Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Don't wait until it's too late

196 pounds
We now know for sure that Michael Jackson only weighed 112 pounds at the time of his death. As I said in my last post, that means he had a BMI that was F A R below what is considered healthy. And as more stories come pouring out of the press, it becomes more and more obvious that Michael Jackson was simply not eating the way a healthy person should.

I think we all have known someone in our lives who has suffered from an eating disorder. For me, it was the older sister of one of my childhood friends who I watched deteriorate to almost nothing right before my eyes. What's sad is that I didn't notice it. My mother had to point it out to me, and even after that, I was still shocked when she spent two different months-long stints in the hospital. And what's even more heartbreaking is that I actually saw her as beautiful—her face was so sunken that her cheekbones were as pronounced as those of a supermodel. And though her hair was falling out, I only noticed her long skinny legs, legs that didn't have any of the fleshiness I had on my own, much younger legs. No, I had no idea that she was sick. I simply thought she was stunning.

So it can't be much of a surprise that, around the same time she went into the hospital, I also stopped eating. I was worried about my "thunder thighs" even though I was only 14, hadn't yet stopped growing, and couldn't have had more than 130 pounds on my 5'4" frame (which would have made my BMI a lean 22).

In truth, I was in absolutely perfect shape—some of the more cruel boys in my eighth grade class used to say I looked great "from the neck down," but I never heard the compliment implicit in that awful statement. Instead I focused on the criticism and, therefore, saw myself as horribly ugly.

My response wasn't to get a new haircut—which I desperately needed—or to learn to stand up straight or look boys in the eye. Instead I stopped eating. I thought that if I just lost a little bit of weight, I would be the most popular girl in my class.

I decided to start my adventures in not eating over a weekend. That way my friends would be less likely to notice. I'd read dozens of young adult novels about anorexia and, from those, had learned all the tricks—eating gum to distract yourself from real food, going to the bathroom while everyone else was in the cafeteria, even counting out Tic-Tacs to make it through the day.

I used the bathroom trick during Friday's lunch, and that night at dinner, even though I'd spent two hours biking around my neighborhood after school, I feigned an upset stomach. By Saturday, my parents were starting to catch on, and in order to get me to eat, they made my favorite meal—if you read my blog regularly, you won't be surprised to find out that was cheeseburgers. They even went so far as to put a big, fat greasy burger on a plate for me even though I said I wasn't hungry, and they made me sit at the table in front of it the entire time it took everyone else to enjoy their dinner.

But my will to be thin was stronger than the intoxicating smell of beef. I continued to claim I wasn't hungry, and my parents scolded me without much success.

My mother took my sister and I shopping at the mall on Sunday, and at around three o'clock, I started to feel the effects of not eating for nearly 72 hours. At first, I felt a bit faint and dizzy. But not long after that, I developed a raging headache. The kind of headache I can still remember 25 years later. It turned out that my will to not eat was not as strong as my body's attempts to fight it. And after all of my misguided intentions, I was in the end not foolish enough to tolerate the physical consequences of not eating. My mom tuned into my failing health and suggested we hit the Wendy's in the mall. Though I wasn't ready to go back to cheeseburgers just yet, I did eat a huge taco salad, which for some reason I thought was lower cal than a cheeseburger, a fact we know now is not always true of salads. (In fact, a Wendy's Taco Salad has 640 calories, while a single hamburger with cheese has 490 calories.)

I wish I could say that that weekend was my last exposure to eating disorders, but if I said that I would not be telling the truth. When I was in college, there were a number of girls in my sorority house who would visit the bathroom together every night after dinner. We all knew what they were doing, but no one did anything to stop them. At least, by then, I was smart enough not to join them.

But later in the evening, when the same group would hit the gym for a late-night workout, I could almost never say no when they knocked on my door to invite me along. I still believed—even at just 150 pounds—that if they were stopping at my door, it meant I needed to lose weight. This despite the fact that by then I was 5'6", making my BMI a healthy 24.

After that grueling headache, I never again considered not eating, though it would be years before I would also give up on dieting. I have realized many times since then how lucky I was to have parents who fought my desire to not eat every step of the way. And I can't help but wonder what would have happened with Jackson if his parents had done something to get him to eat. Would he have needed less pills to get through the day? Would he have simply felt better, both physically and mentally?

It may be hard for some people to understand why the media has been almost singularly obsessed with Michael Jackson since his death last week. But even though I was no more of a fan than the average 39-year-old, I get it. When Michael Jackson stepped onto the stage of the Apollo Theatre in 1983, all of us thirteen-year-olds were watching with stars in our eyes. The whole country was watching. And we didn't stop for many, many years. Jackson epitomized the youth, vitality, and success that we all longed for. Whether we were young and old, he was like magic. And maybe a little part of the reason he had fallen out of favor with Americans was because he seemed to have lost that part of himself, all in the name of being thin and attractive "from the neck up."

Rather than show Jackson at his worst, I'd like to remember him at his best. Which is why I've included an old picture of him above—as the incredibly handsome, fiercely talented, vital entertainer I grew up with.

If you think you might have trouble with an eating disorder, please get help. Talk to a friend or family member, or at the very least, read more about it on the internet. Here's a site to get you started: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/eating_disorder_treatment.htm

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