The Day My #GirlBoner Died: Sexlessness, Anorexia and a Call for Stories

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”  ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Start straight for business

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when my Girl Boner vanished, but I do recall when I noticed. I was in my late teens and had left my Minnesota hometown to work as a model in Manhattan. While I hadn’t yet been diagnosed, I’d recently developed the primary symptoms of anorexia: a dangerously slight body I perceived as too large, a hyper-fixation on food and weight control and an intense fear of added pounds. My high school boyfriend “Max” and I were maintaining a long-distance relationship, and I’d flown back to Minneapolis for a visit.

A Halloween party. Cat Woman. Grapes. Gossipy whispers. Almost sex.

That’s virtually all I remember. Max had invited me to a costume bash at a coworker’s house, and I’d dressed as Cat Woman. Rather than embrace the sensual, powerful disposition of the feline superhero as I’ve done in healthy years since, I felt equally invisible and exposed. As the food-filled festivities ensued, I hid within the all-black getup, sensing others’ stares and murmurs as though observing critics ripping apart a one-woman show. “Will she eat anything?” one person whispered. Another snickered. “Look! She’s eating grapes.” I still don’t know if those voices were real or imagined. Anorexia has a peculiar way of distorting comments, glances, the whole world. But they were very real to me.

At some point, while sitting on a sofa clutching a grape I’d grappled over eating, I fell asleep—something I’d never been particularly skilled at when I tried. As I slept, I occasionally perceived more mumbled criticism, concern and snarky laughter. I was the boring girl who’d fallen asleep.

By the time Max jostled me awake, the party was wrapping up and most of the attendees had left. While I couldn’t tell you the make or model of his car, I vividly recall the stench of stale, fatty French fries in the air. We headed to his place, both anticipating having sex. I had been away for months, after all, and we’d both been longing for closeness. What I hadn’t realized was that my longing had more to do with fear, loneliness and loss of self, and that sex was the last thing my body wanted. Though my emotions said, YES, PLEASE! Take me away into erotic oblivion, my body wanted nothing but food I was resisting and sleep.

In the dimness of the room I’d demanded, the comforting feel of his strong, warm body was fleeting. I moaned to cover the sound of my stomach rumbling as he entered me, going through the motions as though playing a game of lovemaking charades. It felt a lot like modeling, actually—doing my best to appear alluring and engaged, a natural fit for my artificial circumstances, hiding behind a makeup mask while aiming to please. But before cameras I felt powerful. Here, I felt foolish and afraid.

I used the term “almost sex” earlier because I’m not sure it’s lovemaking if only one person is really there. I suppose I was his masturbation tool and he was my time passage, a bit of extra calorie-burn and food avoidance who could never fill the kind of void I was becoming. I couldn’t yet wrap my brain around what was truly happening, largely because anorexia is all-consuming. I shunned myself for not “performing” better for him, completely ignorant to the fact that I, the young woman who’d loved sex even amid her historic body shame, could no longer want for something as natural as air. When he, perhaps we, were finished, he slept and I laid there overcome by a sad sense of blankness. But at least I hadn’t eaten (said E.D.).

Anorexia starves the soul, body and appetite, and not merely of food. Bit by bit, it steals a woman’s femininity and her hunger for life, withholding her not merely from filling out physically, but living as largely as she deserves. On a smaller but no less significant scale, dieting, health-food and fitness obsessions and poor body image can cause the same.

Since recovering from my eating disorder and regaining my Girl Boner (and all its glory!), I’ve been struck by the fact that most elite models, who many women strive to emulate with hopes of appearing sexier, meet the diagnostic criteria for anorexia. In other words, they don’t possess the sexiness they sell—they can’t. I’ve also learned that body image, self-care and sexuality are inseparable. When one part of the triangle suffers, they all do.

Immeasurably grateful for my own recovery, I’ve made it my life’s mission to help fix these broken triangles. When we embrace and nurture our bodies, emotional selves and sexuality, we feel capable, free, unstoppable and alive. And you know what? We are.

