Did Sylvia Plath Have An Eating Disorder?

Sylvia Plath clearly had issues. Years of depression. Suicide attempts. And finally, death by carbon monoxide poisoning: she placed her head in the kitchen oven with the gas turned on as her children slept nearby.

But an eating disorder? That’s not a problem typically associated with the gifted, tragic writer and poet.

Sylvia Plath (victorismaelsoto/flickr)

Sylvia Plath (victorismaelsoto/flickr)

In a piece in The Huffington Post today, Boston psychotherapist Jean Fain, who specializes in eating issues, raises the question because, she says, she’s long wondered if Plath suffered from disordered eating. Fain searched, but didn’t find any concrete evidence to back her theory. Still, she learned that Plath was quite focused on food and, in general, insecure about her own body. Here’a bit of Fain’s Q and A with Elizabeth Winder, the author of a new book on Plath’s time at Mademoiselle magazine, in 1953:

“Q: …Sylvia occasionally binged. Do you have any suspicions that Plath had an eating disorder?

A. Certainly when you read The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, [her fictional character,] eats all this caviar and avocados. Unlike Sylvia Plath, she didn’t seem to be getting enjoyment from it. She was just eating to deal with emotional pain. I’ve always wondered how much of that relates to Sylvia’s attitude. It makes sense that Sylvia would turn toward food to deal with emotional pain because she definitely found solace in food and in cooking.

Q. Have you noticed the legions of eating-disordered women on the internet who identify with her?

A. I have, and I completely understand why. Like so many women, Sylvia had insecurities with her body. She was a tall woman, 5’9″, and felt big and oafish. She hated how she got pale in winter, and was obsessive about being suntanned. She thought her nose was too fat, her feet too big, her breasts too small. She definitely had her insecurities.

Q. If anyone struggled with an eating disorder, it sounds like her daughter Frieda did. In her confessional poetry, she writes about her bulimia. Did you learn anything about Frieda?

A. My research focused on Sylvia and the other guest editors who experienced the whole thing with her. I included their voices because I think they’ve got great voices, and it’s their story, too.

Q. What can you tell me about Plath’s weight gain after her suicide attempt?

A. She was treated with insulin therapy, gained a lot of weight, and was insecure about it. She didn’t want visitors at McLean Hospital for that reason. When she got out of the hospital and lost the weight, she bleached her hair very blonde, and made a much bigger effort to be a ’50s glamour girl.

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