'Suddenly I became the hot babe'
She went from binging on bourekas until she weighed 100 kilos, to subsisting on a spoonful of cottage cheese a day. After shedding her fat, and her defenses, journalist Elian Lazovsky has made a film for the 'silent majority of women' trapped between bulimia and anorexia.
"Every Friday, I'd buy 50 bourekas. I'd go home, lock the door, disconnect the phone and eat them all. If someone rang the doorbell, I wouldn't open it. I would feel the food lining me from the inside, as if greasing my veins and massaging my broken heart," says journalist and screenwriter Elian Lazovsky, 32.
Lazovsky's heart was broken after her discharge from the army, when she was already an overweight young woman who had begun writing for the Maariv newspaper's Sof Shavua weekend supplement. At work, a relationship bordering on sexual harassment developed between her and a respected media figure 20 years her senior; he was also known for his weight problems. When he left her after several tumultuous months and traveled abroad with his spouse, she fell apart. Gorging on entire trays of bourekas became a regular habit.
Now she has directed a documentary film, "Habeten Haraka Sheli" (literally, "My Soft Belly") that will be aired next Tuesday on the Yes documentary channel (at 10 P.M.). The title is misleading. On the one hand, for years Lazovsky has been writing about herself in articles and personal columns in Maariv and in other magazines. Her writing is exhibitionist, revealing, sometimes over the top, and accompanied by photos of herself. On the other hand, for about the same number of years, Lazovsky's gut has not been soft anymore, but rather solid and concave, like a pot with two prominent pelvic bones that look like handles.
Her documentary film deals with her journey from being the type of girl who is politely referred to as "large," and less politely as "fat" or as a rula (which, she explains, is "something like a huge, lesbian basketball player"), to where she is now: 30 or so kilograms lighter, her height now accentuating her body's new litheness. The message that emerges from the film is that life still isn't all it was cracked up to be, but it's definitely better to be skinny and a "hot babe" (a term she is fond of using), so as to free yourself to grapple with genuine problems, which were previously buried under layers of fat.
Since early childhood, in the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neveh Avivim, Lazovsky's body caused her anguish in various ways. Before the weight gain began, she suffered from a rare ear disease that nearly caused her to lose her hearing and for which she underwent surgery abroad. After that, she began growing very tall, like Alice after she nibbled from the wrong side of the mushroom, and finally reached her present height - 183 centimeters (6 feet) - at age 15. Very, very tall, both in relation to girls her age and to the average height of the local male.
"In retrospect, but only in retrospect, after all my attempts to deal with my eating disorder and my weight," she says, "I understood that my problems with my body, with my self-image, the alienation I felt from my body, did not start with my weight, but with my height, and that at a young age I felt that I was losing control over this peculiar body."
Elian is one of two children of Dr. Rivka Lazovsky, of the counselor education graduate department at Beit Berl Academic College, and Arie, an architect. She started to put on weight as an adolescent, both because she hated her ever-elongating body, and in reaction to her mother who, as in many such cases, aspired to be the very model of a slim, elegant and beautiful woman (and turned out to have been an overweight child herself). To compensate for her own desire for the food she couldn't allow herself, the mother urged her daughter to take another portion and gain the weight instead.
Lazovsky doesn't blame her mother. Mothers don't act this way deliberately, she says, and they, too, are victims of the same impossible standards of thinness, which women themselves impose on women. She reminds me of a segment of her film in which her good friend, journalist Dana Spector of Yedioth Ahronoth, almost begins to foster an eating disorder in her infant daughter after the nurse at the well-baby clinic says the baby is on the high end of the weight curve for her age. Thus, as Lazovsky sees it, men are not to blame here.
"You won't find a man who doesn't like a little meat on a woman's bones," she explains. "After I got very thin, it often happened to me that I felt a man's hand wandering over my body, searching for a little more flesh."
As a teenager, when she was out to define herself as her mother's direct antithesis (her mother was very pretty, well-groomed, and not excessively tall at 175 centimeters [5 feet 8 inches]), she let her looks go with "a horrible haircut and combat-type colors and pants - I think I only had one pair - and masculine-looking shoes, because that's what I could find and I got used to ignoring people when they asked if I played basketball and how the weather was up there and all kinds of awfully witty remarks that people always make to tall girls.
"Even though I really stood out, to men I was just invisible. No one looked at me, and I didn't really expect anyone to look at me, even though at age 16 I had someone who was like a boyfriend, though it wasn't the kind of thing where I brought him home to meet my parents or where he introduced me to all his friends. He was actually a lot shorter than me and older than me, but he was really a great guy and to this day I believe that he was the only man who ever truly loved me."
