Body of work: Women writers on disordered eating, writing the body and the book launch diet

Before my book came out I thought about dieting, despite my history. Was I being shallow? Was I alone?

Published May 21, 2017 5:30PM (EDT)


“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.”  —Michel Foucault

Sometimes I get bored of eating. I get bored of cooking. I get bored of ordering takeout or looking at a menu or ascertaining the salad bar. I get bored of shopping, hunting for roasted peanuts at the bodega or surveying matcha powder at Whole Foods. I get bored of using my fingers or a fork and a knife or chopsticks, and I get bored of peering into the bowl of a spoon, watching my nose distort. I get bored of the epicurean’s burden, the delight I feel I should take in eating; conversely, I get bored of treating food as a utilitarian fix, medicine for my joints or my brain, my organs or my gut. I get bored, sensationally bored, of appetites, which tumble like dominos through my life.

And yet—I am a voracious eater with only one bugaboo: regular Coke. In the kitchen, I am neither anhedonic nor obtuse. Yesterday, I took care to heat almond milk before pouring it over a double espresso; I met the deep burgundy cleft of my first cherries of the year; I paused to admire the spry brightness of sea salt from Brittany in a tile of dark chocolate. I come from a line of fussy women who dine with salt and pepper at the ready, like boxers with their fists: we call ourselves discerning. I can sniff out a done loaf of challah as easily as a properly roasted squash. In college, I shared meals with a man who couldn’t tell al dente from overcooked spaghetti; we never did become friends.

My appreciation of food and my attitude toward eating are two bullet trains, running side by side, on parallel tracks. They’ll never meet, I guess, and that’s all right.

Okay, maybe that’s extreme. But when I think about dieting—and I’m thinking about dieting—my mind doesn’t land in a moderate place.

I’ve been thinking about dieting—flirting with its charms, weighing its entertainment value, running a personal cost-benefit analysis—in conjunction with the publication of my first novel, “I Must Have You.” It’s a book about eating disorders set in the 1990s, and in the months leading up to its publication, I found myself saying all kinds of things that made my therapist cringe: Do I look like a person that deserved to write a book about eating disorders? Does it really matter if I lose 10 pounds? Does it really matter if 10 turns into 15 turns into 20? Will I feel like I’ve accomplished anything artistically if I don’t have the body to match?

“To match what?” my therapist asked. She looks like Vanessa Bayer, but she has no sense of humor, especially when I play fuck-the-laws-of-energy about food. “Your primary says not to lose weight.”

“My primary knows I’ve had eating disorders,” I said. I could barely contain my smile. The old logic felt so good. “Also, my primary is like five years younger than me and very thin and very chic. She wants me to be fat. I should get a different primary.”

“That’s the eating disorder talking,” she said. “I don’t like you playing by its rules.”

Medical professionals may not like to hear this, but I refuse to give an eating disorder—a set of criteria lodged in the DSM—total credit for those rules. If I know I’ve had an eating disorder and I’ve received treatment for that eating disorder, when do I get to claim its lures and traps for my own? I thought about this predicament while my therapist flexed her feet in leopard-print skimmers; they showed egregious toe cleavage.

“You know where this road leads,” she said, frowning. “The eating disorder puts you in jail.”

I’ve never visited a jail, so I can’t validate the metaphor. Also, I don’t wholeheartedly agree. There were times that my eating disorder was confining—locking me in an apartment, in a bathroom, puking in a shower or a grocery store bathroom; keeping me at the gym until the ground wobbled under my running shoes or a trainer interrupted me to champion the proteined benefits of egg whites—but there were also times that it wasn’t. There’s room to acknowledge the upsides of depression, but it’s about as popular to admit eating disorders come with perks as it is to laud the blissy side of recreational opioid use. Still, if writing and eating disorders have anything in common, it’s their ability to—even temporarily—make you feel bold or invincible. So, fine. There were times the eating disorder supercharged life, gave me extra purpose.

That’s what I wanted from a pre-pub diet, I decided, just a sliver of that feeling of making my intake interesting, which would lead, just maybe, the confines—okay, the jail—of my body changing.

