Interview: Claire Mysko
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When Claire Mysko interviewed young women for a study called The Supergirl Dilemma, she was not only doing research - she was lending them her ear and her shoulder. As a fellow overachiever, she could empathize with their stresses and their experiences. Her research and personal concerns led her to work with organizations such as Girls Inc., and the results of The Supergirl Dilemma inspired her to write You're Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self. I enjoyed the book and our conversations, and I was very pleased when she agreed to an interview for Bildungsroman. She shared a lot of good advice here; I hope you'll all consider what she has to say about truth, beauty, health, and reaching out for help when you need it.
As a teenager, you struggled with eating disorders. Did you reach out for help, or did someone reach out to you?
I went on my first diet in middle school and things really spun out of control from there. At a certain point, my parents got concerned and they took me to a doctor and a counselor. But it wasn't until my freshman year of college when I finally began to understand just how serious my problem was. Up until then, I really thought I could handle things on my own. I put a tremendous amount of energy into convincing everyone around me that I had everything under control. I played the "perfect girl" for a long time until all that acting finally wore me out. The turning point was when learned how to ask for help and to admit that things weren't nearly as peachy as I was pretending they were.
If someone reading this interview is worried that he or she or a friend has an eating disorder, what would you want to say to that person?
It's important to remember that eating disorders are not really about food and weight at all. People who suffer might be obsessed with their size, but that obsession is rooted in much more serious issues--low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, to name just a few of the possibilities.
If you suspect someone has an eating disorder, saying things like "you're too skinny" or "why don't you eat?" won't help. Instead, pick a time when you can talk privately. Tell that person how much you care about her/him (yes, guys can suffer from eating disorders, too) and that you are concerned. You can give specific examples ("You never eat lunch and you seem irritable all the time" or "I heard you vomiting in the bathroom"), but keep in mind that people with eating disorders feel a lot of shame already--try to minimize that shame by making it clear that you are not judging.
The bottom line is that eating disorders don't just go away on their own without professional help. You can't force someone to get treatment, but you can educate yourself so you are better prepared to help others or get help for yourself. The National Eating Disorders Association (http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) has some great resources for eating disorder sufferers and for family members and friends.
You obtained a degree in gender studies, became the director of American Anorexia Bulimia Association, and worked for Girls Inc. How did you handle the many responsibilities of these endeavors? Do you multi-task, or do you try to focus on one project at a time?
I've always had a pretty full plate. As I've gotten older (and hopefully wiser!), I haven't stopped taking on a lot of responsibilities, but I have come to realize that being ambitious doesn't mean I should be hard on myself if everything doesn't work out exactly the way I want it to. Now I give myself more breaks and I look at mistakes as learning experiences, not "failures." Multi-tasking is a necessity when I'm juggling many projects. That said, I do try to prioritize.
I feel incredibly fortunate that I've been able to do work I have a passion for. The challenge within that blessing is that I care so much about what I do that sometimes it's hard to close the laptop and say, "Okay, I'm done for the day" or reply to a person's request with "I don't have time to take this on right now." But I'm getting better at that. Those are important skills I wish I had learned earlier in life!
For those who may be unfamiliar with Girls Inc., please tell us a little about the program and your involvement with it.
Girls Inc. (www.girlsinc.org) is a great organization dedicated to promoting girls' rights. Their mission is to "inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold." After all the years I've worked with them (as a full-time staffer and then a freelancer), I still feel like shouting "yeah!" whenever I hear that mission.
How old were the interview subjects for The Supergirl Dilemma, the Girls Inc. report? How old were the interview subjects? How did that report lead to your self-help book, You're Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self?
"The Supergirl Dilemma" surveyed over 1,000 girls in grades 3-12. The study shows that girls of all ages are facing increasing pressures to be perfect and to please everyone. I wrote You're Amazing! in response to that survey because I wanted to offer some advice and real world tools to help girls actually deal with all those pressures.
You're Amazing! is a great resource for tweens and early teens. Would you ever consider writing a similar book geared towards older teens in upper high school?
Yes, absolutely! In fact, as girls get older, they face even more stress. More than half of all middle school girls say they often feel stressed. By the time girls get to high school, that number jumps to 74%. I would love to write a guide for older teens.
Do you have any advice for kids entering their first year of middle school?
I asked that question to the women and older teens I interviewed for You're Amazing! and many of them offered the same advice I would offer: Middle school can be a tough time, but have faith that you will get through it. Remember that everyone is going through changes and trying to figure out who they are in those middle school years. Just try your best to be true to yourself and ask for support and help when you need it!
What about rising seniors who are anxious about their last year in high school, then getting into and making the transition to college?
There's so much pressure on young people to have it all figured out--get into the best colleges and get on the "right" path to having a high-powered career. College is an exciting time and I think you should make sure to have fun and have adventures. My favorite thing about college was meeting new people and forming friendships that opened my eyes to so many things I had never thought about before. Don't slack off at school, but keep in mind that there are lots of learning opportunities to be had outside of the classroom.
