Note: I gave this post a pun title, it has nothing to do with THG series
*in which I discuss my eating disorder*
I feel a little guilty, and a little trite, writing a blog post about my own eating disorder. The subject has been well covered over the ages and eons of the internet, by people wiser and more eloquent than me.
But here we are.
Something struck me today, an impetus to open the anorexic torture door and then try to close it.
I said anorexic, but I don’t ordinarily refer to my undiagnosed issue using that word. I’ve reserved, out of a perverse respect, those clinical terms for the brave souls who have been so sanity swallowingly hungry that they nearly died of it. For those who looked at bones and saw blubber. For the body dysmorphic. Not me.
My body was beautiful to me. My pubescent beauty emerged, one breast at a time, giving me a strength during hardship that could not have come from any other place. The symbolic strength of sensual goodness. Like a glossy red apple, that you can’t help but assume will be delicious and nourishing. Visceral goodness.
The lovely face I wore, and gazed upon in the mirror, was a disguise. Beneath it lay all my hatred, the grief that gives birth to destruction, the desperation for escape. But the hatred was strongest, burning below the raw gaunt skin of my face in a mask of aching skull. So I had a beautiful face but not a beautiful self. This dichotomy brought me to the mirror often. It might seem that I was admiring my own face, but that wouldn’t be precise. The person reflected back to me was a stranger. Someone I wanted to kiss, to hold, to defend me, to save me, someone I longed to become. The face in the mirror was not me (and isn’t me, even now). Because a beautiful face can’t belong to an ugly person.
I was thin throughout childhood. In my culture, thinness is not valued. Thin means sick. A healthy, attractive woman must be plump. My family mocked my appearance, mainly out of jealousy. The women around me struggled with weight loss. My younger sister was heavier than me… healthy. My mother made fun of my lips, which she deemed too thin. African lips are full. She said my lips were like those of her grandmother, a French lady. Basically I had white lips. I was called chicken legs. My calves were too skinny. I did not take these petty insults hard. I faced worse insult to my body in a physical manner. And I could tell it was mostly jealousy.
For though my culture, black culture, could not accept a thin girl with thin calves and thin lips, white culture, the dominant culture that surrounded me on all sides and pressed against my mind all day, did. My physique was no different than that of the models in magazines and the actresses in movies. That acceptance gave me strength too.
Dysmorphia wasn’t my cross to bear. Hunger was.
I don’t remember a time in childhood when I was not hungry. Hunger was interwoven into my being as a defense. Hunger kept the pain constant, and the pain reminded me to be vigilant.
Vigilance is the finest virtue of an abused person. I learned to count the minutes, to measure faces. My heart is a seismograph of vocal agitation.
I didn’t eat much, except sometimes. I nursed headaches throughout elementary school, migraines brought on by a starvation calculated intentionally by my own brain. My brain knew better than the humans around me. We were at war and the enemy could strike at any moment, from behind, from in front… in a car, while I lay awake in bed, anywhere, anytime.
Eating causes relaxation. Relaxation requires a compromise of vigilance. Compromising vigilance is a sin.
Sometimes putting food in my mouth caused gag inducing disgust. I would chew three times and swallow mouthfuls as quickly as possible so I could return to my room and resume counting the hours until my next journey to school. I wasn’t safe at school either, because the teachers were spies. But I was safer.
Various textures would induce anxiety for me. Slimy canned vegetables, the graininess of a potato, the tongue coating grime of beans.
Once my mother had had enough of my finicky taste in food. She had fixed red beans to eat and she was determined to see me eat them.
She dragged me into a bathroom and pushed me against the wall beneath a window and forced beans into my mouth.
I wish I could remember what happened next, if I gagged on the beans, if I ate them, if I spit them out. But I don’t. I remember my dad told her later that it wasn’t necessary for me to eat beans, I don’t think he eats them either.
The pain of hunger followed me from elementary school migraines, to the succulently greasy slices of pizza I would devour in middle school, to high school where I attempted to subsist on fruit juice and Cheetos.
