A couple of weeks ago, before I sent in my last article, I texted my mom and asked if she thought publishing what I had written was a good idea.
She responded: “I don’t think that you should share personal information that can be used against you. You don’t want to do something that 10 years down the line you’ll deeply regret.”
Translation: This will come up when people search your name on Google.
At first, I shrugged her off. But I found her plea coming back to me in quiet, in-between times. Before bed and on the frigid walk to class I would wonder to myself: What if she is right? What if telling my story will make me unhireable, unlovable and unstable in the eyes of people whose respect and trust I’ll eventually need? I worried that instead of the transparent future I hoped for, being an adult meant more secret-keeping. More feeling ashamed. More lying and saying again and again that everything was all right so insurance costs stay down and my future boss will give me a promotion instead of, say, Jerry — my cubicle-mate, an avid Limp Bizkit fan and father of three.
If I followed my mom’s advice, it would mean buckling to the standards of whomever she was afraid of. I’d publish nothing inflammatory. I’d hold onto my cards and show them only to those who promised not to tell the graduate school admissions board or the CEO of PepsiCo what I should have been too scared to tell all of you.
But now it’s too late.
After I published the article I was contacted by one of my friends, a brilliant student with high cheekbones and cat eyes, who had also struggled with an eating disorder. She said she appreciated the article and that she wished she could write about her own experiences. When I encouraged her to do so, however, she replied no, never. She said that she had only talked about her disease with two people other than me. One, an ex-boyfriend, told her she was “disgusting.” The other, a coworker who she thought was a close friend, told their boss, who (in a Philadelphia-esque display of bigotry) fired her for being “mentally unfit” to work for his company.
Mentally unfit? Disgusting? My friend is anything but. She’s the kind of whip-smart, intimidatingly beautiful woman who I hope will someday survey my manuscript/audit/equation and say, “This is shit. Get out of my office.” I look up to her, and to hear her be so unequivocally humiliated and demonized for a disease she has the strength to even admit to, let alone fight, was unimaginable to me.
Perhaps the negative responses she received mirror the fact that eating disorders are seen as benchmarks for shallow, irreversible female weaknesses. Take, for instance, the case of John Prescott, former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In the spring of 2008 he admitted publicly to having struggled with bulimia since the 1980s. He said he had kept quiet about his disease “out of shame … or embarrassment … just because it’s such a strange thing for someone like me to confess to. People normally associate (eating disorders) with young women — anorexic girls, models trying to keep their weight down, or women in stressful situations, like Princess Diana.” Prescott was praised for the bravery of his admission. It was one thing for a woman to be immature and vain enough to binge and purge — but an important politician? That was something. Medical professionals and charity groups heralded Prescott’s confession as a step forward in terms of eating disorder awareness, despite the fact that Prescott said he felt like a “right twerp” while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room in which he was the only man. Nobody questioned his past leadership as Deputy Prime Minister because of his disease. Nobody branded him as “mentally unfit.” Nobody asked him to leave.
It’s my friend and I who are the disgusting ones. No matter how hard we work and how smart, compassionate and driven we may be, we are the ones who must hide deep under layers of hurt and shame, never forgetting our failure. Take that promotion, Jer, you deserve it. You’re a real adult and we’re just broken toys — wind-up monkeys who don’t flip or do tricks, but instead just stand and shake. We’re teddy bears with only one button eye. We’re Barbies made out of lead. You gettin’ this, Jer? We don’t wake up every morning and think happy thoughts. We’ve done destructive things. Must we always live in fear of the omnipresent “they” that likes steaks blood-rare and employees well done? Can they not handle the Internet addictions or ugly birthmarks that come in the package of imperfect creation?
Should we just be content with our silence? I, for one, am tired of swallowing that big, ugly pill: the one that makes us believe that no woman who struggles, or has ever struggled, with depression, anxiety or any type of eating disorder has the power to accomplish anything meaningful.
Sophia Usow can be reached at email@example.com.