Word Up Exclusive Author Q&A: Aimee Liu


Word Up pauses from our usual coverage of literary gossip and socialite authoresses to call your attention to the fact that it's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. As such, we are quite pleased to present you with an online-only author interview with writer and lecturer Aimee Liu. In Liu's first memoir, 1979's Solitaire, she detailed her first battle with anorexia, and nearly three decades later she's returned with New York Times bestseller Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders. Weaving research, interviews, and her own continued battle with the disease, Liu draws a number of insightful conclusions. Not only does she reject the notion that our culture's emphasis on thinness is the sole cause of eating disorders, but reveals that a true recovery requires a comprehensive understanding of one's own condition. Liu will speak about women’s body images, her research and experience, and Gaining tomorrow, February 28th, at Simmons College. Tickets are $10 for general admission; $5 for students; free for Simmons College students and staff. Visit for more information.

Did you ever expect, after writing and publishing Solitaire, that you would write another book about anorexia and your
personal experiences with it?

When I wrote Solitaire I believed I was finished with eating disorders.  I used to say that I didn't want to become a "professional anorexic." I was eager to get on with a healthy life, writing fiction and books on psychological topics unrelated to eating disorders.  I didn't appreciate at that point how interesting and complex these conditions are, or how they connect with aspects of biology and psychology that have nothing to do with eating or weight.  Back then, in 1979, the science of eating disorders was still a mystery even to the medical establishment, so much of what I wanted to do with Gaining was to discover what we know now that no one knew then.

Your findings that our thin-worshipping culture--the media, the fashion industry, Hollywood--don't solely trigger an obsession with one's own weight is startling, given that so many point fingers at this.

Our thin-worshipping society elevates  extreme thinness as an ideal that all "perfect" women and girls must achieve.  This ideal comes across particularly loud and strong in status conscious homes and communities, where eating disorders tend to proliferate.  But it takes a perfectionist to CARE about achieving this perfect goal.  That's one of the ways that biology, in the form of innate temperament, plays a key role.  If you're not a born perfectionist, chance are you won't kill yourself (literally, as well as figuratively) to become perfectly thin.  By the same token, even if you are a perfectionist living in this culture, you probably won't develop an eating disorder if you learn to value yourself, your body, your health, and if you are encouraged and taught to develop personal ideals that are genuinely fulfilling and rewarding instead of self-defeating.  Finally, the typical trigger for eating disorders tends to be acute anxiety and/or depression.  So it's critical for everyone, but especially those who are perfectionistic and very sensitive, to learn positive, constructing coping skills, including techniques for relaxation, trust, self-awareness, and self-compassion, as early as possible.  

Tell me a bit about some of the things you learned from the people you interviewed for Gaining. Did they turn some of your earlier theories and assumptions on their head? How?

Like many people, I had always assumed that anyone can "get" an eating disorder (like catching a common cold).  The clear, strong patterns of personality traits among my interviewees astonished me.  People with histories of severe anorexia nervosa tended to be very introspective, quiet, diligent, driven, disciplined, idealistic, and averse to change.  People with histories of bulimia nervosa tended to be more impulsive, outgoing, people-pleasing but also rebellious.  BOTH groups were intensely perfectionistic and highly sensitive to criticism, yet prone to criticizing themselves (never feeling "good enough").  The amazing thing was how strong these traits remained in people even decades after they showed any of the stereotypical symptoms of eating disorders -- starving, bingeing, purging.  I came away from my interviews with an unexpected appreciation for eating disorders as a kind of window into the psyche.  If you develop an eating disorder, that tells you something very valuable about your own nature and personality.  You can learn from that.  The appearance of an eating disorder also signals distress, creating an opportunity (if those around you will help you heed it) to examine the circumstances surrounding the illness and pinpoint the TRUE source of distress...and develop healthier coping mechanisms for resolving that distress.  Perhaps the most unexpected reversal for me was the shift toward appreciating eating disorders as a kind of SOS, and NOT something either trivial or shameful.

Teenage girls today are constantly bombarded with the fact that they're being influenced and pressured by whatever is around them, but once they come out of adolescence and move on to adulthood, it's almost as if they're left to their own devices. Tell me a bit about how women in mid-life are just as easily prone to an eating disorder.

