Compiled by Gary Stromberg and Jane Merrill
Reviewed by Marty N.
The seventeen chapters of this book contain fourteen stories of anorexia and/or bulimia, and three stories of obesity. The slant toward disorders of emaciation is very probably due to the choice of celebrities as contributors. There aren’t any Hollywood A-list megastars here, but these interview subjects are all established in their fields and speak from experience about the pressures that the entertainment industry – aided and abetted often by their own dysfunctional family backgrounds – puts on its players. As Catherine Hickland observes: “For actresses our looks are like our instruments; we are hyperaware of appearance, weight, and beauty.” And so we learn of obsessive dieting, and obsessive exercise, and of the delusion that one is always “fat” even though one’s bones stick out, and of the rediscovery of the ancient Roman trick of vomiting, and of the ruinous consequences of that method for the teeth, and much else that is hidden from the eyes of those who are uninitiated into eating disorders.
The standout piece in the collection is by the jockey, Shane Sellers, winner of more than 4,000 horse races and more than $130 million in purses. He did everything that anorectics and bulimics do, on a daily basis, but framed as an iron professional discipline, not as a neurosis. His essay is a revealing look into the brutal world of the jockey’s locker room, where there’s a basin alongside the toilets for “heaving,” and a sweat box for “pulling” pounds of water out of the body in order to make riding weight. It is a system that promotes bulimia, and it kills people. After rising to the top of this regime, Sellers became an outspoken reformer, advocating (and sometimes winning) changes in track rules to protect jockeys’ health.
There aren’t any similar reformers among the anorectic/bulimic actresses in the book, agitating for changes in the Hollywood horse-racing business to promote a more reasonably-sized, healthier image of women. But a number of the interview subjects here have done much good by campaigning and touring to speak out about their own eating disorders, and by so doing, they have helped break the silence and isolation in which many non-celebrities suffer the same ordeals. There’s a good deal of comparison here of eating disorders with alcoholism and other drug addictions, and the contributors have a diversity of theories about the nature, cause, and cure of their conditions. Except for the obese comedy writer and actor Bruce Vilanch, who cheerfully denies that he has a problem, they have all experienced a sense of recovery, and all say that they are able now to eat in a healthy middle way, without starving or bingeing. They testify to a great diversity of recovery pathways, such as anti-anxiety medications, psychological counseling, nutrition therapy, dialectical and cognitive behavior therapies, will power, self-discipline, surgery, and a handful who used 12-step. The book sometimes tests the reader’s patience with the contributors’ narcissism – what do you expect from celebrities? – but it is, all the same, a useful and readable collection of anecdotal material about its topic.