Friday, June 23, 2006

The Road to American Idol

American Idol finalist Katharine McPhee, 22, recently went public with her struggle with bulimia. According to People magazine, Ms. McPhee has a history of bingeing, self-induced starvation and vomiting, as well as excessive exercise, beginning at age 17. After auditioning for Idol, she sought treatment at the Los Angeles Eating Disorder Center of California and now discusses her disorder in the past tense.

I’m so happy that Ms. McPhee has recovered from her illness and, even more so, that she’s willing to share with the public the depths of her disease. I do, however, have one small bone to pick.

Since her appearance on the show, Ms. McPhee has lost 30 pounds due to some variation of an “intuitive eating” approach, as reported by People. Interestingly, these types of approaches are the exact ones I espouse—eating what you want, when you want, and not depriving yourself. (See, it does lead to weight loss!)

But, it summarizes perfectly the dilemma I have regarding the work that I do. I realize that what people most want to hear (and what sells best) is how to lose weight. Even if I think the approach is healthier than a diet or, certainly, a disordered-eating ritual, the goal is still to help you shrink your size.

But, is this it?

Is this the ultimate goal, or should there be a larger and more psychologically adaptive one (the therapist in me is shrieking, “Yes, yes!”) that allows you to accept yourself for who you are, no matter what your size or what the scale reads?

There’s a part of me that wishes Ms. McPhee could have exited treatment and retained the 30 pounds. Wouldn’t that have represented a larger challenge, to give up her bingeing and purging as coping resources and become comfortable with who she was? Instead, the message seems to be that if you treat your bulimia, you can lose weight (which may happen), not that if you treat your eating disorder, you’ll improve your physical and psychological health and be a better person because of it. Ms. McPhee is a role model for girls and women around this country and, likely, beyond. Recovering from an illness and promoting self-acceptance at any weight would make her the greatest idol, yet.


PalmTreeChick said...

First of all, I'm proud of Kat for "coming out" about her struggle with an eating disorder. I don't know why it has to become so public, but I am proud of her for taking the proper steps to recovery. She's a smart girl!

I also agree with what you said about losing the 30 lbs after treatment. Isn't the idea to accept yourself at any weight? Like you said. Of course, a healthy weight is always a good weight, but Kat it seems that kat would have been at a healthy weight with the 30 extra pounds.

FYI- I voted for Kat! :)

Joyce said...

I feel sad to hear of the painful past she has survived. I also totally relate with your question of how we define "wellness" I know that in my life, I feel "fully recovered" when I don't abuse food, but am also thin without dieting or starving. When I am heavier, i feel like I need to "get better" in my head, and therefore lose weight and be genuinely "well" and thin again. It's not enough for me to be physically and psychologically well.I want to be thin as well.

annie said...

I have trouble drawing the line between working to improve myself and accepting myself for who I am. For example, I am always thinking about refining my goals and values, but I also color my hair (because afterall we know that gray-haired women are "dowdy" but men are "distinguished"), work out to try and tighten hanging flesh, and occasionally get filler injections (not Botox--I know better)to fill out loose jowls on my face that make me feel droopy. I can differentiate between those things and doing my nails, let's say, because the latter I put under the category of "fixing myself up" which makes me feel good--that I am taking care of myself. So, I don't know how to view dieting unless I am doing it strictly for health reasons. Even then, the "body as chapel" mindset is extremely restrictive, and eventually does lead down the path to the Baby Ruth aisle.

allisonsky said...

I will say that being about 100 pounds at 5 feet almost my whole life felt great physically. I could run, play,do whatever with ease. When I had my children I was 150 pounds after childbirth and it felt awful. I had trouble leaning into my washing maching to get clothes out. I would huff and puff while I exercised because of the extra weight, and it was hard to get in and out of my car. EVERYTHING became a chore because of my weight. Even at 135 pounds my inner thighs would rub together and sweat, and it was still hard to enjoy life PHYSICALLY. Unfortunately if you are physically uncomfortable you feel sad mentally. Also, the bigger I was the hungrier I was because my stomach and body needed more fuel to retain the weight. Now I am 120, my thighs don't rub together, I feel good physically and can lean easily into my washing machine. However, I must say occasionally I will go down to 115 and even feel better physically which than makes me feel better mentally. I would love to be 100 pounds one day for looks purposes but this weight feels as good as 100. Anyway, my point being if you a have never been fat and overweight you wouldn't know this info...... Also, nursing helped me lose most of my weight, plus chasing to kids, AND unfortuntely I did have to do a lot of portion control and healthy eating choices. (did have to suffer from hunger pains to get to 120) So I don't know if that is considered a diet. What do you think DR. Stace?????

Linda said...

Dr. Stacey Do you think that in order to gain Self-Acceptance, one must first lose the Disease to Please? Do you think people seek approval on a subconscious level and that it causes an eventual negative backlash? How about the fear of abandonment as a motivator for denying the very core of your being? Seems to me that eating disorders or other types of emotional problems are tied around the issues leading back to self-acceptance.

Haley-O said...

I remember that everyone was saying how amazing Cat was looking as the show progressed--that she was losing weight (and the Pickler was gaining weight). She must be under a lot of pressure now to look great. More pressure than she's ever experienced. Her present circumstances, moreover, (in the spotlight) are ideal for a relapse. I find that people that talk the most about "how great their doing" are hiding something, or on the verge of breaking down. That she lost 30 pounds, is coming out with this article, and is living in the spotlight, all worry me. Once a bulimic, always a bulimic--or at least a recovering bulimic. Basically, I am not convinced by the article.

PalmTreeChick said...

