On eating, not eating, and weight.
I have always had an eating disorder.
I remember climbing the tall metal chair in my mother’s kitchen to get to the cookies hidden in the back of the freezer. I didn’t know that they had marijuana in them, but I did know they were green. I didn’t eat them because of the pot, though. I was just hungry.
I was always hungry. I am hungry now.
I spent my teen years hungry because I was angry at my mother. My weight comes from my dad’s side of the family, where most of the women are enormous, tough, square-built ladies who speak their minds, laugh too loud, and often raise the children of disappointing husbands and boyfriends they caught in the flower of their youth or settled on later as damaged and substandard goods. This is not how my mother’s family works: her people are gracile, delicate, somewhere between small and medium, with lovely skin and hair and pleasing aspects. My mother’s mother was 5'1" tall and probably weighed 115 pounds at her heaviest. She had perfect makeup, and she knew how to dance. My mother’s sister is a size two. My mother is chubbier. She is 67, looks 50, and is dating an ex-marine over a decade her junior.
I read once that there are two kinds of reproductive success for women: women with low waist-hip ratios are attractive to men. These women are taken care of, by men, because they are beautiful. Their children are taken care of because they are beautiful children with beautiful mothers.
I am the other kind of woman. My success, reproductive and otherwise, is my own responsibility — it’s written on my body that I’m on my own. I have a high waist-hip ratio, a large jaw, broad shoulders. I am of my father’s people; we breed sturdy children who grow into strong, handsome men. And women who are capable. Women who bear plenty of children. Women who can raise them on their own.
I learned which kind of woman I was from my mother’s family when I was 5, and 10, and 20. I would eat from the platter of so-carefully-crafted homemade cookies my grandmother put together at every holiday, and they would look at me with stony eyes and ask my mother if I was this good an eater at home. Sometimes my mother would hiss that I was embarrassing her. She stopped keeping sugar in the house by the time I was eleven, but I got fatter anyway. When I was in sixth grade, I could wear her clothes. When I was 12 or 13, my parents got divorced and my mother gave up on my body, and a lot of other things.
I have the soft double chin of my mother’s family: almost all the women have it, even the thinner ones. Everyone complains about it at family reunions, but the one time I joined in everyone just stared.
When I was young, I was very angry.
I was angry at my mother for my waistline and my weight. I hated her for being beautiful, when I knew I wasn’t; I hated her for being socially acceptable despite how poor we were, when I knew I would never fit in even if I got rich. By the time I was sixteen, I had already tried every diet you didn’t have to buy anything special for, and none of them had caused me to transform from a fat awkward duckling into a slim graceful swan.
I was not nearly as big as I am now — I was probably 220 pounds at my biggest high school weight, around 13 — but I was already big enough that the world was not kind. I was getting cowcalled, I didn’t fit in chairs, people thought I was a lot closer to 40 than 14. People mistook me for my mother’s sister, my sister’s mother. It hurt. It hurt so much that I got angry at my thin-enough mother, and I decided that I would also be thin enough. Somehow. Anyhow.
And I stopped eating.
It started out slowly, sensibly, much like the diets I’d tried before. I replaced microwave burritos with brown rice, steak with skinless chicken, cake with lettuce. I stopped eating red meat, stopped eating sugar and butter, stopped eating flour. I ate sensibly, ran in the mornings, did calisthenics. I read Susan Powter. I danced with Richard Simmons. I went to Overeaters Anonymous, a 12-step program like AA, but for people who are addicted to food. Their advice was not the AA advice — you can’t quit food cold turkey; you can’t abstain from food completely. I was the only 14-year-old in the group, which met in the public library’s burnt sienna basement. Everyone else had white hair and probably weighed something north of 350 pounds. I got one of them as my sponsor — I think her name was Alverda; I didn’t know her last name. I made sure that I never slipped, so I never had to call her: she was probably as old as my grandmother, and I was embarrassed to admit I might fail.
