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Eating Disorders in Breath, Eyes, Memory; Dreaming in Cuban and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
by Elizabeth Carten
For the past two decades, the prevalence and increase in eating disorders among white upper/middle class females has been studied and noted by psychologists, medical doctors and sociologists alike. Because the cause of these illnesses is often assumed to be an over-emphasis on media ideals of waiflike bodies and a self-absorbed young girl’s obsession with the achievement of this ideal, the presence of eating disorders among minority and lower class income brackets has often been ignored. In fact, eating disorders are, more often than not, the physical manifestation of an emotion, feeling or idea that the victim cannot or will not express in words. Those with the problem tend to be overachievers and selfless. Striving to deal with an issue of trauma, neglect or feeling of worthlessness, they choose to harm their own bodies. Moreover, the assumption that eating disorders are just the attempt to achieve a popular culture ideal fails to recognize that the phenomena of overeating and binge eating are also clear signs of disturbed eating habits and share many of the same emotional and psychological symptoms and side affects. The case studies and work done by Becky Thompson, A Hunger so Wide and Deep1 explores the incidence of eating disorders among black and Latina women and looks at the reasons behind these disturbances that complicate assumptions about race, culture and class.
Several Latina authors have addressed these overlooked categories of victims and illnesses in their attempts to grapple with issues of cultural assimilation, and individual and national trauma. In her book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat shows how the main character Sophie, through her bulimia, deals with the legacy of sexual abuse that she, her mother, and Haitian females in general have suffered. Cristina Garcia explores issues of cultural assimilation, mass cultural consumption, and sexual abuse as they manifest themselves in the eating disorders of Lourdes in her novel, Dreaming in Cuban. Julia Alvarez uses more popular conceptions surrounding anorexia and beauty and maps them onto the character of Sandi in her novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents. Sandi, a light-skinned blue-eyed beauty struggles to reconcile and celebrate her Latina heritage with her American appearance and American citizenship. While the problems of all of these characters have their roots in their identity as Latina females or in the trauma they have suffered in their homelands, it is not until they immigrate to the United States that they deal with their psychological and emotional disturbances in the form of an eating disorder. Their native language, their language of emotion has been replaced with English, making it all the more difficult for these women to articulate the deep-seated pain they suffer. They choose, therefore, to adopt the more “American” way of dealing with their problems and in doing so, disrupt traditional stereotypes about eating disorders, immigrants, and the Latina female physical ideal.
Through the character of Sophie in her novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat explores the legacy of rape and sexual assault that plagues female Haitians. This legacy causes Sophie to develop bulimia and to experience several of the phenomena Thompson notes as typical of both sexual assault victims and eating disorder victims. Specifically, Sophie’s bulimia becomes a means by which she can articulate her pain, break with her past, cultivate her hatred of her body, and “double.”
Sophie is the daughter of rape—a rape her mother Martine suffered at the hands of the Haitian government’s secret military police, the Tonton Macoutes. Shortly after Sophie’s birth, Martine moves to the United States to start a new life. She is haunted each night, however by memories of the attack. When Sophie moves to the U.S. at age 12, she immediately becomes her mother’s sole source of comfort and support during these nightmare spells. She inadvertently becomes both the bearer of the burden of the rape as well as the witness to it, and in a way, inherits the trauma associated with her mother’s sexual abuse. Sophie describes this birthright: “After Joseph and I got married, all through the first year I had suicidal thoughts. Some nights I woke up in a cold sweat wondering if my mother’s anxiety was somehow hereditary or if it was something I ‘caught’ from living with her. Her nightmares had somehow become my own” (Danticat 193). Martine’s inability to deal with the issues and emotions associated with her attack has caused Sophie to bear part of the burden and made the nightmares not just her mother’s but her own.