One thing I will say is that eating disorders and disordered eating are very common on college campuses. For a lot of people, it's the first time they're living away from home, disconnected from the support systems they've had for their whole lives. Add to that the academic and social pressures of college and you've got a recipe for unhealthy behavior. So if you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help.
When you were growing up, what were your favorite hobbies or means of escape?
Oh, I was a gigantic bookworm. Going to the library was one of my favorite activities. There was nothing like bringing home a big stack of books to read! I've also always loved to write. My mom has started sending me some of my childhood writing projects. Those have provided me with hours of nostalgic entertainment! I had my own magazine when I was about eight. I did in-depth profiles of my neighbors and relatives and even drew the crossword puzzles, square by square. I sold subscriptions to a few people (i.e. my grandparents), but folded the operation after about five issues.
As a teen, I was really into playing music. I played guitar in one band and drums in a hardcore band called Within (deep, I know). We even recorded a 7". There are copies of that floating around out there in the world. I have this fantasy that one day I'll discover one buried deep in a random record shop somewhere.
Who are your role models?
My mom has always been a role model to me. She did so much to encourage her children's creativity and she really understood the importance of imagination. I remember one of my favorite Christmas presents ever was this curtain she made for my brothers and me. She wrote "Mysko Family Theater" on it in a Sharpie and it could open and close like a real curtain in a theater. We staged so many cheesy performances in our little theater in the basement. It was the best!
A literary role model of mine is Judy Blume. Of course I read all her books growing up, and I was always in awe of her ability to capture these universal truths about what it was like to be a tween and a teen. The fact that her books have been banned makes her truth telling even more poignant to me. She's not afraid to write, even though others might be afraid of what she writes.
So many people - girls and guys, kids and adults alike - get hung up on their physical appearance and don't like what they see when they look in the mirror. It's too bad that mirrors don't give people positive boosts! If you broke Snow White's stepmother's mirror and replaced it with a positivity reflector, what would you hope to hear it say?
I would hope to hear it say, "Go out there and live!" We get stuck in front of the mirror or on the scale thinking that a reflection or a number defines who we are. So much precious time is wasted. Not to rag on America's Next Top Model (because I must admit I have every episode on my DVR), but think about all the young women who have waited in line for hours and hours to audition for that show. Now imagine what we could accomplish in the world if we all took that same amount time and volunteered in our communities or called a friend or relative we haven't talked to in a while. Sometimes our focus on beauty and thinness keeps us from taking action and doing things that will make a real difference in our lives and the lives of others. Okay, stepping off the soapbox now. ;)
What is your definition of healthy? Of beautiful?
I think we can't have true beauty without health. I'm co-authoring my next book with Magali Amadei (she's interviewed for You're Amazing, too). She has appeared on the covers and pages of nearly every major fashion magazine in the world. Everyone else saw her as beautiful, but inside she was depressed and lonely. She suffered with bulimia through the height of her fashion career. Now she often says she felt like a fraud during that time, because all those "beautiful" pictures had nothing to do with how she felt in her real life. I think we are most beautiful when we feel good about ourselves and we take care of ourselves.
And finally: What are your favorite books? Feel free to list fiction, non-fiction, classics, poetry - whatever you'd like!
Oh, I could go on forever! But here are just a few of my all-time favorites:
The Phantom Tollbooth -- My introduction to clever wordplay
Ramona the Pest and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 -- Taught me not to shy away from some sass.
Anne of Green Gables -- More sass...and kindred spirits!
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- I read this in elementary school and it made we want to move to New York. Flash forward a few decades and here I am.
Blubber -- The real deal on bullying, with no sugar coating.
The Bluest Eye -- Wow, just wow. Everyone should read this book.
The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness -- This was the first book I read that talked about how women's obsession with food and weight is connected to cultural messages. It rocked my world.
Can't Buy My Love -- Another "a-ha!" book that made me think about advertising in a whole new light.
Off-the-wall pick: The Dollhouse Murders -- For some reason, this book made such a deep impression on me as a child. I just ordered a copy to re-read. I hope I find it as creepy as I did first time around!
Visit Claire's website.
Take the survey for Claire's next book, which she's co-writing with Magali Amadei. The book will discuss body image, pregnancy, and new motherhood, and they want to hear from, and I quote, "women who do not have children yet or who do not plan to have children, women who are currently pregnant, moms, partners, and experts." There are different surveys for different parties. I don't plan on having children, so that's the survey I filled out. Fill out the survey that suits you best!
Also, if you like You're Amazing, you'll also like Chill: Stress-Reducing Techniques for a More Balanced, Peaceful You by Deborah Reber.
Personal note: In the spring of 2009, I used You're Amazing as a prop in a musical. A crucial scene opened with my character reading a book. I picked this book to use because I felt that she'd read it. Coincidentally, the cover matched my costume.