A thin line between mother and daughter

A former anorexic ponders the family origins of eating disorders.

Published November 14, 1997 11:49AM (EST)

My stepsister Marcia and I share an occasional lust for high grease
breakfast foods, and over pancakes and eggs recently, she told me something
interesting. Marcia's daughter, Drennan, was with us -- a wily, emphatic
little girl who, at 4 years old, is young enough that one can still
spell words in her presence and elude -- just -- the clamp of her
curiosity. S-E-X is a big one, of course. Marcia is careful to spell out
the name of her ex-husband, Drennan's father, when speaking of him with
anything but the warmest affection. I was surprised, though, when Marcia
mentioned that she'd been on a D-I-E-T.

"Why did you spell it?" I asked.

"Oh, I don't even want her thinking about all that," Marcia said.

We both looked at Drennan, who was smacking her lips over fried eggs and
hash browns. I didn't have to ask what Marcia meant by "all that." We are
both 35, members of the vanguard generation of disordered eaters.
When Marcia and I were children, no one had heard of anorexia; I first
encountered the term at 13, in 1975, in a magazine article about a
girl who had emaciated herself for reasons no one understood. I remember
her picture: somber, willowy, standing on a bathroom scale, her shoulder
blades jutting out like wings. I looked at her and felt my whole being
compress into a single strand of longing. I wanted that. Anorexia. And I
got it, not in so dire a way that I was hospitalized with feeding tubes --
or even close. But at 14, when I began losing weight precipitously, I
inculcated myself into the cult of food consciousness and its attendant
elations and despairs. I joined the ranks of girls and women whose
notebook margins are dappled with obscure sums -- apple, 100; bagel, 200;
frozen yogurt, 150 -- women for whom countless meals are fraught with the
tension of trying to eat less than anyone else, who keep a section of their
closets full of "skinny" clothes that radiate desire and reproach, who
cancel doctor appointments because they're afraid of being weighed that
day, for whom "You look too thin" is perceived as a radiant compliment and
a growling stomach and a light head inspire feelings of triumph. These
rituals, and many others, were to circumscribe my thoughts and behavior for
the next 15 years.

It can be eerie, in light of our presumed uniqueness, to discover how
closely the experiences of one's contemporaries parallel one's own. I've
heard many women my age say, "I wanted to get anorexia," or even, "I
learned how to make myself throw up," as a prelude to prolonged and
desperate struggles with bulimia. Many of my friends at the University of
Pennsylvania were grappling with full-blown eating disorders; the rest were
wary and self-conscious about food. How could they not be? In the women's
restrooms at the Wharton Business School, where I sometimes studied at
night, food containers often lay right next to toilets. Donut boxes,
Twinkie wrappers, ice cream containers -- these remnants of desperation
frightened me the way nightmares do, grotesque distortions of things that
are, at bottom, deeply familiar. Here, eating no longer bore any relation
to nourishment or even to pleasure: It had been reduced to a brief
complication in the process of purgation, of emptying oneself.

My mother, who graduated from Vassar in 1959, finds these stories
incomprehensible. "We'd order in plates of French fries and hamburgers,
and we'd just eat it all and go to bed," she says. "We were all a little
overweight by today's standards, but I don't remember that troubling me in
the least." Marilyn Monroe was the beauty who floated in the minds of my
mother and her friends, voluptuous, pillowy. "The models in the fashion
magazines were skinny, but no one cared about them," my mother says. "They
were anonymous."

But attitudes toward food were the least of the differences between my
mother's college years and my own. "There were certain people who planned
to have careers," she says, "but the rest of us majored in English or
something, and the idea was that you would get married. I thought I'd
never have to earn a living. I'd be an even more ornamental accessory."
This promise -- that in exchange for being lovely and well educated, my
mother would be taken care of for life -- was one of many the world failed
to keep. By 26, she found herself divorced with a 2-year-old
daughter. It was 1965. Women only five or six years younger than she were
studying at universities awash in demands from all quarters -- for
equality, for opportunities -- demands my mother had never thought to make.
The world that she and her Vassar friends had been groomed to inhabit had
vanished from under their feet.

