When I was 13, I went on my first real diet. Not coincidentally, when I was 13 and then 14, I might have come close to killing myself. Needless but still important to say, this may be a sensitive subject for anyone whose life has been touched by an eating disorder.
It struck me recently as odd that with all I’ve written, I’ve never really written much about my bout with anorexia but in broad, general brushstrokes. I’ve never talked too much about it, either. It’s not like I have been in denial about this period of time or that I don’t remember it well — quite the contrary on both counts — but more like I filed it away in a folder, closed the cabinet and locked it up. It was over. It is over. In a way, I think of that period of time as one where it felt like I was possessed by a force outside of myself but in another, more honest way, it made perfect sense and was a natural outcome of my environment and the culture in which girls are raised.
When I was on the cusp of entering high school and venturing deeper into my teen years, I consciously decided that I needed to alter my body to be happier, to leave my old life behind. My “old life,” all 13 years of it, was not all that awful given the context of the many circumstances I could have been born into but when you’re 13 and mired in it, it’s hard to have much of a broader perspective than the one your own life offers. My inventory looked good: we had a comfortable home in the suburbs; I had my basic needs more than met; I had parents; I had a sibling; I had an extended family that loved me; I was healthy; I was fine. I was fine. But I wasn’t.
I’d had a childhood that was happy and carefree, with lots of friends, days spent playing, drawing, reading, climbing trees, writing stories. This came to an end when I was in fifth grade and, as one parent’s alcoholism escalated, a far-away storm inched closer until it was right above us, sweeping up our household and its inhabitants into its swirling vortex. Concurrent with this, or maybe because of this, my once-effortless social standing took a major dive. Starting in fifth grade, my hair, bushy and unruly (because, seriously, no one knew how to deal with curly hair in the 1970s), made me a target for teasing at school. It started out kind of subtle, little comments and jabs here and there, but before long the pilot stage was over and I could count myself as among the bullied. Like that, my rank changed.
My friends, many of whom I’d known since kindergarten, started dropping like flies, becoming strangers to avoid my new status spreading to them like a fungus. As my elementary school poured into middle school with the other local elementary schools also feeding into it with their complicated, inscrutable social networks, things got exponentially worse. It turns out that one’s social currency can be boosted by making fun of the kids everyone is already picking on in new and sadistic ways. Basically every day, there were painful knots in the pit of my stomach walking in the school, at lunch, at gym, anytime we had to “partner up” and it was justified. The carefree days of my childhood were over as dread settled in to become my new waking state.
Out of school, things weren’t much better. In fact, things were even worse. At school, I could steel myself and numb out but at home, it was like being on a rickety ship in a cyclone, tossed all around, lurching with every wave. There were lots of tears, tables and chairs being overturned, screaming fights, drunken threats, and far worse. I couldn’t enjoy the periods of relative calm because I felt foreboding about what almost certainly would be around the bend. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom with the door shut, hiding under my covers, wishing I could escape to anywhere else.
My home, while comfortable and tidy, wasn’t safe. My school, while highly rated, wasn’t safe. At some point during eighth grade, with high school and the desperate hope for a new life coaxing me on like a mirage, I started my first real diet. I’d never really thought much about my body until I was submerged in the simmering crucible of middle school, when suddenly I became aware that there were “good bodies” and “bad bodies,” especially for girls, and those girls with “good bodies” had better lives. I wasn’t long and lean like the popular preppy girls; I was short, strong and solid with exactly the kind of body that helped my ancestors survive pogroms and famines. In addition to my “bad hair,” I now had a bad body, another potential point of entry for the ravenous bullies who roamed our halls. A diet was something I could do, something I felt I should do, especially with high school on the horizon. Little did I know that it would be like a lit match meeting a kerosene-soaked wick and — FSSSS! — immediately, a rampaging diet would burn bright and hot within me. Even if I could have predicted that, though, I probably would have still done it.
I’m saying all this because I saw this photo recently.
A couple of weeks ago, my cousin gave me a photo album that had belonged to her mother, my aunt, now deceased. It was an album my aunt had kept of my side of the family. In it, among pictures of my parents as a new couple looking so impossibly silky with youth and innocence I had to gasp, was one of me from the summer after I began my diet, a photo I hadn’t seen before. I see myself at my cousins’ summer house in Michigan, transformed that year of my diet into a wisp of a girl, smiling for the camera. Staring at the photo, I vividly remember the diet that was raging inside me. Visceral memories flooded into me of when this photo was taken, which was a couple of months before I ended my diet. I remembered these things like they happened long ago, which they did, and like they happened yesterday.