I was desperate to eat in private, where I could scarf whatever I wanted and feel happy for a few brief moments and take a fitful nap. But eating was public so I grazed.
That’s when I met my boyfriend.
He wasn’t my boyfriend then, he was my teacher. He saw me starving. I don’t know if my other teachers saw. I don’t know if my other teachers cared. I do know that he and he alone took it upon himself to feed me.
He took his own money and bought things for me to eat. He asked me what I liked. I asked for bread and butter and pineapple soda. I had never asked an adult for food before. I rarely asked for anything at all. The food made me feel better sometimes, even though it was mainly carbs that couldn’t alleviate my headaches. That didn’t matter. Somebody cared.
I know now that my weight was low. For my height and body type, I was underweight and I had the symptoms of malnutrition. Nobody in my family, at my school or at the church I attended cared to do anything about that, or even ask me about it. Nobody except my boyfriend.
This is the part where I lost my beautiful body, but gained something else.
In 2006 I escaped to college. In college there is a thing called a “meal plan.” A meal plan is paradise.
I ate three meals a day. It was that simple. I was at least partially free, suddenly free. I ate eggs and bacon for breakfast and salad with french fries for lunch and all manner of wonderful things for dinner.
I wasn’t constipated anymore. I resumed menstruating and for the first (and only) time in my life I menstruated regularly, like clockwork, like a woman is meant to.
Of course something else happened, something to be expected when an underweight person increases eating. I put on weight.
Over the two years I was in college I gained about 50 lbs. It crept up slowly and steadily. My last semester in school I noticed my thighs rubbing together as I walked.
After I dropped out and I had time to myself, to look in the mirror, to buy new clothes, I saw.
That perfect body I had admired, the one that had been my strength, my alibi, my savior, disappeared. My breasts were resting on my chest instead of jutting forward. My thighs and behind were no longer smooth and muscular, but rumply. My tummy, which I had never considered to be flat, was unmistakably rounded. And it seemed to me I had a double chin.
This seemed like a crisis to me at the time, even though in reality, I was simply normal sized. I wasn’t overweight, obese or anything upsetting. I had a normal BMI. That’s all that happened.
But my image of myself suffered. I needed that thin girl who looked like a model, who was called Halle Berry and Tyra Banks and Venus d’Milo With Arms. Who was mocked for being ideal. I needed her so that someday I could BE her. That body, according to me, was what made the few people who loved me care. They saw this superficial and physical beauty, the glossy visceral goodness, and were bewitched into loving an unlovable person.
But I wasn’t hungry.
I could laugh. I was free and I could think.
There was no one to harm me, to beat me, to force beans in my mouth.
There was no one to mock my body or make me feel ashamed.
I was no longer hungry. I ate. I ate new foods and relearned eating old ones. I ate Thai, and Vietnamese, I made pizza, I rolled sushi. My boyfriend taught me to eat mushrooms. I learned to eat rice.
I even ate a few beans! And I felt the joy of cooking, and eating and being full.
And asking for food.
It didn’t take long for me to stop mourning my old body. I see that body now as a scar. It’s a symbol now, not of goodness or worth, but of torment. Because that is what I felt like inside of it, tortured.
Though I gained the joy of eating, and lost my old body, not all is healed.
When things go wrong, I long to hurt myself with starvation. And there have been times in the recent past where I wanted for food, and the thought of being starving and in constant pain triggers panic.
I don’t know what happens next, or if I’ll ever be truly healed. I just don’t want to be hungry again.
Last semester I was at my favorite place to eat trying to decide what I wanted. There was a beautiful young lady ahead of me, ordering.
I saw her go into her bag and try to piece together enough money for what she wanted. So I paid for her. It wasn’t the first or last time I bought food for someone. I had a brief conversation with her and of course she gave me effusive thanks that I didn’t deserve. She was a freshman psychology major and we talked about her classes and went our separate ways.
It was a simple thing to me, because I cannot watch others go hungry. I hope I can keep showing that kindness to myself.