Renowned photographer Lauren Greenfield has used her past work to explore “the way the body is a medium for girls to express their identities, ambitions, insecurities and struggles.” In “Thin,” with an introduction by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, her most recent book and HBO documentary, Greenfield takes it a step further, focusing her lens on women living with eating disorders and revealing that some are literally dying to be thin. Read an excerpt:
ShellyEverybody wants to be thin. I’ve been here for almost three weeks, and I’m gaining weight way too fast. When I was thin, I had all this control. I’m really big right now and I want to get thin, but I know it’s not healthy.
When I came to Renfrew, I was so gone I didn’t know what a normal meal looked like. I had a tube in my nose for five years. It’s kind of embarrassing to have a tube in your nose and go to school and to work. I was getting formula through it. I was supposed to get three cans of 500 calories a night, but I’d only do one can and run it really slowly in case people would come to check on me, like Hoyt. Hoyt is my ex-boyfriend and we live together.
In the hospital, I would manipulate my tube. They started watching me because I wasn’t gaining weight. I was glad I was losing weight. I would dump out most of the formula and replace it with water. No one even noticed. I mean, it was a totally different color. You had to be stupid not to realize it. They finally figured out that I was diluting the formula with water or running it into a cup. Running it into my bed. Running it into plants. Running it anywhere but inside me.
Every picture that I have from the past five years, I have a tube in my nose. My dad was like, “My child can’t have a tube in her nose,” and so he took me to the doctor. I got put under, and I woke up with a tube in my stomach. It was horrible. It was the worst pain I’ve ever, ever felt. When I first got it in I was like, This is easy access to my stomach. I could just flex my muscles in a certain way and stuff would come out, or I would just take a syringe and suck things out, which is totally disgusting, I know. But I had to get it out of me. And it wasn’t even like I binged, just anything I ate. If I ate, like, a couple of bites of bread I would get it out. I loved it. It was a good feeling, ’cause I didn’t have to throw up. I just had to suck it out with a syringe.
Since I’ve been at Renfrew, I’ve purged twice through the tube. I was on escorts, but I would just walk out of the community room and do what I had to do and then run back. Getting it removed was really hard because it had become a part of me. I flushed and cleaned it all the time. I took really good care of it. One girl was saying yesterday that getting a tube is a status symbol that you are really anorexic. And that’s how I viewed my PEG Tube. I didn’t have to eat. It didn’t show, but I just knew it was there. I got a lot of attention for it, and it was a lot easier to not eat and just put in however many calories I needed.
I would calculate it so well before I worked that I’d have just the energy to make it through an eight-hour shift. I would give myself maybe 750 or 900 calories. Getting it removed was really upsetting because it meant that I was giving up my eating disorder because I didn’t have that backup. It meant that I really had to take responsibility. That I was giving up everything this time, giving up restricting, giving up purging. It’s like a big piece of my identity gone.
I am a registered nurse, and I graduated from the University of Utah. I worked in oncology for a year and a half and then did psychiatric nursing. I like psychiatric nursing because I feel like I really fit in with the patients. I really understand them and have a lot of empathy for them. I wanted to go into that field because I knew what people were going through who couldn’t get out of bed because they were so depressed.
When I was hospitalized, I went under an assumed name, because I knew my boss would see the list of patients. I saw her one day when I was at Starbucks with my pole and the pump and the flush bag. I was like, Oh my God. I was trying to duck. I had this huge fucking IV pole. It was so embarrassing, and I tried to run and was squeaking all the way down the fucking hall. I kept having to resign from all these jobs. After a few months, I would get too sick and I’d be like, “Yeah, I have to go to a treatment center again.” I’ve had 10 hospitalizations. I felt like an idiot every time.
When I came to Renfrew, I thought I was doing fine on my meds. I was on Effexor, Neurontin, Klonopin, Trazadone, and Seroquel. Okay, I realize that’s a lot. I probably could have done without the Neurontin and the Seroquel. Klonopin is a controlled substance, a tranquilizer. I’ve taken it for four years and I’ve tried to get off of it but I’ve gone completely insane. I ended up in the hospital every time. So I got here and the psychiatrist took me off of everything. He said, “You have a history of stockpiling medications and that’s how you’re going to kill yourself.” Then he told me I was bipolar. I mean, I am not bipolar at all. That really upset me.
I’ve worked with bipolar people. We were fighting over this because the psychiatrist wanted me to go on Lithium and I said no, because it makes you gain weight. It really increases your appetite. So he took me off the medications and put me on a Librium taper, and I am having major anxiety. I am freaking out. I can’t feel my arms or my legs. I feel like I’m drunk, the horrible drunk where after you stop spinning you want to throw up but you can’t.
