Feeding My Dog

My husband kept his last name when we married; only our eldest dog, Auggie, chose to hyphenate. Augusta Matson-Johnson does what she wants.

“It’s a good sign when the dog who knows you best connects with your new wife,” I explained to my husband. He agreed. He and Auggie are the best package deal. Like Auggie, I have imagined so many ways to get through the banalities and indignities of daily life. Until a few years ago, I never could have dreamed of sharing it with a man as good as her owner, and her.

Mornings are exciting. After feeding the baby, I walk the dogs, then feed the dogs, then take a shower, then feed the cat. No one waits patiently for me to do this on my own timetable. Two labrador chins rest on my side of the mattress while I nurse, Auggie wanting her walk and Joon wanting her food. If it’s early, I will walk beneath the stars with the dogs, Auggie leading the way with her wagging tail while Joon searches for scraps of anything to put in her mouth. This time is a religion for me.

When we get home, breakfast time in the kitchen is Joon’s purpose in life. Auggie, not so much. Auggie often waits before eating. “She’s reminding us she’s not a dog,” my husband says. This was funny until she stopped eating.

Eventually, I fed her slowly on the floor, pellet by pellet, between my fingers. I did this two times a day around the time our baby was two months old. She took some of the food, so it was worth it. Then she stopped taking the pellets, even from my hands, even one by one. We came up with a series of elaborate rituals designed to stop the cat from eating her food, in case she might want it later. We started using wet food. She took it for a time, and then she stopped.

As a former anorexic, I can relate to the emotional tinnitus Auggie must feel: The stupid, hollow ring of someone’s well-intentioned and totally fucking clueless “Why don’t you just eat?” in response to obvious emaciation and declining health. I suspect there are many reasons why Auggie doesn’t just eat, many of them going beyond her arthritis and being almost 14 years old. But she is weak and we had to do something.

Saturday, we took her to the vet. He expressed surprise that she wasn’t falling over given her dramatic weight loss, and told us to start feeding her whatever people food she would take. He used the word “hospice.” And so, though my husband and I are both vegetarians since childhood and frankly find cold cuts to be disgusting, we now have a refrigerator full of meat.

I pick up some smoked turkey and it’s slimy. I roll it. I smile. I call for Auggie. And she eats piece after piece after piece. This is a time when I could start to get really sad, because I love this dog. But I love this dog. This is a dream come true for her. I am making her sandwiches, feeding her cookies, and giving her exactly what she wants. When she gets up, I hear her, and call for her to come my way, cheering, “Yay, Auggie!” She comes in a little less wobbly now, beaming. We are not sorry and we are not sad. Life is a present moment. It should be so fun.

229318_10151098443816559_292784131_n

What Do I Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder?

What do I say to my friend or family member with an eating disorder? How can I help? Is it possible for me to fix it?

As a survivor of anorexia and an advocate for body acceptance, I get asked these questions all the time. This makes me sick, since it reminds me that if I had a magic wand to make eating disorders go away forever I would wave until my arm fell off, but it also reminds me that my arm is still here and I keep getting asked for more people.

First things first: I am neither a medical professional nor a licensed therapist. I am merely someone who nearly died because of anorexia, spent even more time suffering a whole bunch, and fought her way through to the other side.

Please engage with professionals who can truly help your loved one. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and a host of resources I urge you to check out.

What I have said to many others is based on my experience as a survivor who lost some friends along the way. I have less to suggest in terms of what to do or say, and more in terms of things to not do or say.

Do offer your unconditional love and support. What I most needed were people to love me, not fix me. Leave the treatment to the professionals and don’t try to be “the enforcer” of healthier habits. The “I’ll save you” path isn’t likely to go far, and it can also make it harder for the person to come to you later if they need help. They may not want to let you down when they are slipping. At least, this is the way I was.

Knowing that you will always be there and love them — no matter what — is a powerful weapon that may ultimately support a recovery process led by the person with the eating disorder and the professional team supporting them.

Don’t engage in “fat talk” — about them, or yourself. Your loved one doesn’t need to hear you tell them that you feel fat, or that you ate something “good” or “bad.” And while you don’t want to be dismissive if they bring up their body or eating or exercise with you (after all, it’s probably dominating their thoughts), you certainly don’t need to play the eating disorder-affirming game of good foods and bad foods, fat clothes and skinny clothes, hot bodies and ugly bodies.

