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Shedding Light on Shedding Pounds

September 17, 2000|RACHEL USLAN

In 1978, Lori Gottlieb was queen of her fourth grade's lunch hour. She was thin, getting thinner, and her Beverly Hills classmates wanted her secret. When Gottlieb, now 32 and a medical student, came across her long-lost journal of the year that took her in and out of anorexia, she decided to publish it. With its candid 11-year-old's narration, "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self" (Simon & Schuster) reveals the mind-set behind both her eating disorder and the awkwardness of adolescence that led her there.

Q: Has anything changed since 1978?

A: For girls who are oriented toward things intellectual--or something that's not about shopping every weekend--you used to be considered a freak. Now girls are being treated more as whole people. It's not assumed anymore that a girl is going to grow up, get married, have babies, and maybe do something part time. You can tell girls as much as you want, "Oh, looks don't matter. Feel comfortable with who you are," but they go out into the world and that's refuted every second of their lives.

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Q: The media still pushes thin.

A: Executives in the entertainment business work from a place of fear. It's easy to cast a show with another Calista Flockhart, and if it fails you can say, "But Calista Flockhart was so popular." But if you cast it with normal-looking people and the show flops, well, you lose your job because they'll say, "What were you thinking?" If somebody were to take that kind of risk and cast healthy-looking, fit, normal people, if we just redefined what is attractive, that would send a message to Hollywood that they could do this.

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Q: What can we do in the meantime?

A: I don't think that parents realize how gender-biased they are bringing up their kids. Many parents very early on start telling girls how beautiful they are. They think they are making the girl feel good about herself, but that just emphasizes that she's going to be judged based on her physical attributes.

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Q: In your journal, your mom tells you, after you've been hospitalized, to work on your figure if you ever want a husband. What was your parents' reactions to the book?

A: Clearly they didn't understand what was going on with me, so they were able to say, "We didn't realize you were thinking these things." A lot of parents may see this as kind of a wake-up call for how they act around their children.

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Q: Has anyone from 1978 resurfaced?

A: At my book-signing in L.A. a lot of people that I hadn't seen in 20 years showed up and told me, "I was really obsessed with my weight." Of course, I thought everyone else was so happy and confident and I was the only one going through this. For any girl who's ever felt like she was in the "in crowd" and then ostracized, to find out that the "in crowd" was exactly like you, it was a really normalizing experience.

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Q: What finally brought you out of it?

A: I got frustrated. It was so antithetical to everything I had been or believed in. Becoming monomaniacal about dieting was just not who I was. When I started cutting the fat off my stomach [with scissors in the hospital], I realized how far I had gone from being the girl that I was, and it really frightened me.

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Q: Who helped you the most?

A: The nurse in the hospital, the only woman who ever talked to me on a level that didn't have to do with "you need to eat" or "you're too skinny." It was eye-opening for me to discover that there are women out there like her who don't live their lives ruled by how they look.

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Q: Is this an L.A. book?

A: For people growing up in either New York or L.A., they know it's an unfortunate reality. I got one letter from someone in Seattle saying that, knowing that my book was optioned for film [by Martin Scorsese's DeFina/Cappa Productions], did I write the mother character because it would be better for a film?

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Q: You wish.

A: Yeah. (Laughs.) Truth is stranger than fiction.

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