Writer, editor, and recovered binge eater Sunny Sea Gold shares her personal story with a forthright fearlessness, both on her support site, Healthy Girl, and through her book. Food: The Good Girl’s Drug is a step-by-step guide toward recovery for an eating disorder that has only recently begun to be fully addressed. One of the most outstanding aspects of her book is in its very subtitle: How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings. Her writing spurred me to think more comprehensively about the roots of eating disorders (hint: It ain’t all about the airbrushed models), and if you read her book, it’ll do the same for you. She’s currently a deputy editor at Redbook, and the former health editor at both Seventeen and Glamour. We talked about the media as eating-disorder scapegoat, the role anger can play in recovery, and having “such a pretty face.” In her own words:
Sunny Sea Gold at 29 weeks pregnant with her first child
On the Role of Media in Eating Disorders
Therapists pretty much agree that there are three main causes of eating disorders, and most of us who get them have a combination of the three. One is your genetics. Second is your physiology, like the biology of your actual brain—your personality. Some people are incredibly resilient and slough off difficult messages; other people are not. In my book I call them Velcro; things stick to them. I’m Velcro. The third thing is environment. Environment is broken into two parts: the environment of your home, what your mom and dad said to you, the behaviors they modeled. The other part of environment is culture. So about one-sixth of eating disorders can be blamed on cultural environment, like the pictures we’re shown. That’s what I mean when I say skinny models don’t cause eating disorders. I just think that’s completely oversimplified and kind of ridiculous. If we magically were able to suddenly change the images we see in order to be diverse in all ways, gradually that part of the pressure would relieve itself. But it wouldn’t relieve that need of a girl to control her food intake because she can’t control her life.
I think people focus on the images because they’re an easy scapegoat. It’s something outside of yourself that you can look at and demonize, and get angry about. You can’t get angry about genetics, you can’t get angry about personality. You can get angry at your parents, but after a while you’ll forgive them. But you can forever blame and be angry at the fashion industry and the media. Not that I don’t think people should have some anger—I think the passionate advocates for change in the media have made a difference, and I hope that people still keep talking about it. I do think there’s a lot wrong with the images we see, and I’m hoping in some very small ways to work from the inside to help. But I think it’s largely about having something to be angry with.
It’s also about rebellion. The media is a convenient thing to rebel against. And rebellion, for me, was a very important part of getting better. I wasn’t really angry at the media—I rebelled against the dieting stuff. I was pissed off at diets and diet books and diet pills and diet gurus, and that anger made me strong. I didn’t have full internal strength yet: I hadn’t been through therapy, I hadn’t sort of resolved my issues, and I needed something to kind of pull me upright. The anger of rebellion really helped me do that. After a while, I didn’t really need it anymore. I’m still disappointed and frustrated by the way our society deals with weight. But I could let that intense anger go. Media rage probably helps other people get to that point.
On “Love Your Body”
Serious body image issues are very, very rarely ever about your actual body. So learning to love it isn’t really what’s going to change anything. What’s actually going is that you have a control issue, a self-esteem issue, depression, anxiety. Just like the fashion industry or magazines are convenient places to place our anger on, our bodies are a very convenient, tangible place to place our angst, our disgust, whatever else. You know how sometimes you’ll leave the house and feel fine? Then something—you don’t even know what it is—happens during the day, and the next time you pass a mirror you feel like you look like gunk. And you are suddenly the ugliest creature on the planet, and so fat. There’s no way your face or body has changed in a matter of hours; something inside of you has changed, and we just place it right on our bodies. The other stuff is too amorphous, and it’s scary and not easily remedied. Our bodies, we’re told, are easily fixed: four weeks of this, five pounds in one week, or whatever.
