“See?” I said indignantly, leaning over and pointing to my stomach. “I have rolls of fat!”
“Yeah, because you’re leaning over,” my friend said, rolling her eyes. “Everyone does when they do that.”
We were in seventh grade. I weighed 75 pounds.
“Step on the scale,” the doctor said. I had an eye infection. I didn’t understand why I needed to weigh myself, but I obliged. I never looked at the number. It was too scary.
“Do you remember what you weighed?” she asked me a little while later.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t think I even looked.”
I was 20 years old. I couldn’t remember the last time I had gotten a period.
There were stories of girls with eating disorders in magazines. I was a religious reader of Seventeen, CosmoGIRL!, and Teen Vogue. While I read a magazine, I could escape into a world of glamour where I lived a perfect life — I would have glossy hair, cute outfits, a rockin’ bod. Boys would fall in love with me if I followed all the right tips and tricks. For the hour that reading the magazine lasted, I could imagine myself as the perfect teenager.
The articles on girls with eating problems were meant to show the dangers. “At one point, I could see all my bones jutting out, and I weighed 90 pounds,” the girls would say. “At that point, I knew I needed help.”
I wanted to need help. I wanted that attention. Now why couldn’t I just get myself to stop eating? Then I would be tragically beautiful. Someone would have to pay attention to me and save me. At that point of salvation, I would be exalted for everything I had been through.
I get an indescribable rush in front of crowds. I love performing, no matter the act. This will surprise those who know me as an introvert. The difference between performing and talking to people is the existence of distance. On a stage, in front of an audience, I am untouchable. I inhabit a different person, a person who is not the fucked up human I know I am. Instead, I can transcend into perfection, a carefully prepared persona who has rehearsed every step. In ordinary life, I might make a mistake when I talk to someone. They might see that I’m not perfect. They might not like me, God forbid. They might discover my secret: I’m terribly awkward.
“I love dancing,” I gushed to the judges. “It’s my passion.”
They smiled kindly — awkwardly, in retrospect. “Okay. Thank you.”
I walked away, smiling my sweetest smile. That was my tactic — be so nice they couldn’t refuse you.
They didn’t. They let me into art school, and, at age 14, I began my descent into hell.
There were mirrors everywhere for hours on end. What did my body look like? Why was my turnout so weak? Why did I have a dimple on my thigh? And then metaphorical mirrors: “Why won’t my leg go as high as hers?”
The metaphorical mirrors became more concrete with verbal confirmation: “She’s the best in our class,” said a girl when she introduced her friend to me at the beginning of a summer ballet intensive.
Another time: “Everyone’s butt looks so big in this picture!” a friend said with a laugh. “Everyone’s except yours!” she told me.
I could breathe. I might have been the worst dancer, but at least I was skinny.
Then at the beginning of the next year: “____ has lost a lot of weight,” one girl breathed to me. I stared at the girl in question.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Weight I didn’t even know she had to lose.”
That girl kept getting skinnier. Whispers started. She was getting attention — the kind of attention I always wanted.
One day I offered her craisins at lunch. She considered them carefully, staring and contemplating the offer. Finally she shook her head. “No,” she sighed with dramatic confidence in her decision. “Too many calories.”
I stared, immediately feeling half-guilty and half-flabbergasted. They were craisins. Tiny little motherfuckers.
Another day she revealed what was acceptable to eat: “I can have an apple, ‘cause, like, an apple’s not going to make me fat.”
A few years later, we were going on a trip to a dance festival in another state. “I haven’t eaten in weeks,” she breathed. “So I can binge on this trip.”
I felt paralyzed. How do you not eat in weeks?
I started to carefully consider what I ate for lunch each day. Was I going to burn it off? I should definitely only have one of the things my mom packed me for lunch. It didn’t matter if I was still hungry — you’ve had enough.
Sometimes my mom would pick me up from school and want to go get food. “I just ate lunch,” I would explain, even though technically it had been several hours. It stressed me out. There simply hadn’t been enough time for my body to burn through what I had already put in it. I didn’t deserve to eat again.
Tenth grade. I had been asked to prom by a boy who, coincidentally, once had asked me if I “even weighed 100 pounds.” I was trying on dresses, and my mom and sister were helping me pick one. I stared in the mirror at a lime green, short one. It looked great against my tanning bed skin, another must have among my friends.