I think if Renfrew didn’t use any meds, many people would walk out the front door. I know I would; I was even threatening it. You throw somebody in a place, you take everything away from them, and then you make them eat and talk about their issues on top of that. Of course somebody’s going to have major anxiety.
We’re always like, “What can I get tonight to get high? What kind of medication do I want to take today to knock myself out?” We were out on the smoke porch and a girl said to me, “I feel like I’m stoned.” I’m like, “Well, how much Seroquel did you take?” and she tells me, “300 milligrams.” I’m like, “Shit — 25 milligrams of Seroquel knocks me out. Puts me to sleep.” We talk about what we’re taking, and Polly’s even shared some of her Neurontin with me because I wasn’t getting enough and I needed more because I was having major anxiety. So she stole a whole bunch and we shared.
Being stuck in a place with a bunch of anorexics, you want to do something and not get caught just so you have that satisfaction of doing something against the rules. Drink some water before you get weighed. Lie about anxiety to get more drugs. Give each other drugs, smoke in bathrooms, share food, hide food. Anything you can do to break the rules. One girl purposely spilled half her food on the table and then wiped it up — and there went 50 calories. I don’t like butter, so I hid it for the first three days so I could have coffee, because you can’t have your coffee until you eat 100 percent of your food. I hid it in cereal boxes or I’d get Kleenex and put it in my pocket. I feel really guilty when I break rules, so I usually tell on myself.
I’ve gained a lot of weight. I felt like I was at a good weight and then all of a sudden I’m 90 pounds and I’m freaking out because it was so fast. I know that’s not a lot because I came in at 84, but 6 pounds in three weeks? That’s a lot for somebody who’s not used to eating so much. I don’t feel comfortable. My clothes aren’t fitting like before. My arms feel a lot bigger. My legs feel bigger. All I do is sit, eat, and sleep. I just feel big and gross. I feel like my stomach has just gotten huge. It’s always been flat or concave. I look at it and I’m like, Oh my God. I just want to turn off the lights when I take a shower.
I would die if I didn’t know my weight every day. I’m supposed to be on blind weights while I’m here, but I want to know what my fucking weight is. You’re supposed to get on the scale backward, but I just stand on the motherfucker and say, “Okay, let’s weigh me.” If they’re too stupid to tell me to turn around, I’ll just stand. At home, I would usually judge my weight by the way my clothes were fitting, what I looked like, and how I felt. I knew if I felt really crappy and hungry and dizzy then that was a good day.
In my head, I’m conflicted. I love the eating disorder so much and then I hate it so much. I hope I can look back and say how stupid it was and how much time I wasted and what I did to my family. But it just consumes me. I really want to give it up, but I don’t see myself without it. I don’t ever see myself not thinking, Fuck, I just ate this, let me go work out, let me throw up, I am not going to eat tomorrow. It makes me sad. If I can just quiet it down a little bit maybe I can eventually forget about it.
I’m scared of the fucking world and I don’t know how to live in it. I’m anxious, so I’m just going to stay in my house and not eat. A lot of shit happened in my life, but I think I’m over it. I talk about it all the time in therapy, and I’m just tired of talking about it because I don’t think it affects me. That’s what scares me. I don’t know why I do this. Maybe I just want to be thin.
PollyI came to Renfrew after a suicide attempt over two pieces of pizza. That was obviously not the whole reason why I tried to kill myself. That was just kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Dieting has always been a huge part of my life. I remember all the things that are symptoms of eating disorders being taught by my family: to cut my food into really small pieces, and chew very slowly and take your time, and always drink water in between so that your stomach fills up faster. I was counting calories and counting fat by the time I was 11.
I had diet pills packed in my lunch when I was in elementary school. When I was 10 years old, my mother and aunt paid me $100 each to lose 10 pounds. I always thought I was fat. It wasn’t until recently when I pulled out an old photo album that I was like, Oh my gosh. I really wasn’t fat. I’ve had a distorted view of myself pretty much most of my life.
I remember being a kid and not having an eating disorder, but I don’t remember a time ever in my life when food and dieting weren’t an issue. It was always low-fat this, low-fat that. At the pool, you had a Popsicle instead of a candy bar because the Popsicle had less fat. The message was, when you’re thin, you’re prettier. You’ll get boyfriends faster. You’ll get married faster.
I’m from a small town. I grew up in a Southern home: going to the country club for dinners and summer swimming and the whole social circle. My sisters did beauty contests. We participated in every activity known to man: gymnastics, dance, music. I was always living with the pressure of being told I was the smartest one, that I could go far, and then putting those high expectations on myself and feeling like I wasn’t reaching those. My oldest sister played the flute beautifully. My other sister played the piano
beautifully. I was not perfect at anything. And then I found dieting, and I could be perfect at that. I remember thinking, This is something I’m good at.
