I remember that when I was seven, my father told me that Uncle Ralph thought I was the most beautiful creature he'd ever laid eyes on. My dad, a doting parent, had no idea the comment would affect me the way it did - those words were intoxicating. I craved the admiration; it felt like a prize.
Of course, I was ecstatic when, not long after that, I had the opportunity to model in the first show for Uncle Ralph's new little girls' line. There were about 40 people there, all watching, staring, and taking notes. I came out of the mock dressing room wearing grey flannel Bermudas and a Shetland sweater, with a purple blazer, over a blouse with a beautiful lace collar that lit up my face. They had swept part of my long, black hair up softly in a barrette. I appeared the perfect little girl. Sweet but aloof, innocent but cultured, irresistible but unapproachable and very, very dramatic.
It was exciting having all those faces smiling at me. The looks. The whispers. "There's Jerry's daughter - isn't she precious?" I pretended not to notice. Although I was shy, I knew how to saunter, turn and flash my eyes and smile on the audience - I had seen the grown-up models do it.
But, in my gut, I felt uncomfortable with people staring. Why are they making such a big deal about me? Suddenly my looks seemed to outweigh anything else about me, anything I could ever accomplish on my own. I took no credit for having a pretty face or light blue eyes. It was all from my parents' DNA, a roll of the dice. I hadn't earned the compliments. And yet I still wanted to be admired - after all, maybe I was special.
More than modelling, I wanted to dance, to be a graceful ballerina. Dancing was a release for me, yet as I studied ballet through the years, I realised that I wasn't growing any taller and that my quads kept getting bigger and bigger. I hate these bulging thighs. None of the other dancers or models looked like this. They were straight and sleek. Bony and lanky. I believed that I needed to have a certain figure to be the ballerina I wanted to be; in my eyes, my body was inadequate.
The first time I tried to starve myself was at a ballet camp when I was 10. After that summer, I ate normally again for a few years, but there was never a time when I was comfortable with my body image. And when I was 14, I started starving myself in earnest. I didn't develop an eating disorder just because of the influence of the fashion industry - eating disorders are much more complicated than that.
And my parents tried everything to help me, sending me to different doctors and psychiatrists. They have always appreciated my strengths and understood my weaknesses. They are my biggest fans. It's a hard position for parents to be in, because, believe me, when you have an eating disorder, nothing they say is going to be OK.
At 15, I stood 5ft 4in and weighed six stone. I was finally just as lean and chiselled as the thinnest dancers and models. My parents were horrified, but neighbours and family friends thought I looked great. I remember everyone asking: "Why aren't you in your family ads?"
So, eventually, I went to a modelling agency. I stalled on the corner before I went in, chewing four Dubble Bubbles just to get a little energy. The woman who interviewed me was very nice, but then, as if it were just another question, asked me if I had an eating disorder. She said they didn't like to hire girls with this problem. Are you kidding? I thought. Give me a break. I'm finally skinny. I can't win.
A few months later, I made myself vomit for the first time. It didn't take long to become a fully fledged bulimic, bingeing and purging on a daily basis until, at one point, I was hospitalised. And although most girls become thinner or remain the same weight when they add vomiting to their disordered-eating repertoire, that's not what happened with me. I gained a lot of weight, my face became swollen, my eyes bloodshot and those pretty days were over for a long time.
By the time I was in college, I had a routine: running every morning in Central Park, then fitting in callisthenics before I showered and went to class. Then roaming the college cafeteria looking for something without oil to eat. Then being hungry the rest of the day while I sat through my other classes. Then rushing to a power yoga class, where I felt like I might pass out during a sun salutation. Then home, where I'd have to write a whole paper that I'd put off in order to keep up my exercise schedule. And then the vomiting.
I'd break the routine on Sundays, when I'd meet my parents for dinner at our favourite Italian place. All day I'd look forward to it, as if my parents gave me permission to enjoy a good, solid meal. By the time I arrived, I would be hungry and cranky from a day of working out.
My father would immediately comment on how beautiful I was, and I would grit my teeth. Beautiful? Dad, you think I look beautiful? Do you know how hard I need to work for this? I felt the grief and loneliness from the previous week welling up and realised that it was about to start all over again, the running, starving, worrying, running, steamed vegetables, no oil, fat-free chocolate cake, bingeing, frozen yogurt, Pilates, rice cakes, starving... I'm so tired, Daddy. So tired.
Still, I kept punishing my body, even when I started having agonising spasms in my bowels. I saw doctor after doctor, and no one could determine what was wrong. After months of embarrassing tests and the best specialists telling me to get a shrink, a surgeon finally discovered the problem. My mom, dad and I sat in his office and stared, dumbfounded, at a set of X-rays that showed my small intestines resting in the middle of my rectum and vagina. I asked the surgeon if I had caused my condition. He hesitated and said softly: "Well, you may have a congenital weakness, but it's more likely a result of the straining from your eating disorder."
Just for curiosity's sake, I asked: "What happens if I don't have surgery?"
He raised his eyebrows and said: "You will probably become incontinent." I was aghast. I couldn't even look at my parents. I thought to myself matter-of-factly: so, Jenny, this is your fate.
Of course, I wanted the surgery, finally to have relief. But, unfortunately, something went wrong, despite the surgery, and I'm nearly debilitated with chronic pain. I try to lead a normal life, focusing on writing, having coffee with friends, meeting my parents for dinner. (Now I couldn't care less what I look like - we are all just relieved to be together.) I've since had a second surgery, have tried acupuncture and have seen healthcare practitioners ranging from endocrinologists to herbalists.
Nothing takes the pain away permanently but, deep down, I'm actually happier than I was during my years of struggle. I can't even remember the last time I tried to make myself throw up. I wasn't whole before - now I feel like I'm becoming more of a complete Jenny. All my teen angst? It's shifted to more humility, self-awareness and a new sense of responsibility for my health (which, by the way, doesn't mean I'm a size 4 [UK size 8] and constantly work out - yes, I do eat sweets).
I wish that I had honoured my body, that I had taken care of it instead of starving it, running the hell out of it and punishing it. Perhaps it took getting to my ugliest point - when my nerves were frazzled and I couldn't sit comfortably because of my bowel condition - to understand that beauty is good health. Maybe I needed to go on this odyssey to make a simple pact with myself: love your body - it's the home you live in.
Once, in college, I was complaining to an art professor about how crappy I was feeling about myself, and she said: "Jenny, I can't wait until you get a little older, because you will stop being so hard on yourself and realise that what you thought were your flaws aren't your flaws." She wanted me to know that my "flaws" were, in fact, gifts, like strokes on a canvas that make art more interesting, more beautiful. After living through two abdominal surgeries and overcoming an eating disorder; I think she was right.
To order 'Homesick: A Memoir of Family, Food and Finding Hope' by Jenny Lauren at the special price of £8.99 plus free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or order online at www.independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content