Comedian Margaret Cho has struggled with eating disorders for most of her life. When she was starting out in comedy, she used alcohol and drugs to mask her hunger, and later resorted to other methods of controlling her weight. When we received a note from a teenage listener struggling with her own eating issues, we invited Margaret to share her own story and advice for her and other young people who might be headed down the same path.
If you or someone you know are affected by an eating disorder, you can get more information from the National Eating Disorders Association online or by calling their helpline: 800-931-2237.
Please note: This episode deals with eating disorders and includes discussion of child sexual abuse.
This episode originally aired on January 11, 2016.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Third Try" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Quiet Horizon" by Daniel Jensen
- "Gravel and Dirt" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "I Still Can't Believe" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
Photo by Mary Taylor (courtesy of Margaret Cho).
Dan Pashman: Please note: This episode deals with eating disorders, and includes discussion of child sexual abuse.
Raina: Hi, Dan, I've just discovered your podcast and I love it. I listened to your interview with Ron Funches and the donut episode last night, both hilarious and heartening. Here's the deal. I'm a teenage girl in N.Y.C. and have recently developed some unhealthily sparse eating practices slash scary attitudes about food. I was wondering if you might consider ever doing an episode that explored eating disorders, especially from a recovered person's point of view. If that's too heavy or not your cup of tea or glass of milk or mug of coffee, I get it. It is a podcast about eating, not, not eating, for heaven's sake. Shame and fear of food is something that just permeates teenage girlhood. I know more anorexic, bulimic, and ambiguously other girls than one person should know an entire lifetime. And although I don't have a full blown eating disorder myself yet, I can see myself kind of hovering around that doorway. I would love to hear your take on this phenomenon because your shows are hilarious and heartwarming and celebrate food. Sincerely, Raina.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. You just heard a young woman reading the email she sent me that inspired this episode. We're calling her Raina. That's not her real name. I invited her into the studio because I wanted to hear more about what she's going through. But also I wanted to talk to her because I'm a father of two daughters. So these are issues I think about a lot. When Raina came in, she just graduated high school and was getting ready to leave for college. As she said, she doesn't have a full-blown eating disorder yet. But she was hoping to hear from someone who had recovered from one. She thought that might help steer her in a better direction. So we reached out to comedian Margaret Cho. Margaret's been a hugely popular comic for over 30 years. And she's battled eating disorders for even longer.
Margaret Cho: Eating disorders are terminal diseases. People don't understand. For me, it's a cancer. I go into remission for a time and then something comes out like thigh gap and it throws me back into this disease.
Dan Pashman: Back in 1994, Margaret was hired to be the first Asian-American lead in a network sitcom. The ABC execs told her she needed to lose weight. She starved herself so severely that her kidneys failed, and that wasn't the end of her struggles. When I interviewed Margaret, I played her clips of my conversation with Raina so she could respond and offer Raina advice. So this episode will go back and forth between my conversations with Raina and with Margaret. In that sense, it's also sort of a conversation between the two of them. In her email, Raina said so many teenage girls around her have issues with food. When we met in person, she talked about how her perception of those girls has changed.
Raina: I remember before experiencing this for myself, like I would see and hear about these girls who would, you know, diet unhealthily or just, you know, not eat or throw up, and I would judge them.
Dan Pashman: Why did you judge them? Like, put me in your head in that past point when you would judge them and what were you thinking?
Raina: I thought they were weak willed. I thought they were succumbing to society. And to some extent, I still do. Like I hate being someone that is constantly censoring my eating habits.
Dan Pashman: And do you remember when it turned? Like, do you remember when you realized you had become one of these people that you felt ...
Raina: There was no specific moment. It was just sort of like — over the summer I went to a college intensive thing in North Carolina, and I was just there for five weeks and it was just cafeteria food every day for five weeks. I was not only eating bad food, I was eating a lot of it because it was just there. And at the end of those five weeks, my body felt really bad all the time. So when I got back after the summer, like I swam every day. I biked six hilly miles every day and I made sure to eat sparingly and eat well. And then from there, it just sort of like escalated.
Dan Pashman: So what? What was it like a — was it like a slippery slope?