A Call for Stories

If you agree and would like to help make a difference, here’s a way you can! I’m working on a special project related to these issues. If you or someone you know has worked in the fashion/entertainment industry and grappled with poor body image, an eating disorder, obsessive weight control and/or related sexual challenges and would be willing to discuss these experiences with me, let me know in the comments below or via email (augustmclaughlin at gmail dot com) with “Interview” in the subject line. Anyone who participates can optionally remain anonymous and will be contributing to something truly beautiful.

Fashion experience or not, do you relate to my story? How has your body image influenced your sexuality? Whatever your thoughts, I’d love to hear them! 

 

Abercrombie & Fitch: Who’s REALLY Uncool?

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” — Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch

Teens should be told that they are beautiful, inside and out.

All teens should be told that they are beautiful, inside & out.

What teen feels “cool?” I’m fairly sure it’s the rare adult who looks back on their teen years, recalling confidence. I sure as heck wasn’t one of them.

I was 16 when a pair of hip modeling agents saw something in me I didn’t. From my first time before the camera, staring into what I lovingly coined the “beautiful black hole,” I seemed to morph into someone else—someone self-assured, pretty and Don’t mess with me-skilled. Afterward, I held my breath, awaiting dreaded feedback: You’re overweight, not pretty enough, too curvy in all the wrong places. When several meetings and shoots passed by with no mention of my size, I wondered for the first time if the notions I’d long held about my body were false. With the breath of one sentence, everything changed.

Following what had seemed a glorious shoot with a renowned Los Angeles photographer (I’ll call him “Gregor”), I laid on the ground, poised for that beloved black hole. Gregor lowered his camera, looked me in the eyes and said, “You could be working in Paris, if you lost ten or fifteen pounds.” The words felt like bricks to my stomach. Repulsion washed through me like sudden onset malaise. I wasn’t okay! My “fatness” was real.

My disgust rapidly transformed into motivation. Nothing would stop me, I decided. And nothing did, until countless shoots and weight loss tactics later, I lost consciousness while running toward the Seine in Paris, my heart and body too weak to carry on.

When I read of Jeffries’ remarks, his plot to keep the “uncool” (commercially unattractive) kids out of his stores, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’s become other individuals’ Gregor—confirming the belief that body shape, size and appearance determine whether one is embraceable or not, and that anyone larger than lithe is unsightly. I wish I could reach through the internet waves and hug every teen who feels unworthy, ensuring them that that is not the case: YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL, AND OKAY—MORE THAN OKAY—PRECISELY AS YOU ARE. ♥

One of my last modeling castings, post-recovery, was for Abercrombie & Fitch. Upon arrival, I learned that they were seeking “attractive” people to walk around their store—illustrating the consumer type they hoped to attract. I wish I could say that I was so disgusted that I rushed out and alerted the press, but I wasn’t. Presenting an “ideal” image for others to admire and aim for is what models do. I found the notion bothersome, but more so, boring. For both reasons, I turned the job offer down.

Last week, 18-year-old Benjamin O’ Keefe displayed the courage and wherewithal I lacked. In response to Jeffries’ remarks, the teen, who overcame an eating disorder and depression, started a petition, beckoning others to boycott the trendy store.

“Instead of inspiring young people to make healthy choices and better themselves, Mike Jeffries and his company has told them they will never be good enough. Well, he is wrong.” — Benjamin O’ Keefe

The National Eating Disorders Association learned of O’Keefe’s efforts, and has joined forces. I had the privilege of discussing the Abercrombie & Fitch ordeal with Lynn Grefe, NEDA’s president and CEO, last week. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

AM: Critics of the outcry against Abercrombie & Fitch claim that there’s nothing wrong with a company targeting a particular group in the name of prestige and profit. How is it different from, say, a plus-size store targeting larger consumers?

LG: I’ve never heard of a store that says, ‘We don’t want ugly or fat people coming in our store.’ And that is basically what he said. There is no problem with targeting consumers, such as plus-sized models, but to actually discriminate and say, ‘We don’t even want those people in our store, who don’t fit in our clothes, and aren’t pretty and attractive?’ It’s terrible.

AM: You’ve described Jeffries’ marketing ploys as bigotry. What do you mean?

LG: I have it right here! Bigotry is ‘the state of a mind of a bigot, someone who treats other people with hatred, contempt and intolerance.’ That’s intolerance, to say that we only want pretty people, small people. They are teaching kids how to discriminate, how to body shame, how to make other people feel bad—hopefully inadvertently, but they are doing it.

