It began at thirteen, breakfasts hidden in desk drawers, flushed down the toilet, and, when the toilet had backed up, its pipes blocked by bananas and boiled eggs and buttered slices of toast and so much cereal and so much milk, they were thrown out of the window. On mornings when I had been running late for school, breakfast found its way inside my pencil case, to be deposited later in the trash can. Lunch was easy, given to friends under the guise of kindness. Dinner required strategy, filling myself to the brim, till I felt sick from all the food my body could not contain, then locking my bedroom door, The Beatles at full volume, water running in the bathroom as I was bent over the toilet, my fingers so deep inside my throat I was afraid I would swallow my whole hand, afraid that I would lose myself within myself. I was already losing myself. Thirteen was the first time I was told that I was beautiful, or pretty or cute or hot, what it was did not matter, but I knew that boys would look at me, and look at me again, that my thighs no longer rubbed against each other and I could count each rib, and I was invincible.
I was thirteen and believed that being beautiful could save me.
I was a smart girl; it was the one thing that everyone would recall of me, that at eight and nine and ten I was so smart, writing and painting, with too much energy and wanting to do everything, and doing everything. My grandmother tells me that my eyes were so full of life. She speaks of this in the past tense. I was a smart girl, and then at thirteen my mother blamed boys; I hadn’t the heart to tell her that it was no one but me, that I had become my central obsession. I was tired always, taking naps and never participating in sports because my limbs ached, because I was terrified that I would fall apart, or worse, that in my collapse, my secret would be uncovered.
I was fifteen and believed that being beautiful could save me.
I searched constantly for pictures of teen celebrities, their smooth stomachs and healthy smiles, and I compared myself with all girls, feeling ashamed that in my tallness I was so large. I kept these pictures tucked away in my pocket, in mental snapshots, and with every sip of a Coke and with every bite of a cookie, I was always reminded of what I couldn’t be. At fifteen I fell in love for the first time and believed that the boy was in love with what he could see and not what was within me. Every time he touched me, I shrunk more, wanting to be beautiful, wanting to be loveable.
I was eighteen and believed that being beautiful could save me.
This was so easy for me, to be so far from my parents, no secrets, no regulations, this was the year of college. With friends I ate voraciously, desperate for the taste of savory and sweet on my tongue, tastes becoming for unfamiliar to me. I was half parts water and half parts empty. It was like a reflex, never once allowing for the food to settle, guilt was a reflex, the reflex as a punishment; what would save me if I was full? How would I still be beautiful? I chose bulimia because I loved the taste of food too much, and I had memorized all its consequences: hair loss; excessive hair growth down the arms and along the spine; erosion of teeth; fatigue; the malfunctioning of a heart; death. Being beautiful was such a high, can’t you see it in magazines, on tv, beauty looming over us, everywhere, twelve stories tall? I wasn’t afraid of rotting teeth or death, because what is greater than being beautiful?
I was twenty-one and discovered that love could save me.
I had met a greatest love who believed that I was beautiful always, who saw greater beauty in my words and in my heart, in my self, even when I could not believe that I could be this beautiful. And because I loved him, I believed him and for some time I was good to myself. For a while I was good. But having someone who believes in you means nothing if you have no belief in yourself, but for a while I was very good to myself.
I was twenty-two, twenty-three and better, so much better.
Then I moved to New York, and there is beauty everywhere, always looming 5”11 and ten stories tall. In New York, if you do not believe in yourself, you will lose yourself. I spent $15 on groceries and $45 on books and proud of it, elated at emerging hip bones and broken by jeans that clung taut, always feeling dizzy, always feeling light, and everything as a blur. Two weeks ago I visited my parents and my mother fed me because I was too thin, because I was not taking care of myself. I felt swollen until I was not, locking myself in the bathroom, emerging only when I was hollow and weak. I did not believe in capacity of my beauty, I did not believe in my self. At my lowest weight, I felt not pride, but only cavernous and wondering how I would make it through the day.
Two nights ago at dinner I ordered more than I could ever eat, until I ate it all, a cheeseburger oozing rare, creamy scallops, a salad reeking of anchovies; I ate it all because I was starved, and afterwards felt shame, feeling my stomach pushing into the waistband of my tights. Feeing faint and feeling sick, I excused myself to the restroom, dimly lit with aromatic candles, an ornate mirror hanging above the sink. I stopped before not the toilet but the sink, and in the mirror I could see for the first time not nothing but me, a face so tired from desperately seeking what it meant to be beautiful, when it was there all along, within that very person in the mirror. I washed my hands and returned to the table, took a sip of water and said that I was ready to go.
I was twenty-three and believed that I could save myself. I was twenty-three and I had saved myself.