My mother sighed and looked at my sister. They both had more natural curves than my thin body. “Wouldn’t you like to try on everything and just have it look great on you?”
I ultimately decided on a midnight blue, long, princess dress. It, too, was perfect. “You look so tiny,” my mother gushed. “Just look at your waist.”
I looked in the mirror. I did, indeed, look like I had stepped out of a fairy tale.
The summer before college. I knew I had gained some weight my senior spring — my size zero pants had become too tight in just a few months. That August I went to buy new jeans for school. I had to buy size four. I cried in the middle of American Eagle.
That summer, my mother — with what I’m sure were loving intentions — cautioned me not to gain weight in college. And I didn’t. I watched what I ate very carefully, trying desperately to not fall from grace.
“Eating. NS.” “NS” stood for “Not Srat,” or behavior not befitting of a sorority woman. I had joined a sorority, and there was a whole Internet cult following of sorority, generally Southern, etiquette. These girls were writing about everything they did to stay thin. “Working for hours on our bodies just to hide them in big t-shirts. TSM.”
My heart stopped. I ate. I was clearly failing. I was not good enough. I had never been good enough — not in high school, not for this boy, not according to these standards.
Everything hit me one day in freshman February. I had to go to a costume fitting for my upcoming dance show.
“This top would look good on someone completely flat,” the costumers said. “You have a nice shape though.”
I froze. Since when did I have a shape?
My best friend and I went shopping that afternoon. She was a natural size zero at her largest. “Someone told me I have boobs today,” I told her, fishing for some reassurance.
“I would love if someone told me I had boobs!” she said. Not what I wanted to hear, which was, “You don’t! You’re skinny!”
Everything she tried on was an XS. I couldn’t bring myself to put any clothes on my horrifying body.
“Do you restrict your food?” the counselor asked. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in front of this stranger.
“Sometimes,” I admitted. It was true. What I hated, though, was that no one said anything. No one asked me, “Is that all you’re eating?” I wasn’t doing a good enough job. Although — a good friend of mine did say, “I haven’t seen you laugh in weeks.”
I went home for the summer after freshman year. My mom, sister, and I went to the beach for the weekend. “And I didn’t even gain weight,” I told my mother proudly. I could make the grade.
“You even look a little bit smaller than when you left,” she agreed.
It was working.
That summer I committed myself to becoming perfect. I went to spin class everyday. I learned to blow dry my hair. Most important, I had intense control over what I ate. Egg whites, fruit. It became a mental game to see how long I could push myself without food. Everything I ate must be burned off. Going to restaurants was a nightmare — how could I order the lightest thing on the menu? How do I not eat all of it without my parents getting suspicious?
At the end of the summer, I had dropped substantial weight. T-shirts were hanging loose on me; the size 2 shorts I bought in the spring were falling off. Finally, I was back to a zero.
I stared at myself in the mirror. “I only like myself when I can see my hipbones,” I thought with all sincerity. The crowning moment was when I went to Target and could fit into a child’s size medium Hello Kitty skirt.
I had never been more proud of myself.
“You’re so skinny!” a friend drunkenly squealed when I went back to school for my sophomore year.
“Wow,” a male friend breathed when he saw me again. I smiled, and knew what it was about. I was perfect. I had great clothes, a great body, great hair.
I finally got what I had never gotten in high school: attention from boys. They finally approached me at parties. Boys mistook me for another, more popular girl. I was named cheerleading captain. I was getting compliments left and right. Life could not have been better.
Every time I put on clothing from high school I breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was okay as long as I maintained a size zero or two (at most). Trying on clothes I hadn’t worn in a while was terrifying: would they still fit? It has to fit, I thought. There is no way I have gained weight. I barely eat, and I go to the gym every single day.
My life revolved completely around my religious 7 AM gym excursions and finding ways to not eat. But it was worth it. I looked at photos and I could see the bones in my face.
I was perfect.
The episode at the doctor’s office happened the next summer. I was finally skinny. It was hell trying to keep the weight off, but when I tried on clothes, I had the most satisfying thought: “I am doing a really good job at not eating.”
The next year, my junior year, two things happened: I joined an eating club, a social group at my school that the vast majority of upperclassmen join, and became very close friends with a girl who had recovered from anorexia.