Dan Pashman: Basically, it just somehow it just went from, I want to get healthy to it's never enough.
Raina: It was quite, quite slippery. I remember before this afflicted me hearing like, it's all about power and control and not understanding that. And it was only very recently that I realized that I — it is something that I do for control. I don't know if you know about this, but when you get really, really hungry, like your stomach just kind of turns hard and very solid and sort of like, you can hit it and feel like there's this sort of knot, you know? And I think when I'm feeling really sad or anxious or powerless, that feeling helps me feel strong and it's like an armor. Does that make sense?
Margaret Cho: Yeah, I know that feeling.
Dan Pashman: This is Margaret Cho.
Margaret Cho: I think she's great. She understands and puts words to her pain and strength. So I have a lot of hope for her. I think she's going to be fine, but she just needs to know that this is the beginnings of the disease and that she can get out.
Dan Pashman: Well, and I know that when your sitcom was debuting as you've spoken about this before that the network executives …
Margaret Cho: Well, they were complaining about my weight. They thought that I was too fat to play myself, which is like — I was just cowed by it because I was just a young girl.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Margaret Cho: And we didn't have the same kind of language around eating disorders that we do now. I mean, this was — when I was on TV, this is the height of heroin chic.
Dan Pashman: But so when those network executives said to you, we think you're too fat to play yourself on television ...
Margaret Cho: Yes.
Dan Pashman: How did that make you feel?
Margaret Cho: I was devastated because I wanted the job so bad. You know, I thought, I'm never going to get a job again. This is the biggest job I've ever had, and if I don't lose this weight, I won't be able to do this.
Dan Pashman: What I find most amazing about that is, I mean, you gone on to a tremendously successful, you know, multi-decade career.
Margaret Cho: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: But I mean, that was when you first rose to that level.
Margaret Cho: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: A level that very few comics ever get to.
Margaret Cho: Right.
Dan Pashman: You got to that level being you.
Margaret Cho: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I think it's amazing to me that anyone would be like, well, this isn't going to work on television. Like you were already famous.
Margaret Cho: I know, I know. It's so crazy, but it was like they —
Dan Pashman: It’s not like they plucked you from obscurity.
Margaret Cho: I know. So it was very strange. I had always only been worried about my comedy, and suddenly I had to be worried about the size of my body.
Dan Pashman: You also said, I mean, throughout your 20s, so much of your problems with alcohol and drugs all relate to food.
Margaret Cho: That's true.
Dan Pashman: How so?
Margaret Cho: Because you want to stop feeling hungry so you, you know, started by Fen-Phen. But then it's this thing that Jeneane Garofolo grew and I used to do together. We were both super crazy about food and so nuts about it. And so we would have two shots of tequila, right? And it would kill your hunger. But then you were just kind of dizzy and weak, and it didn't make you — it sort of make you sick to your stomach, so you couldn't eat. And we did that so much.
Dan Pashman: Raina is not at that point yet, thankfully, but I could tell from talking to her that she's always thinking about what she's going to let herself eat. Sort of like bargaining with herself. It's as if one part of her likes how she feels when she doesn't eat. And another part of her is ashamed for liking that feeling.
Raina: And then I was like, I'm hungry. And I packed myself a sandwich and a banana. And I was like, I could eat this banana, or I could not. I'm not going to do it. And so right now I have this banana in my bag, but I'm not going to eat it because — I don't know why.
Dan Pashman: But you're hungry?
Raina: Yeah. There's something that happens when I just lost a lot of weight and I felt lighter than air all the time. And part of that was exhilarating, but part of that was like, you know, this sort of ephemeral sort of like, I'm here, but I'm not really here. Like, my body's not really here, and I just sort of float around. I don't walk. I don't ...
Dan Pashman: And you're saying you like that feeling that you don't like that feeling?
Raina: I don't know, there's something very comforting for that about me. It's like when you don't want to exist, you don't have to exist for a little while when you don't want to.
Margaret Cho: Yeah. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Is that something you can identify with?
Margaret Cho: Absolutely.
Dan Pashman: Back to Margaret Cho.
