Rewarded for Being Sick

TW: Eating Disorders, Diet, Exercise, Body Dysphoria

Over the summer my mom, who is 91, moved from her house to an assisted living facility. Since then, my siblings have undertaken the monumental task of emptying the house of nearly a century of accumulated STUFF and making the property ready for sale (I have neither the financial nor the emotional resources to make multiple trips back to Michigan to participate in this struggle. Mea culpa).

A couple weeks ago, I received a couple boxes of things I had requested from my mom’s house. These included every report card I’d ever earned since preschool, my baby album, and a huge assortment of pictures, one of them my framed senior portrait from high school. Cool: it’s good to have a visual record of my existence and, as a friend pointed out, I will never lack for things to post on #throwbackthursday. Since it was, in fact, Thursday the day I received the boxes, I scanned several of the pictures and uploaded them to Instagram. My senior portrait was one. I wasn’t prepared for the way people responded, nor was I prepared to confront my reaction to their response.

high school 1

“Beautiful!” “Flawless!” “Gorgeous!” “I can’t believe anyone ever called you ugly!” That’s a sample of the comments people posted on the photo thread. An overwhelmingly positive response, yet my reaction was not so positive, and nowhere near straightforward. I remember, you see, going in to have that picture taken. What I remember best isn’t the stale air in the science wing of my high school or the way the photographer hit on me. What I remember best is how sick I was. I had mono at the time. I must have contracted it in the psych ward where I’d spent a couple months not having my depression treated the previous summer. I guess it was a pretty bad case, because I was out of school most of the first term.

But mono wasn’t the only thing I brought home from the psych ward. I brought home a severe eating disorder. At the time of my senior portrait, it had a firm grip on me, though it had yet to progress to the point it did later. At the time of my senior portrait, I weighed in at 105 lbs, less than half my current weight, with almost 40 lbs yet to lose before I hit my lowest point. So when people remark on my beauty in this photo, it’s hard for me to take the compliment. It reminds me of the isolation of that year, and the silence surrounding my mental state and continuing weight loss. And it reminds me, too, of how oppressive Western beauty standards are to young people who will go to great lengths to fit within their narrow confines. It reminds me of how women are taught, almost from birth, that our value lies in what we look like above every other accomplishment, to the point where girls are praised for being sick with an enthusiasm that no one ever shows to healthier pursuits.

Maybe I look gorgeous and flawless in this photo. I don’t know. What I do know is what I hear when people respond to the photo with those, and similar, words. I hear: “You were beautiful when you were sick, so your sickness doesn’t really matter.”

I haven’t talked a lot about my eating disorder in this blog. It was a long time ago–almost thirty years. If you’re interested, I’ve mentioned it here, and here, and here. In the last weeks, however, I’ve come to realize how much the relationships to food and exercise–especially exercise–I developed when my ED was at its peak still impact me.  Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa (I’m fond of the portmanteau, “Bulimorexia,”) hit mainstream consciousness in the late 70s and early 80s, but understanding of the disorder was hit or miss, and treatment methods focused on symptomology rather than underlying causes. For all I know, they still might. EDs are incredibly difficult to treat and people who suffer them are notoriously prone to relapse. In my experience, mental health professions infantilize those with EDs to a keener degree than those with any other disorder. To make matters worse, EDs and the people who suffer them are all too often the butt of cruel jokes in popular culture. When prominent figures–mostly women, but also men–lose “too much” weight, no one offers them concern or sympathy. Instead, they’re made the unwilling objects of scandal porn, with their pictures plastered on the fronts of news magazines alongside articles in which random, uninformed individuals speculate about their diets. Or newscasters and comedians wisecrack about vomiting and laxative abuse (people made those jokes in my time, too, though usually among their own peer groups and behind closed doors).

All of it reinforces the shame people with EDs feel about their bodies and the rituals we engage in to maintain control. I can’t speak for others, but for me shame was the overriding experiential quality of my ED. I felt ashamed of my body, of my very existence, to begin with. I felt ashamed when I ate and ashamed when I exercised. Later, I felt ashamed when I binged and more ashamed when I puked. NEWS FLASH: People with eating disorders don’t need the media to tell us we’re disgusting and wrong. We don’t need the media to point out how vile it is to eat a full meal knowing full well you’re going to puke it up later, or how deranged it is to disconnect from every human endeavor but obsessive exercise even when we have trouble walking up a flight of stairs. WE KNOW IT. WE ALWAYS KNEW IT. And if we had the power to stop, if the idea of not being in control weren’t so terrifying, we’d stop. The unfortunate fact is that the feeling of control is imaginary. The disorder pulls our strings, and it keeps pulling until someone intervenes or we die.

