Eating disorder death of friend comes as a shock

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/14/01.

Somewhere, I know, Heather is laughing at me. This tribute, you see, is nearly four months late. It's been four months since my friend, Heather Henderson, died as a result of her eating disorder.

Her death shocked me, but my tardiness wouldn't surprise Heather at all. We were cub reporters together here at the Press, way back when a newly inaugurated Bill Clinton's first promotional picture was sent to our office.

Even in our first summer, Heather was a model of efficiency, a master of organization, and showed great attention to details. We shared a computer, desk and phone, which wasn't much of a problem because Heather would usually be done with her tasks by the time I got around to starting. She was the do-it-right, do-it-right-away star reporter, and I was the oh-my-goodness-the-deadline-is-almost-here slacker.

Inevitably on deadline day, she would bail me out by helping with some of my duties.

Heather never shared her battle with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa with me, even though we shared an office during one of her difficult periods.

While Heather embarked on her journalistic career, and fought to change the prevailing culture in America, a culture that fostered her disease, I left this culture altogether.

When I returned from 30 months of living in Papua New Guinea, Heather was there to pick my brain about the experience and the culture there. Thin isn't the most beautiful ideal in PNG, Heather must have been happy to learn. Niuginians are rather accepting of body shape and size

And, in contrast to America, bulk is respected. Only rich Niuginians are fat, so a beer belly is a sure sign of wealth.

When I returned this fall, one of the hard things for me was to hear about my added girth. No one meant to hurt my feelings by saying that I was so fat they barely could recognize me, but my American ears didn't enjoy hearing it.

Other aspects of gender relations in Papua New Guinea offended Heather greatly. Gender relations in America have a long way to go; relations in PNG are still emerging from the Stone Age.

When I learned of Heather's death, and its cause, I wasn't completely caught off guard. I had seen signs and known she was underweight.

I found myself most surprised by my inability to add it all up. I attribute my failure to do so to my ignorance of her disease and to the insidiousness of this culture.

I never realized that my friend was sick and battling for her life. The culture told me that thin is beautiful, and I never questioned it, until it claimed the life of my friend.

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