The Shit-Kicking Scribe
Mary H.K. Choi is the former editor-in-chief of Missbehave magazine, a contributor to The Awl, Wired, Complex and the New York Times. She is the author of the comic, Lady Deadpool and writes essays – #overnevermind that are brilliant. Plus she produced and wrote TakePark Live, and the House of Style documentary.
Crikey, could this fucking awesome bulimic be any more impressive? I ask you.
I came across Mary’s sharp writing in a story on Jezebel ‘Wherein I learn bulimia doesn’t work, is more expensive than suspected.’ It was the first time I read an account of bulimia and it was candid, funny, dry and unapologetic. It’s no wonder it went nuts online.
Before we spoke I did a little research on Mary and the more I read, the smaller I felt. She was savvy, clever, beautiful and so very sharp. I needed to have a string of really smart questions for her: How about eating disorders and feminism? First world problems of excess food? How the media is making us all become homogenized? That kind of thing. I didn’t think we would be laughing about our mothers.
It’s nice to be wrong. I was forgetting that these interviews are not about showing off to each other but talking about big bad bulimia and not being afraid. Here is our chat.
BB: So, how about the Jezebel story – 49,000 people read it or more?!
MHKC: Yeah, it’s a serious floodlight as these things go.
BB: You are known for many great things – your writing, launching Missbehave, Wired column, TV shows and comic book work – how was it having that other aspect of you come out?
MHKC: I want to say ‘it was an incredibly cathartic experience and it was very revelatory’ but it wasn’t. Once you get to a certain age – for me being mid-thirties – I don’t feel stigmatized for this thing that was a huge part of my life only because I have that distance that I can be matter of fact about it. The thing that was really interesting about that article was that so many people took away the message that somehow my mother was directly responsible for my bulimia and it really wasn’t the case. And that opened my eyes to the roles people’s families play and I’m certain my family played a role in my dysfunction but some of the horror stories that came out in comments were brutal. So in light of that, I was happy to have a safe place for people to share stories like that.
But it’s funny I also have a dissonance – I wrote a collection of essays called Oh, Nevermind in which a longer version of that essay appeared and a lot of people who did read it, and know me professionally and personally, were weirded out by the things I was willing to share because I can be a very private and stand-offish person in real life. And they were like ‘holy shit, I feel like I saw all of your guts all at once!’ So that was really strange. As a writer and essayist it almost never occurred to me that my boss or intern would know all this staff about me – that disconnect was really helpful, being as honest as possible when you’re writing stuff like that. It was a protective state I found myself in.
In the case of eating disorders , of which so many many women are afflicted – it’s like when you talk about sexual assault statistics it’s dumbfounding; the figures just don’t seem possible – so once you open up the conversation and admit you have bulimia or some other eating disorder it sort of establishes the rules of play. Then it’s not so much ‘I have this or don’t’ it’s more like a matter-of-fact sharing of anecdotes. It’s like message boards. The conversation is very interesting. I think it’s very important to be able to talk about it in candid forms.
BB: I agree. And humour when needed, the great leveler of things. Is it possible to talk about bulimia but not let it define you?
MHKC: Totally, however if we had done this interview 15 years ago it would have been a very different story. Or if I had written something that frank [the Jezebel article], back when every single thing I did or every single pound I gained or every angle I was photographed in completely dictated my happiness and self-worth for that day or month or whatever – had I been in that place it wouldn’t have been so smooth or painless for me. Anyone criticizing it, or me coming up on search engine optimization ranking for bulimia would have been embarrassing in a way that I may or may have not been able to process back then. And that is very interesting and definitely a testament to how much more, in my life time, how forthright the dialogue has become.
BB: I’m loving tracking how much more comfortable people are throwing the word ‘bulimia’ around (even though many other things passed my lips I never would have even said the word 15 years ago). Like Bulimia the Musical – it’s hilarious for those in the know. About your Mom, I thought the way you wrote about her expectations was just a reflection of societies’ expectations. It’s so easy to blame mothers.
MHKC: Exactly and when you’re little who else can be the culprit other than your elegant, and sheek, and tiny mother. My father is a big dude who likes to eat and I was like, ‘Mom, everyone in your family is tiny and you could have skewed in a direction when choosing a mate that would have proceeded to dictate my happiness and I could have been tiny too but you had to go and fuck it up by marrying this big guy with the big genes I would inherit’.
Not that it excuses the abusive mothers that are highlighted in some of the comments but it’s a generational thing and I think a lot of mothers do mean well and I don’t think the fault should necessarily land entirely at their feet as they do regurgitate, excuse the pun, what they heard growing up and I don’t think they think about the lasting impact of it. And it’s cultural too. My Mom moved from Hong Kong to the States when I was 13, and prior to that she had been living in Korea and culturally, tininess and petiteness and baby like cute, shrunken proportions are so prized and that hard wiring coloured the way she reared me.
