Eating disorders are one of today’s most fatal illnesses prevalent among young girls and women. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram both create and promote the obsession over being thin, and significantly contribute to low self-esteem and body dysmorphia. Young girls have admitted to finding social media groups promoted on Instagram that teach girls how to be “anorexic.” The obsession of counting calories has morphed into an almost psychological pandemic. In recent years, it has taken the form with many people not only watching what they eat, but totally focused on consuming low fat, low carb, gluten free foods to maintain or lose weight. This national obsession is deadly for some, while making the lives of others a living hell based on what they eat, how they eat, and whether to binge or purge.
Melissa Broeder has written a book that explores her own obsession with food, a love affair filled with love and hate, sexuality and longing, emptiness and fullness. She talks about all night eating orgies that are as descriptive as the deepest of sexual fantasies. Her book joins other writers who have also explored their battle with eating disorders such as Stephanie Covington Armstrong, Portia de Rossi, Harriet Brown, Stacy Pershall, and Roxanne Gray. Kelly Osgood has written a book called How to Disappear Completely, where she talks about her 10-year battle with anorexia, treated through a series of inpatient hospitalizations. Natasha Hole has written a book called Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia: A Diary on how I acquired my Eating Disorder. Daniel Becker has written the first book of a child who watched his own mom die from anorexia.
Marya Hormbacher recounts her own love affair with emptiness, drugs, sex, and death. In all of these books, the tell all memoir becomes the tell all obsession with food and what it represents when it becomes more than just food. Is food love or belonging? If food is love, the rejection of food may very well be hated. Why do we love and hate ourselves? Or maybe we love and hate those who have given birth to the monsters we call ourselves. Eating disorders are self- destructive acts, but they are also acts aimed at self-soothing. Are people with eating disorders destroying themselves to preserve their authenticity? Milk Fed conjures up the many complex theories around what eating disorders are, and the difficulty of living with coping, managing and living with them.
In an age when the Memoir has become the new chai latte, life stories and stories about addiction (food, alcohol, drugs, and sex) are floating like coffee aroma’s from every branch of the New York times, the spindly arms of bookstores, and the shiny screen of Amazon Prime’s promise of eternal life. What is the fascination for everyday people telling the story of their dramas in such graphic detail? The fashionable thing these days is to confess it all, neuroticism is spotlighted in the Larry David Show (as it was in Seinfeld) as a tribute and celebration. Yet, the tell all story of the dark tale of deep illness takes Larry David one step further, a step that is dangerously close to death. As I browse the internet’s list of books on addiction, eating disorders, and memoirs, I wonder which memoir I ought to read first. Will I find myself in any of these books? My therapist told me to be myself, since everyone is taken. I rolled my eyes when she said that to me, because of course everyone knows that Oscar Wilde said it years ago.
But I politely thanked her, told her it was a good idea and stormed out of the office dreaming and scheming of how to be famous as a normal person with a neurotic story to tell that is both revelatory and dramatic, and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Which shiny dysfunctional book shall I read next?
With that question in my mind, I went to the bookstore to search for memoirs about troubled people. I wanted to find writers that I could either copy their style, plagiarize their content, or just see what they were writing so I could get ideas about my own interior life. I came across Melissa Broder’s book and read it quickly and swiftly. She explored themes I had experienced but had not been able to admit or voice. She wrote about thoughts that were often found taboo. And she wrote without shame (at least I thought so), and it felt so freeing. It was like reading a diary without apology. Viewing without guilt and seeing without the sudden urge to shut your eyes. I loved it!
Milk Fed is about Melissa’s food obsessed, diet crazed eating disorder. It also about her fantasies, her sexual fluidity, and an exploration of the relationship with her mother. The book explores the difficulty of setting boundaries and the challenge of keeping those boundaries once they have been set. Melissa sees a therapist who tells her to “detox” from her mother in order to get a hold on her eating disorder. This order is not an easy one to follow, and it is something that we can all relate to. Whether it is a drug or alcohol detox, a food detox or an emotional detox, once in a while it seems necessary to take a break from those things that obsess us. Melissa’s novel is a thinly veiled fictional account of her own struggles with dysfunction, anxiety and depression. Her book of essays called So Sad Today actually began as an anonymous twitter feed that went viral and turned into a popular book.
Melissa talks about the things we all feel. Anxiety, loneliness, secrecy and shame. Words like erotic, sex, and food magically combine to create a poetry of her life, that is like the poetry we all feel at times. Her book lured me into her wildly obsessed and neurotic world. I laughed when one reviewer said that Melissa Broeder talked about waiting for the universe to text her back. How many times have you stared at your phone, waiting for the small dots to signify that someone is typing you back! Melissa is not a TV star, an athlete, or a social commentator. She is not the President or the President’s wife. But she is a person like you or I, who has struggled to keep food and emotions down, struggled to not die over erotic sex, and struggled to deal with her mother. Years ago, there was a book written called My Mother, Myself by Nancy Friday who explored the deep bond that women had with their mothers and the struggle for independence. Maybe you feel it too – and maybe that is something that drove Melissa Broeder to write about her own mother. Are eating disorders more to do with the pre-oedipal dynamics before language – when we had no words but only desires and wants. The books invites us to explore this and more.
All of us love and hate, fear and loath, desire and rebel against the deepest parts of ourselves. We learn that the womb is a safe and scary place. We burst into the world and often want to turn back and stop time. The wild pendulum where Meliisa Broeder lives is called her life, short for her emotions. We are emotional who have voices secrets, and we crave things that are taboo. I have always wondered if Melissa’s mom was embarrassed at what her daughter has written, since she talks about Jewish shame and guilt and her mom’s own obsession with weight and calorie counting. I have concluded that details about lives and emotions often fall into the arc of art – where those details pale in comparison to the people they touch – and the universal truth that individual pain often displays, divulges and dramatizes. Eating, starvation, binging and purging, and sex and death share one thing in common – the urge to be both full and empty at the same time. It is the urge to find salvation and the urge to repent. Donald Winnicott longed to be alive at his own death, and maybe that desire is echoed in Melissa Broeder’s memoir – as in the saga of all stories lived on the edge of extinction.