I’m fairly sure (today I am, not guaranteeing tomorrow) that eating disorders aren’t, at their roots, about eating at all. I think they’re about this deep sense of shame, of not measuring up or fitting in, and a need to alleviate the shame by forcing oneself to conform and controlling what one can as much as one can. In the case of young people–and people with EDs are getting younger all the time–one’s own food consumption is often the only thing in life one can control. I think this need manifests in EDs because Western culture is so fatphobic. (Disclaimer: I have no idea of the incidence of EDs in non-fatphobic cultures, if any exist. So I may be full of shit.) When I got bullied for being fat, I knew deep down that fat was the worst thing a person could be. I knew it because my sisters were constantly dieting, and because of the way my father sneaked slices off the roast or “evened off” the brownies when no one was looking, and because the very first thing my pediatrician always brought up at my annual exams was my “pudginess.”

With my brother, somewhere in Europe, 1970
With my brother, somewhere in Europe, 1970

When the girls at my school teased me for being fat, when the boys called me an ugly cow, I’m not sure they even meant the words in a literal way. Even at the time, I could see very well that lots of girls in the popular crowd were bigger than I was–including many who tormented me. I think what they meant was, I was OTHER. I didn’t fit into the homogeneous norm. I didn’t wear the right shoes with my school uniform, or shop at the right places, or have the right haircut. (I’ve recently learned that Grosse Pointe, the Detroit suburb where my exclusive prep school was located, had a real estate point system designed to evaluate prospective homeowners and exclude “undesirable minorities:” Jews, People of Color, and so on. This explains a whole lot.) Since they didn’t know how to express the level of threat presented by an OTHER who was obviously of the same race, they fell back on the worst things they knew:  Fat. Ugly.

Sometimes I wonder how the deep sense of shame and not ever being “right,” combined with the brain chemistry that leads to eating disorders, would present in a less fatphobic culture. It’s a mind game, because we can’t know in the culture we have. Despite the movement toward body positivity, or maybe because of it (backlash is real), Western culture is more fatphobic than ever. “Obesity”–in quotes because the very term implies that there is a single correct weight and a single right way to have a body–is considered a disease in its own right now. People hand out fat shaming cards to random strangers on public transportation. An Australian foundation is offering a fellowship to an author who wants to “join the fight against obesity.” Primary schools send remarks on kids’ weights along with their report cards. Insurance companies deny coverage to people who don’t participate in company-sponsored “wellness programs.” Everyone is obsessed with “fitness”–in quotes because fitness for what? Fitness to be considered human? I can’t even buy a box of cereal without finding a message that some foods are objectively good and some are bad, and only “willpower” will save me from succumbing to temptation.


Don’t tell me about “willpower.” I stopped engaging in the behaviors of disordered eating through force of will, because the treatment I received barely merited the name. I cannot express how damaging these attitudes are to those of us susceptible to developing eating disorders. The message that “you’ll be more acceptable thinner” gives false hope that losing 10, or 20, or 30 pounds will finally assuage the inner sense of inadequacy. And when it doesn’t, the obvious deduction is “I haven’t lost enough weight yet; I’d better lose more.” Eat less, boost exercise, take laxatives, induce vomiting. Whatever. No one really cares as long as you stay within sightly and attractive parameters. In fact, they’ll tell you how great you look. Until you don’t.

Though I managed to disengage from obsessive patterns and disordered behaviors thirty years ago, I still have most of the attitudes. Issues of weight and body image trigger me. Getting weighed at the doctor’s office causes an immediate anxiety attack. Examining my food choices, even considering altering my diet, gives me heart palpitations. The very word exercise is so fraught for me that having it show up in my social media makes me want to hide from it. Being hungry triggers me, and I am hungry almost constantly. Even well-meaning suggestions that have nothing to do with diet per se, writing advice like “trim the fat from your manuscript,” send me into a rage.

One of my doctors all those years ago told me, when I expressed my fear of getting fat, “People like you don’t ever get fat so you don’t need to worry about that.” But since no one ever helped me deal the underlying causes of my ED and the only way I could survive them was by boxing them up and sealing them away from my everyday reality, I DID get fat. I’m fat, and I’m sedentary, and I don’t like it (always affirming that being fat and sedentary are not bad in and of themselves, but this doesn’t feel good to me). But the attitudes inherent in EDs make electing to pursue what others might consider a positive change all but impossible. Exercise and conscious food choices are not positive. They’re a punishment. A reminder that I am worthless. And when I do make an attempt to modify my body, there’s always a chance that I’ll fall into the old patterns, that I’ll go too far. That when I can’t reach my goal within a healthy system, I’ll modify the system, again and again, until there’s nothing healthy about it. And because I’m fat now, fatter than I’ve ever been, people will admire me for my progress and determination. The same way people admire that senior portrait.