Don’t comment on their appearance. “You look good,” or “you look healthy” were horrible swords thrown at me by well-meaning people. Sometimes I used these comments as reasons to be proud of horrible things I had done to myself. Other times I would use them as proof that I needed to punish myself further. You simply don’t need to comment on their appearance. Stay out of it. Comment on and compliment them for who they are, not what they look like or what they are eating.

Don’t participate in trigger activities. Your loved one may most want to suggest activities that serve their eating disorder, such as exercising, going for a long walk, trying on clothes at the mall, baking a batch of cookies (maybe only for others to eat, a common eating disorder behavior), or going to a buffet to eat. Not lecturing them about these activities would be good, but that doesn’t mean that you need to participate. Find other healthy things to do together.

Do support them getting professional help. If your loved one has an eating disorder, support them in getting professional help. No, you don’t have to be the enforcer, but you can support them by scheduling fun group activities at times when they are not going to therapy, not disparaging therapists or anti-depressants and similar drugs, and the like. Further, if they haven’t taken that first step yet, you can share with them names and telephone numbers of places where they can get help and assure them it’s strong, not weak, to reach out for support.

Good luck and I am so sorry for the experiences that have led you to read this.

A Body (Image) Changed: On Pregnancy, Breastfeeding And Eating Disorders

From a self-image standpoint, taking my maternity clothes out of my chest of drawers and putting my old clothes back in has been the hardest part of my pregnancy, childbirth and new mothering journey. This might have been the same if I hadn’t had anorexia, but I don’t know.

My body has changed. My old clothes don’t fit the way they used to. I am larger, rounder and my softer spots gather in different places. Do I have a pouf above a flat spot because I had a cesarean section, or is that the way my body processes any manner of birth? I don’t know.

To put away the maternity clothes ends the imprimatur of “a wild time” when my body was doing something rather than simply being something (me). I was mostly okay before. In response to overwhelming pressures pregnant women and mothers get to engage in body image negativity, I could clutch an ancillary detail and say: Fuck you, I’m pregnant. Or: Fuck you, I’m having a girl. Or: Fuck you, I had a baby. Or: Fuck you, I’m feeding a baby. But now it’s simply time to survive as a mother, a woman, a human being. In this paradigm my best choice is to look at that belly fat, those lines around my eyes, this body I’ve never had, not in this way, and say: Fuck yeah.

It’s fun.

Putting away the maternity clothes forced me to face the facts. My body doesn’t look different today because I’m pregnant, or because I just had a baby. My body looks different today because it is different. Accepting this, the difference of a new day with a body, versus a comparison to an ideal of what a person thinks her body once was or someday should be, is both difficult and joyous. For me, having this baby forced this issue.

What I wouldn’t have predicted is this: Breastfeeding is the second-best thing that has happened to my body image, just behind recovering from my eating disorders years ago. Yes, breastfeeding. Not getting through pregnancy. Not getting through childbirth. Breastfeeding.

To watch my daughter cry when she’s hungry and eat only until she is full. To think about how I treat my body directly impacting how well she will be able to feed. To, unlike pregnancy, see the results every day.

She is growing. She is healthy. She is happy. She is thriving. She is strong.

And, fuck yeah, so am I.

Update: Response To Open Letter About Eating Disorder Culture To CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Late last night, I received the following response to my open letter to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch about his comments that larger women aren’t part of the “cool kids”, and that’s why his stores sell larger sizes for men and not for women:

(bolding mine)
Erin,
Thanks for emailing into Abercrombie & Fitch.
While I am unable to escalate this letter straight to our CEO, we understand that what our CEO said has offended many of our customers and we are taking all feedback for review. I will make sure your feedback is reviewed by the appropriate business department.
Akira
Customer Service
Abercrombie & Fitch
Check us out!
This means comments are being heard, and change could be in the offing soon. The more pressure, the more likely we are to see a change. Please take a few minutes right away to write your own letter to Abercrombie & Fitch. It matters. The link to write your comment is here. Thank you!

Please Don’t Promote Eating Disorder Culture: An Open Letter To The CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch
Mike Jeffries, CEO
6200 Fitch Path
New Albany, OH 43054

May 8, 2013

Dear Mike,

As an anorexia survivor and a soon-to-be mother of a little girl, I am writing to request you recant your statements explaining why Abercrombie & Fitch offers sizes XL and XXL for men, but won’t carry larger size clothing for women:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

As you know, your market is primarily “kids,” or young adults who are at an age most specially prone to eating disorders. As many as 10 million women and girls in the United States alone suffer from anorexia or bulimia — and 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26, the core of your target market. These facts make your statements particularly heartbreaking.

