Monday, January 28, 2008

Sorority Girls

In the New York Times bestseller, Pledged, Alexandra Robbins goes undercover among a group of sorority members in order to expose the inner workings of female Greek groups. What's interesting, though not surprising, is the incidence, condonation, and even camaraderie, of eating disorders in sororities.

Robbins covers everything from "Pig Runs" (when newly selected sorority members, termed "pigs," would sprint to the houses that chose them) to gym attendance: "Gymming had become a popular gerund [in sororities], as in, 'I need to go gymming if I eat this cookie.'" One sister was dropped from the school's cheerleading because she was too fat. . . a size 2.

According to Robbins, women's bodies are front and center through the sorority selection process, and according to a rush manual (Rush: A Girl's Guide to Sorority Success) she quotes:
For example, if you are overweight, you must try to lose weight before rush. If you have acne problems, you should work on clearing up your face. whatever problems you have, you must do your best to minimize them. Physical attractiveness plays a large part in the overall evaluation process.
Not having much to go on besides looks, sorority members rate rushees after just several minutes of conversation. When I was in a sorority and new to the "better" end of the rush process, we were instructed to rate each woman on a scale of 1-5 (1 being the best, 5 the worst). We had to shout out the numbers in front of the entire sisterhood, and sometimes debate ensued. Since hundreds of women had visited the house each day, we relied on the notes we had scribbled in unobtrusive notebooks (hidden under couch cushions, in the stairwells) to jog our memories. Having sat through this process for one year, I feigned illness the next. How can you rate a person on a scale of 1-5?

It's not hard, according to some. A visitor from our national office, who was sent to advise us on selecting appropriate women during rush, rhetorically asked: "You don't want any dogs in the house, do you?"

Once selected, and now pledges, the women are subjected to similar scrutiny. Robbins writes:
I had been under the impression that pledging practices such as 'circle the fat' and 'bikini weight' were the stuff of urban legend. I was wrong. During circle the fat, pledges undress and, one by one stand in front of the entire sorority membership. The sisters (or, in some chapters, fraternity brothers) then use thick black markers to circle the fat or cellulite on a pledge's body. The purpose is to help the pledge learn what parts of her body she needs to improve. During bikini weigh, or "weigh-in," pledges are weighed in front of either the sisterhood or a fraternity; the audience yells the number displayed on the scale.
I'm guessing this doesn't come with the same degree of support and respect as the weigh-ins on The Biggest Loser. And, helping pledges identify what parts of her body she needs to improve? Is that new information for them? Thankfully, these practices did not occur in my house, though sisters frequently binged, restricted, and over-exercised together. It's no wonder that plumbers must frequently service sorority houses, as Robbins notes, to unclog the bulimia-ravaged pipes. In an overall university environment where eating disorders are rampant, they flourish, perhaps to an even greater degree, in sororities that maintain such practices and expectations.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

New York News

Congratulations to the now-famous members of this community, Shapely Prose, Big Fat Deal, fat fu, and The Rotund, who were recently featured in The New York Times "Health" section. Well done!

And, elsewhere in NY:

Spotted on a coffee mug: "Food has replaced sex in my life. Now I can't even get into my own pants."

And, on a greeting card: "Some women can eat all the cake and ice cream they want and never gain a pound. And they are called bitches. Happy Birthday"

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Men in the Locker Room

One day, as I walked into the ladies' locker room at the gym, the attendant informed me that there were men inside, attending to some repairs. That particular day, I didn't have to undress, but simply had to lock up my belongings. It's funny, though, my gut reaction to hearing there were men inside: "So?"

Because I'm not a stripper, I wondered about my cavalier attitude to the presence of men. What became clear was my underlying belief that men in the locker room would be less inclined to stare at my body, at least in a critical way, less inclined to judge than my female counterparts.

More recently, I stepped up to one of the vanity/hairdryer stations, letting my towel slip from my chest to my waist. My neighbor caught my absent-minded action and said: "Must be nice to be comfortable enough to [insert let-it-all-hang-out gesture here]!"

