrama [therapy group], no one was thrilled with the idea of participating.
[The therapist] was clever, though. She allowed Jodi to cast her psychodrama and tell her sob story (which changed every time she told it), but then she began calling her out on some of her behaviors. “Why do you think you spend so much time breaking the rules?”
Jodi put on a pout. “I don’t mean to . . . I just have such a hard time with the meals. I know I need to eat and get better, but it’s just so hard.” She was repeating something another patient had said earlier that morning.
I’ve seen this before, too, the verbal plagiarism of a fellow patient. I remember Kristin talking about a botched meal one evening during group and using verbatim a line Liz had weeks earlier, her cadence and rhythm exactly the same. “But ...it...didn’t...stay...down,” Kristin said, parroting Liz exactly. I didn’t say anything then because I thought it was sort of weird that I remembered that in the first place.
The author of this as-yet-unpublished memoir, who attended the same writing program as I did, was to me without a doubt a real anorexic. In her manuscript, she describes the beginning of her anorexia as a slow, almost imperceptible shift. She started going to the gym more and more often, and started eating less, and then less, and then next to nothing. She didn’t stalk anorexia—the diagnosis, the symptoms, the tearful interventions—the way I had. She didn’t want it; rather, it just happened. When I heard that she was also writing about anorexia, I immediately panicked. Not only was I sure that she was a “better” anorexic than I had ever been, but likely her writing was more cohesive, her thought process more elegant and sophisticated. I began to backpedal rapidly, thinking that perhaps the reason I took such a hard-nosed view on matters concerning writing and anorexia was because I knew that my statistics, if laid out plainly, would not be so impressive. Give up, said the little voice. Give up now.
After we had completed the writing program, the author contacted me and asked me if I wanted to swap manuscripts. I obliged, and when I came to the portion about Jodi, I expressed concern that I was just like that loathed patient: attention seeking, clingy, juvenile. The author responded quickly, “You are nothing like Jodi. At all.” But how does she know what lurks in my heart?
6. BeautyInTheBones, a webmistress whose site says “I want to be the smallest I can be. When I see bones, that is the day I will feel free.” Her site is chock-full of the usual pro-ana information and tips, and also includes a personal diary section.
Big News! I got tickets to The Nutcracker performed by the Moscow Ballet!!!!! I am SSOOO excited. I have to lose weight! I will feel so fat around all those skinny ballerinas but I have about 6 weeks to get ready. If I can’t do it by then, then I just suck and don’t deserve to be called anorexic and I’ll have to delete this site. Which would be a horrific chain of events that I won’t let happen lol :)
“Stay strong!” her readers encourage her.
“Stay strong!” we would tell one another, nervously hugging before going home from program for the weekend. Ostensibly we meant, “Follow your meal plan!” But what was “strong” to us? Not “recovery behavior,” surely. Strength was equivalent to willpower, and “willpower,” with regard to food, means abstinence, no matter what.
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza and Sydney Hass.
7. A reader who responds to a New York Times WellBlog post entitled “The Troubling Allure of Eating-Disorder Books.” OW writes:
I was a teenager and college student in the 1990s, so I was exposed to a lot of educational and cautionary material on eating disorders. Honestly, the “education” did glamorize it for me, to the point that I tried to become anorexic (I never succeeded, as I apparently lacked the underlying pathology). It just seemed like a good and socially acceptable way to get attention from adults and peers. (Starving yourself tends to earn sympathy, but eating too much and gaining weight just earns derision.) I resented the attention actual anorexics and bulimics received, and wanted to develop some kind of out- ward manifestation of my own stress, so people wouldn’t just look at me and see a healthy, normal girl, but a girl in emotional need. Even if it doesn’t lead to actual self-starvation, I think overexposing young women to information about eating disorders can lead to destructive behaviors and neg- ative emotions.
May I add that drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, self-mutilation, and most other forms of teenage rebellion usually incite disapproval and scorn as well, or at least a wary eye toward the person’s character, while anorexia tends to evoke sympathy. “Poor little perfectionist . . . so hard on herself.”
8. Jennifer Egan, novelist and contributor to Going Hungry writes: “I first encountered the term at age thirteen, in 1976, in a magazine article about a girl who had starved herself for reasons no one understood. I remember her picture . . . I looked at her and felt my whole being contract into a single strand of longing. I wanted that: anorexia.”