This is what I remember.
I remember the pocket calorie counter I picked up at the grocery store, which was the .75 cent investment that seemed to make it all possible. It was one of those little booklets they sell by the checkout line next to the tabloids. Do the still sell those? I asked for it on one shopping trip and my mother bought it for me, no questions asked. My diet started that day.
I remember keeping track of my daily calorie intake in a notebook, a pen stuck in the wire by the cap. I would dutifully record everything eaten and calculate the day’s calories, always aiming to maintain or, better, consume fewer calories each successive day.
I remember buying Snickers bars and cutting them into three equal chunks. A single candy bar would be my daily calories sometimes.
I remember keeping a scrupulous routine around any meal that took place in a group setting. I became very adept at cutting everything up neatly and concealing it in napkins, lots of napkins, on my lap and at my side. Whether discreetly spitting with napkin to mouth or using sleight of hand, I got so skilled at making my food disappear that even when the jig was up and I was being watched for hiding it, I could still pull it off. Buffy, the cocker spaniel running interference under the table, was my unknowing accomplice.
I remember that I had a system of punishment for extra food consumed also written out in my calorie journal: for example, each 10 extra calories would equal a sprint around the block; an additional hundred sit-ups were meted out for a half cup of extra grapes. I remember my protruding spine, rubbed raw and painful with a rug burn from my daily sit-up routine. I remember being so proud of that spine.
I remember the diet pills and appetite suppressants I stole from Alpine Pharmacy, the neighborhood drugstore I’d bought all my comic books and Wacky Packs from as a child. I’d never stolen before but, like so many other new behaviors I adopted that year, I took to shoplifting like the skill was inborn. I remember how the diet pills made my heart felt like it was constantly fluttering at times, a wild, frightened bird flitting against a too-small cage, or was ready to pound out of my chest at other times, BOOM BOOM BOOM, a giant’s slow, plodding footsteps.
I remember collecting recipes, feeling reassured and vindicated, somehow, with the knowledge that I would not eat the foods pictured in them. I loved doing this, in fact; along with counting calories, collecting recipes became my new hobby. I would go through the boxes in our cabinets and my mother’s magazines and cut out the best looking recipes to stick in a photo album. I remember the instant Cherry Cheesecake with Graham Cracker Crust from a Keebler box and I remember Triple Fudge Brownies with condensed milk. The more decadent a recipe was, the more likely I was to cut it out and add it to my album.
I remember my hair losing its luster and body. I remember my breasts shrinking. I remember tracing the emerging bones of my clavicle with my fingers every day. I remember losing my new voluptuousness. I remember my period, started just a year before, disappearing. I remember downy hair beginning to grow on my concave belly. I remember floating in the bathtub. I remember celebrating all of these milestones as accomplishments.
I remember the tension at the dinner table. I remember being forced to eat once at a restaurant and trying to throw up in the bathroom. I remember feeling like a fat, disgusting weakling when I couldn’t, the calories pooling in my stomach. I did an extra furious set of sit-ups when we got home. “Weak” on the lift, “ling” on the lowering.
I remember the kids who had bullied me for three years straight suddenly leaving me alone, moving on to other targets. I had twinges of survivor’s guilt but not that much.
I remember my mother looking at me, blinking, unsettled and confused by this alien who’d taken over her daughter. I remember thinking she didn’t know what to say.
I remember my father’s anger, like I was doing this to him personally, like he only cared about how my shrinking body reflected on him. Maybe he didn’t remember his comment the previous summer when I’d taken a second popsicle from the freezer. (He probably didn’t remember as it was during the daytime and he was sitting at the kitchen table, which meant it was a Sunday, which meant he was drunk, but it was a sighing, “And you did such a good job at camp.” A “good job” meaning that I’d lost weight at camp the year before.)
I remember at a certain point not feeling hunger, not even slightly. Eating even a small amount felt like the ultimate chore, like I had to crank my mouth open.
I remember my mother threatening that they were going to check me into a hospital. She said this like it would be a real wake-up call to me but I remember thinking — and feeling in my core — Bring. It. On. I’d love to see those professionals in their white coats try to force me to eat. I felt like Regan in The Exorcist and I loved it. Everyone was scared shitless of this tiny girl and no one could do anything it.
I remember the last weigh-in being at around 73 pounds. I was proud because I’d dipped below my plateau of 75.
