Santa Fe is a long way from New York City, which is how Jenny Lauren, 29, the niece of fashion designer Ralph Lauren, likes it. Tucked behind the walls of her one-story adobe home, she paints and writes and continues to heal from an eating disorder that, four years ago, devastated her 5’4″ body. “It’s all about simplifying my life,” she says. “My motto is Live Like a Kid — the kid I stopped being early on.”
As a child, Lauren was striking. With raven hair and mesmerizing blue eyes, she looked as though she had stepped out of one of the picture-perfect American-lifestyle ads for which her uncle is known. In fact, at age 7 she modeled for his company runway shows. “People would gape at her and say, ‘My God, look at that beautiful child,’ ” says her father, Jerry, 67, Ralph’s brother and head of the fashion dynasty’s menswear division. “She didn’t understand that attention and it upset her.”
Then, at 10, Lauren entered a world where she was considered less than perfect. At summer dance camp in Lenox, Mass., she noticed that, while she was talented, her muscular frame did not measure up to the slim figures of her classmates. “I was looking in the mirror feeling this intense loneliness,” Lauren says. “I thought right then that I was going to starve myself.” In retrospect she believes she got the idea from the 1981 TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World, about anorexia. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I could do that,’ ” she says. “It was about having control.”
“I started getting letters from her,” recalls her brother Greg, 31, a Los Angeles actor and painter. (Another brother, Brad, 34, is a film editor in Manhattan.) “They would say, ‘I’m really nervous because the other girls are skinny, and I’m scared about how many calories are in toothpaste.’ ” Back at home Lauren continued to be plagued by thoughts of having an imperfect body. Her family’s involvement in the fashion industry didn’t help. “I got mixed messages,” Lauren says. “They would say, ‘We want you to be healthy,’ then, in the same breath, ‘Oh my God, you look so beautiful, so chiseled.’ ”
By ninth grade Lauren was exercising obsessively, running six miles a day and doing calisthenics at night. That December she dropped to 85 lbs. “My lifestyle was so tiring,” she says. “I went from being a popular, fun girl to just not caring.” Soon after, she met a bulimic classmate who introduced her to Ipecac, the vomit-inducing medication usually intended to treat accidental poisonings. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can eat all this chocolate and then just get rid of it,’ ” she says. Instead, dehydrated and weak after two days, “I got really sick. My dad found me lying on the bathroom floor,” she says.
Still, Lauren continued using Ipecac, and in the winter of 1987 her family had the 11th grader hospitalized for four months. “I was so upset,” says Lauren’s mother, Susan, 59, a guide at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “You want to tell her, ‘You can’t do this, you’re going to kill yourself.’ ”
With the counseling of her high school principal, Lauren’s outlook improved enough for her to finish classes and enroll at Manhattan’s Barnard College in 1990. But soon, again fearful of gaining weight, she slipped into old patterns. After graduating in 1995 with a degree in art history and fine arts, the then-105-lb. Lauren moved to Santa Fe, where the cycle continued. “I felt like I was doomed,” she says.
Within eight months Lauren moved back to New York City and soon developed severe bloating and weakness in her lower abdomen. By 1997 she could barely walk. It took doctors months to diagnose her with small-bowel enterocele, a condition in which the space between the rectum and the vagina stretches and the small intestine falls into the larger cavity. Doctors say the condition was likely caused by Lauren’s bingeing and purging and the resulting strain on her digestive system.
Surgery and months of painful rehabilitation to learn to walk again ensued, which Lauren says forced her into recovery. “I was stripped of all my addictions,” she says. But it wasn’t until late 1997 — when she met Dr. Richard Pico, a psychiatrist at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital — that Lauren rebounded. “He was the first to validate my physical pain,” she says. “That helped me to start healing.”
Lauren began seeing Pico three times a week, taking antidepressants and keeping a diary of her thoughts and activities, all of which helped her progress. Food, though, remained a challenge. “Everyone was telling me to eat normally, but I didn’t know what that meant,” she says. “I was living on laxatives and, at some points, chocolate sorbet and alcohol.”
For years following the surgery, eating proved physically painful, but Lauren gradually pushed herself to consume easily digested foods like boiled chicken and scrambled eggs. By 1998 Lauren felt strong enough to move back to Santa Fe. She no longer takes medication but sees a therapist once a week. To ease the pain that remains in her pelvic muscles and back, she does gentle exercise, like Pilates and swimming, and has regular sessions with an osteopath.
Still working on accepting her size 8 body, Lauren no longer weighs herself. But she often wonders whether she would fall into old habits if she were to move back to New York City, which she finds too fast-paced and rife with images of thinness. “I’m not going to lie and say I look great and feel great,” she says. “If I could be a size 6 and be comfortable, that would be the Jenny I’d like.”