Margaret Cho: You're condoning what society's been telling you ever since you were born. As a woman, we're not encouraged to take up space. We're not encouraged to be loud. You know, we should be seen, not heard. But that's not the same for boys. It's like, you want boys to be strong. With girls, you really try to control them by giving them Barbies and giving them these false idols of what a woman's body should look like. You know, and you don't allow them to just be themselves? And so it's hard. I have so much compassion for this young girl. But what's great is that she reached out to you. You know, that's something. That's really something because it's a very secretive disease, you know?
Dan Pashman: When you were in the — one of the worst periods of your issues with food and eating disorders —
Margaret Cho: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Can you describe how that feels?
Margaret Cho: Well, you do like weird shit, like you — I would get like a whole big loaf of bread and chew it and then just spit it out, you know, into the toilet. So you had the feeling, the chew like you ate it, but then you didn't. Or I went on these really weird raw food diets, which I actually don't have a problem with that kind of idea of a cleanse, but, you know, I would like literally go for weeks with only eating persimmons. And that made me defecate in my vehicle so badly in traffic. And I was going someplace kind of fancy and I was like, “Um…” And I sat in traffic and my — I was just covered in it and it started getting cold and I realized that I deserved better.
Dan Pashman: Coming up more with Raina and Margaret Cho. They'll talk about the roles their parents have played in developing their issues with food. And Margaret will offer advice directly to Raina. Stay with us.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Hey, when is it okay to cook with frozen vegetables? What’s the difference between parmesan and pecorino cheese? Do you have questions like these? I want to hear from you. Later this month, I’ll be talking to the authors of a new book called Food IQ, that attempts to answers all of these sort of small cooking questions and food science questions that might have been bothering you, you've always been curious about, this is you chance to get answers. Do you have a weirdly obsessive question about a specific food or ingredient? Send me a voice memo. Tell me you name, where you're from, and what your question is. Sent it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might just answer your question in the episode.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Back to the show. In this episode, we are talking to two women. While most people with eating disorders are women, according to a National Institutes of Health study, 1 in 4 are men. Last year, I spoke with three guys at different stages in their lives struggling with disordered eating. One was 16, another was 27, and the third was in his 50s.
Dan Pashman: And in that episode, we also heard from Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He’s spent 25 years studying and treating men and boys with eating disorders.
Dan Pashman: At the start of this episode, Margaret Cho said that she sees her eating disorder as a terminal disease, something that will always be with her. I just want to point out that not everyone sees it that way. Dr. Olivardia told me that he has helped many people recover from eating disorders. He has a message for people, at any age, who are struggling with disordered eating.
CLIP (DR. ROBERTO OLIVARDIA): Please, please get help. People who struggle with eating disorders longer tend to have a worse prognosis, but that doesn't mean they can't recover. I once worked with a 72-year-old man, who struggled with eating disorders since he was 12-years-old, and he recovered at 72 and lived, I think, 13 more years. And he said those were the best 13 years of his life.
Dan Pashman: That episode, from January 2021, is called “Men Have Eating Disorders, Too. Why Don’t They Seek Help?” You can listen to it on Stitcher Premium. Okay, back to Raina and Margaret Cho. And just a heads up, this part of the episode references child sexual abuse.
Dan Pashman: One big question I had for Raina was: Why did she reach out to me in the first place? I mean, in case it wasn't obvious already, I'm not an expert on this.
Raina: I think the reason I sent you that email was because I wanted other people to know that it's not just them. Like, like at my school, we change in the locker room. You know, you just go in and it's rows of girls just staring at themselves in the mirror with like their shirts up and like examining their stomachs and their bodies and being hypercritical.
Dan Pashman: As the father of two girls, I have to say, hearing stuff like this terrifies me. Raina was telling me that she’s involved in theater, and she described going out to eat after a performance.
Raina: One of my actresses was like, "Come with my friends and my family to dinner after the show," and I did. And it was just like, nobody ordered anything. And it was — I was like, that's absurd. Why aren't — you know, we're in a restaurant. What? What is going on. You know? And they were thin and they were beautiful and they were sort of goddessly, but it was just sort of like, there is no joy in this restaurant.
Dan Pashman: I asked Raina if she had ever experienced anything like Margaret experienced with those TV execs, where someone told her flat out, you need to lose weight. Did her parents or friends ever pressure her like that?
