Melissa is a friend who spoke with OVO about her eating disorder on 12 July 1991.
OVO: When did you first realize there was something wrong about the way you were eating?
Melissa: Last Fall. I was dating somebody and I started doing it a lot. I’ve noticed I tend to do it more when I’m in a relationship. I used to drink a beer every day because it would help me throw up. I came home from work and drank a beer really quick. I was in the bathroom doing my business behind the closed door and the person walked in on me. They suggested to me that l have a problem. I had thought so before but when somebody else confronted me with it I had to confront myself with it. That’s when I realized there was something really wrong with what was doing.
OVO: How long had you been doing it?
Melissa: It’s an on-again off-again thing with me, depending on how you define it. I define my eating disorder not by how long I’ve thrown up or how long ago I starved myself. I think I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s taken on different forms over the years. I can remember when l was young I was deprived of certain foods that my friends could eat because my mother was really into health foods. I would go over to my friends’ house or trade lunches at school, and horde junk food because I was fascinated by it and it was something that was forbidden to me. That’s the first example of it. Over the years it’s been bulimia, it’s been anorexia, there have been points where I’ve been a compulsive exerciser, but the most recurring and the problem I have now is bulimia.
OVO: What is that?
Melissa: It’s called binge-and-purge syndrome. When l start eating I don’t feel like I can stop, then I feel guilty, so to make me feel better about eating all that food I’ll make myself throw up. Or I’ll not eat for a couple days or I’ll exercise for a long time. Some people use laxative but I’ve never done that.
OVO: Was throwing up something you figured out on your own?
Melissa: Yes, it was really easy for me. I’ve always had a nervous stomach. I figured out I could do it and use it as a way of maintaining my weight.
OVO: What is the source of your concern about your eating? Why isn’t it a natural process?
Melissa: I hate to sound like “I have this horrible childhood” but I think that’s where a lot of it came from. We had a rule in our house my sister and l joke about now called the Clean Plate Club (my sister, by the way, is anorexic). We weren’t allowed to leave the kitchen table until we’d finished everything that we had been given to eat. From there I started associating food with reward and punishment instead of just what I needed, like sleeping. It became something else.
OVO: Do you think your mother has some kind of eating disorder?
Melissa: No. I think my mother getting into her health food kick was just something to occupy her because there were things going on in my family that were very stressful for her. It was a means of her being able to cope by being interested in something.
OVO: You go to a group where you talk about this with other women.
Melissa: Yes. Last spring I started group therapy and individual counseling for my eating disorder.
OVO: What are the other womens’ experiences like?
Melissa: Their experiences are very similar to mine. It‘s very interesting because a lot of the ways I react to other things, not just food, are very similar to the other women in the group as well. It’s like obsessive-compulsive behavior across the board, not just with eating. It’s a pattern that develops the way you deal with everything.
OVO: Do you or they see any kind of connection between your eating disorder and media portrayal of women?
Melissa: Yes, and that was what really invoked a lot of emotion in me because I’m very involved in feminism and the portrayal of women in our society. I think it has an enormous amount to do with that. I think that’s why it became such an obsessive thing for me as I got into my teenage years. I’m 21 now. I saw a commercial on TV the other day for a clinic for eating disorders where they called it “the national college womens’ plague.” It’s one of the biggest things that happens to women when they enter college. When l moved to Knoxville is when my eating disorder became the worst. I that has to do with being on my own and food being a focus, something that is a constant, that l could always depend on.
OVO: What is it that you’re the trying to achieve by going to group therapy and counseling?
Melissa: One thing I learned in group therapy is that we’re not there to find a cure. We’re there to give each other support and understand why we do it because that‘s more important. I’d like to think eventually I won’t have to do it. There are times now where I’ll go days or weeks or even months… there was a period not too long ago where I went a couple months without doing it and that felt good, like I had power over myself.
OVO: If it’s something that you’ve done for a long time and that a lot of women have done and do what’s bad about it?
Melissa: It’s dangerous to your health. I have medical problems now because of it. I have a stomach ulcer. You can damage your esophagus. I’ve been lucky enough not to. I’ve never had a cavity in my life and now I have seven because my stomach acid has corroded the enamel off my teeth in the back. It can cause heart problems The two effects it’s had in me have been my teeth, and I get heartburn a lot and I have upper intestinal problems now from stomach acid.
OVO: Why is this occurring in women more than men?
Melissa: I think there’s a stronger image for women to live up to. There is an image that men have to live up to but there’s more emphasis and pressure for women to look a certain way to be accepted our society. It’s contradictory because we offer women a double standard by showing her all these great things she’s supposed to eat and make in her lifestyle and then she’s still supposed to look that way, and it’s impossible.
