Eating Disorders: a Hollywood History

For more than two years, large-size model Christine Alt, the 5’10½”, 155-lb. sister of pencil-slim cover girl Carol, desperately battled the self-imposed starvation of anorexia and then for another year fought the equally destructive binge-purge syndrome of bulimia. Trying to be “a perfect little girl” like her older sibling, she eventually starved herself down to 110 lbs. and a size 4 figure, developing an ulcer and urinary tract problem as side effects. Still, “when Karen Carpenter died of anorexia [in 1983],” says Christine, “I remember looking at her picture in PEOPLE and thinking, ‘God, how lucky she was because she died thin.’ I was very envious. I remember saying, ‘How can I get to that point—being really thin without dying?’ That’s a sick mind. Karen Carpenter was a skeleton.”

But to Alt and thousands of other women inspired since the late ’50s by the boyishly slender movie star Audrey Hepburn and cover girl Twiggy (neither of whom is anorexic or bulimic), this new type of role model, as distorted and unrealistic as it was for most body types, had become an ideal. In Hollywood, where the camera—like a binge itself—adds 10 lbs. before you can say “Twinkie,” eating disorders are commonplace. Jane Fonda, 54, was bulimic from age 12 until 35 and admits that at one point she threw up 20 times a day. Sally Field, 45, began her three-year bout with bulimia at 20, spurred, she has said, by the perception that “everybody then was Twiggy, except me. I felt immensely unattractive.” Ally Sheedy, the WarGames star who at 11 danced with the American Ballet Theatre, later developed bulimia and wrote a searing 1991 poem, Portrait of a Bulimic, in which she described “the bloat/the skin/stretched so tightly/over her abdomen she fears/it will rupture.” Though skittish about discussing it, Sheedy, 29, has said, “You have to decide that you don’t want your life ruled by an obsession. And food is one, whether you’re gorging it or refusing it.”

One man who has observed the entertainment industry’s eating compulsions is film director Henry Jaglom, whose 1990 movie comedy, appropriately titled Eating, featured 38 women discussing their relationship to food. He interviewed 600 for roles, and only four had no eating problems. Yet Hollywood’s male stars, Jaglom believes, are mostly immune to such issues. “Men aren’t sent the same message,” he says. “If a woman is 10 lbs. overweight, she’s lost her womanliness.”

Appropriately, the actress who uttered Eating’s most memorable line—”I’m still looking for a man who excites me as much as a baked potato”—knows whereof she speaks. Savannah Smith Boucher has battled the urge to binge for most of her 48 years. As a young adult, “I usually would eat until I passed out,” she says. Or she would bake some banana-nut bread “for friends.” She would eat the first loaf, then the second, then feel so ashamed of herself that she’d hammer the third “to death” and throw it in the garbage. “The next morning I’d dig it out and eat it,” she says. The 5’7″ Smith’s weight, aided by occasional fasts and enemas, has fluctuated between 118 and 164 lbs.; she is now between 130 and 135, a range she maintains thanks to psychotherapy.

Silence only compounds the shame many anorexics and bulimics feel. Lynn Redgrave, who over a period of 20 years would gorge and then purge, remembers silting beside the late comedian Gilda Radner during a flight to Toronto at the end of the ’70s. Over cocktails, the women shared eating intimacies, and Radner broke down in tears when she owned up to being bulimic. “She had never talked about it before. Nor had I,” says Redgrave. “But hearing how out of control she was got to me. I decided I had to quit.” Weight Watchers was her solution.

Even as the bulimic sees herself shrinking, her binges often become more titanic. Pal Boone’s daughter Cherry Boone O’Neill, 37, says that in the midst of her seven-year siege with bulimia, she would eat “until I could barely stand up.” Consuming a box of doughnuts, a bag of cookies, a pint of macaroni salad and half a gallon of ice cream at a sitting—sometimes four times a day—was not unusual. Cookies had to be mixed with milk, she says, and ice cream was a favorite because dry foods “didn’t come up very well.” Boone, who in 1982 wrote the book Starring for Attention about her experiences, reflects that she had always “fell I had value by association [with her family].” But after stalling to lose weight. “I was so pleased by the response from people,” she says. “I was exhilarated by the control I bad over my body.” So exhilarated that her weight dropped from 114 to a life-threatening 80 lbs. This prompted Cherry and her husband, Dan O’Neill, who works for a nonprofit relief group, to move from Southern California to Seattle for six months with eating-disorder specialist Dr. Raymond E. Vath. Although the disease took a toll—Boone’s reproductive system shut down for seven years, and the enamel on her teeth eroded due to the stomach acid that came up with her food—today she delights in the fact that she weighs 116 lbs. and is mother to four children born since her recovery.

Sometimes early trauma is a culprit. The ’60s teen idol Sandra Dee, 49, has flirted dangerously with anorexia since age 9. Hers was a desperate attempt to control what she perceived as an unmanageable body and an even more unmanageable life, including a stepfather who sexually abused her. For more than a year, Dee ate virtually nothing but lettuce. Twice as a young teenager she overdosed after swallowing Epsom salts as a purgative. “I tell you, I died,” she says. “I saw the while light. If they hadn’t brought me to UCLA, I would never have survived the night.” The 5’5″ Dee still fights the disease but has increased her weight to about 95 lbs.

Eating disorders also run rampant in the dance world. American Ballet Theatre prima ballerina Leslie Browne, 34—who first won public attention at 22, when she replaced the emaciated, 87-lb. anorexic-bulimic Gelsey Kirkland in the 1977 movie The Turning Point—claims that while she doesn’t suffer from a disorder herself, she suspects that 25 percent of dancers do. “I know one girl who walks around the block for hours to work off what she ate,” Browne says. “[The other dancers] want you to get fat so they can get ahead. It’s vicious.”

Compulsive starvation and bingeing exist in the world of women’s sports as well. Marathon runner Patti Catalano, 38, developed anorexia at 25 and then bulimia, managing to break the U.S. marathon record in 1981 while weighing only 101 lbs. She admits she was obsessed with control but adds, “I wasn’t receiving enough love. It was a big void. I filled it with food. M&Ms are my friends, Oreos feel good going down. But they weren’t good for my thighs or my sport.”

In the end, most anorexics and bulimics find that battling with their disease is akin to an endless marathon. Northern Exposure’s Janine Turner, 29, a model at age 3, discovered early the pressure to please others. When she first became anorexic at 17, she carried a mere 99 lbs. on her 5’6″ frame. “If I weighed 100, it would ruin my day,” she recalls. Turner later recovered, only to starve herself again after moving to New York City and living on her own for the first time. Thanks to a regimented diet and the help of a psychotherapist, she has gained weight, and these days she doesn’t even glance at the scale. She also refuses to be wrapped up in externals anymore. “As far as I’m concerned,”” she says, “the soul is what you’ve got to worry about when you die. You can’t take a nice, trim, implanted body to heaven with you.”



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