Recently my mom loaned me a book called “Peony in Love”. The title sounded vaguely familiar, but included as it was in a stack of other book club books she had recently finished with, I didn’t pay it too much mind initially.
Later, I was hunting around for something good to read and I rediscovered it. The first thing that fascinated me was that the author, Lisa See, was a Caucasian woman but all her books (excepting her own award-winning memoir) seemed to be about Chinese women. This intrigued me. Being a writer myself, I was also interested to learn that the book would share more about the life of wealthy Chinese women writers in the prior century.
So I started to read. I didn’t get too far into the book, however, before I realized that a central theme also revolved around using physical hunger to manage emotional hunger. The term used in the book, and in that era of Chinese society, was not “anorexic” but “lovesick”. Specifically, the “lovesick maidens” were a class of predominantly young, wealthy Chinese girls who, being denied of the love or control of destiny (or both) that their spirits craved, ceased from consuming food and liquids and seemingly wasted away in protest.
Knowing what medical science knows today about anorexia as a disease with complex origins and even more complex symptoms and side effects, I found this simplistic definition oddly heart-wrenching. In looking back over the landscape of my own developing eating disorder, which began around the age of 10, I discovered an element of deep shared truth – a link that spanned the centuries to connect modern day me to these ancient Chinese maidens.
Yes, we do have eating disorders in my family tree, especially on my Dad’s side. And yes, there are traits that I possess that undoubtedly would have predisposed me to developing an eating disorder at some point in my life anyway, whether it happened when and how it did or at another time for a different reason.
But the specific set of experiences I had seemingly just days or weeks prior to the onset of my disease – the day my 5th grade teacher first humiliated me in public and the entire class soon followed suit; the day in 6th grade when my up-to-that-point lifelong best friend, Leslie, told me I was so fat we couldn’t be friends anymore because she wanted to be popular; the day not long after Leslie’s pronouncement when my piano teacher told me I was too fat to have my weekly chocolate before our lesson; the day I told my Mom I needed to browse through her closet and she (in concern no doubt) told me I was growing out of not just my clothes but hers as well…..I was heartbroken.
I, too, was lovesick.
I felt like I was being systematically deprived of the unconditional love and support I had previously enjoyed and, without even realizing it, had come to rely on for my emotional stability and well-being. I was just a girl and a young one at that, untutored in the ways of people and relationships and the quest for the modern ideal of feminine beauty and the fragile nature of the human ego.
All I knew for sure was that I was suddenly, deeply wounded – I traced it back to my weight – I gritted my teeth and determined that, if I had to be thin to be safe, to be accepted, to be loved, and I had to be loved in order to want to live, then I would be thin.
And I, too, nearly one hundred years forward in the future, joined the ranks of the “lovesick maidens”.
I do not recommend “Peony in Love” for people who are still in recovery from an eating disorder, because I feel like if I had read it back when I was still struggling with anorexia, I would have been triggered by its focus throughout on one “lovesick maiden” after another.
But for me now, as a recovered person, I am so glad that I read this book. It deepened my empathy for myself as a young girl, still so tender and innocent and yet on the verge of breaking wide open. It also deepened my respect for me now, as a strong and recovered woman, in the understanding it gave me of how courageous, indeed, I have been to persevere and survive.
Today’s Takeaway: What books have you read or personal stories have you heard that have deepened your understanding of your own story in positive and productive ways?
Loves me, loves me not photo available from Shutterstock