The Perfect Pantomime

Aimee Liu

What are our bodies telling us when we have an eating disorder?

Let’s say you cannot speak. You don’t
dare ask for help, but you can’t resolve your problems alone. What
do you do?

One
strategy might be to act out your distress. You might go hungry, shaping
your figure like an empty spoon, as hollow and lifeless as you feel.
You might secretly stuff your body with food the way you’ve stuffed
down fear and shame, and then violently purge, as if to get rid of those
unspeakable emotions. Or you might just keep on eating more and more
until the outside world seems to shrink by comparison, each new binge
mimicking the onslaught of feelings too huge to contain within the mold
of acceptable expectations.

When
viewed as wordless cries for relief, the psychological pantomimes of
anorexia, bulimia and binge eating make perfect sense. The mystery is
why the afflicted so often misread the messages their ailments embody-as
do the people around them. Eating disorders are often unrecognized or
belittled by parents, teachers and doctors, misunderstood as choices
made by girls and women obsessed with their weight. But they are mental
illnesses, and they can be as lethal as guns-shaped by genes, loaded
by culture and triggered by emotional pain and existential dread. Recovery
must be measured not only in pounds, but also, crucially, in the discovery
of a sense of self. 

—- 

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Between the ages of 14 and 21, I spent
countless hours cross-examining the emaciated reflection in my mirror.
"What’s wrong with you?" I’d demand. "Who are you, anyway?
And why don’t you know who you are?" Yet instead of recognizing
my obsession with weight loss as a sign of an identity crisis, I told
myself my problems would be solved if I just lost a few more pounds.

Like
most girls with eating disorders in the ’60s and early ’70s, I never
received treatment. Then, at 22, I fell in love. My lover knew how to see and hear and touch me.
He fed me pasta, wine and laughter, and, in so doing, taught me how
to nourish myself. Suddenly, starving my body made no sense.

But
shadows of self-doubt remained and, within them, the half-life of my
eating disorder. I no longer deprived myself of calories, but for decades,
I "could not" eat meat. Evenings and weekends, I "had to" work,
while everyone else had fun. And although I thought I was content with
my husband, the slightest marital disagreement would render me mute.
Instead of confronting our problems, I would run away, literally, often
running through injuries for hours. By the age of 36, this relentless
physical punishment had permanently crippled my right ankle.

Then,
my marriage of 20 years fissured and, at age 46, I once again became
a stranger to myself. The woman who lived in my skin would stand blinking
blindly in front of the bathroom mirror. She would burst into tears
in the drugstore. More familiarly, she went days without eating. Hopping
on and off the scale, she’d mutter, "At least you’re losing weight."

Fortunately,
separation was accompanied by long-overdue therapy. I saw that the threat
of divorce had hurled me into another paroxysm of uncertainty. The plea
behind my attempt to make less of my body should have been obvious to
anyone, including myself, but it took a skilled psychologist to help
me interpret my own signals. I emerged from this crisis with a more
powerful voice in my marriage and a new respect for the eloquent conditions
we call eating disorders.

Over the years I’d noticed that virtually
all the women I knew with histories of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating
were intensely self-critical. When I mentioned my observation to eating-disorder
researchers, they went me one further: The risk for eating disorders,
they explained, is largely genetic. And while no one has fully solved
the puzzle, science has shown that the contributing genes often express
themselves through a signal personality trait: perfectionism.

Bingo.
I’d known the curse of perfectionism since childhood. I knew there
must be a right and a wrong way to do everything.  Nothing created
more anxiety than the feeling I was wrong, and it didn’t take much
to set it off. I believed in the imperative of perfection as
my culture defined it; the less perfect my life felt, the harder I worked
to perfect my body.

Perfect
girls, as I imagined them, didn’t talk about fear or shame. To admit
any vulnerability or ask for help would be wrong. So my beleaguered
subconscious found a way to turn perfectionistic stubbornness into a
nonverbal alarm. And what could be more primal than to articulate distress
through extreme eating behavior?

I think of all the women who’ve told
me they wish they could be "just a little" anorexic. My reply that
that’s like wishing they could be just a little bit dead is usually
met with uncomfortable laughter and an abrupt change of subject. It’s
as if the connection between mind and flesh were a fact these women
would prefer to forget. Our culture has been trained by the media and
the fashion and beauty industries to view the female form as a perfectable
and depersonalized commodity, but our bodies beg to differ.

Imperfection
and blemishes are part of the human condition. We may not look exactly
as we would wish, but our bodies contain us. They carry us and work
for us and give us pleasure. They speak for us when we dare not admit
the truth. We owe it to ourselves to remember how to listen. 

 For
the full version of this essay, pick up a copy of the Spring 2009 issue
of
Ms. on newsstands, or have a copy sent to your door by joining
the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.
 

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.