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Wasting the Waif

[whitespace] Robin Lasser

Recovered anorexic takes her lesson to the streets--and the bus stops

By Michael Learmonth

Robin Lasser remembers when she first began to think differently about food. She was sitting with a friend, slurping on a fudgsicle. When the friend's mother saw the two girls, she issued a three-word warning that still echoes in her memory.

"You'll get fat," she said.

Soon after, Lasser began starving herself. She was 4 years old.

In the ensuing years, she became a veritable David Copperfield at the dinner table, making food disappear by taking surreptitious trips to the trash can. Sometimes, she remembers, her legs buckled beneath her because she tried to sustain herself on a single apple a day.

"I wanted to disappear so I wouldn't be judged," she says. "A lot of anorexics say they want to disappear. But I didn't want to die."

At age 12, weighing 39 pounds, Lasser almost did. Her father, a San Diego radiologist, had her admitted to a psychiatric clinic. He feared her immune system might have become too weak to survive a stay in the hospital.

Robin Lasser survived, and today she is a 41-year-old mother, an accomplished artist and the coordinator of the photography program at San Jose State University. Her newest project, "Eating Disorders in a Disordered Culture," juxtaposes arresting images of food with personal stories from survivors of compulsive eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia. She began the project with Kathryn Sylva, an assistant professor of design at UC-Davis, to raise awareness of the psychological disorders that afflict an estimated seven million American women and one million men. The posters are cropping up around Silicon Valley on bus shelters, courtesy of Eller Media. Soon they will adorn the insides of Valley Transity Authority buses, buses in Santa Barbara and Sacramento and a billboard somewhere along Interstate 80. The entire project can be viewed on the Web.

One of the first posters appeared on a bus shelter on E. Santa Clara between Third and Fourth Streets in San Jose--two blocks away from SJSU.

"I wanted it to be nearby because universities are breeding grounds for eating disorders," Lasser says.

Back in the 1960s, when Lasser was suffering her childhood bout with anorexia, diagnoses were relatively rare, especially in children. Today, they are well known, but myths about the disorders persist.

"A lot of people think people with eating disorders are vain, or that it's a fad, or that only upper-middle-class white women have it," Lasser says. "Women don't starve themselves out of vanity or to attract a sexual object."

Lasser, for instance, could hardly have been thinner as a child. Today she's 5-foot-2 and a waifish 119 pounds. Her heaviest-looking feature is the black, thick-soled lace-up boots that keep her anchored solidly to the ground.

In describing what caused her to starve herself, Lasser doesn't talk at all about body image or wanting to be stylishly thin. For her, it was more about a little girl who felt she would be less of a burden if she ate less food and took up less space. Control was also an issue. As a child she felt the best way to exercise control was in deciding if she would eat or not eat. Mostly, she chose the latter.

"The mouth is the last bastion of control," she says. "This is a way to take it."

Anorexia has an extremely high mortality rate. Some 10 to 15 percent of those hospitalized for the disorder ultimately die from it. When anorexics starve themselves, the body begins to autocannibalize, consuming first fatty tissue, then muscles and then vital organs. Anorexics grow a fine layer of hair all over as the body naturally struggles to retain heat. They lose sex drive and are susceptible to heart attacks. Bulimics are susceptible to throat cancer and hemorrhaging from the repeated vomiting.

One popular misconception is that eating disorders are intrinsically modern afflictions, brought on by popular culture and the beauty myth.

Certainly they contribute, but that's not the whole story, Lasser says. Her Web site documents the first known diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, published in the journal Lancet in 1888. The Bristol Schoolgirl, as she was known, was hospitalized after the otherwise healthy 16-year-old stopped eating. Doctors tried feeding her pulverized food every four hours. In 10 months she died, weighing 49 pounds.

Outdoor advertising media often disseminate the heroin-chic and other impossibly thin images of women that contribute to the modern epidemic. Using the same media to counteract that is the central irony of Lasser's work.

"I'm putting something out in the media that uses advertising strategies," Lasser says, "but I use them to subvert what is traditionally espoused by the media and commercialism."

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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