The Brilliant Beauty Blogger

If you don’t know Autumn Whitefield-Madrano from her hugely successful blog, the-beheld, then you’re in for a treat. Listed as a Body Image Hero by The Huffington Post, she is a thought-provoking, clever writer and soon-to-be author. Her thoughts and words have appeared on the Today Show, The Guardian, and much more. I was truly excited to interview Autumn although calling it an interview is a load. It was a fabulous chat between two women who had one messy thing in common – Autumn wasn’t strictly bulimic, she had EDNOS (eating disorder otherwise not specified).


Tell me about nine-year-old Autumn, the one that shifted towns and found solace in a box of cereal?

autum whitefield madrano all the awesome bulimics i knowMy mother was heavy, in fact obese, and this was in the ’80s when America didn’t have an obesity epidemic, so she stood out. I didn’t spend that much time thinking about it but when the number one figure in your life has some sort of problem—she didn’t have a regular disorder, she was simply overeating as far as I know— it seeps in ways that I still don’t know how to untangle.  But as far as that summer goes, we moved at the beginning of summer and I literally had no friends. My Dad would go to work and my mother, who I think was actually really depressed at the time, would sleep in until noon, so my four-year-old brother and I would be on our own and I felt a responsibility to take care of him. I also had to take care of myself and I didn’t know how to do that. So I would eat as comfort. It became so much to me.

Did your mother diet?

My parents raised me NOT to be body conscious, they got me to exercise and never said, “Oh you look fat,” but we model the behavior we see. You know, my mother was a secret eater because during meals she would eat normally, and I realized later that she must have binged. How else did she get so big? There was so much secrecy.

Same! My mother dieted, secretly ate and she was also overweight. Did you have to forgive your mother?

Forgive, not so much, but definitely acknowledge. It wasn’t something we talked about until recently. Seven years ago she drastically changed her lifestyle, started exercising and developed better eating habits, and said to me one day that she had felt so ashamed of what she’d done to her body with overeating. She didn’t acknowledge my eating disorder—I don’t know how much she knew at that point—but then I finally felt compassion for her. And that probably played a role in me getting help. I saw her changing; at her current size she wouldn’t stand out in the crowd anymore. Just a few months ago, around this Christmas, I wrote a piece about being an overweight child and the <i>Today Show</i> picked it up, wanting to interview me. So I confessed on national television that I had had an eating disorder but realized I had not told my mother, so immediately after the filming I called her to say, “Look, this might appear, I need to tell you something….”.  It was a dramatic way to let my mother know—tell the whole world, then her—but we had a great talk. That was long overdue.

Finally, when I talked about it with my Mum she was heartbroken that me, her daughter, had been in so much pain and she said, “do you think I did that to you?” and even though I had secretly thought so a few times, as soon as I saw her anguish I quickly reassured her my bulimia had nothing to do with her. I wanted to make it OK for her.

I see in you the need to protect her. I felt the same way. Our mothers were secret eaters. It was the untouchable subject. It needed to be protected for their sake.

Did you feel like you were hiding your eating disorder (ED) from people?

Yes and no. There was a part of me that wanted people to notice there was something wrong and I needed help so I mentioned things to friends to see if anything would happen. But that wasn’t when I was at my worst. When I lost my job, and earlier when I was 29, it was really bad, there was a part of me that didn’t really <i>get</i> that I was hurting myself. I wanted to be healthy, everyone commended my eating, <i>oh you’re so good, so good</i>—I loved it—and I thought I was doing great but I felt hungry all the fucken time. I was seeing this guy and he went away on a trip for six weeks and I decided I would eat whatever I wanted for the first three weeks and then shape up for the second three weeks. I went out for dinner with some friends to a get-your-own-pizza joint and I went to town on that pizza. I didn’t talk to anyone and I was sitting across from a friend and she just looked at me and she said, “I’ve never seen you so focused on food”. I was in that crazy head space and she noticed—she had a lifelong problem with bulimia so she knew.

I don’t think I consciously started bingeing. I heard a colleague say she mixed together flour, cocoa powder and sugar and ate it and I thought ‘I’ve totally done that but I would never tell anyone’.  But I never worried about hiding my restrictive behavior because I never realized I was doing anything wrong.

As women, we get great feedback about restricting food. Good girl for not eating the burger. Good girl for eating the salad. So what started a binge for you?

Anything. Like you said it could be something small but negative—a comment by the water cooler—it had been a coping mechanism since I was nine. If I ended up having a heavy lunch then I would go the whole way. It also became a coping mechanism for something good. At high school I won an acting competition, at 15, and I was so thrilled. But I went home and it was the first time I took laxatives—I didn’t even binge— but I felt like I needed to get rid of stuff. I have had to learn to cope with good feelings too.