I’m writing because I believe your statements hold dangerous power, more than you may realize. For many but not all young people the Abercrombie & Fitch brand is an arbiter of cool. I’ve been a babysitter before, and seen how important it is to many tweens to have your labels showing. How devastating for a young woman who hates her body, as too many do, to realize that your store doesn’t sell larger size clothing because you say she’s not cool, she can’t belong, she’s a loser.

In high school and early college I fought tooth and nail for my life. During one hospitalization, a fellow patient went out on a day pass and won a modeling contest while she was still wearing her hospital bracelet. That’s not “cool,” that’s cruel. To send her a message to keep up the good work killing yourself! To send others a message that the most beautiful woman in the world is a corpse. While it’s impossible to expect the entire fashion and modeling industries will change tomorrow, it is quite possible for you to make some positive clarifying statements about the humanity and inherent worth possessed by people of all shapes, sizes and bodies.

It would mean a lot. Thinking about your comments nearly brought tears to my eyes. During one of my rougher periods with anorexia, I was not eligible to participate in my physical education class but still had to show up in order to graduate. There was a gymnastics routine that everyone else needed to complete in front of the entire class. A larger girl was forced to do somersaults across a room in front of 30 classmates, several of whom audibly laughed and called her a “fatty” and “loser” and “whale.” I remember going home that night and sobbing to my mother, my decrepit body shaking with fury. “How could they do that to her? Don’t they know what they are doing? And why didn’t I speak up?”

I wasn’t ready to speak up then. I am now, and I welcome you to join me. Not creating larger size clothing for women, while creating it for men, is discriminatory. Making negative statements about larger people, especially larger women, and most especially larger women who fit in your target market of teens and young adults, is part of an eating disorder culture that kills.

I know you can do better than this, and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Erin Matson

Reflections On A Makeover

Today The New York Times ran a debate: Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem? As I see it,  the real question is not whether individual women are dupes, idiots or traitors for wearing makeup, or heroes, homelies or underpaid for not wearing makeup (although underpaid is, statistically, probably true) – the question we must ask is, Is The Beauty Industry Hurting Self-Esteem? Is there a relationship between the pressure on women to be ornate in appearance and the pressure on women to be subordinate in substance? Why do people make such large judgements on the basis of physical appearance about women, and to a lesser but still pernicious extent men? What are we getting in return for these assumptions?

Three years ago, I had a makeover that wasn’t my idea. At the time I never would have said the following out loud, so I wrote it to myself. While my views have expanded somewhat, these are those thoughts as they were:

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m beautiful. I know I’m beautiful. I resent the unearned advantages beauty gives me, and frankly find the whole thing to be a pain in the ass. As commonly understood, beauty is a form of racial profiling that excludes many from being taken seriously and awards a smaller number with unearned expectations of sex, compassion and feebleness. To the extent that beauty is not meritocratic it should be abolished, and to the extent that it is, it should be undermined.

Like most women in this country, I have an incredibly complicated relationship with my appearance. I grant my story is extreme. I’ve been hospitalized three times for anorexia. I have never been treated better than when dying. Everyone officious; the world was my hospice. Twice I was recruited for modeling. I can’t remember how many times I was stopped by strangers with you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Fucked up. The experience of scraping a heartbeat back together has made me prone to taking a compliment about my physique, appearance or even hairstyle as a thinly veiled death sentence.

It took a lot of therapy, threatened feeding tubes and observed toilet breaks to get to the point where I could acknowledge that my eating disorder developed as a response to feeling dangerously unfeminine for being a smart person in a high school classroom. In going to prom with the grim reaper, I lost my self-hatred and began to transfer my energy to doing everything I could to stop other women and girls from blaming themselves for living in a sexist world. Mainly, these days, I focus on exposing and correcting the latter.

I have a beef with manufactured beauty that reaches far beyond issues of body image and the routine use of Photoshop as a weapon of mass destruction. For example, the $50 billion cosmetics industry. It steals women from additional time that could be spent sleeping to literally self-embalm in unlimited concentrations of virtually any chemical. Cosmetics are the least regulated products under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. Whereas the European Union bans 1,100 carcinogenic ingredients, the United States bans ten. As a friend explained to me today, men like it when women wear makeup. It signals that we ‘take care of ourselves.’

