Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dying to Please

by Lisabet Sarai

Is thin sexy? Sexual attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder, but I know from personal experience that our cultural obsession with thinness can be deadly.

In high school, I was what might be called pleasingly plump. Zaftig, as my Jewish grandmother would say, with more than ample curves for a teenager. Like many teens, I thought that I was fat. I always wanted to be thinner, but somehow, I could never manage it. I enjoyed my mom’s cooking too much.

Then, in my senior year, faced with all the stress of applying to colleges and the uncertainties of moving into the adult world, I began to lose weight. First I stopped eating bread and potatoes. Then I stopped adding milk to my coffee, drinking it black with artificial sweeteners. I ate all the salad I could put away, leaving the meat on my plate – cut into small pieces and spread around so that my mother wouldn’t notice. I’d check the scales every day, feeling pride whenever the numbers dropped, guilt and self-disgust when they didn’t. I still recall my intense flush of pleasure when I went for my annual checkup and weighed in at ninety-nine pounds. I’m just a bit over five feet tall, so my doctor was not alarmed. I was thrilled.

During my senior summer, I worked as a clerk in a grocery store, ate raw cucumbers and drank diet soda for lunch, and dropped more weight. By the time September rolled around, I was in the mid-eighties. My parents refused to let me enter university unless I gained weight. I got back up to ninety-two pounds, started school, but dropped out in a month, unable to muster the physical and emotional energy required.

My life for the next year and a half was spent in a limbo of medical and psychiatric institutions. At one point, I dropped below eighty pounds. I stopped menstruating. My limbs were grotesque sticks. My face was gaunt. My hair started to fall out. I was weak, constipated, subject to palpitations and anxiety attacks. I read voraciously during that period – that was about all that I could do. I don’t recall anything now. Zilch. My brain didn’t have enough nutrients to register new memories. In retrospect, the whole period is shrouded in a fog.

Anorexia had not yet become fashionable. I spent three months on the crisis ward of a state psychiatric hospital with suicidal housewives and drug addicts. I had to learn to trust my therapist when he told me that it was okay to eat. I had to suppress my feelings of disgust when I saw my weight climb back into a healthy range, and to deny the supposed evidence of my distorted self-image when I viewed my “fat” body in the mirror.

I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t die. I didn’t suffer any permanent damage, other than my loss of memory. I have personally known anorexics who were not so fortunate. Without treatment, anorexia is fatal 20% of the time. Even with treatment, the mortality rate is 3%. With treatment, only about 60% of anorexics fully recover. ( It took more than a decade for my body image and my eating habits to return to “normal”.

Can I blame my anorexia on the pervasive myth that “a woman can’t be too thin”? Not directly, of course. Research has shown that anorexia is as much about control and fear as it is about food. Still, if I hadn’t felt fat, I wouldn’t have started to diet, giving the obsession a chance to take hold. And I don’t think that I would have thought I was fat if I had not been continually bombarded by images of skinny women who were hailed as the ideal of beauty.

As the average weight of super models and movie stars has dropped, the prevalence of anorexia has risen dramatically. Is there a relationship? I think so. I was seventeen when I was diagnosed. Now ten year old anorexics are becoming increasingly common. One study found that 81% percent of ten year old girls and 46% of nine year olds dieted. The fear of being fat is so overwhelming that young girls have indicated in surveys that they are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, nuclear war or losing their parents. (National Eating Disorder Information Center, Canada)

So what, if anything, does this have to do with sex? I personally find skinny women far less sexy than ones who are more well-endowed. It occurs to me that the glorification of being thin in our culture could be an unconscious repudiation of sex. Today’s models and movie stars, with their narrow hips, flat stomachs, and A-cup breasts, look more like children or young boys than adult women. They are cool, graceful, elegant – but asexual.

They are safe. They offer no ample flesh to tempt the mind and raise the temperature, no perilous curves that lead you down the road to sin and perdition.

You may laugh, finding my thesis absurd. I have to tell you, as I watched the pounds drop off, I felt pure and clean. Virtuous. My adolescent sexual fantasies disappeared at the same time, melting away with my fat and muscle. Eating became the cardinal sin, because it nurtured the flesh, the evil blubber that threatened to consume me. Whenever the attendants in the hospital made me eat, I felt dirty, disgusting, smothered by my own body.

I’m intensely grateful that that I escaped from that madness. Even now, it’s all too vivid when I bring back the memories.

Now when I see a woman walking down the street or on the subway with the tell-tale bony knees, wasted arms and protruding cheekbones, a chill runs through me. I want to shake her, show her a mirror, strip away the hallucinations that make her believe she is still obese. When my eleven year old niece complains about how fat she is, I choke back my scream of frustration. You’re beautiful, Allie, I tell her, absolutely perfect, not fat at all.

With a sinking heart, I know that she doesn’t believe me.


  1. Bravo, Lisabet! I haven't traveled your exact path, but my teen years were indeed fraught with body image issues. In hindsight, there were times when I was too thin for my 5'8" frame -- and I still felt fat. These days, I'm far from thin, but I feel more confident, beautiful, and sexy than at any other time in my life.

    As a parent, I try to steer my children toward healthy choices and away from herd mentality. It's a constant struggle.

    peace & passion,

    ~ Alessia

  2. Thanks, Lisabet, for sharing this part of you with the readers. Have you considered writing a memoir? Perhaps your story may save even just one person from the throes of this devastating eating disorder.

  3. I've got an eating disorder storyline written, and got yelled at by a beta reader when I took out all the sex scenes. I decided someone who was starving herself wouldn't want her boyfriend to see her naked.

    I'd love to pick your brain about this, Lisbet, since I'm drawing on memories of a friend's issue with this, and the phone interview I did with an eating disorder counselor (it took her several minutes to realize I was NOT in denial, but an actual, honest researcher!) in order to write the story. Email me, please, at

    Thanks and you certainly WERE one of the lucky ones! Thanks for sharing this.

  4. I meant to say, make sure I have my facts straight. It's already written.

  5. Lisabet,

    You took this exactly where I had hoped/planned this weeks conversation to go. A bit closer to home perhaps for you, but I wonder what the percentage of women 'our' age can tell similar tales. Thank you for sharing a part of yourself that must still be painful to dwell on. If only one person reads this week and thinks clearer about what and why they're feeling that way, it'll be a good week.

    Thank you so much


  6. Very intense. I had no idea you had been through these things. That's a powerful story. I've been thinking along the lines you mentioned about skinny being safe. I think that's why it has commercial value. The subject begs the question of why skinny was decided to be equated with sexy, when a man's natural tendency is towards the opposite. Somebody decided these things.


  7. Amazing story, Lisabet. I'm so sorry you had to go through that, but I guess it made you the great person you are today!

  8. Catching up here, as I'm still traveling, I want to thank you all for your positive comments. Molly, I'd be happy to discuss my experiences with you offline.

    LuAnn - I have thought of writing about this, though there have been so many anorexic accounts published that I might not have anything original to say. I've also thought about working anorexia into one of my plots, where a mother is trying to deal with anorexic daughter, but I worry that this might be too far from the fantasy. I realize now how horrible the whole experience was for my family.

    I'm not really sorry that I went through this. It's just one more contribution to who I am - just like your jackrabbit story last week, Garce.

    Hugs to all,

  9. Okay, that last picture in your post has me so freaked out, I'm going to eat a huge helping of potato and sausage stew right now to calm my nerves. Ugh!

  10. I think there is something in your theory. One of my school friends was diagnosed as anorexic a few years ago, and your comments tally very well with what she said.

    A great post.

    Kim Dare.


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