We often get so caught up in getting published, being published, finding an agent, promoting ourselves and our books, that sometimes we forget WHY we read and write what many call women’s fiction. It’s because that along with the relatable characters and real life situations — are some really serious issues. Today, Mary Rowen shares with us her own story of bulimia and how body image plays into real life and fiction. Mary is both eloquent and brave, and I hope you’ll chime in with your own body image experience in the comments and how it has impacted your writing.
Please welcome Mary to WFW!
How Mary Rowen Struggled With Body Image And Wrote A Novel
by Mary Rowen
Body image. If that’s not a loaded term for women, I don’t know what is. I’d be willing to bet that the earliest human women noticed what the men in their tribes liked, and tried to make their bodies more attractive for them. But I wonder if there was a little bit more to that than the basic human need to reproduce. I’m guessing that even women who lived in caves appreciated being told—perhaps with grunts, or nods, or some early language—that they looked nice. Because let’s face it: it feels good to know you look pretty and desirable.
Evidence of this can be seen in almost all cultures throughout history, as women’s clothing and accessories frequently accentuate our breasts and other parts of our bodies we find most sensual. This often involves pain and personal sacrifice too, as few people would consider corsets, underwire bras, or stiletto heels comfortable. Some women go so far as to have surgery—literally risking their lives to “improve” their bodies—but even those who draw the line at shopping for flattering clothes and/or makeup will tell you that those things are time consuming and expensive.
Of course, it’s not all about attracting men. Many of us dress to attract other women—or just to make ourselves happy—and many no longer see reproduction as a goal. But the majority of women—despite our age—still seek out the approval of others when it comes to appearance.
Now some readers might jump up and scream, “But men seek approval too!” And yes, that’s true. Most men do want to look good, but in most cases, their desire isn’t as extreme as it is with most women. My husband, for example—a software engineer—looks great every time he heads out to work, but as far as I know, he only looks in the mirror while shaving, and perhaps when he runs a comb through his hair. He has a bunch of similar-looking clothing that fits well—chinos, jeans, button-down shirts—and he wears a clean top and bottom every day. Clean is important. But that’s about it for him. His body image is healthy enough to allow him to put on his clothes and go. And based on my observations of his peer group, that’s pretty much the standard. But I—and most of my professional female peers—spend far more time choosing outfits, blow-drying my hair, putting on makeup, and figuring out which shoes look best. I don’t obsess—and as a recovered bulimic, I know all about obsession—but I do check the mirror several times before leaving the house. Not doing so would be quite difficult for me.
But the one thing I don’t ever do—and I mean never—is ask anyone in my household if my clothing makes me look fat. That’s a gift I hope I can pass on to my daughter, who’s a young teenager. Because back when I was about fifteen, I decided—for some crazy reason—that I’d be more attractive if I dropped a few pounds. Therefore, when I read a magazine article warning about the dangers of anorexia and bulimia, I found it more instructional than frightening. I pored over the article—and the other pictures in the magazine—and something in my head clicked. Prettiness, I decided, resulted in happiness, and the only way to be pretty was to be thin. It was a screwed up equation for sure. But for the next fifteen years or so, I believed in—and lived by—that equation with a sick, almost religious fervor. During those years, I attempted to vomit almost everything I ate, and often felt confused, weak, and dizzy. My confidence level hit rock bottom, and I was hardly ever happy.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, if you’re a woman reading this, it probably does. A few months ago, I published a blog post about my eating disorder, and got tons of feedback from women who told me they’d been through a similar hell. Or, if not them, then a family member, a close friend, or a work associate.
So now, every time I start thinking about my weight, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Of course it’s not healthy to be obese—everyone knows obesity’s bad—but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is gaining a few pounds here and there, or going up a size in jeans. Or eating something truly decadent and delicious without trying to cut back on calories for the next few days, or doing extra exercise. Because again, in the scheme of things, a few extra pounds aren’t important. The energy expended on stress and extra exercise can be put to much better use.