I suppose, but, often, it's function over form. My locker room routine involves accomplishing the most I can in the shortest period of time. One day, as I dried my hair and simultaneously applied lotion to my limbs and tweezed my brows, another woman commented, "You've just brought multi-tasking to a new level." And, I have. . .

But, what's interesting in me, is the way that women evaluate one another--yes, each of these reactions serves as compliments, I think; I'm comfortable with my body (according to woman #1) and exhibit record-breaking efficiency (woman #2). But, there's still a great deal of observation, of judgment. I can only wonder the negative evaluations that they're thinking but wouldn't dare to say, and I can't help but think that if I were a man in the men's locker room, my behavior, unless extraordinary, would go unnoticed. Women, as most of us know, are our worst critics. That eyeing-you-up-and-down gaze is never as penetrating as it when shot from female eyes. It's no wonder I'd be more comfortable disrobing in front of men.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lip Balms On Me!

A while back, I found myself at Ricky's cosmetics chainlet, picking up a few necessities. When I placed my items on the counter, I noticed a basket full of lip balm, maybe 20 tubes or so, with a handwritten note on its rim, "Free."

"Are these really for free?" I asked the sales clerk. Right about now, you're probably wondering what kind of cockamamie university granted me my Ph.D. But, I kinda had to ask before taking, you know?

The whole concept of self-regulated, free products right there on the counter intrigued me. And this was good lip balm, good SPF-laced, organic lip balm. My dermatologist (and mother) would be so proud. How many should I take? What if I took the whole basket? Could I? I mean, they're free, but I probably should leave some of the tubes for others. Where do you draw the line? Funny thing is, I don't even wear lip balm!

You know, I've heard that women do this, stock up unnecessarily on products, on toiletries. Does the shampoo in the cabinet under your sink run three bottles deep? Word is, it's a vestigial feature of our hunting and gathering days. Women, as gatherers like to do, well, gather. We stock up on occasion, warding off the consequences of draught, at the expense of uncluttered cabinets, as the expense of our partners wondering why we need two back-up sticks of deodarant at all times.

But the reason I'm writing about lip balm, in case it's not imminently clear, is that I think we do the same thing with food. For those who have restricted over time, through dieting/anorexia/any other means, exposure to food often results in a compensantory binge, taking all the lip balm, so to speak, and hoarding it, because it might not be available for future demand. If we were to allow ourselves to eat when hungry and to eat some of the foods we crave, we'd be less inclined to want the whole enchilada and more inclined just to take what we need. Like two tubes of lip balm, leaving the wicker basket to its original, rightful owners. . .

Monday, January 14, 2008

This Is Not a Political Post


But, I do want to talk about Hillary. Specifically, about her body, because clearly, her body is more of a topic than Obama's, Edwards', or Romney's.

Maybe we like a svelte leader--remember the Mr. Clinton McDonald's debacle? On an episode of the wonderful, but canceled, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, comic Ted Alexandro quips that Jesus had "great abs" -- "That what you want in a Savior, because have you seen Buddha?"

But, Hillary, regardless of what you think of her as a person or politician, is more Jesus than Buddha in size. As far as I'm aware, none of the other candidates have been scrutinized about their bodies.

Obama's love handles? McCain's double chin? Huckabee better be mindful about gaining any weight after his highly touted 100-pound weight loss, which he chronicles in Quit Digging your Grave with a Knife and Fork: A 12-Stop Program to End Bad Habits and Begin a Healthy Lifestyle. The 12 "stops" include:

1. STOP Procrastinating.
2. STOP Making Excuses.
3. STOP Sitting on the Couch.
4. STOP Ignoring Signals from Your Body.
5. STOP Listening to Destructive Criticism.
6. STOP Expecting Immediate Success.
7. STOP Whining.
8. STOP Making Exceptions.
9. STOP Storing Provisions for Failure.
10.STOP Fueling with Contaminated Food.
11.STOP Allowing Food to Be A Reward.
12.STOP Neglecting Your Spiritual Health.

Now, if only for emotional eaters and other eating disordered folks, it did involve just 12 basic stops. . . .