(It’s boring to eat to live, but it’s a thrill to eat to die, someone should have said about eating disorders.)

All right, but I’m not suicidal and I’m not the same sick person I once was. The hospital is no longer my dream of summer camp. I don’t envy women with feeding tubes. I don’t even find emaciation pretty anymore, though my heart still pounds when I approach a Giacometti sculpture. I just liked the idea of the diet, liked the planning I could do and the way food could become sort of like a puzzle, liked the way I could put the data from my scale on a chart.

And yes, I realize how this might sound like I’m preaching a gospel of thinspiration (see Twitter’s @FitGirlLife: “Discipline is what you need when you don't have passion for what you're doing”), but it’s ridiculous to pretend like life isn’t filled with calls to action. It’s up to each of us what we heed.

(“You weigh yourself how many times a day?” my therapist said.)

A diet is one of life’s little side hustles, an extra nudge into vigilance or compulsion or rigor. So it’s a shame that, if you’ve had an eating disorder, dieting is like playing Russian Roulette with a packed chamber—or, that’s how it seemed to me. I didn’t want to feel guilty for thinking of dieting, but I did. I felt shallow—and then I felt mad at feeling shallow. I spent a few days keeping a food and weight journal, and then I stopped, like all my doctors had morphed into one ghostly superego thing that caught me dipping my hand in the empty cookie jar.

Still, my curiosity is piqued. Is dieting passé? Should I know better? Few people would suggest that embodied living necessitates one flounce around like a Renoir bather. The embodied body might be one that listens to its appetites or its urges. For some of us, those urges might be minimizing, slenderizing, limiting, confining—in the parlance of my treatment team, restricting. Is the problem only one of intention? If I were, say, nervous about the publication of my book, so nervous that I forgot my appetite, would my weight loss—an inadvertent diet—be acceptable? Is it possible to be a writer and have an eating disorder—or even the last vestiges of an eating disorder? I come back to this, even though a part of me believes: the eating disorder needs to be abandoned in service of the work.

I had more questions, and I wondered how other writers who’ve experienced disordered eating or eating disorders dealt with their bodies as their books were published, so I spoke with four of them. These writers are at different stages in their careers; they work in different genres; and, most importantly, they come to the page with different expectations of what their body should do, look like, or say. First, an introduction to the women I spoke with:

Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist and bestselling writer. Her books include the memoirs "Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia," which has been published in 12 languages, and the New York Times bestseller "Madness: A Bipolar Life;" the recovery books "Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps" and "Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power;" and the novel "The Center of Winter."

Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of "Excavation: A Memoir" (Future Tense Books, 2014), "Hollywood Notebook" (Writ Large Press, 2015) and the dreamoir "Bruja" (CCM, 2016). Her work has been profiled or featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the National Book Critics Circle Small Press Spotlight blog. Her writing has appeared in such places as the New York Times, Hazlitt, Joyland, StoryQuarterly, and a year-long series appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of "Indictus," winner of Noemi Press's 2016 Poetry Contest, slated for publication in late 2017, as well as the debut poetry collection "Swan Feast" (Bloof Books, 2015). She is the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she is serving a one-year academic appointment. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the New Yorker, Tin House, the Kenyon Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of the Atlas Review.

Sara Flannery Murphy grew up in Arkansas, where she divided her time between Little Rock and Eureka Springs, a small artists’ community in the Ozark Mountains. She received her MFA in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis and studied library science in British Columbia. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and son. "The Possessions" is her first novel.

Hannah Brooks-Motl is the author of the poetry collections "The New Years" (Rescue Press, 2014) and "M" (Song Cave, 2015). She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, where she is the poetry editor of the Chicago Review.

When was the last time, if ever, that you tried lose weight for an event?

Natalie Eilbert: I don't think I've ever gone a minute without wondering how to become smaller, more delicate. There's a terrible irony in wanting more from a lessening. I would say that it has taken me a very, very long time and lots of therapy to eat dinner before I bring myself to stage. I am using that specific grammatical construction for a reason—it does feel often like I'm presenting myself as a consumable entity—not simply the art I present, the art that so often has such a keen physical politics surrounding it. I'm guttered in these ironies. They move me and break me simultaneously.