One particularly very busy day I hadn’t really eaten, and I was going to have leave before dinner was fully served at the club because of cheer practice. I was shaky. “I haven’t eaten today,” I confessed to this girl. She encouraged me to have some cheese from the cheese plate that was set up as an appetizer. I was scared. Cheese was the enemy — when all my other friends gushed about how much they loved it, I had learned to pretend to hate it.
I ate it anyway. She had given me permission.
“I’m still hungry,” I told her one day after a meal at the club.
“So eat some more,” she wisely advised.
“But… I feel like I don’t deserve to eat.”
She looked at me, alarmed. “It doesn’t work that way. Eat when you’re hungry.”
I had never heard more relieving words in my life.
I acquired a mini candy bar one day. “I shouldn’t eat that,” I said out loud in front of her.
“It’s a tiny candy bar,” she said with some disbelief, assuring me it wouldn’t hurt. I looked at it again, and decided she was right. I ate it.
Slowly, slowly, I was getting permission to eat again. I saw her eat bread. I ate bread.
Then — fear started to strike. What was happening to me? Where was my insane control going? Why wasn’t I afraid of bread and the cupcakes a friend brought to a get-together anymore?
I started going to three meals a day. I didn’t know people did that anymore until my friends started asking me if I was going to lunch. I reasoned it was okay to go to lunch if they all did too. I had permission.
Distinct memories barely exist past this point. I could feel myself losing more and more control every day. I could sense my body backlashing at my denial of calories for so long. Furthermore, schoolwork got more intense, and I could spend less time exercising to keep up. By the end of the year, I had ordered a dress online to wear to an occasion. It didn’t fit.
I felt awful. This would have fit last year.
But I couldn’t stop not starving. Even the thought of trying it again exhausted me. How had I done it before?
A funny thing had happened over the course of time since my freshman spring. I entered my first real relationship: a relationship with God.
There were two competing dynamics in my life to that point: the dynamic where I achieved earthly perfection, and the dynamic where I had to confront my God and allow Him access to my life.
One day during my junior spring I collapsed into tears at a prayer session (a prayer session … how very, very odd that I ended up at such a thing).
“How long do I have to be like this?” I asked a girl who was becoming a close friend. “How long do I have to hate myself, and cut myself down, and be negative all the time?”
And it was at that point of humility in which God began to dramatically intervene. I had reached the point of tragic beauty, and had to let Christ be my savior.
The summer after my junior year, I had to make a return trip to that doctor, this time for an ankle problem. They weighed me. Once again, I didn’t look.
“133,” she said.
My heart stopped. What the fuck? That couldn’t be right.
“How often do you exercise?” the doctor asked me in order to advise me in healing my ankle.
“Pretty often,” I said. It was true. I went for runs almost every day. I couldn’t not do that. I couldn’t gain any more weight.
I walked away from the office in disbelief. How the hell did this happen? But at the same time a deeper truth was beginning to sink in: I was fearfully and wonderfully made. God had given me talents. I was reconciled through Christ.
“Why is talking about weight so hard for you?” the girl who was becoming my best friend asked me a few weeks later on a hot summer night. I struggled to explain my troubled history with food. She brought up our other friend, the girl who had recovered from anorexia. “I would hate to have to go through what she goes through every time she sits down to eat,” she said.
I couldn’t bring myself to articulate I still went through the same mental harassment. Who would believe me? After all, I no longer looked like it.
In the fall, that girl found a picture of me from my sophomore year. Her eyes bulged. “You look so different. I mean this in the most loving way possible, but you look kind of anorexic. You look like you’re about to snap.”
I shrugged. “I told you. I kind of was.”
She looked at me with love in her eyes. “I think you look better now.” And — “God has redeemed you.” I smirked. If redemption meant body fat, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.
I went home for a break and tried on some of the clothes I wore in my skinniest days. The shorts and small dresses wouldn’t pull up past my thighs.
I looked in the mirror. I felt disappointed. I took the cutoff shorts off.
“Well,” I told myself. “It is what it is.”
The number didn’t matter. I was fearfully and wonderfully made.
I recently had to buy new jeans, as I do every year before fall. I had to buy a bigger size than I ever have in my whole life.
It stings. It does.
But for the first time in years, looking in the dressing room mirror, I didn’t shed a single tear.