I tried everything that seemed reasonable, but nothing happened. If anything, I got bigger. So I ate less, and I moved more.
The year I turned 14, I started measuring.
I measured myself every week: neck, chest, waist, stomach below the waist (and yes, skinny people, they are two separate parts), hips, upper and lower arms and legs. Sometimes wrists and ankles. I did this for years; I still have some of the notebooks, and skimming them I can watch childish scrawl give way to more legible cursive and then back to a scribble when I gave up on handwriting.
I penned in my girth with a corset of numbers, litanies of exercise and food taken in, nasty comments to myself in the margin of my lists of fractional inches lost or gained. I dabbled in positive self-talk, but always always always in the context of how much I could love myself someday, how soon I would be that svelte socialite beloved by my peers; I knew in my heart that the best motivation to get there would be self-hatred, self-disgust.
At 15, I started skipping meals.
Breakfast was easy to miss: the children of my family were orphaned to video games and self-absorption, and later to 12-step programs and drugs. As long as I did my chores and made sure my younger siblings had dinner, no one policed what I did, and I stayed up so late most nights doing the family’s laundry that I got up about five minutes before our early morning school bus came for me.
I remember vividly the one time in my high school career that my mother took an interest in whether I ate breakfast: I was running out the door per my usual, and she insisted I drink orange juice. “The poisons of the the night creep up our throats while we sleep,” she said, “We have to wash them back down with juice.” I’m still not sure what that means.
Lunch was also easy to whittle down: my family wasn’t there, and our rural high school cafeteria had a “salad bar” consisting of iceberg lettuce, cucumber and radish slices, peas, shredded cheese, ham chunks, and dressings that often managed to be both lumpy and runny, a juxtaposition that made them simpler not to eat.
In order to avoid dinners (and my house in general) I joined every reasonable school activity that was not a sport. By senior year, I had lettered in band, choir, and academic challenge. In four years I had been in five plays or play competitions, 3 musicals, and 4 solo and ensemble competitions for trombone and one for voice. I also worked at a baby clothing store once I turned sixteen and threw shot and disc senior year. I was at the school until 8 most nights, and not infrequently 10, and other nights I could go directly from school to my job.
It was perfect: when I was at school late I could buy my preferred dinner (Fruitopia strawberry passion awareness, 120 calories for half a can or 240 calories if I drank the whole thing. Cost: 65 cents) out of a vending machine, sometimes buy the 35-cent Otis Spunkenmeyer cookies that were sold after school and eat up to half (90 calories), or if I was working I could just tell everyone I had eaten at home.
Often when I was home, I was the one making dinner and there was no adult checking whether I ate the food I made for my siblings. Usually I didn’t.
Sometimes I did and then threw up.
My body and I have an understanding. Throwing up is easy, and is almost always under my voluntary control, even if I’m ill. I don’t throw up anymore, not since I was in a dining cooperative as a college freshman and realized that eating a pound of carrots with a quarter-cup of goat cheese and then vomiting was a waste of food. I did throw up involuntarily and constantly for over seven months while I was pregnant with my son not long after that; those two experiences have put me off vomiting entirely.
There were also a lot of years of my adult life where I couldn’t afford to purge. As the t-shirt circa 2005 said, Anorexia is cheaper than Bulimia.
The summer I turned 16, I started running
I would leave the house before the sun came up, run down the hill in the crisp air of a summer morning to where the road turned, then climb back up the green cool wooded side. It took about fifteen minutes. Most days I would also go walking, then later run/walking, then later running, around our block, which was 3 miles. On rainy days I would do the Sweatin’ to the Oldies videocassettes my mother had gotten from somewhere when I complained about my weight.
I would also do calisthenics, really obscene reps of situps, pushups, knee pushups, leg lifts (both the useful way and the stupid way), jumping jacks, jump rope — anything I’d ever heard might burn calories. I would do this for hours. When school started, I kept running in the mornings. I also started using the weight machines at the school gym when the sports teams weren’t there. And I kept not eating.