I recently had a university-wide event and, while I wouldn't say I was "trying to lose weight," I certainly overexercised that week, eating the bare minimum. The day of the actual event, I did hot yoga, made sure to book myself so that I had student meetings all day, and by the time I got to the event, I hadn't eaten since breakfast. I put on a small dress, slipped on heels, had a glass of chardonnay prior to my arrival, and I read with my fellow fellows. It was an amazing reading, but this is part of a terrible cycle.  

Marya Hornbacher: I never have … I mean not since I was sick (in the eating disorder). I certainly felt some pressure to do so for the book releases, but I have really responded with this kind of grim refusal to be troubled by it.

Wendy C. Ortiz: To put things in perspective, I spent over 15 years not weighing myself and trying to undo all the disordered eating I'd been taught by my mother and grandmother... so I can't say there was a time in my adulthood when I tried to lose weight for an event.

Sara Flannery Murphy: For a long time, in my early twenties especially, I approached every milestone or significant event in my life as motivation to lose weight. I’d count down to these dates with weight-loss goals in mind until the weight loss became the whole point. Now, it’s been a while since I’ve dieted for an event. My 27th birthday is the last clear memory I have of specifically tying weight loss to an event (nearly six years ago).

Hannah Brooks-Motl: Academia stresses me out and when I'm stressed out I eat less. Do I continue in academia because of this?  

Did you think about, try to, hope to, or otherwise plan to lose weight for your book launch?

Hornbacher: I think for [the "Wasted" launch] I was so young and so close to still being actively sick that it felt terrifying to go on book tour, it felt terrifying to even think about dieting, it felt way too close to the bone, and I really at that point would not have been in a place to make a conscious decision or another. I was 23, that was 20 years ago, and so I think at that point you’re so easily swayed that it really felt like pressure and I really felt kind of bucked about by all the winds of culture right then.

Ortiz: No. At my last book launch I wore a dress I love that I've had for a couple of years and was happy to have an opportunity to wear it again.

Murphy: I found out I was pregnant about four months before my debut novel launched. By the time the book came out, I was visibly pregnant, and this made it easier for me to deal with pressure to look thin at author events. I had a different shape; it felt like different rules applied. Purposefully losing weight during pregnancy is discouraged, so dieting didn’t feel “expected” of me.

Eilbert: Yes. My first book's launch party, for my collection "Swan Feast," channels body dysmorphia as it brings to life and subsequently communicates (and later marries) the "Venus" of Willendorf. I did hot yoga maybe seven days in a row. I bought a tiny black dress. I don't own a scale because, well, if it isn't already clear I'm obsessive, but I am quite sure I lost weight. I felt lighter.

Brooks-Motl: No.

How is your perception of your body connected to your identity as a writer? 

Brooks-Motl: Recently I've found a community of dancers that includes women of all body sizes, ages 25 to 70. We do a weird form of "historical dance," extending the line of Isadora Duncan, whose influence is everywhere, basically, though she's kind of a figure of fun in modern dance, which causes no end of sadness and grief to those who work tirelessly to preserve and communicate her work through a kind of secret living history, passing knowledge, technique, the embodied philosophical strangeness and beauty of this practice down from generation to generation. Dancing has changed my understanding of my body's capacities and it's influenced my sense that language is less conceptual—less heady, literally—than I once thought. Finding language for experiences I've had dancing has led to poems pitched slightly askance from my usual rhythms. It's not an all-the-time thing. I have to concentrate to generate the effect, which I register as physical action the result of which is words on a page rather than (though it also could have been) a leap, run, or turn. Dancing is the most gentle way I've found to be with my body which is, I've come to realize, somehow also always my "body of writing" too. There is some mysterious identity there. Which isn't just to say I have experienced my body of work—poems and essays out in the world—in ways analogous to affects or moods, embodied feeling states like shame, glumness, occasional joy; it's also that experiences of my body—marked by shyness and caution due to peculiar circumstances (not weight related) endured by my child body self—contribute to how I'll feel about my work any given time I see it, say, pop up on my computer screen or unfold across the pages of a book.  

