I’ve Seen Thinner
An Introduction by artist Fritz Liedtke
“I’ve seen thinner.” The woman looking at these photographs paused, closed the book.
“It’s true,” I replied. “Some of these men and women are healthy now. Some are very sick, and yet look healthy. Some people, even with anorexia and bulimia, can be quite heavyset. And some people who look quite normal—people you know, even—have an eating disorder hidden in their history.”
. . .
I’ve seen thinner. We all have: the emaciated bodies, the walking skeletons, the withering models. Many of the women and men in this series have looked this way before; some still do. Beneath the layers of clothing and confusion is skin stretched over bones, which they are loathe to reveal. They have, as it were, a skeleton in the closet.
These photographs are about normal people, people like me. I attended college right out of high school. During that first winter away from home, I began to find myself depressed, lonely, and in poor physical condition. This went on for some time until, finally, at the college nurse’s suggestion, I went to talk with someone in the counseling center. The counselor was gracious, asked good questions, and listened well. Over the course of the next few months, we were able to unravel the tangle of my thinking, and along the way discovered that, among other things, I was anorexic.
That word hit hard. I had never really thought about anorexia, and certainly never thought of myself as someone susceptible to it. I had assumed that eating disorders were for women who didn’t like their appearance. With some research, however, I discovered that anorexia is more about issues of control, which did apply to me. I was a quiet, intelligent achiever, and I didn’t want anything to get in my way—least of all food and thoughts of food. Over the course of that year, I was able to move forward, leaving the disordered thinking and eating behind.
. . .
These photographs are about normal people, who sit down with me over coffee, and pour out their secrets. They tell me stories of abuse, neglect, insecurity, cruel and thoughtless words, terrible things they’ve done to their bodies and families, the results, the healing process, the enduring ache within. They tell me, a complete stranger, things they have told no one else. I am their confessor, their confidant, their priest.
I’ve seen thinner isn’t merely a phrase uttered by those who view this work; it is also often the mantra of those who suffer from eating disorders. It is their constant obsession, the drive behind their efforts to control their lives and minds and bodies. They’ve seen thinner models, actresses, parents, friends; they’ve seen themselves thinner when they were younger; they’ve seen thinner clothes; they want to fit in.
They want it so badly that some are willing to die for it. Even the briefest perusal of pro-anorexia literature reveals how driven, competitive, disciplined, and anxious they can be. Their walls are often plastered with glossy prints of thin models, their floors littered with magazines, diet books, exercise equipment, and scales. They’ve seen thinner, and it is their promised land, just a few less pounds away.
. . .
In a society saturated with shallow, narrow definitions of beauty, eating disorders are an increasingly prevalent trend. Movie stars, magazine ads, fad diets, internet pornography, fashion models, MTV…the pressure to look thin and attractive is an oppressive force that is difficult to resist. Everyone wants to be an American Idol. But obsession with appearance is not the only motivation for restrictive eating. For instance, dancers, gymnasts, wrestlers, and others, find themselves in unhealthy eating patterns in order to stay competitive. Ultimately, the disorder is really a means for controlling one part of a person’s world.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association,* 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States struggle with a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. This can start as early as age 6; according to studies, 40-60% of elementary-age girls are already concerned about their weight.
While anorexia may affect females from 6-96, it is primarily confined to the domain of adolescents. Overall, however, one to two percent of females in America—one in one hundred—struggle with it. Anorexia Nervosa has one of the highest death rates of any mental condition; between 5-20% of individuals struggling with it will die. Furthermore, “Males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later since many people assume males don’t have eating disorders.”*
Bulimia affects another 1-2% of adolescent and young adult women, while 1-5% of the general population practice binge eating.
These disorders are a silent epidemic; they are rarely discussed, fraught with shame, and often go undetected in those who suffer with them.
In the end, however, anorexia and bulimia are not about numbers or statistics, they are about individual people. Each of these people has a name, and a face. They are struggling for control over their bodies, and minds, and lives. Their stories include their families, friends, counselors, classmates, their spouses and children. These are the stories I am here tell.
Viewed together, these small stories and portraits combine to make a single whole, as small chapters make for a larger novel. As you read through them, you will notice that themes emerge. Perhaps the clearest theme is also the simplest, one which every one of us would also claim: the desire to be known and loved for who we are.
* https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders visited on August 2013 and May 2019.