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A SLENDER EXISTENCE

There is a tribe of women who exist on the edges of starvation despite living well above the poverty line; while rich in handbags, they are poor in diet, eating as little as a pitiable victim scrabbling for food in war- and drought-torn corners of Africa.

It was the state of mind of this privileged yet skeletal few that I sought to understand in the documentary Superskinny Me, in which I immersed myself in the culture of thinness. I joined the world of women who live on the fringes of an eating disorder in order to fit into that most coveted of red-carpet dress sizes: the mythic size zero.

I was fairly sure I couldn't get to a zero; my bones are simply too big. I'm a fit and healthy 38-year-old, 140-pound, 5-foot-8 journalist and restaurant critic. But for the project, I would try to get myself camera-ready slim, to get that look of fatless, worked-out, sinewy flesh - a look I call "the acceptable face of eating disorders" - by dropping down to 120 pounds.

I started with the Master Cleanse diet, drinking nothing but a concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper and blasting my bowels with two pints of saltwater daily. Then I went to a "fasting and detox" center for daily enemas and colonics and exercised feebly twice a day, yet I couldn't sleep for the hunger. Then I lived on fruit, vegetables and steamed fish. To sum up, for four weeks I ate little and smoked a lot.

The psychopathology of my immersion was intense and real; the more weight I lost, the more I wanted to lose.

Withdrawing food and imposing harsh rules around its consumption does strange things to brain chemistry. My editor at London's Sunday Times said that I became "weird and distant." Exhausted, I stopped socializing and went to bed like a child at 9 p.m.

In Miami, three weeks into the experiment and tired and depressed, things started to go wrong. I ate more than my regime dictated and ended up purging with laxatives. I had gone native, become caught up in that strange combination of low self-esteem and great arrogance that exists among slender people. I became attached to feeling my bones as I lay in bed in the morning.

But I was displaying bulimic tendencies. Having lost about 16 pounds in three weeks, my body was now very hungry indeed. Every time I ate more than I thought was good - bingeing - I started purging by vomiting. Dr. Carel Le Roux, a metabolic specialist from London's Imperial College who guided this experiment, says you can fool the body into letting go of weight only if you lose it at no more than half a pound a week. That requires cutting, depending on your metabolic rate, only 1,500 calories off your weekly nutritional needs. I was cutting about 8,000 calories a week, and my primal animal instinct was to binge. When the doctor discovered my disordered behavior, he said it was normal pathology in someone who has been starved, and he pulled me off the diet immediately.

Personally, in my quest to be skin and bone, I would have gone further - started taking diet pills and training a lot harder. But the documentary's producers felt duty-bound to insist that I stop.

Some people are naturally skinny. Many others have to work hard at it. After my brief but torturous glimpse into their world, I pity them. Those women who choose to make skinniness their main asset are really only living half a life.

Kate Spicer writes for the Sunday Times in London.

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