Thursday, February 27, 2003
When Salinas resident Mavis Lautaret''s 56-year-old daughter Kaaren finally succumbed to anorexia nervosa last August, after battling the disease for nearly 40 years, Lautaret was devastated.
"I thought I was going to die," Lautaret says.
Lautaret had watched her blond, blue-eyed girl, a champion horse-jumper who took blue ribbons at Pebble Beach, slowly waste away to a skeleton weighing, at one point, just 47 pounds. Kaaren was in and out of hospitals for three decades, becoming secretive in her eating habits, desperately trying to attract the love and attention she craved by starving her body into submission, and becoming ever more brittle. And there was nothing her mother could do.
This Saturday morning, Lautaret, now 81, will tell her story as part of Monterey Peninsula College''s eighth annual women''s multicultural conference, this year called "Women''s Body Images: Healthy Body vs. Society''s Ideal." She will share information she discovered while researching her PhD thesis on anorexia, a degree she earned nine years ago at age 72.
Presenting along with Lautaret will be renowned Santa Cruz activist Ann Simonton, director of Media Watch, a former top fashion model who turned her back on the beauty industry in 1981 to devote her life to exposing biases against women.
Simonton was once famous for her colorful stunts aimed at embarrassing the Miss America pageant-which included a dress made of raw beef ("I prefer to call it ''skirt steak,''" she says) which she wore at the Miss California pageant in Santa Cruz in 1985. That was, not coincidentally, the last year the pageant was held in Santa Cruz. Simonton says the relocation of the event "wasn''t our intention at all-we just wanted them to focus it differently."
In her talk Saturday, Simonton will discuss gender issues in the media and the need for people-both men and women-to look to non-mainstream sources for their news. She will be joined by Carmel artist and MPC instructor Susan Kingsley, who will discuss her politically-charged exhibit on female accessories, which is on display in the college art gallery. The conference will also include a panel discussion of female body images in different ethnic communities, with Latina, African-American and Asian-American speakers.
"Society''s ''ideal,'' per se, is based on a thin, young white woman," says Phyllis Peet, director of the college''s Women''s Studies program. "Even within the white community, less than one percent of women can match that. And it''s certainly not an ideal for non-Caucasian women."
Jeanne Costello, a marriage and family counselor who also teaches in the Women''s Studies department, says the topic of women''s body images was chosen for this year''s conference because many students are interested in it, and it''s a topic with growing relevance.
"The figures show that the number of women who hate their bodies is on the increase," she says. "Eating disorders are also on the rise. Media images of thin women may trigger it, but there are other issues going on."
Anorexia nervosa, which involves starving oneself, is not the same as bulimia, which involves binge eating followed by purging, but Costello says the two disorders are opposite sides of the same coin. "It''s about hating your body, low self esteem, and trying to gain control over something."
Costello says that bulimia in particular is a topic that comes up over and over in the classes she teaches, and the counseling work she does on-campus. Research suggests, she says, that one in four college women are affected by bulimia. "On some campuses it''s become the in thing, with girls sharing information on throwing up," she says. "It''s quite a big problem."
Mavis Lautaret is very careful about distinguishing between bulimia and anorexia, which is a much more complex, often fatal disorder. "I tell the girls-and it''s usually girls-that vomiting after you eat does not mean you will become anorexic, but it still harms your body," she says.
Lautaret''s daughter first exhibited signs of anorexia when she was 19. She began seeking out doctors to prescribe amphetamines, which she took "to lose weight, to be beautiful," Lautaret says. As the disease progressed, and Kaaren became progressively thinner, Lautaret tried to help her, but was rebuffed at every turn.
"She lived alone-anorexics can''t live with anyone else-she wouldn''t see a therapist," Lautaret says quietly. Kaaren was hospitalized once for 14 months, and later spent many shorter periods in hospitals, sometimes coming dangerously close to dying. More than a decade ago, she was up to 120 pounds in one hospital and seemed on the mend-then her hospital closed down, along with many others nationwide, as part of the new budget priorities of the Reagan years.
Oneday, when mother and daughter were swimming in the icy waters off Pacific Grove, Kaaren swam out so far that Lautaret lost sight of her. "She was so skeletal, so help me God, I remember thinking, ''I hope she doesn''t come back.''"
One day last August, she didn''t. Lautaret got the call from the police, telling her that her daughter was found dead in her apartment. The autopsy could not determine a cause of death, Lautaret says, but doctors told her it was not suicide. Ironically, Kaaren was up to 138 pounds, a normal weight for her size. Lautaret believes that is what killed her. "She couldn''t lose weight anymore, and she couldn''t stand it. She stopped going out of the house. She didn''t want anyone to see her."
Lautaret doesn''t enjoy speaking about her daughter''s death, and isn''t looking forward to the memories this Saturday''s presentation will stir up in her. "I''m afraid I''ll cry," she admits. But if articles and presentations about Kaaren''s case will bring attention to the threat of eating disorders, and help other young women get help before it''s too late, then she''ll keep speaking out.
"It wasn''t her fault," Lautaret says firmly. "That''s what I wish I could tell her."
"Women''s Body Image: Healthy Body vs. Society''s Ideal" begins at 8am in the MPC Music Hall with networking and breakfast, continuing with presentations and the panel discussion from 9am to noon; a reception follows for Susan Kingsley in the art gallery. Free, donations appreciated. 646-4276.