AM: I’m glad you brought up the age issue, because it’s such a vulnerable age already.

LG: It is a vulnerable age! Nobody wants to be body shamed. Right now weight bias is significant in this country… To do this with children, and they know that they are appealing to children, is just awful.

AM: What are the repercussions of weight bias?

LG: It absolutely leads to poor self esteem and poor body image, and can lead to eating disorders. When you are body shamed and told that you are no good, it causes many people to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

AM: Tell us about the campaign to boycott Abercrombie & Fitch.

LG: Benjamin O’ Keefe created a petition through Change.org. He was willing to speak out, and we’re on top of it with him. We really support and applaud him. Beyond the petition, we’re pushing out a campaign targeting parents, as much as anything. For an awful lot of these kids, it’s the parents’ credit card. Why would parents want to support this kind of discrimination?

Boycott Abercrombie

AM: A friend suggested to me that by speaking out against Jeffries, we’re supporting him—giving him free publicity.

LG: I think that people should be called out and shamed if they’re doing something that can hurt young people. People can buy what they want to buy, do what they want to do. I guess if this makes people want to shop there more, we didn’t do our job. But I don’t think we can ignore it. We don’t stand by and say it’s no big deal.

AM: What can we do to make a positive difference?

LG: I keep saying, ‘Be more concerned about the size of our hearts than the size of our hips.’ I really think if we could live that way, let people breathe and not feel like they’re under a microscope, it would make a huge difference.

To support O’ Keefe and NEDA’s efforts to make the world a happier, healthier place, sign the Boycott Abercrombie & Fitch petition. Show your support on Twitter by sharing this post, O’ Keefe’s post and/or the petition, using the hashtag #BoycottAbercrombie. For support regarding disordered eating thoughts or behaviors, call NEDA’s helpline: (800) 931-2237.

How do you feel about Mike Jeffries’ remarks? How about Benjamin O’ Keefe’s activism? Will they alter your shopping habits? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Does Dirt Have Calories? My Story

“The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.” — Audrey Hepburn

Today I’m taking a brief detour from my Monday series to share a story I posted last year about an important turning point in my life. It’s one of the inspirations behind the Beauty of a Woman BlogFest, which will reoccur on February 22nd. If you’d like to participate, pop back here Thursday for details. I can’t wait to sing, dance, laugh, shout and think about beauty again with all of you.

*****

I awoke that morning as I did most mornings while living in Paris—woozy, exhausted and determined. During what should have been a pinnacle in the modeling career I’d held dear, I was enraptured and controlled by an eating disorder. Where logic would’ve told me to get some rest, nourish my body and tend to the day’s work responsibilities, E.D. commanded I wake up and run! Breakfast, castings, agency meetings and photo shoots would have to wait; my sole priority was the upkeep of my disease.

My emaciated body had been surviving on carrots, sugarless ice tea and Coke Light, yet felt gigantic and punishable. If I could eat as little as possible and burn far more than I chewed, I might finally reach thinness—i.e., happiness, success, perfection. I had to run.

I slipped my feet into my worn out, blood-stained sneakers, stepped out of my tiny Parisian flat and headed toward the Seine. The Eiffel Tower came into full view atop the pastel haze of the sunrise—a living, breathing Monet. It’s beauty could’ve taken a blind man’s breath away, I wrote in my journal. I didn’t deserve it.

The dewy earth squished beneath my feet as I ran to the rhythm of calorie-counting. Forty-five plus six plus ten…plus five plus ten plus three… I estimated the previous day’s “damage” then plotted an itinerary of exercise and occasional food bits to compensate. So accustomed to ignoring the dizziness and fatigue accompanying me, anything else would’ve felt foreign. But this time was different.

Pushing aside the added sense of off-ness in my gut, I observed the dip in the ground ahead: It looks like an adult-size cradle... Perhaps I knew what was coming.

I ran with increasing dizziness and pain, as though a metal clamp squeezed my brain. RUN. Don’t stop! You can’t. Tears stung at my eyes as I tried to outrun the inevitable. I fell to the ground, as though in slow motion. For a brief, savory moment, I felt weightless.