In addition to the onus of her mother’s sexual assault, Sophie must deal with the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of her mother. Even in the United States, despite her own abhorrence of the practice, Martine carries on the Haitian legacy of “testing” by policing Sophie’s virginity. Martine describes the custom to Sophie, “When I was a girl, my mother used to test us to see if we were virgins. She would put her finger in our very private parts an see if it would go inside...The way my mother was raised, a mother is supposed to do that to her daughter until the daughter is married. It is her responsibility to keep her pure” (Danticat 60-61). When Sophie begins dating, her mother begins to test her and as she commences this practice, the distance between mother and daughter grows wider and wider: “My mother rarely spoke to me since she began the tests...I was feeling alone and lost, like there was no longer any reason for me to live” (Danticat 86-87). Martine’s testing of Sophie brings the Haitian tradition to the United States and threatens to ensure the perpetuation of the sexual abuse that has plagued Haitian females for generations. Sophie, as the mother of the first generation of females in the United States, will disrupt this practice and so must break with a long past of mother-daughter victimization and begin anew. To deal with her own sexual abuse, as well as the legacy of abuse of her mother and female ancestors, Sophie turns to bulimia to find comfort and expression.
Danticat first reveals Sophie’s eating disorder to the reader after Sophie and her mother return from Haiti and Martine comments, “you don’t seem to eat much.” Sophie admits in reply, “After I got married, I found out I that I had something called bulimia…it’s when you don’t eat at all and then eat a whole lot—bingeing” (Danticat 179). Danticat underscores the difficulty that adult immigrants have in understanding this disease and the common misconception that eating disorders are a “white American” problem through Martine’s response, “How does that happen? Why would you do that? I never heard of a Haitian woman getting anything like that” (Danticat 179). Danticat seems to be playing with issues of both sexual abuse and cultural assimilation. Sophie’s bulimia signifies not only the disruption of the cycle of abuse between mothers and daughters but also Sophie’s adoption of American cultural norms.
Sophie exhibits many of the characteristics that Thompson notes as typical of women who struggle with bulimia and binge eating. Particularly interesting is Thompson’s discussion about women who “turn off their feelings during abuse to survive making it hard for them to let go and enjoy sexual pleasure, even when sex was desired and not abusive” (Thompson 120). Danticat depicts Sophie’s practice of this skill and her husband’s inability to understand it. At one point, Joseph says to Sophie when she claims he does not understand her, “I do understand. You are reluctant to start, but after a while you give in. You seem to enjoy it” (Danticat 196). It is this type of “understanding” (or rather, misunderstanding) that drives Sophie to comforts of bulimia. Unable to experience pleasure in sex, Sophie seeks pleasure in bingeing, “I waited for him to fall asleep, then went to the kitchen. I ate every scrap of dinner leftovers, then went to the bathroom, locked the door, and purged all the food out of my body” (Danticat 200). Unable to recount her suffering to her husband, or understand it herself, she channels the physical and emotional sensations created by sex into bulimia. For Sophie, bingeing and purging first dulls these unwelcome feelings and then “purges” them (albeit temporarily) from her body.
Thompson also notes that sexual victimization can cause body-image disturbances, negative self-esteem, and difficulties in identifying and knowing one’s feelings. Women may try to “get rid of” their bodies by purging. Bulimia anesthetizes painful feelings and helps dissipate anger, but it also justifies feelings of unworthiness and self-hatred. Bulimia is also one way women cleanse themselves of sexual assault” (Thompson 47). This type of cleansing is evident in the previously cited passage and Sophie’s “disturbed body image” and self-hatred is evident when she admits, “I hate my body. I am ashamed to show it to anybody, including my husband. Sometimes I feel like I should be off somewhere by myself” (Danticat 123).
Finally, Sophie’s practice of doubling indicates a split between body and soul and physical and emotional experience, that her bulimia helps perpetuate. Sophie reflects, “I had learned to double while being tested. I would close my eyes and imagine all the pleasant things that I had known...after my marriage, whenever Joseph and I were together, I doubled” (Danticat 155-156). Sophie’s doubling is similar to what is often typical of victims of sexual abuse, “leaving one’s body,” whereby they can deny the fact that they have a body. Bingeing is similar to this experience of leaving one’s body, so for Sophie is another form of “doubling.” According to Thompson, many women initially leave their bodies unconsciously but this “leaving” can be replicated through bingeing in order to cope with memories of painful experiences including memories of abuse.