In the army, where Lazovsky says she was transferred from one silly job to another, she put on more weight, and then, after the affair with the media guy, she gained another 12 kilos. Three months after the break-up she ran into a mutual acquaintance who didn't know about the affair, and this woman told her that not only was the man she had been involved with really living it up abroad, but he himself had also lost a lot of weight.
"Then she left and I felt like a total dishrag. It suddenly hit me that he was going on with his life and doing well, he'd lost weight, he was successful, he was happy, and here I was fat and miserable and alone, and feeling terrible. And all of a sudden, instead of misery I felt anger, the anger that for many years I hadn't allowed to penetrate through all my layers of fat. I think that was the moment when I made up my mind to get thin."
In a little less than a year, Lazovsky went from 100 kilos to 64. Since then, she says, the question everyone asks is "How did you do it?" I ask the same question, pursuing the public's right to know.
"That's really not important," she answers. "There are so many ways to do it, and not a single one that allows you to eat like an animal and you end up looking great. Basically, you have to shut your mouth and eat less. At first, I separated carbohydrates from proteins. Then I counted calories. But the idea is not just to lose weight. Before this I also tried every diet possible and also managed to lose weight: The idea is not to gain the weight back, and everyone knows that, too."
How has the weight loss affected you?
Lazovsky: "Before, I would go into a pub and I'd be the girl behind whom everyone is trying to look, because I was hiding some hot babe behind me. Suddenly I became the hot babe. But mostly, with every kilo that came off I realized that my fat was hiding lots of things: a lack of self-confidence, problems with my sexuality, an argument with my body, self-destruction, and lots and lots of anger, and that I hadn't gained weight just because of men who dumped me, and I hadn't lost weight only to get revenge, although I was also looking forward to revenge."
And did it come?
"Yes. When I'd finally become a hot babe I met the guy [from the affair] at a party and, like everyone else, he was stunned by how I looked and within a few minutes he suggested that we renew our relationship. I told him no, and while I did feel a little pleasure at getting revenge, revenge is always less satisfying than you think it's going to be, and revenge as a motive also made me lose hope that one day a man would appear who would truly love me, just for who I am."
What else changed for you?
"Some of my girlfriends stopped talking to me after I became thin because it's very hard to accept the fact that the one who used to be the fat friend is suddenly the friend who's the hot babe. What hurt me the most was what happened with this one friend, who was fat like me, and because I lost weight I lost her as a friend. I also discovered that it's not true that mothers don't compete with their daughters. All mothers are jealous of their daughters. Another thing I discovered is that it's not true that inner beauty is what counts. I gave the world a chance to prove all those cliches to me and the world let me down. It turns out that in the end, everything is very superficial."
Isn't that really avoidance of responsibility? When you were fat, you also projected a message of a lack of self-love, and maybe also aggression, anger or rejection.
"Of course, I hid behind my fat. But if someone had recognized my inner beauty, he should have been able to lift me out of that pit, right? I mean, what about all those tales about these women who do everything so no one will fall in love with them and still someone recognizes something in them and brings them out of it? It's very easy to say 'you projected a certain message.' It's not that I don't take responsibility, I take full responsibility, but if someone wanted to see what's inside, he would have seen it. I'm very envious of heavy women who are sought after by men. I think it's wonderful and I also think that it's very rare, and it really requires a man who has the ability to go beyond the norm."
Has it been easy for you to adjust to being a thin person?
"No. At first I was still drawn to wearing the same baggy clothes and the same ugly shoes. Then one day a friend from work sat me down and told me that I couldn't go on like that. And then she dragged me to her apartment, dressed me in her tight and revealing clothes, and put makeup on me - for the first time in my life, even as I kept telling her to stop. I wanted to come out of my cocoon, but I became a very confused butterfly. This is the stage where you break down after a diet. Because you suddenly don't know what to do. I replaced an entire wardrobe and got into crazy debt, because to suddenly be able to walk into a store and not hear 'we don't have anything in your size' is an amazing thing. Suddenly everything fits and everything looks good on you. Suddenly you feel very exposed without all that fat. You have no idea what to do with all the stares you get. You feel totally, totally naked.
"Fat is a very, very defensive thing. And my solution to situations that I don't know how to deal with is avoidance. I avoided going to cool places and on glamorous dates, and until the last two years, I never believed any guy I was with. You see, when you're fat, no one expects anything from you. You're thought of as a girl who's given up. If you're successful at something, then people say, okay, but she's still fat and looks awful.
