The Advertising Acrobat

Stella is usually called Mother at the advertising agency she works for in London. She runs the Creative Department, keeping her brood humming, and ensuring the writers and art directors refrain from tattooing their knuckles onto clients’ faces. Managing creative people is no easy task; you have to be highly creative yourself to pull it off.

Funny, warm, gorgeous, and generous, Stella attracts friends from all over the world. We met at an advertising agency in New Zealand in the 90s. Stella was one of the stars of the agency then, as she is now. She could organize anything with aplomb and was famous for her decadent, wild parties. We didn’t know about each other’s dirty little secrets and only found out, years later, over a meal in London. We were trying to impress each other with our fabulous, important, global lives, darling, and then she asked if I wanted desert, and I did, but I was having a porky day and didn’t want to eat it all, and then I just said it. Out came the truth about my barfing twenties. Then came her truthsecret bingeingthroughout her twenties. All faux fabulousness fell away as we shared and talked and laughed and sighed and leaked the odd tear. Followed by some damn delicious cheesecake.

Here is our recent email chat.

BB.    At our old agency, of 80 staff, there were four females secretly bingeing and purging (that I know of). All sassy, sharp, twenty-somethings drowning in shame. How common do you think it is amongst women?

S. Well, I think that everyone has secrets and a lot of them are to do with consumption, be it food, booze or drugs. The battles we have within ourselves are either fuelled or doused with excessive consumption, then for some, when the guilt kicks in the purging then begins…

BB. You battled with weight when you were younger–can you tell me about that?

S. I had a lot of family dramas when I was young and growing up, I was the soother, the people pleaser, the one that kept things calm in the storm. But no-one was there for me, to comfort me or tell me things would be OK or get better, so I turned to food for comfort and love. I would be in control on the outside but when I was alone, empty and desperate for love and attention, I would stuff my face in secret, eat anything and everything in sight. I’d start with taking a corner or small piece of something and then keep going back for more and more and more until it was finished, then hide the wrappings in the bottom of the bin or somewhere in my room where no one would find it. Once I was eating chocolate from my Grandma’s glove box in her car and I knew that she would notice how much I’d eaten but if I ate the whole thing she would question if it had been there at all, I didn’t know what to do with the wrapper so I put it under my cap but she made us take our hats off when we went inside and of course the wrapper fell out. I still remember the look of disgust on her face and I felt so ashamed and it just made me hide my eating more from people, those looks they give you… god she’s already so fat and she is still eating?!?!?!

BB. Bulimia came, for me, at the end of exhaustion from dieting (at 19). When did your bingeing start?

S. I had always wanted to be a bulimic (what a silly wish to have growing up), and in fact when I was a teenager I used to mix disgusting concoctions of mustard powder, vinegar and chilli, and eat tubes of toothpasteas I had read a book on an anorexic and that’s what she had donebut I was never successful. Sometimes I still wish I could make myself throw up (especially after too many drinks), but I’ve never been able to really make myself barf which is why I ended up obese, I tipped the scales at 100kgs /over 15 stone at my heaviest.

BB. How often did the binges show up?

S. My secret binge eating was when I felt lonely. As a child, teenager and in my early 20’s it was often. I was the fat, funny person in group scenarios but as soon as I was on my own I scoffed my face and then felt immense guilt, and, overwhelmed by aloneness and sadness, the cycle would begin again. It was often and it was debilitating, AND it wore away on my confidence. The guilt followed me everywhere like a terrible overwhelming shadow.

BB. The shame is exactly like a terrible shadow. It feels insane… while there were starving children in Africa we ate meals that could feed at least four families.  What were your coping mechanisms?

S. I would be a strong, together, sorted person on the outside but it was a different story underneath. I was so in control in every other area of my life, people thought I was together and sorted but underneath I was secretly battling and feeling very out of control.

BB. It’s a damn lonely disorder. Were you successful at hiding your binges?