I could conclude by saying something like, “Hey, a lot of people prefer a heavier partner anyway.” But that’s not the point. A woman’s body is hers. We’re not here on earth to be eye candy, or playthings. Our bodies have so many functions: transporting us across this magnificent planet, tasting, dancing, listening to music, making music, helping us create the things we imagine, bearing us children if we so choose—and sometimes nourishing those children—providing sexual pleasure, rocking terrific outfits, and much, much more. So yes, I believe we should eat well most of the time and try to stay healthy so that we can make the most of our lives, but thinness does not lead to happiness. The only real road to happiness is being OK with who you are. And while it’s fine to like the way you look, obsessing over appearance always leads to frustration and worse.
I’ve written a novel called Leaving the Beach in which the main character, Erin Reardon, is a bulimic woman who’s also obsessed with rock stars. It’s all fiction, and I hope readers enjoy the story. But I also hope it sheds some light on the ways eating disorders affect people. Most importantly, I hope Leaving the Beach will encourage people suffering from EDs to seek professional help. I really do believe that’s the only way to truly recover.
Mary Rowen is a Boston area mom with a wonderful family that allows her time to write almost every day. Leaving the Beach, although pure fiction, certainly draws on some personal experience. As the tagline states, it’s “a novel of obsession and music,” and rock music has always been a driving force in Rowen’s life. She was also bulimic for over fifteen years, and really wanted to write a story with a bulimic main character. Eating disorders are so complicated—and dangerous—and she hopes Leaving the Beach might encourage people suffering from them to seek help. Visit Mary at: http://maryrowen.com/
About LEAVING THE BEACH
Written with heart and keen observation about the day-to-day struggles of a “functioning bulimic,”Leaving the Beach explores the power of fantasy, then shoves it up against harsh reality until something has to give. In this women’s novel set on the sandy beaches of Winthrop, Massachusetts, we meet Erin Reardon, a lonely person who believes her destiny is to save grunge superstar Lenny Weir. Forget the fact that Lenny reportedly killed himself several years earlier; Erin’s not the only fan to believe his death was a hoax, a last-ditch effort by the drug-addled musician to reclaim his privacy. And Erin has felt a special bond with Lenny for years. So when she gets picked up hitchhiking by a mysterious man who resembles Lenny physically, she makes some quick assumptions. After all, he has extensive knowledge of the music industry, there’s a guitar in his trunk, and he has issues with drugs. She’s finally about to fulfill her destiny…
4 thoughts on “Guest Post: How One Author Struggled With Body Image And Wrote A Novel”
What a great message about loving our bodies and seeing them as functional rather than as playthings. It must have taken a great deal of courage to write this book. Congratulations, Mary!
Thank you, Melissa! I really appreciate your comment, and yes, I feel as though women get messages every day–primarily from media and advertising, but also sometimes from friends and associates–that their bodies are at least partly intended for other people’s enjoyment. These messages are dangerous to women of all ages, but I think teenagers find them most confusing. As for writing the book, it was difficult to get started, but once I’d told my closest friends and family members what I was writing about, it got a lot easier!
Thanks for this, Mary! I had similar struggles, and to this day won’t say or think the f-word (the three-letter one) because I remember how it used to make me feel when I used it on myself. And I also relish getting to a place where being healthy and happy and accepting of my body is a lot more important than it being “perfect”–which I never thought it was even when I was underweight. I love that you leave out the pejorative evaluations of yourself around your daughter–I think that’s where most of us learn it: from the women in our lives being harsh about their own bodies. Looking forward to checking out LEAVING THE BEACH!
Thanks for your comment, Phoebe. I’m sorry you went through all that and am so glad you’re doing better now. I totally agree about learning about that f-word from other women. For me, it was a group of women my family used to vacation with every summer. Some were friends of my parents, while others were adult daughters of my parents’ friends, and they were all obsessed with weight. I remember telling one of them that I liked her new white bikini, and she responded by saying, “Yeah, but I’m fat.” Meanwhile, she was rail thin and smoking a cigarette. And there I was, a healthy and definitely not thin 12 year old. Congratulations on accepting yourself as you are. Some people say that the perfect body doesn’t exist, but I disagree. I think every healthy woman has a perfect body, and life is too short to waste time trying to change it.