Raina: My mom used to make comments like, you know, like maybe a smaller portion sizes or I don't know in what context, but I remember once being like her saying something like blah blah blah blah blah, that'll help you with your little, you know, your waist — you know, it’ll help you watch your waistline. You know?
Dan Pashman: But it sounds like those instances of your mom saying those things are relatively infrequent.
Raina: Yeah, they're infrequent.
Dan Pashman: And it wasn't like ...
Raina: But it stuck out in my mind. Like it — that was from years ago and it's still in here.
Dan Pashman: You remember it?
Dan Pashman: What do you wish that your mom would say to you?
Raina: I don't know. I wish she wouldn't say anything at all, because I think that this is something that no one can give you the answer except for yourself. And like, you have to sort of grapple with it and comes to terms with it by yourself.
Dan Pashman: Have you ever discussed any of it, any of these concerns with her?
Raina: Not my concerns. No. No, I mean, we have a — I have a neighbor, like a neighboring family that we've known for forever and it's a pair of twins and one of the twins had anorexia, I think. And they sent — you know, she went to rehab. And then my mom will just say like — I don't want to use her name, but like, "Don't pull a Jane Doe on us," you know, like — I mean, it's this also thing of like — of just sort of like dehumanizing people who struggle with food. So then when you don't eat or you have trouble eating, it's dehumanizing. Like my my mom will make jokes — or not jokes, but just sort of like —
Dan Pashman: Comments.
Raina: Comments like, "Oh, that was so — ", you know, like, "and now her parents have lost all their savings and, you know, like, sucks for them." You know, like, "I'm so glad I have a daughter who's not like that."
Dan Pashman: So how do you feel when you hear her say things like that?
Raina: Incredibly guilty.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Raina: Because I am like that.
Dan Pashman: That part of the conversation with Raina was especially hard for me to hear. You know, one of the things about being a parent that can be nerve wracking is that you never know what's going to have an impact. You never know what offhanded comment they're going to remember years later. And that's scary. I asked Margaret what it was like for her growing up and what role family played in her issues around food.
Margaret Cho: Well, when I was younger, you know, all of the family, like in Korea, in America that had emigrated, all the women were so thin like birds. You know, and —
Dan Pashman: Your parents were born in Korea?
Margaret Cho: Yeah, my parents were born in Korea. And I was born in America. But then I got shipped back and forth a bunch. So I got a bunch of tapeworms. So I had these weird like intestinal parasites and stuff. So I was always like, really weirdly thin. And that was really praised by my family. And I think that when I started getting molested when I was five, I started to realize that I needed to figure out how to protect myself. And so I eat a lot, and maybe I could just kind of not be so attractive to these molesters, you know? Like I was trying to sort of build up my body so that I could just — I don't know, protect the inside of me, like protect my nerve endings from being touched strangely. And so that's the start of it. And then you look at yourself and because of what society says, you're so angry at yourself for doing that. And then it reverses. Then you don't eat anything and then you reverse it again and then you keep eating and then you don't eat. You know, it's like, that's why it's like, it's an illness that keeps coming back. It's not curable.
Dan Pashman: Did your parents ever like pressure you or give you a hard time about your weight?
Margaret Cho: All the time. All the time. They still do. Why are you so fat? Well, how can you be so fat? Why? What is your weight? Every time, because Koreans are — it's a very patriarchal culture. The women are supposed to be small. Korea has the highest percentage of plastic surgery in the world. In that culture, thinness is such a value that it's really intense.
Dan Pashman: And have you ever confronted your parents?
Margaret Cho: All the time.
Dan Pashman: And when you confronted your parents and been like you, you know, you did — you know you instilled all these horrible feelings and ideas in me that have plagued me for my life? What did they say?