I awoke later, lying in the grassy cradle, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Rather than contemplate how long I’d been there or if I’d been hurt, one thought filled me with terror: Does dirt have calories?

I don’t recall who found me or how I made it to the medical center, only the words of the British doctor: “You have anorexia. Do you understand what that means? You could’ve died. You…could die.”

Her words blurred together like fog on a windshield as my thoughts went wild. She’s crazy! I can’t have anorexia. Please don’t make me eat… I felt neither thin nor “skilled” enough to have a disorder characterized by starvation. Sure, I had problems—the “cancer in my soul” I’d journaled about. I felt physically and emotionally rotted and weak, but couldn’t make sense of anything. I only knew I had to go home.

The week after I arrived in Minneapolis, I began treatment and fought harder to remain ill. Once I accepted my diagnosis, anorexia seemed the one special thing about me. If I let it go, what was left? The word ‘recovery’ seemed synonymous with ‘fatness,’ ‘failure’ and ‘mediocrity.’

As my starving measures increased, my emotional and physical self tolerated them less and less. My therapist repeatedly threatened in-patient treatment. I lied, promising I would eat more and gain necessary weight.

Finally, one of my worst nightmares came true. In a moment of despair, I gave in to my longing for a single bite of chocolate ice cream. As I placed the dollop of creamy cold sweetness into my mouth, my entire body trembled. I felt intoxicated, a sense of danger, head-to-toe orgasm and temporary relief. But one bite turned into two, then six, then all that remained of the half gallon. The fatty cream sat like a putrid rock in my shrunken stomach. I’d never felt so ashamed.

The bingeing/starving roller coaster that followed was the most excruciating and important occurrences in my recovery. At its worst, I entered what my therapist called a “bulimic trance.” The bingeing took over and I had little awareness of all I’d consumed until I found myself sobbing amidst wrappers and crumbs.

As weight returned to my body, friends and family told me how healthy I looked: “You’re filling out so nicely!” The well-intended comment haunted me for months.

Desperate to stop bingeing, I decided to take my treatment more seriously.

“I will do anything to stop this,” I told my therapist.

“Good,” she said. “It starts with eating. After you binge, don’t skip your next meal.”

Anything but that. I resisted her instructions, holding staunchly to the belief that if I were just strong enough, I could attain the thinness I desired and stop bingeing at once. It sounded Utopian. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of my anorexia like a lost soulmate.

One night, after a fast ended in a gargantuan binge, I hit a new bottom. I considered gulping the poison I’d used on occasion to vomit, aware of the life-threatening risks. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t bear life as I knew it. In a fury, I scavenged the house for the tiny bottle. When I couldn’t find it, my heart raced. I struggled to breathe.

Then something remarkable happened. Incapable of purging in any of my viable methods, I calmed down. That calmness, paired with tired frustration and an inability to foresee life continuing as Hell, brought clarity. Try something new. You have to.

I walked with trepidation to my wall mirror, as though nearing a fatal cliff. For the first time in too long, I looked not at my hips, belly or thighs, but into my eyes. The head-on stare punctured the swollen balloon of hurt inside me, releasing sobs.

“You can’t live like this anymore!” I told my reflection. “I won’t let you hate yourself so much. This is not who you are.” I didn’t know what I was fighting for, but my instincts said, Don’t give up.

My anger at ED and proclamations in the mirror were the first signs of self-love I’d displayed in years, the light switch in the dark cave I lived in. If I managed to turn it on, I knew my life would change. But the decision was only part of it… Rather than plot restriction strategies for the coming days, I had to plot a future free of ED.

The night became a Good Riddance Ed rampage. I threw my “skinny clothes” and scale in a dumpster and removed the size tags from clothes that fit. I trashed every fashion mag, food journal and diet book, sang my feelings into made-up songs. I vowed to myself that for one year, I would not diet, starve or make any other attempts at weight loss. If I gained weight during that year, so be it. The next morning, with trembling hands and tears flooding my cheeks, I ate breakfast, forcing thoughts of I love you, You deserve this, You’re going to be okay, with every bite.