OVO: Why is it offered if it’s obviously a double standard and impossible?
Melissa: I can’t answer that. I could say just another way for men to have control over women but I think that’s maybe not answering the question, maybe that’s just anger. I think its because women want to have a certain lifestyle that they’ve been given the opportunity to have now and yet they’re still supposed to look a certain way from the old world thinking, pre-feminist thought, and what men find appealing today in our society is thin women.
OVO: Is this a modem problem?
Melissa: The Romans and the Greeks had vomitoriums where they actually would purge on purpose, but I think that was a way of having a decadent lifestyle and there wasn’t any kind image put before them as a reason to do that. If you discount that that it is a modern problem.
OVO: A friend of mine said that anyone who has an eating disorder should have their television taken away.
Melissa: That’s a good point because that’s where the double standard comes from. Commercials. That’s where the image is the strongest, that’s where we see the women that we’re supposed to look like.
OVO: It‘s telling that if you look at an ideal for women (and I think having one is a bad idea in the first place) prior to television that ideal is very different. It‘s changed throughout history but I think there’s a strong connection between modem eating disorders and television. All the years of film before television didn’t inspire eating disorders but film is also a visual medium. The difference is commercials.
Melissa: The food industry has created a demand for the diet industry. It’s a vicious cycle. I notice when I watch MTV sometimes (I watch it when I’m getting ready to go to work to have some background none), that when I want to look a certain way the worst I know people who’ve told me that when they’re dieting that they watch MTV because it gives them inspiration to look like the women who probably have eating disorders themselves.
OVO: What would you want someone reading this who has an eating disorder to know?
Melissa: To know that they should want to get help because it’s not something you should want to do and that you can get help. And it’s dangerous. It doesn’t seem like it’s dangerous and it’s a really easy answer but I’m sure that I’ll be really regretting a lot of what I’m doing ten years from now. I’m sure I’ll have a lot worse problems. I don‘t have a problem discussing it with friends and that‘s where I get a lot of my support but maybe that’s because a lot of my friends have eating disorders. It’s a secret and we go into our rooms to talk about it. Everybody understands that what is said behind that door is not said anywhere else. That’s what defines an eating disorder, it’s something that happens behind closed doors.
OVO: Who defines the ideal image of a woman and the ideal image of a man?
Melissa: I think the media.
OVO: Who controls the media?
Melissa: Are we talking conspiracy theory here? I think a lot of media is self-perpetuating. I don’t know who controls the media, I think that’s a whole other issue, but I think that by media offering something to the public and by the public response to that, it recreates the demand for it, like the economic law of supply and demand. It’s something that perpetuates itself.
OVO: What can we do about it?
Melissa: It should start with the individual. I try not to be influenced by images of women to look a certain way. I don’t buy the magazines. That‘s a way to start. It’s a choice the individual tries to make. By doing this interview I hope I’m reaching out to someone else. I think it’s important for us to let other people know that it‘s wrong. Know that it’s wrong ourselves then try to let everybody else know why it’s wrong and maybe beyond that do something about it together.
OVO: Like what?
Melissa: Like a support network.
OVO: What about after a support network, or in addition to it?
Melissa: That‘s when you’re ready to step into things on a big scale. I’ve written letters to fashion magazines telling them that their magazine portray images that are unhealthy for women and I think maybe a group could do that. I noticed the other day that there’s a thing on MTV where you can submit a video and tell them what you don’t like about anything. People have the option to complain about something that is on MTV that they don’t like. I thought it would be a fun thing for me and some friends to do, to make one and submit it to MTV and see if there’s a response at all.
OVO: MTV has realized that it can present any criticism of itself without changing. A friend of mine did an Art Break for them. Their contract said you have to have the MTV logo in the Art Break, and even if your Art Break is one minute of you ripping the logo up or seeing it on a TV screen and shooting it or in any way criticizing it, you still have to show the MTV logo. That‘s showing how media perpetuates itself. The problem and the solution are coming from the same source and you can’t hold onto either one of them and pull them away from yourself.
Melissa: Like Coke commercials that don’t have anything to do with the product but show the image of the product.
OVO: That’s why it’s important to boycott that kind of media completely, without exception, and simultaneously to create an alternative that people would hopefully find interesting and stimulating and life-affirming. A lot of what we’ve been talking about is good commodities versus bad commodities but eventually we’re going to have to come up with something that isn’t a commodity at all and return to something like “art” and figure out some way to make art that isn’t a commodity. It’s going to be difficult. That effort started many decades ago and it still hasn’t been achieved.