My fears of being overweight, which commenced when I was 9 or
10, have always been linked, in my mind, to my mother. She is a glamorous
woman with exquisite taste and a sumptuous wardrobe. Physically, I
resemble her to an almost uncanny degree; people have been doing
double takes at the sight of us for as long as I can remember. Perhaps
because she and my father were divorced before I was 3, my sense of my
mother and myself as a unit, a pair, an inseparable duo, feels ancient and
inviolable. When I was 5, we wore matching two-piece bathing suits.

I regarded my future stepfather as an unwelcome interloper in our
small, simple world. "He's just coming over for a bite to eat," my mother
would assure me, to which I would reply, "OK , one bite. And then make
him leave." But they married when I was 4 and moved to San Francisco,
taking me far from my father, who was still in Chicago. He, too,
remarried, and as both families began having more children, I struggled,
alongside much of my generation, in the role of stepchild, so perilous in fairy
tales and in life. My unease made me cleave all the more to my mother --
the unit of us two was the only one in my life that still felt intact.

I was an average little girl, not skinny, not fat, with white blond
hair, an enormous grin and an unrelenting sweet tooth. I remember my
mother suggesting at some point that I hold in my stomach when I stood; not
only would this look better, she said, but it would strengthen my stomach
muscles so that pretty soon, my stomach would stay tucked in of its own
accord (I'm still waiting for that part). This missive from the world of
adults was something I took quite seriously: I was careful to hold in my

"Something odd happened in the '60s," my mother recalls.
"Fashions became very childlike. The models all had these knobby legs and
patent leather shoes ... women suddenly wanted to look like prepubescent
girls." Considering that many consumers of fashion in the 1960's were
women like my mother, bred to inhabit a world that was now in staggering
transformation, this yearning to return to puberty -- to start over -- seems
deeply reasonable. My mother was fashionable; she subscribed to Vogue and
Harper's Bazaar, and she followed their leads -- followed, too, the
ascension of those skinny, anonymous models from the status of clothes
hangers to that of stars. If feminine power in the '50s was measured in
overt sexuality, the ability to attract a man (a man who would take care of
you for life), in the '60s, a woman's power became vested in her ability to
regulate her sexuality -- most obviously with birth control, but also by
curbing the womanliness that would land her in the kitchen slinging pork
chops, as my mother's had.

In the selfishness of childhood, I could not imagine my mother
doing anything but serving us, and she never implied that she would have
preferred to do otherwise. But I think I sensed her frustration. By the
time I was 12, her marriage to my stepfather was stretched tight over
fissures that would ultimately bring its collapse. He was gone a lot on
business; she cooked dinner for my brother and me every night ("Chicken
again?" we were forever whining) and did enough laundry to fill an airplane
hangar. Recently I asked my mother what she might have done if she hadn't married so young (she returned to the workplace in her early 40s, and is now a successful art dealer) and she mentioned languages, diplomacy, Europe. I can't blame her. As a
child, I felt a deep aversion for my mother's life, and that aversion
filled me with guilt -- and fear. I adored my mother. She was all I had.

A heightened consciousness of food first seized our household in
the early '70s, when my mother read Adele Davis and banished Quisp and
Lucky Charms forever from our shelves. Hostess Ho Hos and Ding Dongs
yielded to Fruit Rolls and Tiger's Milk Bars. My brother and I were fed
spoonfuls of cod liver oil each morning before we left for school; I spit
mine onto the garage floor, where it mingled nicely with the oil stains
("It smells like fish in here," my stepfather would muse, bewildered). And
this health consciousness was duly followed by a growing awareness of
weight. The flat green scale in my parents' bedroom acquired Delphic
powers; it revealed whether you had been Good or Bad. My stepfather
transformed into a fanatical runner, and when the early antecedents of
aerobics came along (before Jane Fonda, who, incidentally, was a college
classmate of my mother's), my mother embraced them with a fervor. My
parents would marvel at snapshots of themselves from the 60's -- look at
that double chin, that flabby stomach -- as if some prior blindness, some
naive vulnerability in themselves had now been cast off.