People write books about these issues in ways far better than I could. Needless to say, I don’t particularly enjoy wearing makeup. Before my feminism became a part of my paycheck, I slapped on the stuff maybe six times a year. I guess the makeover began during a dress rehearsal of a speech about the future of feminism with the advisers to a slate campaigning to lead a large women’s organization; I was running for a role. I am good at public speaking, and writing speeches, which I had hoped to mean we could skip past the basics and talk about some of the approaches I was suggesting for the million-dollar question. In the room were a handful of the smarter feminist activists alive, legends with names omitted for the sake of privacy.

Instead, I got a lecture. “Erin, your hair is driving me CRAZY! I can’t listen to what you are saying — the only thing I can do is look at your bangs.” Before I opened my mouth the campaign manager was sent to buy bobby pins. I was instructed to wear makeup and get rid of the bracelets. It seemed important, so I did. During the vote nobody thought we could win, myself included, I changed into board shorts and flip-flops. That’s how I came to be heavily photographed a few hours later as a little bobby-pinned punk standing between three women in suits who would also become the next talking heads for the group.

One member of the staff was a smart, stylish woman who knew a lot about presence on-camera. She’d worked in television before deciding to help others with what she’d learned. She took a shine to me pretty quickly, realizing I had an imperfect but promising skill for speaking. “You’re really likable,” she said. “That’s important. But we’ve got to do something about your appearance.”

She vowed to take me shopping to look at clothes. “You don’t have to buy anything,” she would say. “I just want you to start getting comfortable with styles.” She wanted me to wear things fitted, in bright colors, and always keep a jacket in the office. I got that resistance was a waste of time, so I began to step up my game for her, the movement really.

Less comfortable was her instruction to wear makeup; bring a brush, blow-dryer and hair goo to the office; and tweeze my eyebrows (my eyebrows?). She desperately wanted me to get a haircut. It was bigger than that. She wanted to give me a makeover. She spoke of it for months, warming me to the idea slowly, at least enough so that I would agree we could do it “sometime” the way you say you’ll call someone you don’t like but can stand, if the occasion calls for it.

I wish it were not true that living in a post-makeover body changes my day-to-day. Doors are opened more often, and people treat me like a small child during rush-hour duck, duck gray duck on the subway. Mainly the issue is men. I get asked out a hell of a lot more than I used to. Friends with girlfriends flirt and inquire about my sexual availability behind my back. I used to be a bawdy liberal feminist for men to challenge and now, it seems, I’m more often the subject of romantic speculation. I am aware this is unlikely to quench any of the poignant loneliness I feel some nights; I have learned it’s lonelier still to be saying something cool and interrupted by a lover with: “Sweetie, shouldn’t you start wearing makeup?” In any event I did not take on a public feminist role intending to grapple with these issues.

More haunting is the feeling that I’ve sold out myself, and embraced the very toxicity that led me into this fight so more people will listen to me. If that works, maybe it’s worth it. I have already silenced my personal freedom of speech, pulling down my essays, poems and short stories from the web, so that my thoughts aren’t held as definitive commentary or doctrine of my organization today. A close friend remarked about a year ago that I had changed: “You don’t say what you’re thinking anymore.”

I understand that my job is not to be a perfect expression of myself, and that, for the moment, my name doesn’t belong to me but the women I want to help. To give up my body is another matter entirely. It is so very strange to take on a burden so that others might not, to be taken as generally more shallow, to no longer hide behind words and arguments in plain sight. Today a friend took me for my first pedicure, and I was struck by how every woman in the place seemed to be grieving.

If I were not me, I might criticize me harshly.

Post-script from 2013: Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would criticize me so harshly. Looking professional removes barriers to some of the amazing things a person is able to do, which for me includes saying to large groups and people who make decisions that sexism is not acceptable. These days I am no longer speaking for anyone but myself, and I choose to wear makeup and do my hair more often than I used to before this makeover took place. And, I believe this choice has nothing to do with my self-worth. Further, I believe that beauty is loving action and that whether, and in what color, you wear lipstick is one of the less interesting things I could know about you.

Pregnancy After An Eating Disorder

Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth.

Maybe this is easy for you. Maybe you like it. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have no experience with an eating disorder, or its aspirational cousin, negative self-image.

Not me. A summary of my situation is as follows: Near-death experience with anorexia, full recovery changed my progressive activism into feminist activism, now I’m pregnant.