I don’t know what I weighed when I cut back on eating: we didn’t have an accurate scale at home. As I said earlier, my best guess of my weight at the time is around 220, not so huge on my wide frame. Pictures of me from that time look thin to me now, but that was 20 years and 80 pounds ago.
My lowest weight at a doctor was 174, when I was about 17 — I drove myself there, and I hadn’t eaten a full meal I didn’t throw up in about a year. I was very excited, but I knew the best weight for my height was 150 or below. I thought I would make it.
I was at the doctor that day because I kept falling over.
I was very sick by 17
There’s a phenomenon you’ve experienced called orthostatic hypotension, where you stand up and are dizzy. Anorexics can get it when they’re just standing there, which is what I did when I was 16 and 17. This is partly due to lack of blood volume caused by dehydration: a lot of the water you get comes from food, and when you don’t eat any food, you have to drink a lot of water to keep up.
The thing is, you’re so cold when you don’t eat, cold water becomes unappetizing.
According to Barbara Kessell, DO and Phillip S. Mehler, MD, writing in the Eating Disorders Review,
60% of adolescent patients with AN had orthostasis on admission, and this number increased to 85% by the fourth day after admission. Normalization of pulse changes was achieved at around 3 weeks; on average, patients were 80% of ideal body weight (IBW) at the time of resolution.
I started falling down and momentarily losing consciousness (or “syncope”) at around 200 pounds and around one year post-eating. I had multiple MRIs, an EKG and an ECG, a CAT scan, and a lot of pregnancy tests. I don’t think anyone ever tested my blood sugar, and I know they never asked if I was eating. Of course I was eating. I was still fat.
Eventually, I learned to drink hot tea and upped my Frutopia intake to two a day, and the falling problem mostly went away.
I have been lucky with my eating disorder.
I’m lucky that I’m good at quitting things, and when I was halfway through my freshman year of college and realized that even with playing rugby, unreasonable workouts, and years of not eating, I was still fat. So I gave up, mostly, on the dream of being thin, and I reintroduced things like “soup” and “bread” to my life.
Meeting my ex-husband and his ready stash of weed the next summer didn’t hurt either.
I was lucky that I was so heavy. Anorexia’s death rate may be as high as 10% of serious sufferers, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Because I started out so heavy, because my body refused for whatever reason to be whittled down as far as I wanted, because I didn’t get there, I was never officially anorexic and I was not in danger of starving to death.
I was very lucky that when I was most active in my sickness, I was alone. If I had grown up ten or even five years later, I would almost certainly have stumbled onto the pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia online community, and it is not unlikely that I would have been ‘encouraged’ to continue avoiding food until I died.
I will be honest: dieting is a constant temptation. I am a fat woman, growing older in our looks-obsessed culture, and I am onstage sometimes. I see pictures of my singing or videos of myself trying to dance, and I think I am monstrous.
When I see images like the one on the left, I think, yes, I could try again. I could do it again, and this time, maybe this time, it would work. Maybe this time I could make myself small enough to be acceptable. I’m not that old — maybe it’s not too late to be pretty. Maybe thin isn’t out of reach.
There are worse days, too, days where I give in to the siren call of the floating, ethereal feeling that I know is only two skipped meals away. There’s a clear, uplifting quality to the light when you haven’t eaten in a couple days, and although it can get harder to roll with the punches after three, there’s an almost druglike high that gets inside your chest and makes your skin feel prickly, hypersensitive, thrilling to the slightest touch. And when you do give in to your hunger? Eat an apple, or a cracker, or a hard candy to take the edge off? It’s better than five-star cuisine.
I’ve never been what you’d call thin, but if that old saw about “nothing tastes as good as thin feels” is true, being thin must feel like you won the lottery every day.
Because nothing? Nothing tastes amazing.