9. Michael Krasnow, one of the most famous male anorexics in the world. In his memoir, My Life as a Male Anorexic, which is terrifyingly spare and blunt, he describes how his anorexia developed from a suggestion. Krasnow, who was engaging in seriously obsessive behaviors such as relentless studying, was taken out of school by his psychia- trist. During a session one day, his doctor voiced concern that Krasnow might replace his obsession with studying with a new fixation. “This possibility had never occurred to me until he mentioned it. Dr. C put the idea of a new obsession into my mind. As a result, when I left school, I found myself think- ing, ‘Okay, Dr. C said I might end up with a new obsession; now, what can I do to replace the studying?’ In other words, I made a conscious effort to find a new obsession.”
He began to brush his teeth constantly until he made “the decision that would lead to anorexia,” namely, that he wouldn’t eat so that he wouldn’t feel the need to clean his teeth so often. His starvation led him to be hospitalized and then diagnosed with anorexia. When told of his diagnosis, his reaction was one of pride.
When I [told my doctor about feeling fat], he told me it was a characteristic of anorexia nervosa. “What’s that?” I asked. When he explained the condition, I automatically labeled myself an anorexic. It’s hard to explain, but it almost seemed “glamorous” to me (I don’t know if that’s the right word), something I wanted. I had an illness; I had something few others had; I was special. The anorexia gave me an identity and made me an individual.
Krasnow touches on an interesting point. Anorexia as a label has a strange allure that we don’t associate with many other mental illnesses. Though not unheard of it, it would be decidedly more peculiar to hear a similar narrative for some- one diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, or depression. It was the prospect of a unique and specific identity—one that was focused on the pursuit of a goal—that spoke to him, and so he reached out and embraced it. His food behavior preceded his understanding of and desire for the illness, which would classify him as a real anorexic, but his admitted perception of the illness as “glamorous” and his eagerness to be diagnosed speak to the wannarexic in the most undeniably serious of cases. Because Krasnow died of starvation in 1997, we will never know why he felt that anorexia was “glamorous” or that it made him special.
10. Caroline Knapp, who wrote the following in her book Appetites, which Salon called “the smartest anorexia memoir ever written.”
One morning, about eight months into my year of weight gain and weight loss, I sat at my desk reading a profile of an anorexic girl in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I’d never heard the term “anorexia” before or the phrase “eating disorder,” and I pored over the piece, read it straight through to the end then read it again. The woman in the profile was young, in her teens. Her weight had dropped to below eighty. She did thousands of sit-ups, late into the night, and she’d become so skeletal that her arms and belly had grown a soft dark downy fur called lunago [sic], a sign of the body’s attempt to compensate for the lack of insulat- ing body fat. I don’t remember any other details, but I do remember my response, which was so peculiar I wouldn’t quite identify it for many years: I envied her. I envied her drive and her focus and the power of her will, and I suspect I saw in this poor girl’s sheer determination the outlines of a strategy: one anxiety (weight) as the repository for many anxieties (men, family, work, hunger itself); emaciated thinness as a shortcut of sorts, a detour around painful and con- fusing feelings, a way to take all hungers — so varied and vast — and boil them down to their essence, one appetite to manage, just one.
11. Three seventh-grade girls who came into the school nurse’s office to visit a friend with a bellyache. I was 15, just a month or so away from my first hospitalization, and I was spending my lunch period on the plastic cot nursing a can of Ensure. It was a particularly bad day. I felt chillier and more despondent than usual. I stared in the mirror at the bluish bags beneath my eyes and thought, I look awful. As I sighed and sipped, the seventh-grade girls piled on top of one another on the other cot, nudging at their nauseated friend. Their eyes drifted to the posters on the wall that students had made for Eating Disorder Awareness Month, which they were learning about in health class. The big white paper was decorated with pictures of skinny models cut out from Vogue and Self. Across the top was written in magazine letters, ransom note–style, “How Thin Is Too Thin?”
“I don’t think it would be so bad to be anorexic,” one of the girls announced. “I mean, as long as you weren’t so bad you were going to die or something.”
“You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t know,” I reprimanded absentmindedly. A blond member of the group turned toward me. Her eyes drifted down toward my wrists.
“Is that a special drink?” she asked. Did you just say that out loud? What an attention whore.
12. Brittany, an enthusiastic recruit, aged fifteen, profiled in the book Thin. Brittany writes: "Then I went on the Internet for a checklist of what symptoms occur when you’re anorexic or bulimic, and I went through them to make sure I had every single one so I could."