I remember my sister growing up. Amy wore the same outfit as many subsequent days she could before my parents coerced her into showering. That outfit was all things fluorescent and tie-dye. She had fire red hair and thick, plastic rimmed glasses, and a natural, constant smile. My parents say I was the serious of the two, always analyzing my surroundings; my sister was the loudmouth with an innocent giggle and a slew of practical jokes. Society has pointed fingers and, with considerable naivety, equates a certain type of person apt to eating disorders – whatever you believe that type to be, my sister is not. And still, at sixteen, she suffered all the same.
Today Amy is my reason for all I do. She is why I get out of bed, why I write, why I try and do the best I can that day, because over the years something peculiar happened: Amy became the person I aspire to be. She is 22 this month, three years my junior, and I am so happy to say that.
But in 2008, things looked different. My sister came home from what we all thought to be a standard doctor’s visit – something about tummy aches or whatever – and my mom pulled me aside to her room, to the same spot on the bed that she introduced me to all of life’s sexual horrors with that big, red health book. “Your sister is underweight,” she began. “The doctor is concerned she has an eating disorder.” The doctor told her she needed to gain five pounds, at which she burst into hysterics, her abrupt and stubborn refusal inciting the concern and eventual anorexia diagnosis. Five pounds.
Amy, within reason, acclimated to her new weekly schedule: doctors visits on Mondays, nutritionist on Tuesdays, psychologist a third day, occasionally visiting specialists to have her heart checked, or get a bone density scan, or have blood work done. Every Monday she was weighed, and upon returning home, my mom would tell me a lower number. The breath I’d held in my lungs, all hope I rallied in anticipation of that day being the day, dissolved like clockwork. At dinnertime she kept busy, shuffling around carrots and green beans. Five pounds – that was all. Instead, in three months, Amy lost twenty pounds, weighing in at 85. She was two pounds from peremptory hospitalization and meals through a feeding tube. My sister was two pounds from being forced to continue living. If she were not treated properly and hastily, one by one her organs would perform their inevitable shut down. The bones in her body faced struggle keeping her upright and were, at all cost, prime to lose said battle. She has said, however difficult to explain, she felt herself dying, feeling her heart race to keep her alive. My mom would go in Amy’s room while she slept, watching her inhales and exhales, making sure she was still breathing, every night.
Anorexia is a mental disorder, one Amy has never understood, not before, during or after. I asked my sister years post the fact to write about her experience. She said, “I was trapped. I was trapped in this idea that all I wanted was to be skinny… When I realized this wasn’t at all what I wanted it was already too late. I was so devoured by the idea of being thin that I felt helpless to my actions. It was a terrifying feeling: battling my own self and I couldn’t even win.”
She has said being sick felt like an identity to her, something she had and didn’t want taken away. This, as a self-involved 19-year-old, infuriated me in ways I felt both guilty over and justified in. There was this palpable sadness and confusion that sidled up next to me, keeping me company, a persistent overcast on my days. I recognize now that all my feelings then were unfair. Amy’s illness was her own, but she was my baby sister, the only sister I’ve got, and I was helpless. I could lecture or cry or yell but no matter, she’d wake up another day sick, and I’d wake up another day heartbroken and scared. This disease, though, was something she had to fight and cure on her own, and that is from where my admiration stems: Amy has strength unlike any I’ve ever know, the strength to save her own life. At the threat of hospitalization Amy came together: “I finally realized there was so much more potential in me than to simply think of myself as ‘sick’.”
Media and society at large flood our minds with a standard of beauty. Unattainable beauty, at that, witnessed with nude models advertising watches, bikini fashion shows made immaculate by airbrush and tanning beds, the entire Photoshop program and its accomplishments. We pray at the altar of waifs, with twig limbs and chiseled everything. We are absorbed in ideals, these unconceivable expectations thrust upon us so young. So often it is too late to redefine beautiful as healthy, not skinny. So often we don’t recognize it all as wrong. Can we, as independent, intellectual creatures, retire these threats of starvation and liquid diets, the quote “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” the notion that we are the size of our jeans or the number of calories we consume? An estimated 8 million Americans have an eating disorder and the disease boasts the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Out there someone you know is suffering from a sickness he or she cannot control, one they may never fully understand. Beauty does not, has not, will not ever come from a line of skin care products, a smaller waist size, or a denial of food. I could have lost my sister at 16 years old and I am forever lucky to still have her. The world is lucky to have her.
I guess what I am trying to say, something Amy was better at saying, is this: “When you realize everything that is important to you, whether it be the people in your life or your goals in life, the number on the scale beneath your feet loses a lot of its meaning.”