Hornbacher: It has been paramount that I not ever demonstrate active eating disorders in my life and that has really been a protective factor for me. It has been so vitally important to me that I never be an example of sickness, that it was bad enough how "Wasted" was received, later on. At first it was like oh yay, you’re the first person to talk about it; 15 years later, people are like, how dare you speak of it? And now in the last 10 years as I have tried to continue to grow older in a way that is not exemplary but as an example because I know I am watched, it’s important to me that I never demonstrate sickness in myself.

I do feel like I can’t slip up. I don’t feel close to the eating disorder at all any more; it really doesn’t cross my mind. But I’m more recently recovering from drinking—not very very recently—I’m very aware that I have made such a mission of health—mental health and psychological health and even spiritual health in my most recent book—it is sometimes a little bit of pressure but it also does keep me on the beam.

Ortiz: My perception of my body is absolutely connected to my identity as a writer—in the sense that I try to stay embodied as I write, as I read, and I think and write about the body pretty constantly. I hike in Griffith Park three days a week and this is a part of my process as a writer and it completely engages my body in a way I count on. My body and my writing feel intertwined.

Eilbert: It's a great question. I must have internalized this "manic pixie dream girl" idea in the workshop setting. I always felt I had to be some kind of someone's desire. I wrote about my body, I wrote about the traumas done to my body, the traumas thereafter in possessing a body. As I wrote about my body, I underwent an apotheosis of self that was as much existential as physical. Whenever I presented a poem, either to workshop or to others or, even, to myself, I was aware of the annihilating way the writing forced a viewer to inspect me. A therapist once warned me that to interrogate eating disorders in a therapeutic way might risk resetting the disorder. I think this is so because you are encountering the body and its suffering as an abstraction, an abstraction that aches to be concrete in the same manner that drives someone to restrict/purge/fast. By dint of encounter, I again become my body, the body that wants horrifically to abstract itself. Language works inside a similar methodology. Whether figurative or utilitarian in scope, to communicate the sensory, one must add dimensions and definitions to varying planes. We cannot think outside of these taxonomies. We must give sensation a body. I think the connection between writing and body is endlessly fascinating.

Murphy: I romanticized thin bodies in a lot of ways when I was younger, and one way I did that was by equating thinness with a devotion to writing. Culturally, we tend to see thinner bodies as more intellectual. A slender writer seemed to feed herself on ideas, no time for utilitarian tasks like eating. The ironic thing is that when I was in the worst of my eating disorder, I had less time and motivation for writing; dieting and worrying about my body took up a lot of mental energy.

Do you think appearanceand, specifically, weight/sizeplays a role in the marketability of writers? How?

Hornbacher: Yes. There’s an inordinate number of improbably beautiful writers in the author photos, and I’m like, ‘God, how did everyone get to be so good looking?’ and then I’m like, ‘Oh right, the same way everyone in a photograph gets good looking.’ It’s a shaped, marketed appearance that is manufactured—I mean, I’m sure many of these women are very lovely—and I would say that goes back to the ’90s when the women’s memoirs started coming out.

I see absolutely no reason why women writers should be concerned with their appearance in the first place. One of the things I love about living kind of off the grid is that I can glance in the mirror and be like, ‘Oh, look, my hair’s in a tangle,’ and not actually bother too much about it, and just go down to my office and write and not be concerned with how I am shaped, packaged and perceived.

That detachment is a really necessary stepping away from distraction. Not only do I step away from, for example, internet and Twitter and all the stuff that makes me insane, I step away from the distraction of my own face.

Some of the older writers who have really modeled that for me—I mean, go back to Gertrude Stein, who was like this, screw this, I’m going to look how I want and wear an ugly skirt.

So it’s super important to me. And this was a big deciding factor in my deciding to get beyond the eating disorder: I don’t like being distracted from my work. I really don’t.