My parents’ divorce probably had a lot to do with the onset of the eating disorder. It was a very long, drawn-out, bitter divorce. Life was turned upside-down when I was 13. I just remember until I graduated, life being pretty much hell. I’ve still not forgiven my father for leaving.
From when I was 14 until I was 17, I was bulimic. I would binge and purge, eat and throw up. In my late teens, I was raped. It was a bad relationship I was stuck in. I blame myself a lot because I didn’t get out. For a long time, I didn’t see it as rape because he was my boyfriend. There were horrible things that happened. It got to the point where I was afraid for my life. I think being in an abusive relationship with a man who told me I was fat had a lot to do with my eating disorder.
When I graduated from college, I went on a diet that lasted seven years. I tried to eat as little as possible. I would get on a broccoli kick and only eat broccoli for three weeks. Then I would get on a cereal bar kick and that’s all I would eat. My fridge never really had much in it. Food was the enemy.
I started having heart problems. The doctors said that every time I purged, I was risking a heart attack. I ignored them, because I was at that point where I was like, Maybe this will be the time it’ll all be over. And I was okay with that.
The night I tried to kill myself, I had been with my friends playing cards. Everything was okay until I had to eat the pizza. They kept pressuring me, so the whole thought process was to eat the pizza, leave early, go home, and throw up. But I got held up, and by the time I got home I couldn’t throw up. I tried to and couldn’t get anything out, so I went to the refrigerator, chugged a bunch of beers, and went and threw all the beer up but couldn’t find any pizza. And I just panicked.
I cut my wrists, but that wasn’t happening fast enough, so I grabbed a bottle of sleeping pills and took those because I didn’t want to look at all the blood. I made a bunch of phone calls to family members in the process, which saved my life. I woke up in the ICU. And one of the first things out of my mouth when my mother came into the room was, “I want to go to Renfrew.”
It’s so expensive. Insurance is covering 80 percent and the rest is being pulled from the whole family. If I came to Renfrew and had to pay out of pocket, I would pay $1,500 a day to stay here. Even with insurance, it’s still $300 a day.
Being at Renfrew is almost like being in college again. I feel like I’m in a freshman dorm. It is good to be with other girls who are suffering from an eating disorder. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like I am alone. But when you’re sitting next to somebody who’s not eating her meal, it makes it harder to eat. Everybody affects everybody else.
Renfrew is not a lockdown facility, which makes it different from the average psychiatric ward. When I came in, they searched my baggage. They take all your sharps away. Anything that includes alcohol in the first three ingredients they take away. So you can check your hairspray out between seven and eight in the morning and that’s it. If you have mouthwash, it has to be alcohol-free. And there are only five smoke breaks throughout the day. You can only smoke two cigarettes during those 15 minutes. Those are the rules.
I break quite a few of the rules. I have cigarettes in my room. I have breath mints. No breath mints or chewing gum are allowed. I actually have a razor in the room that I use just on my armpits because I’m too lazy to check out the sharps at night. And I just finished my Diet Mountain Dew that I had in here, so I got to work on getting another one in. At dinner we’re only allowed one salt-and-pepper packet, which is a really big deal for me. I am a pepper fanatic, so whenever I meet a girl who doesn’t use her pepper
or her salt, I get them to pocket it. I don’t drink sugar in my coffee, but I always ask for it because then you can barter for different things. It’s almost like being in prison.
I did a lot of exercising in my room when I first got here, things like stomach crunches, push-ups, leg lifts. At one point I had a roommate whom I didn’t really trust, so I exercised in the shower. I would lie down in the bathtub and do stomach crunches. One of my suitemates had brought the really big bottles of shampoo and conditioner, so I was using those just to try to pump up. Anything to burn calories, to get the fat off. You have to be very careful who you can and can’t trust. A lot of girls around here want to be the perfect patient, and that means telling on anybody for anything.
There are a lot of parts of the day that I dread. I’m on morning weights. It still makes or breaks my day. If I’ve gone up too many pounds then I’ll be in a bad mood the entire day. So it’s hard. It’s a battle all day long in your mind. When I first got here, I fought the eating disorder very heavily, though I did purge on my second day because it was pizza. It was a horrifying experience because it immediately took me back to the night that I tried to kill myself. I have not purged since then.
It’s scary when food starts to taste good. When I first got here, I was just mechanically eating. It’s just putting the food in, not tasting it, just get it down so I can get out of here. The first time I had cookies and actually enjoyed them it freaked me out. It threw my whole view off. I was like, Okay, I liked these cookies, does that mean I like cookies now? Or does that mean I just liked those two cookies that I was required to eat? I even asked myself, Does that mean I’m supposed to go to the grocery store and buy cookies now? I mean, I’m 30 years old and I don’t know how to grocery shop.
Excerpted from "Thin" by Lauren Greenfield with an introduction by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Copyright 2006 by Lauren Greenfield. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.