Never thin enough, pretty enough, or good enough, Rowena Wine fills herself with butter drenched bread, boxes of doughnuts, and whole pizzas in an attempt to mask her feelings of inadequacy. She washes the massive quantity of food down with countless glasses of water, which helps her to gag, stick her fingers down her throat, and watch the food cascade out of her body. The Skinny: Adventures of America’s First Bulimic documents this cycle of binging and purging that is based on the experiences of author Rayni Joan, the first person to publicly confess to her battle with bulimia.
The reader meets Rowena, who prefers to be called Rowie, as a child dealing with a father who molests her, a mother who constantly criticizes her, and a large body that she learns to hate. Luckily, Rowie has Pop, her grandfather who provides her with the unconditional love and attention she needs. Pop is Rowie’s source of good advice, and he constantly reminds her that she is perfect just the way she is. Unfortunately, Pop’s words are replaced by the hurtful words’ of others.
After losing Pop, the one person she knows really loves her, she eats too much, throws up, and so her addiction begins. Rowie explains, “I didn’t have to miss Grandpa now. I had found a substitute.” Her mother, Pearl, condones Rowie’s binging and purging. When she asks her mother if it’s OK to throw up, Pearl replies, “Well, the Romans did it. They had special rooms called vomitoriums, and they all did it so they could keep eating their banquets. It sounds dreadful to me, but I suppose it’s OK. Probably would work for getting skinny. If you can do it, more power to you.” She loses weight and receives praise from her mother and attention from boys, but being skinny doesn’t make her problems go away.
After graduating from Barnard, Rowie accepts a fellowship to live and teach in Guatemala where she falls even deeper into her addiction. Her playful sense of humor turns to bitter sarcasm as she continues to make poor choices for herself. In an attempt to fill the absence of love in her life, she has sex with repulsing men in repulsing places. She lies to protect her addiction, which often means pushing those who love her away because she would have to confess her secret. She constantly vows to stop binging and vomiting, only to fall back into her patterns when triggered by rejection from a lover, a biting comment from her critical mother, or a random sexual encounter. Each episode in Rowie’s life seems more horrible than the last, until she is finally ready to heal.
At times, The Skinny is hard to read. The constant trouble and hurt that Rowie sets herself up for is exhausting. The childhood molestation is horrifying, along with many of her sexual encounters as an adult. While she has little control over what happens to her in her childhood, the choices she makes as an adult are destructive and upsetting. The repeated poor decision making makes the book drag on longer than I wanted. Her hallucinations and communications with spirits venture into an uncomfortable territory that makes the story difficult to believe. It’s long and at times, not believable, but The Skinny’s redeeming quality is that Rowie tells her story of self-hatred that many people suffering from bulimia deal with every day. Her message is that in order to overcome bulimia, one must learn to love oneself.