Now that I’m in therapy again, and for the first time I’ve pursued therapy because I want my life to improve rather than because I’ll die if I don’t, I’d like to address these issues. To find a way to have a healthy relationship with food and exercise. I’d like to be able to say I don’t attach any weight loss agenda to those things, but it wouldn’t be true. When I hear the words “healthy relationship to food and exercise,” my mind immediately adds, “and if I can do that, maybe I’ll be able to lose weight.” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let that part of it go, no matter how many articles about body positivity I read.

I do know that interacting on a daily basis with the culture of fatphobia is physically and emotionally painful. I hope before I die, body positivity will become the norm and fat shaming will be seen for what it is: An oppressive attitude that threatens lives as much as any other axis of oppression. An attitude that causes even well meaning people to reward people for being sick.



10 Novels that Informed my Paganism

Yesterday I stumbled across this post on Patheos. For those of my readers who don’t click links, it’s the first part of a list of 22 books that, according to the author, have influenced and defined Modern Paganism (Part 2 hasn’t been posted as of this writing). Having read all but one of the books included in this installment, I think it’s an interesting list so far. But it doesn’t resonate with me or my experience, so I decided to do a list of my own.

The following are books I discovered as a young reader (under the age of 25). Only one is specifically Pagan-centric. Mostly, they slip their Pagan themes into the margins and between sentences–in my opinion, a liminal space highly appropriate for such things–where they contribute to the way the authors constructed their worlds. It’s only later, reading as an adult Witch, that I look at what I absorbed, and laugh, and think, “Well, no wonder I turned out the way I did!” I recommend all of them highly, and I hope if you’re interested, you’ll check a few out, no matter what your religious bent.

In no particular order:

earthseaThe Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the first of LeGuin’s books I ever read. I loved Fantasy and Mythology from an exceptionally young age and eagerly consumed all I could get my hands on. Earthsea had everything: Magic, a school for Wizards, Dragons, and numerous quests. It hooked me from the first page.

From the very beginning, the trilogy serves up a substantial helping of philosophy along with its engaging plot. The magical system is all about balance; in fact, this site’s header, “To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow” is a direct quote. The wizards can’t simply do anything they like. Taking energy from one place removes it from another, and every act has consequences. The protagonist learns this to his sorrow when he works a spell out of ego and unleashes a horror. This was my first introduction to the concepts of Karma and the Shadow Self, as well as the idea that sometimes the better part of wisdom for people of power lies in acceptance rather than action. Another bonus is that the main races populating Earthsea are Black and Brown people, although this is rarely shown on the books’ covers and never, to my knowledge, in any of the film productions of the novels.

facesTill We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

My 8th grade English teacher recommended this book to me to keep me busy when everyone else was working on a grammar program I’d already finished. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, which has its reflection in many fairy tales, and it’s the first book I ever read that turned a familiar story inside out by telling it from a different point of view. In this case, the point of view is that of the usual antagonist, Orual, the ugly sister of the beautiful Psyche.

Till We Have Faces has a lot to say about the nature of the gods and the nature of knowledge and responsibility. It shows that everyone has a story and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard without flinching from the truth that individual stories can and do come into conflict. It also addresses the harm conventional ideas about beauty does to women, the tragedy that can result when people treat others as possessions, and the need to open one’s heart to both love and grief in order to gain true wisdom.

ExcaliburExcalibur by Sanders Ann Laubenthal

I read this book about the same time I read the previous two. It’s a marvelous adaptation of the Grail Quest to contemporary Mobile, Alabama, which contains elements of Gothic novels as well as Fantasy. Working with both the historical idea that Iron Age Welshmen “discovered” the New World and concepts of reincarnation, it reexamines the definitions of betrayal and redemption. It also has a large number of kick-ass woman characters, which was quite unusual for a book of its time. One of them is an eccentric aunt who lives in a castle and wears medieval garb on a daily basis because she feels like it. I wanted to be her.

