LIANE HANSEN, host:
National Eating Disorders Awareness week beings today. Awareness of the terms anorexia or bulimia increased over the past few weeks during the major fashion shows. Stories of skinny models, skinny movie stars and skinny pop singers showed up in everything from blogs to broadcast news. However, awareness of the causes and treatments of these deadly disorders is only now beginning to grow. In 1979, Aimee Liu published the book "Solitaire." She was 25 and it was a memoir of her teenage anorexia. In her new book, "Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders," Liu writes about how her recovery set off new waves of self-abuse. Aimee Liu joins us now. Welcome to the program, Aimee.
Ms. AIMEE LIU (Author): Thank you, Liane. I'm so thrilled to be talking with you.
HANSEN: Can I ask you, please, first to go back to the past? What treatments did you receive for anorexia?
Ms. LIU: None. I was part of that generation, and there were many girls in my high school and many more in college, who today we would be identified, diagnosed and treated, but in those days doctors simply said I think you need to gain a little weight, dear. And that was about as much treatment as any of us got.
HANSEN: Now, six year ago you stopped eating again.
Ms. LIU: Right.
HANSEN: What happened?
Ms. LIU: My husband and I were separated. It was a shock to my identity, frankly, which of course is what happens in adolescence too. It's a shock to your identity when you go through puberty. I was so anxious, I kind of lost track of who I was and where I belonged in the world. And my reaction was to stop eating and start fixating on my weight, just as I had when I was 14-years-old. I was aware enough, and I was working with a fabulous therapist at the time, because our marriage was falling apart. And so instead of spiraling back into the trap, I started the research for this book and I began to talk to the leading researchers in the eating disorders field and I made it my mission to discover what they know now that no one knew back when I had my active, really bad eating disorder. And I found the missing link, I feel, or at least the beginning of the missing link, which is genes and temperament and personality.
Scientists describing eating disorders, they use the metaphor of a gun. Genes, which account to 60 to maybe as much as 83 percent of the risk for eating disorders, they fashion the gun. Cultural values - the importance that our society places on thinness and beauty and looks and sometimes family dynamics, the environment - load the gun. But what finally pulls the trigger of an eating disorder is the experience of anxiety and emotion - pain, loss, shame, fear - that the individual, because of her temperament or because of the way she's raised, she can't express it any overt way, so she turns it against her own body.
HANSEN: Why do adolescents and those in mid-life, why are they prone to eating disorders?
Ms. LIU: I believe it's because those are the two points, especially in women's lives, when their identities are most under assault. One of the traits of people who are vulnerable to eating disorders - well, there are three basic traits. One is that they're perfectionists. The second one is that they're highly, highly, highly sensitive to criticism. And the third is that they tend to over-value certain ideals. They tend to be pretty obsessive.
So these things come together at the times of life when one is judged as a woman most by her looks and that looks are mistaken for identity. The same thing happens in mid-life. You're losing your identity as a mother. You're losing your identity as a sexual woman, and it's kind of a crisis, when all of a sudden you feel like men are looking straight through you. You don't even exist anymore. And so what the women I interviewed would do is they would think that, oh, I'm going to become as thin as a 25-year-old, and I'm going to show them that I don't ever need to age, and when they look at me, they're going to see a young woman. Again, they're defining themselves by how other people see them.
HANSEN: What defines progress for you now?
Ms. LIU: Oh, it's actually incredibly simple. I've discovered that the answer is to stop living and making choices on the basis of fear, and so now I kind of, I swallow the fear and let the courage and the trust and the joy and the curiosity take over instead.
HANSEN: Amy Liu's memoir, "Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders," is published by Warner. Thanks a lot for joining us.
Ms. LIU: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Liane.
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