In a way it’s almost like hope: If only I could get my body to be a certain way, I’ll be happy. When I stopped believing that, I felt lost for a while. Because I thought, Oh great, now I’m stuck with my life. For so long I’d been thinking that when I’d be thin, or when I’d stop binge eating, everything would be fine and I would be perfect. Then my body got to be the right size for me, and I stopped binging, and everything was not perfect. I didn’t have severe depression anymore, I didn’t binge, my body was healthier, and all sorts of things were resolved from there. But I remember feeling slightly depressed—and scared.
On Presenting a Pleasant-Looking Package
For a while I purposefully left pictures of myself off my website because I didn’t want to crowd my message. I didn’t know what people’s reactions would be; I didn’t know if they would feel that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about because I was objectively fairly attractive. So I was like, Okay, let’s just leave that out of the conversation, because it doesn’t matter here. And I don’t think it does.
But I know that looking a certain way has probably helped me get my message across. I know that difficult topics can be easier for society to swallow if they’re delivered in a pleasant-looking package. And, yes, I think I’m pleasing enough—attractive enough to create a positive feeling in someone, but not so attractive as to turn them off, you know? That just happens to be how I came out. I know that there are people in the world who are objectively not attractive, and that’s an experience I don’t understand. I don’t know what the struggle might be for someone who has odd features to navigate a beauty-obsessed society. It’s a place that I’m lacking. Even when I was really heavy, my mom would be like, “Oh, your face is so beautiful”—the classic “such a pretty face.”
I think of Stephen Colbert’s “I don’t see color; people tell me I’m white.” I don’t really focus on looks, but I think they have some sort of visceral, primordial effect on humans, and you can get your message out if you wrap it in an attractive package. Even Naomi Wolf says that, saying that there’s a reason she does her hair and puts on lipstick, so people will put her on TV and share her message. When I did finally put a video of myself on the website, some of the girls who had been reading were like, “You look like this? I had no idea—I pictured you in a completely different way.” I don’t know how they had pictured me, but they were reacting to the way I looked.
One of the things—you know, that one-sixth of the things that caused me to binge eat—was the messages I got in my family environment. I don’t blame my mother because she didn’t know any better, but she grew up thinking you had to be pretty to be loved. Not just pretty, but the prettiest. And she was. Her mother was very beautiful too, and my mother’s grandmother actually measured my mom’s features when she was a kid—you know those old-fashioned 1950s devices? She measured my mom’s features to see how far apart everything was, and declared that she had a perfect face. That’s what was going to get her love and acceptance. She was never encouraged to develop any of her other skills—her painting, her interior design, her writing, none of that. It was just being beautiful and modeling bikinis, which she did for a while.
So when I came around, I was born into this family where attractiveness was incredibly important. My mother thought I was cute as a kid, so I didn’t get that kind of thing like, “Oh, you’re not cute enough.” What I did get was constant affirmation that it was super-important, and that I’d better stay that way. She would make a point about comparing other girls in the class to me: Well, you know, you’re the prettiest one in your class, or Well, she’s as pretty as you are. There’s no point to that! It does absolutely nothing, except to make you crazy, and it did. Luckily, whatever it was about my personality—that anger, that rebellion—came up eventually and I rejected it. One of the ways that I did that was becoming overweight. In order for me to say, No, I totally disagree with your values and I’m not going to go along with it, I was like, I’m just gonna get fat and then see what you think. I feel like that anger helped me reject those values.
Now my mom has learned so much, and she’s careful about what she says to her grandchildren. But to some degree those forces are always there. Just today—this literally happened two hours ago—a woman left a comment for me on my website, and she was saying that she’d gone to high school with my mom and her sisters, “and they were all so pretty.” I mean, she’s a nice lady and she was just reaching out, and that’s fine. But it made me laugh, and it was an example of how my mom’s not alone with her intense feelings about beauty. I’m very appreciative that when I describe someone to other people, I’m not describing how pretty they are. I understand that beauty is valued in this society, and it’s pleasant to look at beautiful people. And of course I care about making myself look presentable; it’s fun to get dressed up sometimes. But beauty is not a value. It’s not something I care about intensely. And I’m so grateful for that.