Though I wanted to forego my commitments frequently over the subsequent weeks, I held fast. The bingeing continued at first, as did my weight gain, until I nearly doubled my lowest weight. If I have to start over every day, I will, I wrote. And start over again and again I did. I had nothing to lose by trying and everything to lose by not.

Gradually, I fought less with myself and slip-ups drew further between. Months later, I was no longer dieting, starving or bingeing and my life was beginning to feel like a life. I was in college, making friends, writing songs and even, on occasion, laughing. But my recovery had reached a plateau. I felt awkward eating around others, anxious about eating too much or too little. The slightest pangs of hunger or fullness put me on edge. I saw plates of calories and felt guilty when I indulged. And though I resisted, I longed to diet. ED hadn’t left. He’d merely grown quieter.

One day over steaming cups of Indian tea, my mom handed me a CD with a song she and my dad wanted me to hear: Lee Ann Womack’s, “I Hope You Dance.”

“It’s time to find joy,” she said. (And here I’d thought I had everyone fooled…)

The song’s message about “dancing,” which I took to mean many joyful things, hit me with profound force.

That evening I sat at a park watching a group of friends picnicking, captivated by a woman around my age. After a bite of her hearty sandwich, she closed her eyes, tipped her head back, exclaiming, “This is so good!” I longed for an ounce of her joy.

I’d been eating because I was “supposed” to, promised others I would and never wanted to go off the bingeing/starving deep end again. In order to fully recover, I had to manifest joy around eating.

I knew it was possible because I’d experienced it. My childhood love affair with food seemed insatiable. Family photographs portray a bubbly, smiling girl holding an ice cream cone, sitting before a luminous birthday cake or about to take a chomp out of a fresh red apple from our backyard tree. Before bed, I often asked my parents what the next day’s breakfast would entail, “so I could dream about it.”

Food for my family meant togetherness, birthday celebrations, picnics by the lake, nightly home cooked meals—a special bond and clay with which we built memories. Until fear and ED had creeped in. No more, I decided.

I began studying food with a velocity I’d only previously applied to treadmills. I wanted to discover its goodness and stop dreaming of ways to avoid it. What did particular foods do for me? If not for managing weight, why did people eat them? How could I eat healthfully, and not by diet book standards of what that was?

I began addressing a self-compiled “I’m afraid of” list: Eat in public. Eat at a restaurant, alone. Eat a meal prepared by others without demanding particulars. Eat the ice cream that triggered my first binge, one serving at a time.

I traded my diet books for medical and dietetic texts that defined food as fuel, a necessary means of nutrients, and obtained my first certification in nutrition. I cooked, experimented with foods I’d never tried and volunteered at soup kitchens. I stopped aiming for dietary perfection. Multiple studies had convinced me that such increased my risk for bingeing, obesity, anxiety, depression and sleep problems—pretty much everything on my “No, thank you” list.

It took numerous attempts of arriving at an upscale restaurant alone before I dined there and several more before I enjoyed the food sans heavy sweating or heart palpitations. I wept over a homemade candlelit dinner for one, served on my grandmother’s china. I stocked my kitchen with food until it felt warm, loved and lived-in. Rather than cold and frightening, it felt like home. I took a Buddhist philosophy course and applied its principles to my meals. Eating slowly and without distraction soon went from mortifying to pacifying. On difficult days, I asked myself what I’d feed a dear friend then treated myself to just that—until gradually, finally I became her.

*****

On a cool spring evening, I sat at my kitchen table with a bowl of spicy chili and fresh-baked corn bread. An unexpected breeze blew through my apartment window, carrying a flower from outside into my bowl. Plunk! As the pink petals swam amongst the diced tomatoes and cannelloni beans, I laughed. Struck my own amusement, I realized that nothing but goodness sat at my table. All anxiety, shame and feelings of inadequacy had dissipated, leaving me with a palpable sense of peace.

I returned to Paris that summer to celebrate my recovery. Near the grassy patch where I’d fallen, I buried a capsule filled with cards from loved ones, photographs, under-sized clothes and copies of my songs and journal entries. ED’s funeral, I called it—a memorial service for my self. I ran along the Seine, this time grateful for the strong legs that carried me, the absence of pain and my second chance at a happy, healthy life.

*****

What events or decisions have helped you turn your life around? If you have thoughts or questions to share, I’d love to hear them.