I took my Fruit Rolls and Tiger's Milk Bars to school and traded
them for Ho Hos and Twinkies, which I wolfed down like a refugee receiving
succor during wartime. And then I worried. My love of food, and of sweets
in particular, had begun to feel dangerous. I had absorbed the notion of
Good and Bad with regard to eating, and knew that I was Bad. And
perversely, the more entangled food became with virtue, or my lack thereof,
the more tenuous its connection to satisfying hunger, so that rather than
quelling my desire to eat, these ruminations made me crave food always,
whether I was hungry or not. By 13, I was eating a lot and it was starting
to show. Now, mingled with the general wretchedness of
adolescence was the specter of fatness, which loomed before me
terrifyingly, compounding my sense of powerlessness and unease in the

I began to soothe myself with fantasies, visions in which I became
popular, irresistible, strong, like the models in my mother's fashion
magazines (which I devoured), visions in which, above all, I was searingly,
mightily, unstoppably thin. The article on anorexia, intended as a
warning, functioned for me as a how-to manual. I remember the euphoria of
finding myself lighter on the bathroom scale, my sense of joyous and secret
achievement when the waistbands of my pants hung loose and my ribs became
distinct as fingers and people asked my favorite of all questions, "Have
you lost weight?" I felt as if I were finally coming into focus, hard and
sharp and light, released from the muffled padding of my sadness.

My sudden 14-year-old weight loss made my stepfather
apoplectic, but my mother wasn't nearly as troubled by it -- not as
troubled as she would have been, say, had I gained weight. Fat meant
sloppy, out of control, but thin meant sleek and powerful. She joined
my stepfather's bullying efforts to make me eat, but on a tacit, subterranean
level, I believed that I sensed her approval, and luxuriated in it. Because
my mother herself was thin, and dieted, I felt a kinship with her, as if losing weight were an organic feature of the adult world she inhabited. At the same
time, in craving strength and power, I sought to leave behind the life my mother stood for -- to enter the arena of the worldly, rather than the chicken basting and laundry folding. And I felt, in some buried way, that my mother wanted
that for me, too.

It is in the body of a true anorexic that the irony of equating
thinness with power becomes grotesquely obvious: shriveled, weak, married
to a project of self-erasure that often ends in death. But for those of us
who struggled with an undue consciousness of food and weight without
destroying ourselves, those of us for whom time and experience and whole
sections of our lives were measured in fatness and thinness, in Good and
Bad, for us, too, there are ironies. And the main one is this: Our route
to worldly power involved shrinking the world to match the dimensions of
our own small (but never small enough) bodies, and then dominating those. A
conspirator against us could not have planned it better.

How did it happen? For myself, I have an idea: As much as I longed
to triumph, to have adventures, to succeed in ways my mother had not, a
separate part of me was terrified to betray her. Without my mother, whom
did I have? What would I be? By mistaking my physical self for the world
and exerting my power over that, I could experience the sensations of
triumph while remaining essentially harmless: preoccupied, physically
weak, inhabiting a world more narrowly circumscribed, in these ways, than
my mother's had been. When I think on those years, the waste of time is
what I most regret; all that thought and worry, those physical trials. I
could have learned Greek or Latin with that time. I could have built a
boat and sailed around the world. But these regrets are subsumed, finally,
by sheer relief at having been released from that tiny box of thought,
subtly, almost without my noticing, somewhere around the time I published a
novel. That was my first, tentative brush with the world beyond myself,
and it led me to imagine what real power might feel like.

An eating disorder is partly a disease of consciousness, of
perspective -- hence its insidiousness, and also its contagion. Attitudes
toward food are taught and learned, but once food becomes entangled with
notions of good and evil, it can be nearly impossible to extricate. Nor
can one give it up altogether. Eating disorders have become part of our
culture, and they'll multiply and reproduce with lives of their own. We
can't take them back. But unlike our mothers, who were as blindsided by
their arrival as we, I and my generation know exactly what they are. I
don't have children yet, but when Marcia spelled out D-I-E-T, I made myself
a promise: If I ever have a daughter, I'll keep the cult of food
consciousness outside her range of vision for as long as I can, so that
when it finds her some other way, as it surely will, she won't see me as
its silent advocate. And then I can help her fight it. I made that
promise as I watched Marcia's little girl finish eating in peace.

By Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is the author most recently of "A Visit From The Goon Squad," as well as "The Keep," "Look At Me," and "Invisible Circus." She lives in New York.

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Eating Disorders