This is the first book I read where active magic and Tarot cards played a major role, and I can say without a doubt that it led to my becoming a Tarot reader.

princessThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was one of the predecessors of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who was once driven out of his kirk for heretical ideas–or so the story goes. His original fairy tales are some of my favorites. This children’s book starts out in a familiar way with a naughty princess climbing a mysterious stairway, and proceeds immediately to turn every story of the type on its head. Princess Irene meets her “grandmother,” a virtually immortal woman who, with her spinning wheel and “moon lamp,” as well as a tendency to be young or old as it suits her, is a clear stand-in for the Triple Goddess. She sets Irene on a quest which will have repercussions for everyone around her and end a threat no one will talk about.

I love this book because it makes an eight-year-old girl the hero of her own story and shows that girls are brave, steadfast, and capable in their own right. Irene doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued; she gets dirty and does the work even when the people around her don’t believe in her.

curdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

I didn’t initially like this book as much as I liked its predecessor, but I found a beautifully illustrated edition in the library book sale and read it for the pictures. It follows about a year after The Princess and the Goblin, and concerns the further adventures of Irene’s companion, the miner boy Curdie. At the beginning, things don’t look so good for him, but an encounter with the Crone in the guise of Irene’s grandmother teaches him the value of believing the impossible, and the task she sets him shows that scratching the surface of reality always reveals a deeper truth. More of a Hero’s Journey than its companion, The Princess and Curdie still features an array of important woman characters from all walks of life.

horseThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is better known for her adult Gothic Romances than her children’s books, of which this is one. Set in Edwardian times, this is the story of the orphaned Maria, who’s sent to live with her eccentric uncle in a mysterious, cursed manor. Before long, she sets herself to the task of righting past wrongs and settling old grievances.

The Little White Horse features a host of amazing characters both human and animal, as well as a plot full of puzzles and magic. It’s gender balanced, with a thirteen-year-old female protagonist and many supporting woman characters. One of the things I like best about it is that, although there is a prophecy involved, Maria grasps her fate with both hands. She does what she does because it’s the right thing and because she wants to, out of love, not to fulfill some cosmic destiny.

valeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians shares a lot of themes with The Little White Horse, but it’s geared towards a younger audience. Once again we see the young protagonists–four brothers and sisters this time–abandon the conventional for the magical in the form of an eccentric uncle in a manor house with an equally eccentric staff. And once again, there’s an old wrong to be righted and dark magic to confront.

Both this book and the previous show how getting away from societal norms and opening the mind to magical thinking, as well as connecting with nature, can lead to changes no one ever expected. They do share a flaw, which is the trope of the “magical disabled person,” so if you read them or recommend them to children, this is something you might want to bear in mind. Since they were written in the 40s, I don’t mind it as much as I might in a contemporary work.

moonheartMoonheart by Charles DeLint

This is the breakout novel from the virtual inventor of Urban Fantasy. There are books of his that I like better, with themes that resonate more closely, but this was the first DeLint I read. Set in contemporary Canada, it explores the way lives are connected over time and the consequences of unintended action. It’s chock full of both Celtic and Native American mythology. (The latter is a bit appropriative by today’s standards, unfortunately.) One of the things that I love about it is the way it shows music and other acts of creation as magical in and of themselves. Most of the characters don’t have any special powers; they’re just ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Along the way, they learn banding together and supporting each other is the best way to create the world they want to live in.

the king must dieThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

This retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of my favorite books of all time. Mary Renault was exceptionally skilled at tackling old stories from a sideways slant that both made logical sense and gave them new life. Here, she’s infused the Hero’s Journey with humanity and perspective to explore the nature of sacrifice and the power of consent.

One of the things that makes this book important from a Witchy perspective is the way it deals with the conflict between Matriarchal, earth-centered traditions and Patriarchal ones, showing the flaws in both systems. You can root for the hero at the same time as you cringe at some of his decisions. It teaches the importance of valuing people of all genders for themselves and not dismissing the identity of any.

avalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Since the revelations of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a perpetrator of and apologist for child sexual abuse, this book has become a controversial inclusion in any list. It’s still the book most responsible for my identifying as Pagan and claiming the word Witch. To my memory, it was the very first novel that took a male-centered mythology, in this case the Matter of Britain, and retold it from the points of view of the women involved. It was the very first book I read that came out and said “God is a woman, too, and women can be powerful in matters of religion.” In the mid-eighties, if you asked a Pagan how they came to the path, The Mists of Avalon was almost always one of the deciding factors.  Bradley herself later dismissed Paganism as hypocritical for various reasons–e.g., she thought a “fertility religion” had no business taking a pro-choice stance. But there’s no doubt she wrote a powerful paean to woman-centered spirituality here.

That’s my list. I hope you’ll check out some of the titles. Happy reading!