BB: Do you think she was trying to protect you thinking that life would be easier if you were tiny and petite too?
MHKC: Yeah. I’m actually writing an essay now about my mother’s rage. It’s the place she ends up when she’s taking a pit stop from being worried for me. She wants me to be happy so bad that every shortcoming or perceived character flaw sends her into a rage. And now she’s in her mid-60s and I’m in my mid-30s and what is done is done and what will be will be, the whole thing is fucking hilarious. And only lately have I figured how endearing her fierce loving is, in a perverse and fucked up way.
BB: Nobody tells you that when you become a mother you get delivered pockets full of patience but also pockets full of rage – at the world, others, anyone who might hurt your babies. It’s a shock.
MHKC: Totally. She lives in America and she doesn’t speak English that well and whereas that rage might normally be processed elsewhere or work-shopped around her, it lands on me because she can communicate with me. It’s fascinating.
Going back to shame and how disgusting the word ‘bulimia’ is – you’re right, it’s bloated. It’s because of the harshness of the consonants, it sounds like what it is, it sounds like barf. And wet.
BB: Hah it so does. And a little bit stinky.
MHKC: Yeah there’s chunks in it!
The thing about bulimia, and it’s so annoying, is that anorexia is prided in an entirely different way, a super long-necked draconian, glamorous person – she could be a ballet dancer or an architect or a surgeon because there is this precise sternness, like it’s brave and dignified. Whereas bulimia is what burnout students do, it’s compulsive, and it’s so wasteful.
BB: Yes it’s not a sustainable choice. And a lot of bulimics dabble with anorexia but discover we like food too much – another FAB I interviewed in London said, ‘Bulimics are seen as failed anorexics, the attention seeking nut jobs who couldn’t pull it off!’
MHKC: There is something half-assed about bulimia.
BB: It’s the d grade of eating disorders.
MHKC: Sitting in the back of the class silently vomiting…
BB: So how long were you busy with it?
MHKC: I was young, it started when I was around 12 and it was quite bad but not all-consuming, and then it was worse in college, and then after college when I moved to New York I stopped doing it. So it was with me for a while. There would be two or three years where I would stop and then something would happen and I would have it back for six or seven months on the light end and then after that it would go on for years.
BB: What kind of things would bring it back?
MHKC: You know, normal basic boring shit, like a break up, or being jilted or when I was very little being around boys who scared me. I think I was trying too hard from the time I was 12 to 16 to seem like I was 17 or 18 and all of that was frightening and there was a lot of vomiting then.
It’s amazing how right my mother was about the whole thing – she definitely knew something was up. I remember her being particularly angry with me during those years.
BB: So does she know?
MHKC: No, not really. But that’s another part of the dissonance about being raised by immigrant parents – their priorities can differ and so if you are making decent grades or your school attendance is decent they think they are in the clear, a little bit like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. And I don’t blame them but they are very myopic when it comes to emotional things. There are a lot of kids over diagnosed with a battalion of different issues and maladies whereas Asian parents are like ‘oh you’re alive, you’re fed, your making grades, you’re fine’. Did your parents know?
BB: No, because it started at university but it’s amazing they didn’t when I used to go home for holidays and eat half the pantry and have 45 minute showers immediately afterwards, like every night. But this was the early 90s where it was not that well-known. I had the opposite problem to you – I had a mother who was big, so I always lived in fear of becoming like her. And she had her own body issues so she never asked as part of her own denial. A bit like ‘don’t ask don’t find out.’ But the last thing she wanted to do was put her shit on me, so she put me on diets so I wouldn’t turn out unhappy with my body like her.
MHKC: Oh god, it’s all paved with good intentions. My Mom is callous about my weight even now, she’s the type to say ‘Hi how are you, did you go to the gym today?’
BB: So she still doesn’t know?
MHKC: I don’t think she does. I just don’t understand what kind of conversation we would have and I would sincerely have to check my own motives for bringing it up at this point.
BB: Would it be a weird concept if she’s never struggled with her weight?
MHKC: Not only did she never struggle with her weight but she had an incredibly lean childhood – she grew up starvation poor – so admitting to throwing up tins of Christmas cookies priced at $30 a box would somehow be defiling where she came from.
BB: I get it. My mother-in-law is Dutch and went through WWII and I have never told her because she had to survive on radishes and turnips for a winter. I can’t ever imagine explaining that I used to bring up a meal that would feed three families. The vaste!
MHKC: Yeah, there’s something very ‘first-world problems’ about bulimia. It’s like ‘restless leg syndrome’ or something that feels slightly made up despite it being really damaging. Especially in America since food—shitty food engineered to make you happy and complacent while brainwashing you into forgetting you’d eaten it—is so plentiful. Don’t get me started on what we’ve done to soy or corn or the evil-thinking behind a Dorito. Which, by the way, is one of my absolute favorite foods.