Cristina Garcia addresses problems of cultural assimilation, sexual abuse and the mass consumptive quality of American culture in the character of Lourdes in her novel, Dreaming in Cuban. Lourdes deals with the trauma she suffered as a victim of rape at the hands of two soldiers in Havana, as well as with the sickness and then death of her father, through first overeating and then later anorexia. Garcia parallels Lourdes’ change in appetite with a change in sexual appetite as well. Her desire for food is accompanied by a voracious, almost animal-like craving for sex. Similarly, when Lourdes stops eating, she stops having sexual relations with her husband. Both extremes are, to some extent, characteristic of the respective eating disorder. The extreme to which Lourdes experiences both ends of the disorders and the symptoms that accompany them signal Garcia’s use of Lourdes’ affliction as a means to critique a larger cultural phenomena of excess and extremes.
When Lourdes first arrives in America, she purposefully gains weight and buys a bakery to help aid her in this plight. At a time when she is dealing with issues of assimilation and her sick father, Lourdes takes comfort in food. “Lourdes bought the bakery five years ago...before that she had been working as a file clerk in a nearby hospital, classifying the records of patients who had died. Now she wanted to work with bread. What sorrow could there be in that?” (Garcia 18). Lourdes’ weight gain is a way for her to redefine herself, a physical manifestation of the immigration process. Unlike many immigrants, Lourdes yearns to cut all ties with Cuba and embrace this new land. “Lourdes welcomes her adopted language, its possibilities for reinvention. Lourdes relishes winter most of all...its layers protect her. She wants no part of Cuba” (Garcia 73). Lourdes chooses to overeat in order to shed her identity in Cuba where she was a “skinny child” and where her seamstress on her wedding day, “took in her bodice begging her to eat and fill out her gown”(Garcia, 20). Lourdes, then, gains weight as a way to protect herself from the winter’s cold and take on a “fully” American body of excess and consumption.
As Ellen McCracken 2 suggests, Garcia is critiquing the “excessive appropriation of US economic and cultural models by the fanatical Cuban exiles.” Garcia is using Lourdes’ abuse of her body and, as I argue, her obsession with work, “to signify her hyper-Americanism” (McCracken 25). Lourdes deals with all of her problems by turning to food for comfort. She lives her life in excess and seeks to cover her pain with flesh, food, and sexual activity:
Lourdes sits down with a watery cup of coffee and her sticky buns to figure things out. She remembers how after her father arrived in New York her appetite for sex and baked goods increased dramatically...The flesh amassed rapidly on her hips and buttocks, muting the angles of her bones...Lourdes did not battle her cravings; rather she submitted to them like a somnambulist to a dream. She summoned her husband from his workshop by pulling vigorously on a ship’s bell he had rigged up for that purpose, unpinned her hair and led him by the wrist to their bedroom. (Garcia 21)
Lourdes battles with overeating predomininantly while her father is alive and in a hospital in the States seeking treatment. It is not until he dies, and begins to “visit her” and have conversations with her that Lourdes seeks the other extreme of the eating disorder and develops anorexia. After her father’s first “visit,” Lourdes returns home and “opens the refrigerator, finds nothing to her liking. Everything tastes the same to her these days” (Garcia 65). When food no longer offers her the solace she seeks and her husband does not believe her claims that she has in fact spoken to her father, Lourdes seeks comfort in her work: “The next day, Lourdes works extraconscientiously, determined to prove to herself that her business acumen, at least, is intact” (Garcia 66). While Garcia has, until this point in the novel, portrayed Lourdes as obsessive about her work, this passage in particular points to her need to find some means of solace other than food. It is this perfectionist attitude towards work that is most typical of anorectics and of course, American capitalist culture.
Garcia continues to critique American culture by dramatically shifting Lourdes’ attitude towards sex and food. A change is evident in Lourdes’ reflection, “It’s as if another woman had possessed her in those days, a whore, a life-craving whore who fed on her husband’s nauseating clots of yellowish milk” (Garcia 169). Along with her contempt for sex, Lourdes shows a contempt for food and refuses food altogether until she reaches a point where she “has lost eighty-two pounds. She is drinking liquid protein now, a bluish fluid that comes in tubes like astronaut food. It tastes like chemicals. Lourdes rides her new Sears exercise bicycle until sparks fly from the wheels. She tacks up a full-color road map of the United States in her bedroom and charts her mileage daily with a green felt maker. Her goal is to ride to San Francisco by Thanksgiving” (Garcia 170). Through her biking Lourdes wishes to claim the American landscape while simultaneously reclaiming her body and ridding it of all the excess fat. Lourdes’ dramatic weight loss through such artificial means as liquid protein that tastes like chemicals, and her exercise on an indoor bike from Sears through which she can imagine she is trekking across country, highlight the Americans’ loss of touch with nature. Americans would rather substitute a moderate diet of quality foods with liquid protein and would prefer to sit inside and pump the pedals until “sparks fly from the wheels” than ride through town and truly enjoy the landscape.
