My Teenage Years and Anorexia

1 Mar

Cheryl Tiegs

When I was fourteen I had anorexia. It all started with my first two-piece. Back in those days, there were a handful of benchmarks for a girl moving through her teen years: when she was allowed to buy her first two-piece, when she was allowed to shave her legs, and when she was permitted to get her ears pierced (May 1971). One spring day I decided to try on the two-piece which I had managed to obtain with difficulty the previous year. It was reversible with a jeans-like material on one side and red and white checks on the other. As I looked in the mirror of my vanity, I noticed that my thighs were thicker than they had been the previous summer. That led me to recollect that Seventeen magazine had a section on prescribed calisthenics. They were recommended so that in the matter of a few short months, one could be ready for swimsuit season. These were the same ones that were on the President’s Physical Fitness test: sit-ups, jumping jacks, and squat thrusts. I started doing these every day. So far, so good.

Cheryl Tiegs with her long, sleek limbs was the reigning queen of Seventeen. Never mind that she was 5′ 10″ and stacked; she became my idol. I also idolized Suzanne Pleshette, then a movie star who was beautiful and sophisticated. You definitely don’t end up with a figure like hers by going on an extreme diet, but I was not thinking logically.

Suzanne Pleashette

I thought I could look better than I did and Tiegs and the other models in Seventeen gave me examples to follow. I didn’t sit down and say, “I want to look like Cheryl Tiegs.” It was more a subliminal message that I received and the exercises in the magazine gave me a goal.

My next steps were reasonable, given the goal of losing a few pounds by the summer. I stopped eating snacks after school like the sweet pickles dipped in peanut butter that I loved so much and I started riding my three-speed English bike to Cornell Plantations every day. No complaints from my parents yet. I hadn’t lost enough weight to be noticeable, and they probably thought the exercising was good for me. Except for swimming and walking, I was not known for my physical fitness and I’m sure my Mom and Dad thought, “Well, good for her.”

The beginning of my descent into calorie obsession was a book on calorie counting that I found in my mother’s office paraphernalia. She was a nutritionist, so to her it was a small handy booklet. I learned that chocolate cake has more calories than white cake, that orange juice has more calories than tomato juice, and that fried eggs have more calories than poached. I started eliminating condiments from my toast and sandwiches. Believe me, butter and mayo really improve the taste of bread. When I could make my own breakfast, I always made poached eggs. When my mother brought breakfast to my room, I dumped the milk and orange juice down the bathroom sink and wrapped up the eggs and toast in a napkin and stuck them into my closet shelf. Several years later, I discovered that I had missed throwing away some of my breakfast. The eggs and toast had petrified together.

The fact that I was losing so much weight wasn’t immediately obvious. The dresses from that era were relatively loose. The tent dress was popular, as was the Empire style Regency era dress, which cut under the bust and flowed outward. I did have to buy new jeans and I had one dress that I wore with beads that was so tight fitting I had to pass it up when I regained the weight. I found that in that dress I could identify with the flapper era women like my Grandmother Clark who wanted a flat front so that their beads would fall cleanly. That didn’t mean that I didn’t want a big bust, just that I thought I looked really nifty in that dress.

When I returned to school in the fall, I started running to and from all my classes. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I wanted to take every opportunity to lose weight. To and fro I went with my beads, swinging side to side, and my German teacher, Mr. Vrabel, calling out to me to slow down. Wouldn’t you know it, but I ended up being called in to the principal’s office. He sat me down and asked me why I was running in the halls. I really couldn’t explain it; I was kind of confused myself. “Well,” he said, I’m a little concerned because your mother is president of the P.T.A. and we really don’t want to deal with her. Could you please just stop running?” I thought I was going to get a demerit, Goodie Two Shoes that I was, and I gratefully said, “Yes.” It was only later that I realized his comments were odd, to say the least, and not very helpful. I finished the school year off with a speech entitled, “Why We Should Get Rid of Fat People.” I can’t remember whether it was supposed to be funny or not, but I received a “B,” because I was too shy to stand up and gave it from my seat. I had always been a strong student and a perfectionist, which is one of the prognosticators of girls who are likely to become anorexic. Unfortunately, once I “healed” from my situation, I relaxed about grades, except for German class. From ninth grade onward, I no longer worried about whether I had the As to get into a good college.