"When you become a hot babe, suddenly people expect you to have an exciting career, hot dates and rich admirers - and you better not dare be unhappy. Not only did none of these things happen to me: I suddenly understood that the worst thing that could happen to me would be to become fat again. I started to be scared to death of that. Nothing was more important to me than ensuring that I didn't gain weight again. I saw that not only did men and the people around me suddenly respect me much more, but my family did, too. And then you also understand how much scorn the people you thought loved you the most in the world, no matter what, actually felt for you, and how even your family's love for you is connected to the question of how you look and how much you weigh, even if they would never ever admit it.
"I felt like I was in 'A Star is Born.' I was terrified that the glory would pass - that I wouldn't manage to stay thin and that I go would go back to the old misery. I became thin at age 23, but I never relaxed after that. By the time I was 28, things were really out of control. I was constantly on a diet and consumed with anxiety all the time, too, of course. I knew that there was no such thing for me as gaining three kilos. That if I gained weight, all would be lost and I'd put on 30 kilos."
En route to anorexia
This fear exhausted Lazovsky. "You live with this fear every day, there's not a moment when you don't feel it. And from here to anorexia it's not very far at all to go. I knew how to do two things: to diet and to work like an animal. I didn't have a love life or anything else that a girl my age is supposed to have. At a certain point, I felt nauseated by the whole thing; my life disgusted me, my work disgusted me, my apartment disgusted me."
And then she stopped eating. She would eat a spoonful of cottage cheese a day, or not eat for several days and then eat one meal at her parents' house, or just drink vegetable broth, and thus she reached a weight of just 57 kilos, which was dangerous for someone of her height. Her hair began to fall out and she had other physical problems. But she felt beautiful.
"I took a trip with a girlfriend to Sinai and walked around on the beach in a bathing suit and everyone looked at me. I thought it was because I was a super hot babe, and I didn't realize that it was because I was so thin it was scary-looking. I looked like the vision of the dry bones, but I felt gorgeous and I was enthralled by the fact that when I sat down, my stomach sank in. Every couple of weeks I would pass out on the street. Someone would help me up and then I'd go home and eat nothing."
How did you feel physically?
"The thing I remember the most is the cold. I was cold all the time. It didn't matter what I was wearing. I was cold, cold, cold. I'd wear three pairs of socks and thermal underwear and three sweaters and still be shivering with cold."
The one who helped her with the anorexia was her friend Spector, who performed an "intervention." "She would tell me all the time: 'You have a problem, you're not eating and you're getting too thin, you have to do something about it, you have a problem.' Of course, I told her that she was speaking out of jealousy, because she would never be as thin as me, and I even believed what I was saying, but Dana didn't give up, even when I screamed at her. Then I finally started going to therapy. Luckily, I wasn't throwing up."
Why is that lucky?
"Because it's terribly addictive, the ability to completely control what goes in and out of your body. The endorphins. People who purge themselves by throwing up never really recover. The therapy helped me and I started to eat and then I decided to go to India for six months."
But Lazovsky didn't find peace of mind in India. On the contrary: She rediscovered her ravenous appetite there. "Every new place I went, the first thing I'd do was go see what snacks I could take to the room. The peak was when I was in Rishikesh alone for 10 days and didn't leave the room the entire time. I just sat there and ate and ate and read and ate without pause. People who came by could see the light in the room was on and hear music playing, and they knew I was inside, but I never opened the door.
"On the one hand it was like an out-of-body experience. You feel drugged from all the food and feel like the food is flowing in your veins. At the same time, I was observing it all as if from the outside, and thinking what a sick woman this is just sitting in the room and eating.
"On the 10th day I got up as if out of some mad hallucination and called a girlfriend who told me that she goes to 'Gray Sheet.' I started to sob and to beg her to help me because I felt so awful and was so alone in the world, even though I'd shoved all the food in the world into the black hole of my soul and just couldn't stop. You can't stop."
During her three last months in India, she was on a diet, and when she returned to Israel she joined the Gray Sheet support group, based on a treatment method for addiction to food. The method's basic premise is that people who have this addiction have lost the ability to differentiate between satiety and hunger, and between genuine physical hunger and hunger that derives from boredom or emotional hunger, and that for them, food serves as a substitute for needs that have nothing to do with nutrition. Participants in the groups remain anonymous and each one is assigned a "supporter" and subsequently becomes a supporter to someone else, after an extended amount of time in the group.