Very true about being in the spotlight Haley. The pressures to look and be perfect are unbelievable. That's why I haven't made it as a big country singing star yet. ;) Now she'll have the media even more all over her, judging her and commenting on her weight and appearance. It's too bad.

allisonsky said...

When I am excited about a change in my life or anxiety ridden, I literally can NOT eat. My adreniline is pumping which makes you physically not able to swallow food. When I am happy and content I have a very large appetite and want to eat everything in sight. My point being is this Kat may have been so excited she physically wasn't hungry. I know people who are anxious and excited that eat to feel calm. Everyone is different. Something to ponder.....May not be part of an eating disorder at all but natures way of "fight or flight" from way back. If a bear is running after you, RUN, all adrenaline, no appetite.

Shaunta said...

Isn't it possible that 'intuitive eating' was part of her treatment for bulima, and that without binging she just naturally lost weight? If you used to binge, and now you oon't, then you're eating fewer calories, so the weight comes off naturally. I know, because it's happening to me. Also, all those dance routine practices and stuff for the show would contribute to a natural weight loss, if she wasn't working out at all before. And just keeping busy with the show, rather than focusing and obsessing on food and her weight might have also taken off weight without her trying to.

drstaceyny said...

Joyce--it's hard to fight the cultural messages. I really am still struggling with what the ultimate goal of my work is, so it's helpful to get your feedback.

Annie--yes, for most people, being restrictively healthy results in eventually befriending B.R. I think you raise an interesting question re: what's healthy/not re: "improving" our looks. I'm sure many of us would draw the line at different points on the continuum. For me, some things are clear-cut (nails/hair, not a big deal, liposuction, big deal), but ultimately, I think it raises the questions of, could you live without the change and does your self-worth depend on it? I like getting my nails done, but could never do it again, if necessary. If I were approaching plastic surgery, I'd probably feel like I HAD to do it, and for that reason, I won't. When a behavior controls you, it's a sign that it's probably time to think again (assuming that you're trying to arrive at a place of ultimate self-acceptance).

AS--so for you, being bigger felt unhealthy--you were winded easily and didn't like the way you felt. It's important to know that not everyone feels this way--there are plenty of obese people who are perfectly healthy, despite what the media would have you believe. Re: your method of dropping weight, only you know if it felt restrictive (like a diet) or not. If you were making healthy choices and controlling portion size (because you knew your body didn't really want the larger size, anyway), that sounds like something that could last. I'm not sure about the hunger pangs piece, though, since you know I'd recommend not to ignore them.

Linda--yes, they're definitely related to self-acceptance. Re: the need to please, I'm wondering which came first--maybe, if we can arrive at a healthier place of self-acceptance, we won't have the need to please (or to look for something on the outside that we're not getting from within). Just a thought. . . Seems to me that someone who isn't self-accepting will pretty much do ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING to avoid abandonment, b/c the essence of her being relies on someone else.

Haley--you're right, eating disorders have a pretty high relapse rate. Hopefully, she's continuing her work and getting support.

PTC--I was wondering why I hadn't seen you at the CMA's! ; )

Shaunta--yes, I'm sure (or at least hoping) that she's lost weight b/c she's cut out the bingeing. Also, as AS noted on an earlier post, being on that show might cause many people to lose weight--the dancing, the stress, etc. I don't doubt any of that. What I was saying, though, is that the media's focus on her 30-lb weight-loss distracts from what she's accomplished as part of her recovery, and that there's a part of me that wishes we had role models who promote acceptance at any weight.

Michelle said...

Hi all!

I am 1.5 years recovered from 14 years of bulimia. I recovered because I learned how to grow spiritually healthy (initially through a great coach). Then, not only did my desire to binge & purge fade away, but also my chronic depression, rage issues, panic attacks, and scary unpredictability.

I evaluated a lot of what I used to do: was it for me or for what I thought society expected of me? And, I let a few things go. My hair, for example, is very gray, although I had been coloring it for about 12 years. I decided I didn't really like to bother with it, so I stopped. Now, it's quite colorful as the fake color grows out and the gray and my real color grow in. But, I don't mind it all.

My body, however, is a different story. My goal is no longer to be skinny, but I do value being strong and fit. So, when I choose to eat more at times (celebrations, socially, etc.), I will choose to watch what I'm eating for a few days afterward. Note: I will never restrict or disallow anything. Even when feeling my "fattest," I still want to enjoy a sampling of chocolate or ice cream or something every day.

Like Allison says, as my weight goes up, I get physically uncomfortable. My asthma gets increasingly noticeable and unpleasant. And, I get little inklings of concern about the diabetes that runs rampant in both sides of my family. When I stick to my set-weight (of course, I don't own a scale, so I get weighed only once a year at the doctors), I feel more energetic and motivated and creative.

We all need to find our set-weight - one that allows us to overindulge on occassion and to mindfully eat what we want in general, with our focus on variety, nutrition, and satiety, as well as fun and trying new things.

Of course, we can't honestly get to and stay at that set-point long-term until we stop using food to calm us, to comfort us, to entertain us. And, that brings me right back to spiritual growth.

Love to you all,
Michelle Hope (

kathrynoh said...

A few years ago, the winner of Idol in Australia was a bigger girl who was comfortable with her size and had no intention of dieting. A lot of people, like my mum, voted for her because they loved seeing someone like that on tv and wanted her to win.

She's not really seemed to do much with her career since the show finished though and I'm sure it's because the record company have no idea how to market someone who doesn't fit into the skinny pop chick category.

I guess you get into this whole grey area too - if you promote someone who is bigger are you saying obesity is okay or are you giving bigger teenagers a positive role model?