Ms. Blogger Aimee Liu is the author of the first American memoir of anorexia nervosa, Solitaire (1979) and most recently published Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, (2007). Her forthcoming book on the subject is Restoring our Bodies, Reclaiming our Lives (April). Apart from her work on eating disorders, she has published various works of fiction, including Face (1994), Flash House (2003), and Cloud Mountain (1997). Her articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in anthologies and periodicals such as Ms., Cosmopolitan, Self, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping. Liu is a past president of the national writers’ organization PEN USA and a current faculty member of the Goddard College’MFA program in creative writing at Port Townsend, WA. The Ms. Blog recently had the chance to talk to her over lunch.
So Aimee …
Ms. blog: Not many people can write both research books and fiction books.
Aimee Liu: I have over the years developed two different personas, between the eating disorder world where I’m a non-professional expert and the Asian American field, which is really all about my fiction but is sort of another dimension of identity. I really feel that I switch from one to an entirely different person when I’m talking about the two different subjects. There is a little bit of an overlap sometimes, because identity is very much wrapped into eating disorders for a lot of people. So there is this place they come together but in most people’s minds they’re totally separate.
You’ve published both in Cosmopolitan and Ms.; do you feel there’s a conflict in publishing in a magazine like Cosmo that features images that could be triggering for people suffering for an eating disorder?
Certainly I’m prouder of being published in Ms. than in Cosmo … [but] there’s a certain amount of compartmentalization that has to go on in publishing. Different publishers tend to publish different kinds of material, different magazines have totally different readerships and as a working professional author you just kind of have to honor that. You can’t say, “I’m only going to talk to a certain kind of person.”
In a way, when I’m writing about eating disorders I want to reach all of those different audiences, so I want to reach the feminists and make them understand what eating disorders are really about, and I definitely want to reach the people who read Cosmo and Glamour and open their eyes to what they’re doing to their bodies, and what is really involved in eating disorders. And the same with Good Housekeeping. It’s probably most important to reach people who are in denial about the problem.
So it’s almost like a stealth project, in which you say “Here, let me slip you some feminism in your daily dose of patriarchy,” and see what happens.
Right. Well, my message on eating disorders isn’t entirely feminist, it’s more broad-based than that. Obviously the feminism is a part of it, but there’s a lot of other stuff that goes on as well, and it all works together in this sort of giant machine. There are eyes to be opened on both sides actually.
What aspects of [eating disorders] are not feminist?
There’s a very strong genetic and biological component to eating disorders. Obviously that’s not connected to the feminism at all. And there’s also a large part of it that’s emotionally based and anxiety-based. So yes, it dovetails with feminism or feminist issues if the source of the stress and the anxiety that provokes the eating disorder is emotional or sexual abuse or anything like that. But it can also be just violence in the family, a death in the family, any serious source of distress.
New research that’s coming out now is [showing] that there’s a genetic predisposition that some people have to an eating disorder that seems to get unlocked during adolescence. All that biological stuff in and of itself is separate from feminism, but it dovetails with feminism to the extent that sometimes the sources of distress are gender-based, and obviously societal attitudes about women’s bodies and women’s sexuality play a big role.
One of the common denominators within the genetic personality prototype that is vulnerable to an eating disorder is perfectionism. And what that means—the term that researchers use–is an “overvalued ideal.” A perfectionist will calm her anxiety by latching onto one thing–“I have to be perfect at this one thing, and as long as I’m perfect at this one thing I’m okay, I can keep my anxiety level at bay.” What happens with eating disorders in a lot of cases is that the one thing they latch onto is being perfectly thin. That idea comes from the culture or it comes from the family, which is part of the culture. And so there is a dovetailing that goes on between the cultural attitudes—fashion magazines and all that—and the biological, so you can’t really separate one from another.
In a few cases you can—in a few cases its just so biological, it’s really wrapped up in depression. Virginia Woolfe was a feminist and not somebody who was suffering from admiring fashion magazines, but when her depression kicked in she was a classic anorexic. She was fat-phobic, she wouldn’t touch food, she wouldn’t touch calories, wouldn’t touch fat, and she had a cousin who died of anorexia who was male. So that’s an example of just how far from feminism eating disorders can be.
When did you become a feminist, or come to identify as that?
Actually it was the ERA campaign in 1982. I had just moved out to California in 1979 and I grew up in a totally liberal, democratic household; without the word feminism attached to it, the basics were there. But I was not a forceful. I mean, I was in the 3rd incoming class of freshman women at Yale, but I spent my entire Yale career hiding. When I came back to California, I didn’t know anybody except my husband, so I started joining organizations basically to meet like-minded people. I joined NARAL first and worked for them and that led me to NOW, and I got very involved in the NOW campaign and made some of my best friends during that period. So that was when I became a feminist, making the banners and walking in the demonstrations and all that kind of stuff.
Apart from your work on eating disorders, you also write fiction, which mostly deals with mixed-race identity.
I was going to say it’s different, but I think that there was an element of it that was involved in my eating disorder because [of] existential identity. I grew up in Connecticut—a totally white, WASP-y kind of world, and my father was half-Chinese and worked at the United Nations. I had no idea until he died that he was so identified with China, because he never really talked about it, but looking back at some of his writing, his early history, he was completely connected to China in ways that his brothers and sisters weren’t. So a lot of my personal writing really deals with that–the identity issue, the mixed-race issue, the mixed-culture kind of thing.
My father and I tempermentally were very very similar, and very dissimilar from my mother, and so there was always this unspoken, unacknowledged strain for me in the family because my mother wanted my loyalty and I felt a loyalty with my father, who was vague, distant, disconnected—not unloving, just not really fully present. My father always kind of fascinated me, partly because he was so unknown, he never talked about himself, he was this mystery person in our family. So as a result I wrote—and his backstories are fascinating, his parents’ backstory is really, really fascinating because his father was a scholar of revolutionary China and and he was a protégée of Sun Yat-Sen—one of the 20 people who were there when they overthrew the Manchu rulers and founded the Chinese republic.
My grandfather came to UC Berkley in 1906 when the earthquake happened, and because he was in exile he couln’t go back. And my grandmother—we’re told that she was tutuoring him in English when the earthquake happened, and then he protected her in the aftermath. Something had to have been going on before that, because they were married exactly a month after the earthquake. So their story was always again another huge mystery.
I only met my grandmother once, and from what my mother has said and what letters indicate she was a very petty, small-minded, prejudiced, not very admirable person. Yet she had taken this enormous leap of faith in marrying a “Chinaman” at that time. All I’ve been able to do is keep telling the story in different ways and hoping that it will ring true.
I’m now on my third book that goes over the same [story]. I wrote about it from a totally fictional angle in Face and then I wrote about it in with a historical fiction angle in Cloud Mountain, and now I’m working on a book that [is] sort of telling it from the other side after my father’s death with a lot of documentation. It’ll still have to be fictional though, because there’s elements that I don’t know.
See some of Aimee Liu’s most recent posts to the Ms. blog: “The 24-Hour Treatment for Anorexia“, “All Walks Beyond the Catwalk,“ “Climb Every Mountain: A Metaphor for Eating Disorders?”