Margaret Cho: They say — well, like my mother is just — doesn't get it. All she knows is that she wants her body to be a certain size, and that's just it. You know, and that — it depresses me because actually, they're both very sophisticated people. You know, they came to America. They bought a gay bookstore. They wanted me to be around gay people so that I would learn about art, culture, music, life, how to be a fully rounded human being. Then on the other side, I had a very also traditional Korean culture. The part of it that they couldn't break out, which was about body size. And so it was … it's hard. They still don't really understand because they still kind of like, “Well, why? Why? Why? I don't know what did she do. She's fat," you know, "Well, she's — well, she's fat.” When somebody comes on TV, they're like, “Oh, so fat.” You know, and it's like, so — it's depressing that they haven't broken through that, you know?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Margaret Cho: That even though no matter how I much I try — but that wasn't as bad as being shamed by network executives when I'm trying to really live out the greatest dream that I could have possibly had, to have the first Asian-American family television show, that ruined me. It ruined my life.
Dan Pashman: It sounds like you're obviously in a much better place now.
Margaret Cho: Yeah. Of course.
Dan Pashman: With food.
Margaret Cho: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: How did you get out of where you were and get to where you are now?
Margaret Cho: I think I just stopped giving a shit, you know? Like, I don't care because I've never — I've always been Hollywood obese. By Hollywood standards, I'm, you know, giant. And that's fine because I've worked longer than anybody else. All of the other women that came up with me are gone, as if they sort of, you know, it was just all about their body. And I'm sad about that.
Dan Pashman: Has the longevity of your career also helped you make peace with your body?
Margaret Cho: Oh yeah. I was never valued for my looks. I was always valued for my mind, and then my mind became stronger. And so I'm like trying to let go of this idea that anything in my body really matters. Like, I don't really care. My mind is more important to me now. Perhaps it's the beginning stages of menopause where you realize that the male gaze is irrelevant, and that you can actually finally be who you always wanted to be. So the age — my age, I’m 46, has given me the gift of really enjoying my mind as opposed to worrying about my body.
Dan Pashman: So Margaret's made some really great strides before saying goodbye to Raina, I wanted to see what she thought it would take for her to do the same.
Raina: When I'm around people who are just simply enjoying eating, maybe that's more license to be like them.
Dan Pashman: What do you want to have happen now going forward? Talk to future Raina.
Raina: Hmm. Well, my dad says this thing, and he always has, which is that you're not competing against anyone but yourself. And I think right now, I'm in this place of like competing against myself in a negative way. You know, in a way of like, I'm hungry, but I'm going to hold out until I just can't bear it anymore. And that's when I'll have like a banana, you know? And I hope that in the future, I will return to competing with myself in a positive way.
Dan Pashman: And do you have thoughts on what has to happen for that to happen?
Raina: I'm not getting a meal plan in college. I'm just going to cook. And I think maybe cooking for myself, like cooking is an act of love. And cooking isn't was an act of love between me and my mom. And so maybe it can be an act of love between me and myself. And if I make my own — when I make my own meals, maybe I'll feel better about eating them.
Margaret Cho: Well, Raina, you're beautiful and I wish that you could understand that your body is yours for a reason. Your body is your lesson and care for it because you're going to need it for your whole life, which I want to be very, very long. And I want you to feel happy in who you are. I know you're beautiful already. I can see it in your mind, your words. The way that you vocalize yourself, the way that you're able to speak about your pain is so eloquent. So I say a prayer for you and for all girls. But girl, you're going to make it.
Dan Pashman: One thing Raina said that I wanted to circle back on before we wrap up, she said, "No one can give you the answer except for yourself. You have to come to terms with it by yourself." I think I understand what she was trying to say. She was trying to say, this is something that's inside of you. Therefore, only you can fix it. But I'm a little concerned that that could come across as saying to people that you need to try to fix this alone. And I want to make sure that we draw a distinction between doing something yourself and doing it alone because those are not the same thing. So if anything that you heard in this show sounded familiar and if it's something that you or a friend or a loved one is struggling with, I want you to know that you're not the only one, and you aren't alone, and there are people who can help you. So I encourage you to call the National Eating Disorder Association at 1-800-931-2237 or text "NEDA" to 741741
Dan Pashman: On next week’s show, I talk with the one and only Jacques Pepin. He invites me into his home in Connecticut, where he tells me about what it’s like to go from decades of cooking on public television to now cooking on Instagram. And he teaches me how to drink wine using a technique that I did not expect him to be in favor of. That’s next week.