I can’t get the work done if I’m stuck in the mirror.

And this is a factor, too: I am getting older. I’m in my forties and that really does kind of erase some of the pressure to be gorgeous all the time because you like, well, can’t. Too bad. Sorry. I’m just going to look how I look while I age, and I have a lot of strong women in my life who have modeled elegantly aging, and I want to be as classy as that. I don’t want to still be ravenous when I’m 50 and crabby—and unproductive.

Ortiz: I think that capitalism has a preferential taste for certain appearances when it comes to marketability in any industry. Some of my favorite writers and thinkers sometimes use their appearance--often outside the preferences of Western capitalist culture—as part of their art and I'm interested in this influence. When I think of the phrase "marketability of writers," I get depressed.

Brooks-Motl: I dunno. I feel like marketability (for poets) is less about a certain look than a kind of attitude one's willing to adopt, primarily over social media.

Eilbert: Oooof. Yes. But I do see it changing. A public figure recently told me I could have a YouTube channel because of my attraction-level and it did two things: It made me feel great to be deemed attractive by a celebrity; and it made me aware of the transaction of body, and its temporariness. I am fueled by the same perception of body that undoes me. But regardless of that knowledge, the attention of certain body types works in a continuum. I think as everything becomes meme-able, we are going to experience a worse storm before it gets better. A lot of #bodypositivity campaigns still operate within the same dichotomy that understands what the body ideal is. It's an uphill battle to be sure. And very literally, I have been in many sales meetings where beauty is a determinable factor in whether someone is represented/published. Not simply beauty, but also how they might present themselves on stage. How physically active they are in selling themselves. It's very ableist. And while on the subject, weight/size are one thing, but we also need to address the ageism in this country, which is rampant. There is so much pressure to maintain a youthful look, that it makes aging an inevitable blunder.

Murphy: It’s tough for me to say. I don’t live near a literary community; maybe if I lived somewhere like New York or Los Angeles and attended more events in person, I’d have a better read on how physical appearance, including slimness, played into a writer’s marketability. Because I’m a more remote writer, my writing feels disconnected from my physical self, not just intellectually but also professionally. I do notice that some authors become literary celebrities, about as publicly visible as a writer will ever be, while others stay behind the scenes, and I’m not sure whether being conventionally attractive plays any role in that.

As a writer, have you ever felt ashamed or embarrassed to be concerned with your weight? 

Hornbacher: In the literary world, it’s seen as bad enough that you’re writing a memoir. First of all, you’re being all womanly writing a memoir in the first place. And then you’re writing ‘confessional memoir’ and, then on top of that, you’re just straight vain and so that pressure to kind of be above worldly concerns is very, very inherent to the kind of antifeminism that I see in the art world.

I’m working on an article right now about what happened in the ’90s with all the memoirs. And the more I think about it, the more aware I am that the literary establishment was really opposed to those, not just because they were confessional but because they were by women.

There had been many confessional memoirs by men, but when they started to be by women, when they started to make the statement that women’s little lives mattered and could be narrated and could be worth something as a story, I felt like the literary establishment really kicked back.

You never hear women called the great of their generation or a towering intellect: the literary language of critique is so in favor of male writers. That doesn’t mean women aren’t getting work—of course they are. Women are getting work and lots of it, and they’re getting the attention their work deserves, I think more than they ever did, but there’s still this real dog-doesn’t-want-to-go-outside-dragging-his-feet-in-the-snow refusing to be acknowledged that women’s work is as good.

People say, for example, about discussions of racism and sexism, like ‘oh god do we have to go over this again,’ and eating disorders fall into that women’s-issue category or identity issues category that people are like, ‘we’ve so done this,’ and that’s tiresome to me. As soon as it’s fixed, great, we’ll stop talking about it. But until then we need to keep making noise. And it really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I’ve never been more amused than when people put pink lipstick on me in photo shoots for author photos. I’m like, you’re joking right? I don’t own a pink lipstick, I wear really dark or really bright lipstick, because it’s just like because I do, because I wanna, because I feel like it, because I can! But they put pink lipstick on me and pink eye shadow, and I’m like, ‘Am I trying to look like I’m from the suburbs in 1983?’ What are you trying to make me into, this little dollface thing?