I loved the line in your post about Renfrew, about how EDs are about so much more than body image and food; they are about control, perfectionism, chaos, suppression, connection, intimacy, yearning, abundance, fear. But it’s not talked about. Girls, in particular, are brought up being told to control ourselves and suppress our dark emotions. Brené Brown talks about emotions and how they are on a spectrum, with anger, sadness, loneliness, frustration on one end and love, joy and creativity on the other end. No matter what the vice is: booze, food, cutting, laxatives, numbing negative emotions also numbs positive ones. I think that’s why recovery can be so hard because it’s not just bad but ALL feelings come back.

That is something that needs to be out there about any addiction but especially EDs. About ten months ago I met a wonderful man and we had this amazing time together and I thought, oh my god I think I am falling in love, yet after I’d see him I’d have these strong urges to binge. I was trying to figure out why: I knew I was happy but my instincts were telling me something bad was happening. In most areas of my life I believe in trusting your instincts, but when it comes to food, I’ve learned that I can’t. My instincts about food are messed up. That’s part of what an eating disorder is.

Do you think there is more shame around EDs because it’s about eating—this wonderfully enjoyable thing?

I think that idea of body perfection with EDs is furthered along by celebrities. It’s great that public figures are talking about their EDs but what happens is that you see actors, entertainers—glamorous women having them and that un-intentionally glamorizes it.  It makes it seem that it’s about the way you look. Women who have been through it, understand it’s related but that’s not all. And I think all women want to be taken seriously. I felt like I was betraying my feminist politics by not ‘loving my body’. You know, not realizing these are not as interrelated as they appear.  As a culture I think we need to do a better job of divorcing EDs from vanity. It’s not that there is no connection there—women with ED’s are more aware of their physical presence—but it doesn’t mean that they will do anything to look beautiful. I have interviewed a lot of women about beauty and the women I would classify as being the most preoccupied with their looks are not the ones with EDs. There’s not a definite connection. You wouldn’t necessarily know to look at women with EDs that they have one.

Exactly, we’re so secretive. Do you have tricks you learned to manage that urge or quiet that voice?

There is a great book—and I’m not into self-help books but this one sat with me—called Radical Acceptance. And it suggests a Buddhist saying to PAUSE. Be conscious. Pause and notice what you’re feeling without judgment. So recently I had this urge and I noticed it, paused and I literally said out loud, “OK what are you feeling?” And I felt a little anger and frustration and so I said, “Hello Anger, Hello Frustration” and I let them be there without asking Why are you here? So that is something I learned in recovery. Just WAIT. Wait ten minutes, because my brain shifts. That’s one of my tricks.

Love it. Like making our fears and concerns feel listened to, so they don’t get stroppy.

Yeah. Saying “Hi, I see you”. Rather than trying to shut them up. And sometimes I need to eat something as sometimes I’m just hungry. Those are the big things. Another trick I heard once is to paint your finger nails. It’s self-care. And you can’t do anything with your hands for half an hour while they dry.

Can’t dive into the crisp packet.

Exactly. I remember wanting tricks thinking if I have enough tricks in my arsenal I’ll be fine and then I realized I wouldn’t be unless I let recovery happen. I’m not totally there but something fundamental had to shift before I could even try any tricks.

In that heartfelt Marie Claire article: The Imperfect Anorexic, you talked about that voice you had been silencing since you were nine. This sounds a bit crazy but did you have to go back and meet that girl again, allow that voice to be?

I don’t know if it was as conscious as that but I think there was a component of letting myself feel compassion for myself. It’s very easy to feel sorry for myself, but that’s quite different from learning to have genuine compassion for myself and that nine-year-old girl. I was a pretty harsh judge of her. I remember one of the most potent things that happened in recovery was in art therapy. And I was kind of like, art therapy, OK fine. So we were doing collages, discussing going with feelings and I was rolling pieces of felt, and I had some construction paper and I glued a piece of it on to my colláge, and then grabbed some chalk that accidentally smudged the construction paper. And without thinking, I wrote underneath the glued paper ‘now it’s all ruined’. I covered it back up with paper and then as we went around and talked about our art, this woman next to me said, “I see something is written underneath there.” I pulled it up and to see that I had written those words down—it’s all ruined—made me think of all the times I have felt that, that everything would be ruined. I realized this shit runs so deepInstead of feeling sorry for myself, I had compassion. That was really big. Saying Hi to that part of myself without judgment and criticism. Acknowledging that side of me. I am therapy minded but it’s easy for me to indulge and think, oh life is so hard; it’s another way of handling things without really handling things. It’s not aesthetically pleasing but that colláge is on my wall. A reminder.

Wow. I have my reminders too. Thank you for sharing Autumn.