And I remember vividly the moment I ended my diet. My grandmother, beloved to me, was at our house. She was in the kitchen. I walked in the room and she took one look at me, turned her body away and started crying. I’d never even seen my grandmother cry before and now she couldn’t look at me without crying. It was her unvarnished reaction — and the guilt I felt at making my grandmother cry — that was the extinguisher to the kerosene wick on fire inside me. My grandmother’s response made me finally hit ground in my tumble down the calorie restriction rabbit hole. The very next day, I slowly ate again, full of uneasiness, full of dread, but the diet was officially over. It’d lasted about eight months.
I have often wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t seen my grandmother cry that day because I was full steam ahead at that point with no end in sight. I’m not sure when or how it would have ended because my grandmother could crack through me like no one else. I may have ended up in the hospital, like my mother threatened, thrashing but restrained on the bed as they forced feeding tubes into me. Or maybe I’d be dead on my closet floor like Karen Carpenter.
I can tell you this, though I understand how weird it sounds: I felt so powerful when I had anorexia. I wish I could claim otherwise but it wouldn’t be true. Every day, I demonstrated that I had control over my body, which plugged me into a crackling power source, something that was wholly new to me. Of course, in reality society was winning when I thought it was me. The world around me had convinced me that disappearing was safer than being seen, that being seen was riskier than a racing pulse and organ failure. I learned that there was a certain amount of weight loss that was acceptable — actually, it was praised and rewarded with new clothes, encouragement, compliments — but past that point, there was weight loss that was unacceptable and the longer I was in this unacceptable range, the more I was “crazy,” “selfish” and “stupid,” trying to hurt others. It should be noted that other than my grandmother, not once did anyone show that they cared that I was disappearing before their eyes because they cared about me. Ironically, that was what my ever-shrinking body needed most, though I didn’t know it: to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be heard, to matter. Maybe that was also why I quit when my grandmother cried: someone finally saw me.
Dieting was what I and my friends had been trained to do, same as our mothers and grandmothers, and it turns out I was damn good at it. Too good. All the magazine images, articles, ads, billboards, movies, television shows and on and on had created overt and subliminal messages for me and those like me to embody diet culture as if by osmosis. I lived then as we live now, in a culture steeped in so much diet culture, people don’t even see it. Combine the weight stigma I’d absorbed with the desperate need for a better, safer life and you had the perfect storm.
I’ve had a few flare ups since then but none as grave or, ironically, as successful as the diet I embarked on when I was 13. Since then, I have navigated life by avoiding thinking about it (“it” meaning diets, calories, body shape, etc.) whenever possible. Once you tap into the mentality, though, it never fully goes away. So this is all to say this is why I am not here for anyone’s:
• Diet plans
• Exercise plans
• Unsolicited advice on weight loss
• Body shaming of others
• Body shaming of oneself
• Promotion of diet culture
I just don’t find talking about weight and weight loss all that interesting. I’m not here for it. I don’t bond with other women over tea and self-loathing. I’m not here for anyone’s condescending “good intentions” when it comes to another person’s size. Just no.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the vegan part of the picture. I want to say that I was anorexic before I was vegetarian and vegan. While I was still very much in the clutches of diet culture at 15 when I stopped eating meat, and at 28 when I went vegan, I can say with confidence that my decision to go down this path was one hundred percent for ethical reasons, not motivated by a desire for weight loss. This is not true of all vegans. If you are a vegan who pushes diet culture and weight stigma, you are reinforcing attitudes that are bigoted, most often rooted in misogyny and deadly. You really need to stop.
I am 51 now. Next year, I’ll be four times the age I was when anorexia blazed through me like a wildfire that had an endless supply of wood to burn. It’d be a lie to say I don’t still feel embers reminiscent of that time but it’s more of a smoke than a fire, and it becomes less noticeable every year. When it does yank at me, though, I take a breath and remind myself that I have so many more worthwhile things to spend my time and energy on than chasing a particular body size. I mean, do I want people at my funeral talking admiringly about how I was a size two? Do I want to spend my time calculating calories, afraid to eat, not sure if I deserve to be seen, stuck in a cycle of rewarding myself and punishing myself depending on how I think my body looks compared to the cultural ideal? No, I want to save the freaking world, laugh, create, love and LIVE this life.
In other words, I will say what I couldn’t at 13 and that is, “Fuck off, diet culture. You can’t have me.” And I mean it.