Why is Hillary's shape part of the equation? Why is she the candidate whose body we need to judge?

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Y'all know cggirl, right? A regular reader/commenter on this site, cggirl also happens to be Michal Finegold, a talented computer graphics artist, who's working on a new project (see below). Cggirl would appreciate your thoughts/comments about this work-in-progress, and I'm curious about your reactions, too, given the apropos subject matter.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Yeah, They're My Skinny Jeans, MOO-Fah!

Every once in a while, I get a mass-market email from someone who's clearly never read my blog. For instance, right in time for the New Year's diet surge, I received an email from a media marketing company informing me of a new diet "targeting women's mid-section."

Now, you realize there's a problem with our collective mid-section, don't you?

The message states, "Take a look at more of the amazing details below, thought you'd like them for your blog!" And, I do. . .

The diet consists of several small-er meals a day (no novelty here), with the inclusion of monounsaturated fatty acids at each meal. The diet calls these MUFA's, and even spells out the correct pronunciation ("MOO-fahs") for help.

What struck me beyond this tip, though, was "Cornerstone #2" of the plan. The diet encourages us to use "a mind trick at every meal," such as "arrange cut flowers in a vase and place it on the table where you eat [or] keep your skinny jeans on a hanger in full view."

Now, I'm all for cut flowers, but my skinny jeans on a hanger in full view?

The message is punitive, an ascetic demand that robs us of our power to eat intuitively. Personally, I happen to eat most of my meals at work, at restaurants, or on the run. I can only imagine my skinny jeans hanging from my office bookshelves--imagine the conversation starter there. . . .

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Eat, Drink, & Be Merry

Today, I sat around and did nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. . . I read a memoir, caught up on emails, did the crossword, closed my eyes a few times, took a long lunch. . . . In short, I attended jury duty.

My book? Caroline Knapp's, Drinking: A Love Story, which so far, I highly recommend. You might know Knapp better from the chronicle of her struggle with anorexia, Appetites: Why Women Want, published posthumously* in 2004. In reading, Drinking, I'm compelled to think more formally about the similarities between eating disorders and addictions. Since I specialize in both, I'm often struck by how analogous they seem, how sometimes my language involves mere word substitution in order to convey the difference. We use alcohol or substances the way we use (or don't use) food. To escape. To distract. To numb. To cope.

Knapp writes about attending an AA meeting, where alcoholism was described as a "fear of life." Sound familiar? She goes on to write about how she, personally, would diagnose alcohol dependence:
Are you driven by a feeling of hunger and need? When someone sets a bottle of wine on the dinner table, do you find yourself glancing at it subversively, possessively, the way you might look at a lover you long for but don't quite trust? When someone pours you a glass from the bottle, do you take careful note of the level of liquid in the glass, and measure it secretly against the level of liquid in the other glasses, and hold your breath for just a second until you're assured you have enough? Do you establish an edgy feeling of relationship with that glass, that wine bottle; do you worry over it, care about it, covet it, want it all for yourself? Can you bear the thought that it might run out, that you'll be left sitting there without it, alone and unprotected?
See what I mean? Substitute food for wine, and you've just diagnosed emotional eating.

Both alcohol/substance abuse and eating disorders are coping mechanisms, which allow us to tolerate difficult emotions, to manage our lives more effectively, until, of course, the coping strategy itself becomes problematic. Both represent behavioral addictions designed to ward off distress, triggered by similar internal/external stimuli. Both involve oral (in the case of most substances) fixation, signaling, in psychobabble, unmet dependency needs. Both destroy the lives of others and ourselves.

Not uncommonly, patients will present with both an eating disorder and alcohol/substance abuse. When one remits, the other, sometimes, will worsen. It's not surprising. The bottom line is, we need a way to cope, and when we're robbed of one weapon, we're quick to return to the arsenal to determine what remains. On my two-train commute home, the walls of one advertised Weight Watchers, the other Stolichnaya.

*A quick Google search reveals that the sober Knapp, a long-time smoker, died of lung cancer in 2002.