Debunking the Myths of Anorexia

For years, the name would haunt Rodolfo Ruiz. "Gordolfo Gelatino!" his cousins would chant, cackling at the gelatinous roll of chub peeking out from 10-year-old Rudy's T shirt. That night, and many nights after, Ruiz would stare in the mirror and pinch that roll, vowing to avoid the fat-heavy chorizo and taquitos that were staples in his south Texas home. As far as border cuisine went, his family wasn't unusual: his mother melded rich Mexican cooking with the corn-syrup and trans fats of mainstream America—and, at the time, she knew no better. "Mom, is bacon good for you?" Rudy would ask. "Yes," she'd reply. "Bacon is meat."

As a teen, the once chubby boy became so thin, his vision often blurred. He guzzled gallons of Lipton diet iced tea, and jogged five miles each day, dropping—at 17 years old and 5 feet 6 inches—to 104 pounds. "Not knowing what to eat, or how to eat healthily, I opted for nothing at all," Ruiz, now 40 and a marketing exec, recalls. Even today, the two-time Harvard graduate still struggles with the obsession he'd later learn was anorexia. "I've overcome the worst, but the disease will always haunt me," he tells NEWSWEEK.

It's not the profile you might expect of a typical anorexic. Ruiz is not a ballerina or a model. He's not gay, or a white upper-middle-class woman. His parents never pressured him to be thin, and he's far from obsessed with his appearance. Which is part of the reason he's detailed his struggle, along with 18 other writers, in a new book of essays called "Going Hungry." Edited by New York culture writer Kate Taylor, herself a recovered anorexic, the book's authors defy many of the stereotypes about eating disorders, and who suffers from them. Often assumed to be diseases of vanity (a recent U.K. study found that a third of the population believe those suffering from anorexia choose to do so), the struggles of these writers vary widely—from reconciling two cultures to hiding a pregnancy and suffering for God.

Of the 10 million women and 1 million men who do cope with anorexia and bulimia in this country, it is true that the majority of those documented are white. But in some cases, minorities have been excluded from samples because of this assumption—and experts say the "white girl" stereotype discourages men and minorities from coming forward. One study, by Wesleyan psychologist Ruth Striegel-Moore, found that black girls who do suffer from eating disorders are less likely to seek treatment. "I know stories of African-American women who've gone in to see a physician, with all the symptoms of an eating disorder, and the doctor says, 'That's a white girl's disease'," says Cynthia Bulik, an eating-disorder specialist at the University of North Carolina. "That persisting stigma can make people uncomfortable."

Anorexia was formalized as a diagnosis in the late 19th century, though it didn't become a household word until the 1970s, when feminists protested the rise of Twiggy as the body ideal. Media attention peaked in the '90s, with Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth," but has waned in recent years, perhaps overshadowed by obesity. But the number diagnosed continues to increase. In a 2003 review of the literature, researchers found that since 1930, the rate of anorexic women ages 15 to 19 has gone up incrementally each decade. And between 1988 and 1993, bulimia in 10- to 39-year-olds tripled. Some blame skinny models and magazines that tout an often unattainable esthetic. But for the majority of sufferers, the problem has historically been far more complicated, regardless of anorexia's popularity as a political cause.

For some, like Ruiz, it has a lot to do with their cultural upbringing. Though minorities may have fewer known body issues, studies show that American thinking about size eventually seeps into immigrant communities. For others, there are religious influences: starvation as testament of belief, punishment for perceived sin, or strict eating rituals that, when combined with other factors, can quickly become pathological. In the 1985 book "Holy Anorexia," historian Rudolph Bell describes Teresa of Avila, a Spanish saint said to have used twigs of olive trees to induce vomiting and empty her stomach—in this way, she believed she was able to truly take into herself the Host. Before her was Saint Catherine of Siena, whose religiously inspired food refusal, which ultimately caused her death, has been described by some historians as "anorexis mirabilis." In the new book of essays, a man describes how his Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing perpetuated his anorexia, with the belief that excess—particularly, body excess—was a sin. A woman whose mother was a Christian Scientist recalls the belabored feeding her family undertook to maintain their health: fasts, cleanses, fermentation and raw food, hydrogen peroxide from the bottle, apple-cider vinegar, barley grass. Eventually it became easier not to eat at all.

For many of its sufferers, anorexia itself becomes like a religion. The writers describe feelings of appeasing a higher power, of gaining wisdom from starvation or strength from abstaining. They find power in tiny victories: a meal skipped or a pound lost. As one put it, it was "something to believe in." Which is a hunger that's not easy to satisfy.