Morgan Wylie doesn't know how much she weighs. She says that the last number she knew was frightening to repeat. Yet although she's 6 feet tall with broad shoulders and a hefty figure -- what we gamely call "a big girl" -- she's nowhere near the behemoth you're led to expect from reading her blog, Fatgrrl.
That observation surprises her, a reminder that the person in her mirror is not always in sync with the woman seen by the world -- and that self-image can be as much of a saboteur as a platter of French fries. That's what an eating disorder can do to you.
Wylie, 27, is a recovering binge eater, and while it's going to be one day at a time for a long time, she recently experienced an amazing success -- if only it could have felt that way in the moment.
For more than two years, Wylie has blogged as FatGrrl (fatgrrl.com), which brought her to the attention of a Fox News TV crew in New York for a segment on binge eating. She told her story, survived and returned to Minneapolis, heralded by friends for her grace under the weird oh-my-gawd incredulity that some TV reporters bring to the table.
She watched the clip once, no problem. But upon a second viewing, she had "a Complete and Total Body Image Breakdown. 9.0 on the Richter Scale," she wrote on her blog. She saw herself as "a perfect example of what happens to a huge, grossly fat girl that keeps stuffing her face."
Wylie sobbed her way through a box of tissues, through sessions with her therapist and dietitian, through waves of feeling disgusting and ugly. Once she'd pulled herself together, though, she came to a stunning realization: Despite the meltdown, she hadn't binged, or even overeaten, not even a French fry.
"For the first time in a crisis, I really managed to eat prescriptively and not let the food have a role," she said. For the first time, huge was an adjective for success instead of failure.
Seeking rituals and perfection
Walker Art Center visitors entering a particular gallery trigger a female voice singing a few bars of an ethereal song. "That's the art," Wylie said, smiling against the sun streaming into a lounge area. She loves her job in the Walker's educational department. Her co-workers and bosses have been a lifeline, she said, willing to poke their noses into her business when they saw her shutting down.
Binge eating is about eating alone, eating secretly. "I didn't want people to know how much I was eating," Wylie said, aware that her eating was abnormal. She thought about eating all the time, obsessively planning what to have, where to get it, how to fix it, what to do when it was gone. The ritual gave her comfort, slowed her thoughts.
Her mind has raced for years, always in pursuit of perfection. She was raised by a mother who served in the military, which meant a lot of moving and being the new kid. She was always bigger than the other students, or as she refers to them, "the little bastards on the playground."
When Wylie and her mom returned to her hometown in northern Idaho, her perfectionism accelerated. Her goal was to get grades good enough to go to a college as far as away as possible. And so the class valedictorian arrived at Cornell College in Iowa, expecting her life to begin anew. It didn't.
Four years later, graduating with a degree in museum administration, she expected life now would begin anew. It didn't.
Blogging and hiding
After a disastrous first job, Wylie was hired by the Walker, but needed a second job to pay her food bills. Life was up and down. She read "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" by Wendy Shanker and laughed, an emotion she'd never associated with the food she kept hidden in her filing cabinets. Then she ran across Big Fat Blog, a Chicago-based blog about fat acceptance, notable for founder Paul McAleer's coining of the term Fatosphere. She began blogging herself, finding a voice and a community.
But her new life never arrived.
Big letters on the side of the Walker spell out: "Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole." Wylie said that pretty much describes her life at the time. A complicated series of bits and pieces sent her into a deep depression. She was bingeing, withdrawing, contemplating suicide. Ever the perfectionist, Wylie couldn't follow through until she'd made arrangements for her greyhound Kiba's care -- only to realize that she couldn't leave her pet. Or her life. "As long as I couldn't be 100 percent certain that life was going to be miserable forever, I had to keep trying."
Now, this next sentence is going to sound all too clean and swift compared with how harrowing it felt to live through it, but suffice it to say that compassionate bosses at the Walker and a wise therapist led Wylie in August to the Emily Program, a local counseling service (and one of the country's largest) that helps people with eating disorders.
Almost one in 10 binge
Bring up eating disorders and most people think "15-year-old suburban white female with anorexia," said Jillian Croll, director of education, research and program development for the Emily Program. Yet anorexia affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population and bulimia affects 4 percent, while the portion of binge or compulsive overeaters is closer to 10 percent, she said.
"The tricky thing is that many people have no idea that there's help for it," Croll said. "They think it's just how they live their lives. 'Oh, I emotionally overeat.' So do lots of people."
Treatment involves identifying the feelings that are masked or soothed by overeating, so that as people improve their attitude about eating, they improve their attitude about themselves.
Sessions are intensive, especially the experiential meals in which clients learn not only nutrition, but also "how" to eat. Take the pizza dinner. The dietitian was urging people to pick up the slices with their hands, while everyone was stubbornly using their knives and forks. Why? Because eating with a fork lessened the chance that something would drip onto their shirts. "There's a huge thing of not wanting to spill on yourself, because then you'll appear slovenly and disgusting, which you already think you are," Wylie said.
Breaking such chains of behavior is a prime goal, Croll said. "There's a lot of black-and-white thinking: I had one doughnut, so I might as well eat the whole box.' We help people to realize that you don't have to go to that black-and-white thinking, that there is a gray area where you can say, 'I had one, I wonder what it would feel like to stop now. Or to stop at two,' then move on and not feel as though they've committed a mortal sin."
The Emily Program has about 1,500 active clients, with only slightly more women than men. With proper nutritional and psychological treatment, the recovery rate approaches 75 percent.
With the best of intentions
"Intention" is a word that Wylie uses more these days. By looking hard at her reasons for eating, "I'm much more able to spot an episode coming and stop it in its tracks," she said. "I'm learning that it's possible to navigate something without turning to food."
She tells a funny story on herself, about how she met the cartoonist who now is her fiancé when he came to her blog while researching how to draw a fat girl's image. He became intrigued by her writing personality, then by the issue of overeating.
"He went back and read the whole two years of content," she said, "so it's like he's read everything that's been in my head." He knows what to say, how to act, because he understands eating disorders, she said. Currently a tattoo artist in Vancouver, British Columbia, he hopes to move to the Twin Cities soon.
Drawing that fat-girl image? He never got around to it.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185