While I was still in eighth grade, I started exercising like a maniac. I continued doing the calisthenics, but I doubled my bike rides to the Plantations, and began running around the turnaround in front of our house on 120 Kay Street fifty times each night. Cornell Plantation is beautiful, but riding up the hills was stressful, especially because my bike chain kept falling off. On the ride home I would always attempt the Warren Road hill that arose out of Forrest Home. I can’t imagine being physically fit enough to do that now. I did receive a “10” on President Kennedy’s physical fitness test and was quite proud. Strangely enough, I don’t remember my initial weight, but I do remember that I ended up at 98 pounds, which for me is very thin.

My Waterloo was the Girl Scout camp, Camp Comstock, where I had expected to enroll in the Windjammer Unit. I had attended Girl Scout camp a number of years and was proud to have reached the pinnacle, where I was to learn how to sail. Right off the bat I took the swimming test, but I was so thin that I didn’t have enough fat to stay in Cayuga Lake’s freezing water for very long, and was told I would have to attend the Pioneer Unit instead. I was horribly disappointed to be with younger girls, repeating an experience I had already had. The counselors were terrible to me and told me I could not go home, but finally I was allowed to call my mother. They had no conception of what I was going through. Once I had returned home I started eating more normally again.

One of the more unusual aspects of my situation is that, university brat that I am, my mother wrote an article on my experience, which fit into research she was doing. I have never read what she wrote and can’t find it online, but I did find an article on the Oswego Messenger that cites my mother, Martha Mapes on the topic, entitled “Anorexia Nervosa is on the Increase.” I’m not quite sure how I feel about her writing about me, but it does seem like a fitting thing to do for someone in her profession. In the article that quotes Mom the author talks about the different therapies that can be used to treat the condition. That’s a bit ironic because I simply went to my pediatrician who prescribed drinking milkshakes.

Looking back, I’m not sure that I had a complete handle on what happened to my mind and body. I have read many writers who say that the condition was often referred to as hysteria in the nineteenth century; however, the term “anorexia nervosa” was also used then. Hysteria sounds condescending, as though the doctors somehow thought these women were frivolous, but it does describe the gnawing anxiety and confusion that defined my state at fourteen. I didn’t know anyone else who had dieted so extensively and I didn’t have bulimia. It never occurred to me to do something like that. I never thought of myself as part of a group, but I’ve found out from minimal research that not only did I have contemporaries, but that there were women in the nineteenth century who experienced what I did. The research that was current in the sixties said that women like me typically came from households where there was a great deal of pressure to achieve. That was definitely true of my family situation. Both of my parents had been bright high school and college students, and my mother was one of the top students at Cornell when she went there. But there were many other people in Ithaca who had been susceptible to the same kinds of academic pressures I was and they didn’t cut back on their eating the way I did. Nowadays, scientists think there may be some genetic link; it would be interesting to know whether there are genetic influences, as well as environmental ones.

Unfortunately, I think I will always be more aware of my body than I was before I had anorexia nervosa. Over the years I’ve yo-yoed up and down, but I’ve never again been gripped with the desire to be stick thin. I still love reading magazines, but I now recognize the hyping of supermodels and actresses that helped lead to my downfall as a young girl.

4 Responses to “My Teenage Years and Anorexia”

  1. DH March 1, 2014 at 5:10 am #

    Sounds like you did not have as severe a case as the subjects that your mother was writing about. Most anorexics resist their doctors’ advice to eat more and it becomes a psychological battle of wills.

    • Yes, I think I’m lucky in that sense, although that is not a year I would want to live over. I became scared because I felt so weak and that made me want to eat more. Doctors didn’t know as much about it as nutritionists, although I don’t fault my doctor. It definitely was not a topic that was getting good coverage in medical school or in ladies’ magazines for that matter. Still waiting for that bio. :>)

      • DH March 1, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

        I’m working on it! I don’t think it’s as good as yours.

  2. I’m sure it’s interesting. I remember that essay you wrote on your diamond and the concubines.

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