Flockhart’s Frame is No Laughing Matter

By The Columbia Chronicle

When I saw Calista Flockhart’s feeble frame at the Emmys a couple of months ago, I was jealous. Most seemed disgusted by her protruding skeleton and sunken cheeks. But I looked at her waify appearance and thought, “Geez, if I could only be that thin…if only my bones stuck out like that.”

To me, the image of Flockhart, a.k.a. TV’s Ally McBeal, was perfect. Her collar bone was visible and her knobby shoulders led up to her skinny neck — why couldn’t I look like that? It’s been increasingly difficult in recent weeks because that picture of her has been highly visible on magazine covers. When I see it, my mind races in its classic form: “OK, Val. Don’t eat lunch, fat pig. Purge your dinner.”

It was aggravating because she is so thin and my mind tells me I am so “fat.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t just disgruntled with my body — I was upset with the media. Here they have a chance to educate the public about the seriousness of eating disorders, and all they were doing was making them more attractive.

Not that I have ever believed “Cosmo” cover models were the cause of such disorders. If all little girls grow up with the media, then why don’t they all develop eating disorders too? The truth is it’s only one of the elements that trigger these multi-causal disorders. On the surface, eating disorders are about weight and calories. They are about comparing your body with everyone else’s, and always feeling fatter and more inadequate than the image you see. People say you look thin, but you don’t believe it. You magnify your every flaw and distort reality. It’s an obsession.

But underneath these symptoms lies a psychological disorder that kills 10 to 25 percent of those who suffer, making it the deadliest of mental illnesses. There are emotional reasons that cause women (and over a million men) to turn to eating disorders as a coping mechanism. The sickness distracts them from internal anguish.

This was a major factor for my anorexia. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to feel my emotions — I had to adjust my feelings to keep peace, especially when it came to matters concerning my father. He was a volatile man, and to keep him from blowing up my sisters and I were told to just keep quiet. Home wasn’t a comfort zone; it was a battlefield, and I was becoming a casualty of it. But I wore my happy face, and continuously suppressed my needs for everyone else’s; mine didn’t matter — I was the people-pleaser, the “good girl,” who did as she was told.

In the past year, I have been in treatment for anorexia. It has taken weeks of individual counseling, attending support groups, and even a hospitalization to keep me on track. It is such a hard thing to let go of — sometimes I still see it as my friend. It takes my mind off what really bothers me, and places me into a world of calories and exercise — a world I can control. When I hate myself, anorexia shrinks me away, makes me feel tiny and unnoticeable.

I do not solely blame my family for my anorexia, however. I have always been very sensitive and painfully shy; I take everything to heart. I became deeply depressed, but didn’t believe my problems were as bad as others. My mind told me I was worthless, fat, and didn’t deserve to live. So anorexia crept in as my passive suicide; I was surrendering. Finally my emotions came out in the form of restricting my calories from anywhere to 1,200 to 800, depending on my day. They came out in the form of purging what little I did eat, and excessive exercising, followed by 300 stomach crunches. I judged my worth by numbers on a scale. Dealing with an empty stomach was easier than handling my empty heart.

It is a psychological hell. I am recovering, but I still struggle with the anorexic voice that tells me I am fat and I don’t deserve to be happy. But as I heal, I want to do what the media isn’t doing — educate the public. Just last week, Entertainment Weekly ran a story about Flockhart’s dwindling size, and had a caption that read, “Purge overkill.” To many this illness is still not taken seriously; they laugh at it because they don’t understand it.

And the magazines with Flockhart’s skinny picture don’t help to alleviate this. They don’t put statistics next to her photograph that tell how over eight million people suffer from this or that, one in four college students engage in disordered eating habits. All they show is the thinness — the protruding bones that look so glamorous. Those in the eating disordered mind-set see Flockhart’s image and compare their stomachs, hips and thighs against hers. We have to be the best at being the thinnest; it’s just part of the illness.