Gray Sheet is a very strict treatment plan for compulsive overeaters. In Overeaters Anonymous, participants pledge to follow an eating regime for just one day at a time, and the program is personal and determined by the participant with the supporter's consent. In Gray Sheet, however, the diet plan is determined ahead of time for a long period and consists of one of two regimes that are the same for everyone. Both entail total abstention from carbohydrates, sugars, starches and alcohol. Eating hours are predetermined, as are the types and precise quantities of food to be consumed, and therefore participants are required to weigh their food. This is meant to introduce a measure of sanity into eating, and thus to enable people to find greater sanity in their lives in general. In Overeaters Anonymous, participants are required to participate in a group once a week; in Gray Sheet, the requirement is three meetings per week.
Lazovsky: "It starts with three measured and weighed meals per day. There's a program that's set according to a predetermined list written on a gray piece of paper - hence the name Gray Sheet. There's Plan A for losing weight and Plan B for maintaining the new weight. They give you a coach to help you and there are 12 steps like in Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs. For me, it was a choice between making this work, or slitting my wrists."
In the film she has made, she is heard repeating this mantra over and over again: "I, Elian, a compulsive eater, eat three weighed and measured meals a day according to the Gray Sheet - nothing in between, nothing that is prohibited, no matter what. I give my daily eating plan to my coach, or to anyone who is in abstention for over 90 days. Abstention from sugars, starches and carbohydrates is the most important thing in my life. I will go any distance and undertake any action in order to sustain this, because it sustains me. I am grateful to God, to the program, to the coach and to everyone who helps me get through another day of abstention, because it is not at all to be taken for granted, and solely for today I shall not eat that which is forbidden to me, no matter what."
You don't find it problematic that the most important thing in your life is abstention?
"No. Because the understanding is that without abstention, you're not a human being."
Were you embarrassed to weigh food in public?
"Yes. It was a whole production. Everywhere I went, people asked what I was doing and why I was weighing, and I'd say that I'm on this program."
What's the difference between the situation before and after the program? In the program, food and the preoccupation with it is also the whole focus of your life.
"That really is a problem. It's very hard to go on any kind of trip like this, and I haven't traveled abroad at all. You can't decide that you're going to stop doing the program for a certain amount of time. You're a person with an addiction and you are not allowed to go back to that addiction. But at the same time it's like being on vacation: I know what I'm going to eat in the morning, what I'm going to eat for lunch and what I'm eating in the evening. That's it. I don't have to think anymore about what to eat. You know what a relief that is? For two years now I've had a vacation from my personal hell. I didn't feel fear or count calories. This peace of mind has allowed me to start thinking about relationships with men, about my professional plans, about lots of very important things in life. All of a sudden a lot of room had become available in my emotions and in my mind for things that I had neglected for years."
In July 2006, Lazovsky described her eating disorder in a first-person article in the (now-defunct) women's magazine Alma. The piece drew many responses. In wake of that article and with the encouragement of journalist and television critic Yuval Natan, whom she calls "my mentor," she went to the Yes cable television company with a proposal for the film. She says it was important to her not to make a film about anorexia and bulimia. "I didn't want to talk about that. Yes, they certainly exist, but they are extreme things and I wanted to talk about the silent majority of women who are trapped between these poles, in the middle: how to stay a hot babe without starving yourself."
How did making the film affect you?
"When I started I had no idea that I was about to leave Gray Sheet. At first I couldn't sit down and eat lunch with the crew, and the schedule was built around my meal times. The crew gave me these looks that said they didn't know what to make of me. The more the film progressed, the clearer it became to me that I was going to leave Gray Sheet and that this was going to be a part of the film, and it filled me with dread, because you're constantly in this situation in which you're both the director and the protagonist, and if you leave the program you could go off-kilter. You have a responsibility as the director, and you can't comfort yourself with bourekas, because if you do you won't be able to hide it. When I ate the first meal in the film I was shaking all over. I was sure the plate would explode and the carbohydrate police would come. Think about it: For two years I didn't drink any alcohol. Then I had two sips and got drunk and we had to stop the filming."
This sort of exposure didn't frighten you?
"One of the things Gray Sheet forced me to do all the time was explain, because you can't come to places with a scale and plastic containers without explaining to people what it is. Gray Sheet freed me from shame. I was like this sound-and-light show, and after that, doing the film didn't faze me."
Why did you stop doing the Gray Sheet program?
"The rigid rules made me decide to stop doing it. I felt like it was time to look for other ways, so I could live a more normal life, travel, go out drinking once in a while."
In the movie Lazovsky is shown informing a friend from the group that she is going to quit. It almost sounds like a betrayal. Afterward, Lazovsky is surrounded by her friends at a restaurant, staring into the camera with eyes wide open in trepidation as she wills herself to sink her teeth into one little piece of gnocchi.
When you're 70, will you eat whatever you want?
"I don't know. But what I was scared of was that the white noise would come back and it has already come back. But now I know that I don't have to listen to it."W