Mid-life for many women is a cruel refrain of adolescence.  As menopause looms and our bodies show the first signs of age, many of us become as self-conscious as teenagers.  We've become accustomed to the way men look at us, and suddenly men no longer look at us the same way.  Maybe they don't look at us at all.  Some of us find our marriages faltering or dissolving.  Suddenly we're back in the market for a mate, competing against younger contenders. Our careers lurch, and we're back to auditioning on the job market against younger contenders. Our kids leave home, and in that sense, we lose yet another childhood. Maybe we are dealing with serious medical problems for the first time in our lives. Or maybe it's just the shock of facing the mirror each morning and confronting the stranger we are becoming.  Some highly well-adjusted, well-loved, and passionately engaged women sail through this season of change, of course.  But many others are shell-shocked by the physical changes in their bodies and looks, just as many adolescents are.  Those women who have that innate tendency to fixate on a perfect ideal or react to anxiety by obsessing about food and weight or by numbing themselves through over- or under-eating may develop an eating disorder.

You're a former model, so I'm curious about your take on Dove's advertising campaign for "real beauty."

I love many aspects of the Dove campaign.  I do believe that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and that it's the human spirit within the body that makes the body beautiful.  I am also SO grateful to Dove for publicly unmasking the lies that go into those images of "perfect beauty" we all ogle on billboards and in fashion and beauty magazines.  Women really need to wake up to the fact that these photographs are virtually all doctored, and that many of the models presented as "women" are, in fact, young teenagers and even pre-teens.  My only concern is that these ads continue to focus, focus, focus on LOOKS.  Can't we ever move beyond our fixation on appearance, and create images of beauty that reflect women's creativity, intelligence, humor, athleticism, and other talents? 

What about the billboard Oliviero Toscani shot of a naked Isabelle Caro for Milan Fashion Week last September? Do you think the fashion industry can ever, should ever, or will ever change when it comes to thinness?

This is a very hot issue in the eating disorder community.  Designers demand models who are as thin as humanly (or inhumanly) possible because they claim these emaciated models make clothes look better.  Leaving aside the question of what size women actually buy their clothes, the designers have made no attempt to change the size or cut of the clothes they show on the runways, especially in the haute couture world.  This despite great fanfare last year over the fashion world's promises to promote a healthier look on the catwalks.  I think change will only come if and when wealthy women stop buying these clothes; fashion editors stop promoting Size Zero as the new Size Eight; and perhaps, if there is some sort of oversight imposed on the fashion industry.  Of course, an avalanche of protest letters to the companies that advertise in fashion magazines might have an impact too!!!

Why is it impossible to escape or bury a disease like anorexia, even if you seem to be "cured" on the outside?

It is impossible to "get rid of" the innate personality traits and instinctive responses to anxiety that set us up for eating disorders.  If we don't learn to re-train those traits and responses in healthy directions, they may go quiet for awhile only to resurface in a moment of stress years later, or they may push us toward self-destructive habits that are not eating-related.  I call this the "half-life" of eating disorders, when we continue to punish ourselves, but not through food.  However, if we become aware of these traits and tendencies, we can re-train them toward practices and pursuits that are fulfilling and constructive instead of self-destructive.  Perfectionism is a grand trait to have, for instance, as long as we develop "perfect" ideals that bring us genuine pleasure and deep satisfaction, that connect us to others instead of alienating us, and that make us feel more, not less, alive.

Your writing is so candid and emotional. Do you ever feel scared about what you revealed in the pages of Gaining?

I fervently believe that secrecy and shame fuel mental illness.  I also believe that we are all human, all vulnerable, and all flawed.  There is tremendous freedom to be gained in expressing and examining the flaws and frailties that make us all human.  Writing as honestly as possible is one form of this expression.  And I've found that when people read what I've written, it bring them relief, too, to know that they are not alone, not shameful or disgraceful, and not guilty.  I also believe that writing which is not candid and emotional is usually not honest and certainly not compelling.

Who were you writing this book for? Who do you hope to inspire?

Initially I was writing for the millions of people who have histories of eating disorders in their own history, because most do not realize how these conditions continue to reverberate in aspects of life that have nothing to do with eating.  I also hoped to alert them to the ways in which they might unintentionally nudge their children toward eating disorders, and to the patterns of family dynamics in general that are affected by these syndromes.  But I've been surprised by the number of people, even teenagers, still in treatment who have found hope in the book.  Hundreds of people have written me, sharing their frustrations and life stories.  Therapists, too, tell me that the book has sparked valuable discussions with patients.  Finally, I've come to realize how reassuring it is for parents to learn that there are certain traits they can look for to determine whether a child is -- or is not! -- highly susceptible to an eating disorder.  Ultimately, I am delighted when I hear that the book has inspired hope, self-awareness, and peace of mind.
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