And it’s not going to work anymore! My face is falling off—it’s great. You can play this game, but I really can’t afford it.

I always go back to the individual need to resist the pressure when it comes to beauty or why do we always equate that with thinness—I actually don’t think thin is terrifically beautiful myself, but the equation of thinness and beauty and all of that stuff.

There’s a wonderful picture of Joan Didion on the back of "Where I Was From." And, she’s wearing sunglasses and she’s in her 70s and she’s gorgeous. And she’s just like whatever. She has this Whatever, you’re really taking an author photo of Joan Didion? Like anybody doesn’t know what she looks like. There’s this classy, classy kind of smirk on her face, and I’m like, man, if I were Joan Didion, I’d be like What, you’re doing an author photo of me?

I think women in the next two generations that are coming up, women writers who are coming up now and who are established at some degree in their own writing, need to stop participating and get pictures of themselves that look like them.

This was so funny. Not even three days ago, my publisher sent me this picture. They’re like, ‘we love this picture, we got it off the web, who’s the photographer?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know—you got it off the web.’ And it was a picture of me from 10 years ago. I literally look nothing like the photo. And they’re like, ‘Do you have anything more recent?’ And I sent them three photos and they’re like, ‘No, we like the first one.’ I’m like, ‘I bet you do. I bet you do. I do, too, but it’s not of me.’ I said that looks nothing like me. What to do? And they haven’t gotten back to me yet, I don’t know what they’re going to do about the fact that I’m 43. I mean, disaster.

There’s this wish for women to be neat, tidy, and kind of compact. And if you equate bigness with the success—I’m five feet tall, I’m never going to get bigger than that, I’m too old to grow. And when  it comes to my work, people kind of have this idea that I’m just going to be loud. It’s almost if I’m trying to shout over something and I’ve never really known what. And I think I do know what. I think it’s an establishment thing.

When I wrote "Wasted" I did feel like there was a cultural force I needed to shout down.

Ortiz: In 1999 I started a three-issue zine called Freefeeder in which I proclaimed freefeeding as my alternative to dieting, which I'd done off and on between the ages of 6 and 23. I wrote about the various ways I tried to lose weight--pills, laxatives, weird diets, cocaine, etc.--and that was difficult to describe, but not embarrassing. I knew from experience that most women I knew had similarly struggled with disordered eating if not eating disorders. As a writer I enjoy the platform of representing what is not often represented in the culture: a Xicanx woman. A woman over 40. A mother of a 6-year-old. A writer who understands conflicted feelings about the body and works toward being concerned with how my body feels, not my weight.

Eilbert: Always. That's the problem, isn't it, that the shame is a necessary part of the feedback loop. We are what we feed ourselves, even when we aren't feeding ourselves. It's part of that endless reel. I hope one day I am thrown from my own circle. I dream of a life where I'm divorced from that shame.

Murphy: Not exactly embarrassed, but it’s not my proudest instinct. One of the great things about being a writer is sending a book out into the world as your ambassador--it’s inviting people to engage with you intellectually, to take part in a story you’ve made. Focusing on looks seems to defeat the point of that. To me, anyway, writing is a refuge from being judged by your appearance or obsessing over your body. So I feel like I’m doing a disservice to myself and to other writers when I equate weight too strongly with writing talent or success.

Brooks-Motl: Thinking about this question makes me realize how virtual my idea of "being a writer" is now; sure I go read places and sure I'm then on view, but these tiny audiences only reinforce that to be a writer, a poet anyway, is to be active on social media in some way I never feel I am, quite. So in this way we might think about "thinness" or categories like loss/gain in the realm of online presence--which, like the old fashioned presence, subjects the writer to judgment, and to summary.

By JoAnna Novak

JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her debut novel, "I Must Have You," was published in 2017.

MORE FROM JoAnna Novak

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authors Body Image Books Eating Disorders