BB: So true. Gluttony is most definitely a first-world problem. Plus everyone is depressed and so bingeing on food, eating yourself into a stupor is a means to numb out life, like moonshine. I took myself off to Zambia after I was over the worst of my bulimia and naively thought that being in a country that had been afflicted by famine would fix any lingering messed up food issues.
MHKC: As you do. A reset?
BB: Exactly. But I was wrong. There is that Confucius saying, ‘wherever you go, there you are,’ and I realized a country full of people who worked really hard to get a meal—like grounding corn for eight hours then boiling it for another two—would never understand the planet of excess I had come from. It wasn’t their job to fix me – there was no magic wand. I had to do all the fixing myself.
MHKC: I have a question for you – how are you with food these days?
BB: My husband calls me a fusspot but I am so much more liberated than I used to be. If you had asked me a year ago I would have told you I care less about my body since having children—it’s achieved what it was trying to look good for—bla bla bla, I’m free of constant counting and watching and fretting etc. However this year I put on some weight (as I have a new job that requires me to sit down all day) and it’s been 14 years since I’ve barfed (on purpose) but what surprised me is that as soon as the weight came on all those old body hate thoughts came back… ‘oh my fingers are getting fatter again, and my arms and my thighs are growing, fuck, I can’t fit my favourite jeans…. ‘ and it’s made me realize I am never skipping down the road completely free of it. How are you with your body?
MHKC: You stopped 14 years ago – I stopped in my early 20s. The thing is, I recently put on weight because I work in an office 12 hours a day and I write in the morning, it’s a long day, and the same thing, I put on a little bit and it’s brought up all that shit again. Plus I had to go off birth control for hormonal reasons and I gained weight because of it and it makes me crazy. I think about it every day. Right now I’m in a good place in that I’m not vomiting or dieting but I do have three scales in my house just in case one’s broken. Or off.
So I think a really valuable conversation about eating disorders and getting older is that you move away from feeling like there is a stigma attached to it and you can speak more freely about it and you know what it is and you can identify when it’s coming, just like what you were saying about your fingers and thinking all those thoughts, but you’re right, before this year I thought I was so free too. Even though I am comfortable enough to write something like the Jezebel article and I’m comfotable enough to talk to you, you’re never really free.
When I’m 44 what will the manifestations be – hopefully I am not so far gone that I have 100 scales – but I wonder what that itch will be, there is always something.
BB: I wonder that too. How will I be at 80, post menopause and my boobs are like two old teabags.
MHKC: Hopefully you and I will have porous bird-like bones and we will be really really light.
BB: Definitely Snappable. Hopefully we just keep caring less, every year. Bit by bit as we focus on the bigger aspects of our lives. But how do we open up that conversation – is it just admitting to being unperfect? Do we need to make the ‘I Don’t Love My Body But Thank Fuck I Don’t Hate It Anymore’ musical? Because I think that’s part of it – not pretending to be totally fixed and shiny and new because we were seriously broken for a while. Just being OK with now.
MHKC: I think a lot of it is just being grateful for what you do have. Regardless of how completely canned and corny that sounds. I find a lot of solace in just making sure I do something physical every day and honestly don’t know how I’d manage if I were sick or bedridden. Psychologically it would be fucking brutal. Also, I think there’s something in trusting that the people around you—friends, colleagues and even strangers—are sort of indifferent in what you look like ultimately. The thing that’s so exciting is how completely self-absorbed everyone is. It takes the burden off you having to be five pounds lighter or putting on heels or whatever else indignities we endure in order to “look better” or “prettier.”
BB: So true. Nobody is really looking at us because they are too busy wondering what they look like and who is looking at them. If only we knew that as teens! On the subject of body OK-ness (I hate the ubiquitous term Body Image) – can you name three things you like about your body?
MKHC: I have gorgeous hands. Truly. Hand model caliber with long, elegant fingers and tiny, thin-girl nail beds. My hands would definitely be anorexic instead of bulimic. I have a good mouth. And it should be telling that I cannot for the life of me think of a third because I’m distracted by how much I hate my legs. Ha ha.
BB: Thank you so much, I love having these candid conversations about the unspeakable subject with other bulimics.
MHKC: It’s like a therapy session.
BB: And even better it’s free.
And for those of you who did not read that Jezebel article by Mary then please read it. Genius.
Want more? Did you all see what Keira Knightly did last year? Posing topless to show the world what real small breasts look like. No Photoshop. As an A-buster myself all I can say is #respect.
Pssst. I am looking for more fucking awesome bulimics to interview, hoping to entice a male from somewhere. If you know of anybody who might be up for it then please get them to email me: email@example.com
Great point. This is never discussed – sustainable, kind, honest, not fearful relationships with food. That’s what we should be learning and teaching.
Ditto to it not being sustainable… there’s so much attention on environmental sustainability and food being from sustainable sources… what about having a sustainable relationship with food??