When the woman you’ve decided to model your life after is famous for having said that a “tiny touch of anorexia nervosa may be necessary in order to maintain an ideal weight,” you can rest assured that you’re going to be obsessing over your body at least a little.
It’s not exactly territory that’s entirely new to me. Weight obsession is in my genes: my grandmother, when she was alive, used to greet people with either, “You’ve put on weight” or “You look thin” (both comments somehow sounded equally accusatory). My mom weighs less than 100 pounds (granted, she’s just under five feet tall) and once suggested that I smoke in order to stay skinny. My brother used to compete in marathons and triathlons and “not feel right” unless he’d run at least 10 miles every day. My 72-year-old dad spends most of his days doing various workout classes at the gym.
The end result is that I’m just not quite right in the head when it comes to weight. My mood can be determined by whatever number I read on a scale. I don’t, in fact, even own a scale because I don’t trust myself not to be on it constantly and use each result as an opportunity to either celebrate or lament myself.
At the same time, I’ve been friends with plenty of people who have fully developed eating disorders—who make themselves throw up or are so emaciated that they’ve been asked to leave certain gyms. Essentially, I’ve been close enough to understand that while I don’t have an eating disorder, I’m about a half a chromosome away. I’ve related entirely to the way these friends have thought about food and weight; I just don’t seem to think about it quite as much as them and, more importantly, the thoughts don’t ever lead me to stick my finger down my throat or starve myself. The most surprising aspect of all of this is that this is the one area of my life where I don’t veer toward one extreme or the other. See, I’m an addict through and through: I’m sober over a decade after proving time and again that I couldn’t do just a little cocaine. I chain smoked until the day I gave up cigarettes for good. I don’t even rent one movie at a time, for God’s sakes: I walk away with a stack of three even though I know I’ll only have time to watch one. Moderation and I are not close friends, or even really acquaintances.
All of which is to say that it’s a good thing I didn’t meet Helen Gurley Brown during my formative years. This is a woman, after all, who proudly told the New York Times that her ideal weight was 95 pounds and was back to working out a week after having a hysterectomy. And her recommendations in Sex and the Single Girl reflect that sort of obsessive mentality: she explains how much protein we’re supposed to consume per day (51 grams), the regular replacements we should be making (wheat flour for white, brown sugar for white, soybean oil instead of any other) and even recommends consuming only three eggs, a steak and a bottle of wine over three days in order to lose six pounds.
But HGB wasn’t always so obsessive. Apparently she was once more like—well, me…eating well some of the time but mixing that with less-than-healthy things and feeling generally crappy about it. But then, exhausted and run-down one day—pre-Cosmo, pre-Sex and the Single Girl—she wandered into an LA vitamin store and had what sounds like an undeniably transformative experience with the store owner Gladys Lindberg. Soon, Helen was drinking Lindberg’s Serenity Cocktails, eating liver, and feeling transformed.
If it could happen to Helen, I reasoned, it could happen to me. Who cares that my favorite foods are bacon and s’mores? I, too, could transition into a health nut. With that thought in mind, I looked up Helen’s health guru, Gladys Lindberg, and learned that although she was, alas, long gone, she had a daughter named Judy who continued to run her vitamin empire and actually gave nutrition counseling on Thursday and Saturday mornings.
The next Saturday morning I was in L.A., I drove out to Lindberg Nutrition in Torrance. Unfortunately, a deadly serious employee named Jeff explained, Judy had taken a spontaneous trip to Palm Springs. But he brought me around this enormous emporium overflowing with vitamins and powders and nutrition bars and explained the Lindberg philosophy, which broke down into three main components: multivitamins, fish oil pills, and protein.
As a chicken fanatic who already took Omega, I felt like I’d aced a test I hadn’t even studied for. But once I started explaining my diet to Jeff—and, treating him like an overly judgmental doctor, I gave him the healthiest version of it, skipping over the s’mores and bacon sojourns—he begun to seem concerned. According to Jeff, I wasn’t consuming anywhere near the right amount of protein and the fact that I didn’t take a multivitamin was alarming indeed. “Tell me more,” I’d pleaded, feeling, I imagined, the way Helen once had. He did.
By the time I headed back to New York, I’d ordered a three-month supply of Lindberg Pink Pack vitamins—an enormous bottle filled with sealed-off packets—and five pounds of unflavored whey protein powder. It was roughly three months of vitamins and five pounds of protein powder more than I wanted but Helen never said her transition into life as a health nut was without struggle.
At first, I was really good about the protein shakes and vitamins. I convinced myself I liked them. I really did. As a lifelong exercise fanatic who usually justifies eating what she wants to because she’s either going to or just came from the gym, I decided that I could be someone who both ate well and worked out. It was such a more efficient way to be! Why merely break even on your body, I reasoned, when you could come out ahead?
And then, after a few weeks, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I became conscious, you see, of a fact I’d been working hard to deny: I was gagging on the shakes. And the 64 vitamins—it was actually more like 10 but it felt like 64—I was forcing down every morning were also making me nauseas. Plus, I was beginning to feel like I was emitting the odor of a cabinet in a nursing home. Even the sight of my bright yellow pee had started to make me feel sick.
In the end, I reasoned that incorporating in some of Helen’s other food recommendations—eating “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper,” snacking on carrots and celery instead of 100-calorie brownie snack packs and slowly adding more fruits and lightly cooked vegetables throughout the day—made up for the fact that I wasn’t fervently downing protein shakes and vitamins, or even downing them at all.
It worked better. The fact is that during the few weeks that I was following Helen’s food regime to a T, I was obsessing about it all the time—what I could put in the protein shake to make it slightly less disgusting, when I should drink it so that it would have the maximum impact on my workout, why it was so great that I’d finally become so healthy, and so on. I was becoming a Goddamn bore, though it was mostly in my head. I was, essentially, converting my near eating disorder into a full-blown one. Perhaps this was all just a glorious rationalization to put the blender back in the cupboard and toss the protein power in the trash, but I do know that I’ve never had a tiny touch of anything.