Lourdes becomes truly “American” when she loses the 118 pounds she had gained in the days her father was dying. In the spirit of American mass consumption and emphasis on materialism, Lourdes goes shopping to celebrate and buys a size six Chanel suit with gold buttons at Lord & Taylor and spends a week’s profit on it so she may impress her daughter with her weight loss on the American holiday which blends consumption, food, and American tradition into one delectable banquet, Thanksgiving day.
consumption, food, and American tradition into one delectable banquet, Thanksgiving day.
At the novel’s conclusion, Garcia explains the hunger and desire Lourdes was for o long seeking to satisfy. Garcia reveals that “what she (Lourdes) fears most is this: that her rape, her baby’s death were absorbed quietly by the earth, that they are ultimately no more meaningful than falling leaves on an autumn day. She hungers for a violence of nature, terrible and permanent to record the evil. Nothing less would satisfy her” (Garcia 227). The complex and extreme nature of Lourdes’ disorder signals that Garcia’s final explanation is not sufficient. To some extent, Lourdes, like Sophie, is dealing with her legacy of sexual abuse and issues of immigration through her eating disorders but clearly Garcia has a larger purpose in mind in Lourdes’ manifestations of this illness. Through Lourdes’ eating disorders and her changing sexual appetite, Garcia is able to critique the “hyper-capitalist” American culture and its focus on consumption and material wealth.
In Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, the author explores problems surrounding cultural assimilation and immigration through the instance of anorexia in the character of Sandi. Sandi develops anorexia after moving from the Dominican Republic to the United States. While the entire book addresses all the Garcia girls’ struggles with assimilation and the difficulties they encounter trying to adjust to life in the United States, it is only Sandi who develops an eating disorder. Mrs. Garcia describes Sandi’s problem to her doctor:
It started with that crazy diet. Sandi wanted to look like those twiggy models. She was a looker, that one, and I guess it went to her head. There are four girls, you know. The others aren’t bad looking, don’t get me wrong. But Sandi, Sandi got the fine looks, blue eyes, peaches and ice cream skin, everything going for her! My great grandfather married a Swedish girl, you know? So the family has light-colored blood, and that Sandi got it all. But imagine, spirit of contradiction, she wanted to be a darker complexion like her sisters. (51-52)
The passage underscores the idea of weight loss as being "more white" and "more American" and emphasizes Sandi’s struggle between the two worlds. She does not want to be as white as she is; yet as the “looker” the “lightest of the four girls,” she feels the pressure, more than any of her sisters to be the “American ideal.”
Danticat, Garcia and Alvarez all disrupt traditional notions of Latina women through their depiction of eating disorders in their characters. These authors use of characters’ instances of bulimia, overeating, and anorexia to express trauma associated with sexual abuse, and cultural assimilation, to draw attention to the existence of eating disorders among Latina women, and to critique American culture and its overemphasis on appearance and body weight. While the authors’ use of eating disorders can serve as useful ways of looking at the integration of Latina and American culture and the possible avenues in which sexual abuse, immigration and racism may express themselves, such incidences can become problematic, as well. While eating disorders are not solely about dieting, the fact remains that there is something in the United States culture and ideal model of beauty that makes eating disorders and “crazy diets” useful ways of dealing with emotions and feelings. To suggest, therefore, that the Latina woman’s idea of beauty can so quickly become replaced with the U.S. ideal may imply that the Latina culture is fundamentally “weaker” than the US culture. Furthermore, as the discussion of the various authors and their individual uses of eating disorders prove, one does not want to use eating disorders and their incidence among Latina or minority women to come to some all-encompassing conclusion about a group or nation. We must be careful to avoid such cultural assumptions that “Haitian women do not get bulimia” as well as those that may suggest that “all minority women with eating disorders are just struggling to assimilate into white culture.”
1Thompson, Becky. A Hunger so Wide and Deep. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
2McCracken, Ellen. The New Latina Narrative. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.