Kate Taylor edited “Going Hungry,” an anthology of 19 essays by both women and men who have struggled with eating disorders.
Not just about the body
By WILL McKINLEY
Anorexia is not just for models anymore. Actually, it never was.
For writer Kate Taylor, her battle with the often-misunderstood illness began at 11, during an otherwise well-adjusted childhood. Professional success has helped the now 28-year-old culture reporter and Union Square resident overcome her eating disorder and reclaim her life. And now she hopes to use her editorial talents to do the same for others.
“Going Hungry,” edited by Taylor, is an anthology of survivor stories from 19 writers who fought eating disorders and lived to tell about it. For those who have dismissed anorexia as a lifestyle choice, this book is an eye opener. From rich to poor, young to old, the surprising stories Taylor has selected prove that anorexia is an equal opportunity affliction.
WILL McKINLEY: You wrote in your introduction that you would like the book to “break the stereotypes and the confusion” about anorexia. What are they?
KATE TAYLOR: The stereotype is that it’s all young, white, privileged girls who are suffering from this. But it’s not just women. There are men who have serious eating disorders. It’s not all young. The writers in the book represent a wide range of ages. It’s not all white. And it’s not all about being thin.
That was the biggest thing I took away from the book. It’s not necessarily about physical appearance.
An eating disorder is not just about the body. It offers you an identity. It makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel effective, because you have control over what you eat and over your body. Hunger, at least initially, produces a lot of euphoria. So it’s very exciting.
That was a surprise for me your comparison of anorexia to recreational drug use.
They have much more in common than people realize. And for some they overlap. I’ve known people who have had both eating disorders and drug issues. Sometimes they “take turns,” so that when one disorder isn’t acting up they turn to the other, as a way of coping or seeking stimulation or excitement.
I think of bulimia as more akin to recreational drug abuse than anorexia.
Anorexics tend to be a bit more cautious. There’s a stereotype, not entirely untrue, of anorexics as good girls, obedient and perfectionistic, and bulimics as more emotional and wild, with a tendency to act out in more violent ways. Having been anorexic, I don’t understand bulimia in the same way. But there are both anorexics and bulimics that have other self-destructive behaviors overlapping with their eating disorder.
You just referred to your anorexia in the past tense. Are you over it? Or is it like alcoholism, where you’re in a lifelong state of recovery?
I really think of myself as past it. I got together recently with a girl who I was in treatment with and we were talking about our trajectories since then. For both of us, the symptoms hung on for several years, even when we became physically healthy again. But, as we found things that made us feel engaged, interested and successful, we didn’t really have the room in our heads anymore. Both of us gained the most weight when we found things that made us feel interested and happy.
So your recovery is, to some degree, a function of your professional success?
Exactly. It has a lot to do with finding things that make you feel engaged and successful, and it’s a certain kind of maturity. My daily moods now are not as wild as they were when I was 19, 20 and starving myself. Life is more calm now.
You said in the book that anorexia knew something about you that you didn’t know abut you. What was that?
It knew about my vulnerability and loneliness and sadness. It knew that I was intellectually mature but emotionally immature. Anorexics, when they’re ill, are not good at expressing what they’re thinking. They’re not even good at knowing what they’re thinking.
Is this book just for anorexics?
No, it’s for anybody who wants to understand what anorexia is from the inside. I think the people who will find it most helpful are parents, friends, relatives anybody who knows someone who has an eating disorder, or knows someone who may be susceptible to eating disorders.
You’re developing a companion website as well. What will you have there?
There’s so much that’s not understood about anorexia, so many people who have unusual stories. I’m interested in finding out about that, so there will be an area where people can write something about their own experience. But I definitely don’t want it to devolve into a pro-anorexia site.
I was looking at one of those sites and one girl wrote, “I’m 120 pounds. I need to be 115 as soon as possible. And then 107 and I’d like to continue decreasing forever.”
It’s scary. Anorexics are kind of scary. I think, in a small percentage of cases, there is an overlap with serious mental illness. There are some people who are pretty seriously disturbed.
When you were 11 there weren’t websites designed to encourage you to be anorexic. Has that changed the whole equation?
Since the late ‘70s there has been this view that increasing awareness and increasing dissemination of information in various kinds of evolving media is changing the nature of eating disorders, making it a more group, collective, shared experience. Anorexia has that aspect but it also has a very private solitary aspect. The web sort of caters to both of those, because you’re talking to people but you’re doing it from the privacy of your own room.
But do you believe that these “pro-ana” sites have created more anorexics?
I’m not sure it’s changed the numbers. I think it’s fair to say that anorexia is more common now than it was in the 1950s. I think it’s been a gradual increase.
You mention that cultural shift, from Marilyn Monroe as the ‘50s ideal of femininity, to Twiggy in the ‘60s. To what to you attribute that change?
Feminism, women’s liberation and the pill. There was a strong connection between thinness and fitness as opposed to this fleshy, voluptuous extremely sexual woman represented by Marilyn Monroe.
Particularly for women in the workplace.
There was a connection between that and women becoming part of the world of men, of having more professional opportunities. It was the pressure to achieve.
As someone who has overcome anorexia, do you get mad when you see sites that promote it?
It doesn’t make me mad; it more makes me sad. It’s hard to convey to someone who is finding gratification in an eating disorder the pleasure that comes from being more mature, from finding your gratification in more stable ways. The reason that people are so attached to it is that it makes them feel strong. That’s very hard to give up until you find something else that makes you feel that way.
Is that your hope for this book?
Yes. Anorexia is so irrational and self-destructive. I hope that the book really opens up the anorexic mind, which is, in general, a very closed and impenetrable one.