S. I thought I was hiding it but I was putting on lots of weight and would shut down conversations as soon as anyone in my family brought it up. My Mother was often on my case to lose weight but often the problem actually started with her and the neediness I felt from her. She craved constant love and attention from me but I felt I was neglected and she never returned it when I needed it most. I was introverted and hid my emotions by stuffing myself with food. I was never honest about how I actually felt.

BB. How were your relationships with others?

S. I pushed everyone awaybeing fat and funny doesn’t get you boyfriends. I lost my virginity at 18 when I was drunk and would only ever be intimate when I was wasted. I felt unlovable, so whenever anyone paid me any attention I thought it was just for sex, I didn’t place any value on myself or what I could bring to a relationship. My first boyfriend was in my 20’s and it was someone who’d been a friend first, although looking back on it now it was more of a companionship than a relationship of lovers with trust and intimacy, that didn’t come until my 30’s when I finally felt more settled and positive in my own head.

BB.    Does your family know how much you battled?

S. I think that they may have known I had a problem with food but never the true extent of my battle. When I was finally successful at losing all the weight it was when I’d moved to the other side of the worldaway from all their dramasand I could finally spend my time concentrating on myself, giving myself the love and attention I needed to value me and put myself first.

BB. Moving away was so good for you. How is your head with food now?

S. Sometimes good and sometimes bad. Recently, I’ve been through some tough times and lost control of my head, my emotions got the better of me and food became a comfort once again. I still fight it now. Most of the time I’m in control but it’s not always the case so I’m not sure that I’ve actually completely stopped. I still prefer to eat alone when I think I’m eating bad (junk) food and being a piggy… that’s my screwy head for you! I have good days and bad days and unfortunately I still view exactly what I eat as good or bad and then I suffer from guilt when I’ve had a bad day eating foods I deem as bad, or too much food can spiral into another bad day… I have to try and balance it with exercise, Bikrim yoga, walking, or running, things that get my head straight rather than hit the fridge or pantry.

BB. Did messages of needing to be thin play a role for you when you were younger?

S. Yes of course, but I distanced myself from it and became the joker of our social scene, the one that organised the party and created the party so never had to be the best dressed or trendiest as I was cool and funny.

BB. You still are! (And neither cool, nor funny, sag or get wrinkles). How do you get on with your body now? Friends? Foes?

S. It’s still a mix of both, mainly foe as I wish I was taller, I wish I was thinner, I wish I was less critical and harsh of myself, especially as I’m incredibly lucky to have every limb working and my brain working, blood pumping around my body and the ability to look forward to a healthy future.

BB. Trust and intimacy came in your 30s. How did you let them into your life?

S. I don’t want to sound cliché and I’m wary of making out I’m now sorted in my head, and it’s happy ever after, but when you’re in that cycle of bingeing and purging and bingeing again you are so self-obsessed and focused on your own thoughts it’s hard to give to a relationship and be honest in your feelings towards another, when you’re full of shame and guilt with your own behaviour.  My 20’s revolved around this cycle and ignoring what was really wrong, it was a long journey breaking the bad habits which included moving to the other side of the world, doing every diet under the sun, losing 40kg re-educating myself on eating for fuel not burying my emotions with food, and reinventing myself as a slinky malinky. That’s when I caught the eye of a hot Italian manI still can’t believe how naturally it happened.  His passion for family, life, music and food has been invigorating, he has made me feel sexy and good about my body, it’s nearly 6 years now and we have grown together, and stronger with each other. He knows I was fat but not the reasons why or extent, or how screwy I was about food. Where I am now I’m happy to leave the past in the past!

BB. Can you tell me three things you like about your body?

S. Well, that’s a struggle… my eyes (actually I could even say I like my whole face), my ankles (in a pair of high heels), the very top of my waist (looking side on in the mirror)!

BB. OK, make it four.

S. Haha. My butt in tight jeans, and from my Amore’s perspective.

BB. Thank you my friend. I’m so grateful.