Melissa: Another example of the double standard is that the commercial I saw for the eating disorder clinic came on MTV. It portrays women as this certain ideal, then offers a solution, then help for the solution later. Usually if you notice on TV diet commercials follow food commercials.
OVO: How does education figure into it?
Melissa: That’s what’s really scary. When you learn about health and nutrition in school, usually the little pamphlets and flyers you’re given are from the National Dairy Board, who say it’s good for you to drink milk. My mother was a teacher and she said it’s because its so hard for the schools to get funding from the State that they will accept funding from corporations. I don’t take it too seriously when McDonald’s gives me a nutrition guide.
OVO: What do you think is going to happen in the future regarding eating disorders?
Melissa: I hate to say it but I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any getter. Maybe it will get so bad and so rampant that it will explode and will be like everything else in this world that’s wrong. It’ll just keep happening until something really horrible happens.
OVO: Or something really wonderful.
Melissa: And then we’ll stop and go gee, sorry. When Gloria Steinem came to the University of Tennessee she said more women have died as a result of bulemia than it’s ever been reported of people dying of AIDS. AIDS gets more recognition and I agree its a problem that needs recognition but… Even with me, I know how wrong it is for me to have an eating disorder and I still do it. Even as wrong as I know it is and even as much as I don’t want to be a victim of it, of the media and everything else, I can’t help it. When l go out and l see other people who look good or go shopping and l want to a certain kind of clothes but they won’t look good on me unless l look a certain way… It’s hard for me when people I care about have also have been fed this image that people should look like that as well, like my family. I recently took a family vacation and my aunt is really thin, and her whole family is thin, and it made me feel like I should be thin.
OVO: Have you talked with your mother about this?
Melissa: Yes. My mother was a lot more informed on the subject than l thought she would be. I was thankful for that. She was very supportive. It was a surprise for me to get that support. She agreed that a lot of what she went through on the health food kick maybe contributed.
OVO: How much TV do you watch?
Melissa: When I watch television and pay attention l am very critical. I sit there and watch it and get angry and critique everything. I’m glad I’m to this point now where if it’s on and it’s really bothering me and it’s disgusting I’ll turn it off immediately and I won’t just change the channel. I don’t like to watch a whole lot of television because I think it’s bad in ways besides just image. Sometimes I watch it before I go to work, sometimes I have it on to have in the background when I’m in the shower if nobody’s home. I like to have noise.
OVO: Do you watch TV while you eat?
Melissa: Yes, and it’s scary to notice how many other people do that.
OVO: Television destroys community and that’s another reason to boycott it if you’re trying to to establish a community of support for anything, for any sort of political project or personal improvement art or thought. You can’t just have the TV on all the time.
Melissa: That’s one reason I’m really glad I got a job. Some days I’d wake up and there was only so much in a day that I could do before I’d done it all and I’d find myself watching television. Especially since we have cable. We’re moving soon and I don’t want to get cable when we do. We have a VCR and that’s different. Selective viewing is different. There are a lot films that are worth seeing and are good movies I enjoy watching. That’s what is nice about cable, watching HBO. The other day one of my favorite movies came on and that was nice to watch.
OVO: What movie was that?
Melissa: Pretty in Pink. My housemate bought a TV Guide so that I wouldn’t have to turn on the TV when I was bored and I wanted to see if anything was good on because than if nothing was good on I’d find myself watching anyway. Now I look for things I might want to watch and watch those things only.
OVO: What is it that makes you bored?
Melissa: When l didn’t have a job and everyone else in the house would be at work, I felt that for that period of the day should be… I would clean the house every day, I’d get up and clean, and I was getting tired of cleaning. You can only clean so much until everything is spotless. Then I would wait for everyone else to come home. I was turning into a housewife! I’d make dinner and clean the house and write letters, I did everything I needed to do and there wasn’t anything else I could do, I was looking for a job but you know how that is. Now I’ve got my job and that’s nice but a bad thing is that sometimes when l get off from work I’m so exhausted l can’t think, so l want something to think for me, so I watch a box that tells me how to think. That’s really dangerous. Lately I’ve stopped letting that control me and I’ve only been watching selective television again. I watch Star Trek on Saturdays and I like the show Alien Nation because it deals with racism. When I first moved to Knoxville I didn’t have a TV for the first few months but I still had the eating disorder. I think it’s beyond television. Television influences so many areas of our lives that you can influenced by television without watching it.
from OVO 11 CONTROL (September 1991)
[Postscript March 2011: Melissa is just fine now and has been for a long time.]