I want to situate my first story about the intersection of my pregnancy with my history of having an eating disorder in a broader context, because I was in Arizona in October, and nobody knew I was pregnant, and a woman shared her story with me and it was not just any old day. Here is what I had posted on Facebook:

The 10th anniversary of Senator Wellstone’s death is emotional for me, and more so because I have spent the past two days on a community college campus talking with thirteen classes and passers-by at outdoor events about body image, self-esteem, cultural representations of women and how truly radical it is to love and accept yourself as you are, whether you are a man or a woman. I have talked about how loving yourself is a key within the broader political struggle for women’s rights and human rights, to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. I have spoken with countless students who have come to me in tears, accepted an opportunity to get help for the first time in their lives, told me they were going to work for the basic right to respect and justice for all, smiled through sunglasses saying they had tried to commit suicide but backed out and were so glad they had. I have hugged so many strangers, beautiful and strong, sometimes hurting, men and women, in the past 48 hours and if that’s not professional – who cares. Paul Wellstone said he emphasized “self-esteem, self confidence, and dignity, not as an ideal, but as a test of organization.” He also told us to “Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” Before I could vote, before I was a feminist, before my life taught me how important and political and essential it is to have compassion for yourself and not just for others, I was a progressive and I was an organizer. Paul Wellstone was responsible for that.

One of the women who walked up to me asked if I had done any work on body image after having kids. With pain on her face, this woman explained that she had given birth to four children and was so ashamed of the skin on her stomach that she had stopped wearing bikinis. Perhaps this sounds innocuous if you don’t know she had a pool at home. She wanted to wear a bikini but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her body image was stopping her from enjoying herself when no one else was looking.

I thanked her for her honesty with me. I told her that sounded like a horrible feeling. I meant it.

People dismiss eating disorders and negative self-image as shallow, trivial, pathological all the time. They say it’s vanity or fluff. It’s as if people who feel bad and admit they feel bad are then supposed to feel bad about feeling bad.

This you-better-do-it-but-don’t-speak-up logic makes sense when it is gender roles too limiting to encourage all we have to offer that are being expressed and enforced.

Body image has everything to do with gender roles, and oppressive expectations and painful lived experiences with our bodies often vary widely based on not just gender, but race, disability, sexual orientation and size.

I accept that my experience with overcoming anorexia is not relatable to some women who have struggled more with their hair, or men who have struggled more with their muscles, or activists who are in a difficult and righteous struggle to end fat discrimination. But while experiences are different and should by no means be declared the same, I also believe we are fighting a common monster among many.

For more than a decade I have been free of pills, treatment, I am able to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full, I don’t binge, I don’t diet. I have over the years felt a little rebel yell when my stomach gets a little bit more of a roll to it. It has come to feel sexy to me when that happens – it’s not just body business. It’s sexy and radical and transgressive to take up space you’re able to fill.

But at the same time, I won’t lie that being pregnant has forced me to confront what I have long thought was my full recovery in a new way. You see, my post-recovery weight has gone up and down over the years like any normal human being, but it has distributed evenly. I’ve never started growing a stomach that sticks out like a bumper on an old Saab. I’ve never anticipated, much less experienced, such a drastic change in my body.

Recently I had an epiphany in, of all places, a dressing room at Old Navy. I was there trying on maternity clothes for the first time in my life. As an eating disorder survivor there is no question I’ve had some Lifetime Shitty Moments in dressing rooms.  When I was recovering from anorexia, if a negative thought cropped up I talked back to it: “Shut up, you’re trying to kill me.” Ultimately after professional intervention (please, if you have an eating disorder and are reading this, contact a professional and don’t try to self-help your way out), it became those seven words to myself, over and over, that built my life back.

But those magic words were not helpful in Old Navy. This was totally new. I had to simply feel uncomfortable, and think some more about feeling uncomfortable. This is my body. I need to accept my body and myself for who I am. Not who I was. Not for what I might become. This is now. It is what I have.

The collision of my eating disordered past and my pregnancy today is a confrontation of the profane and the sacred.

While many of these confrontations happen in a year, much less a lifetime, this is not one I will be able to ignore. It is the expectation of a harsh lens upon a human being, whether viewed by self or others, versus the actuality that is a human experience with its own rhythms, rules and swerves. To smile considering the times you have acknowledged, as they are, the unworthy stereotypes in your life.

I can accept: Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth. In fact I thought I could accept it going in. It took me two laundry cycles after the Old Navy trip to accept buying low-slung yoga pants that almost (do they really?) make me look a little bit pregnant.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,225 other followers