As a kid, my mom used to threaten to shove food down my throat when I didn’t eat everything on my plate. I hated zucchini. I hated eggplant. I hated mushrooms, and anything else that turned soft and slimy when cooked for too long. It only took one feint: where my mother took a handful of sautéed vegetables and shoved it into my mouth (not even down my throat, just past my lips) for me to learn how to chew the things I didn’t like without breathing, to chase bites down with a mouthful of water. Every plate made for our table went back to the kitchen sink clean. I ate even when I did not want to, when I was not hungry.
Even now, when I go out to eat with friends, or make myself dinner in my apartment, I have a hard time not eating everything. I have friends who very easily throw away half of a plate at dinner, other friends who bring their leftovers home with them to rot in the fridge; there are times when I have to sit on my hands so I do not eat everything on my plate. It is a classical conditioning type of issue. I have been trained to do it. I do not always want to, but to stop is to go against programming. It is easier to refrain from eating than to eat half of something.
My mother is the type of woman who can eat half a sandwich in one bite. My dad says I eat like her: stuffing my mouth so full that every surface touches food, barely chewing before I swallow; I choke at least once a meal. She eats as much as a man, but has legs that do not touch and muscles in all of the acceptable places. When we go grocery shopping, men my age will often hit on her. My parents may be split up, but my father still thinks she is beautiful. I have spent my entire life trying to simultaneously live up to and escape the image of my mother. I fear to succeed in either.
I swam competitively for nearly ten years. I hated it: the monotony of going back and forth in a controlled environment full of chemicals with no purpose and no end in sight. The first school practice I went to I cried at every turn, looking to my father in the stands for encouragement to keep going: further, onward, into the great blue yonder that didn’t exist.
I don’t know why I kept at it. Well, actually, I do. My parents were not those who gave their child a choice in what it could do with its life. Perhaps my father could have been, but my mother was a bulldozer used to getting her way. Everything and everyone bent to her will; if you are a person who looks back to measure the distance conquered at the top of a mountain ridge, you would know our family as one of those green hills where every tree has been swept to one side by the wind: a badly done toupee. Mama wanted me to swim. She said it would be good for me.
In sixth grade, during the throes of my prepubescent youth, I had two favorite Speedo one-pieces that I would alternate between for swim practice. They were blue and pink, but in the same pattern: like a tiger print, or for those of you who will read this after tigers go extinct, like some sort of strange electric lighting you see at an EDM concert.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), I was in the fastest group for our swim team, in spite (or maybe because, fat makes you float) my back and arm and stomach rolls. One day, a new boy was added to our group. He was a grade younger than most of us, but he was tall and lanky and one of those young men who thought it was his calling to lead. But he was slow. Fast enough to be in our group, but not fast enough to be in front.
However, the reality of this un-named, golden-haired, bronze-skinned, lightly-freckled boy was created with the exalted image of himself seated at the throne. He positioned himself at the front of the lane, and for the first few laps I let him stay there, his image of the world pristine.
Swim coaches create swim sets specifically so that there are rest periods in which to catch your breath. With the boy leading, we got no rest. At turns, there were pile-ups: all of us waiting for him to conduct his wonky flip-turns, my hands constantly grabbing his ankles, another person’s fingers tickling my toes. So I passed him. It was a mindless act, a faster kick and a stronger pull for less than a moment, then I was cutting and gliding through open water, and we were back on track. By the time practice finished he was bringing in the end of the lane.
We all got out of the pool, joking and gathering pool buoys and kick boards, heading towards the bin that held them in a rush to make it to the locker room; the showers were always nice and warm after two hours in an un-heated pool. Then there was a tap on my shoulder. And I turned around to the red-faced boy (from anger and cardiovascular duress) standing less than a step from me, towering above (a feat in those days, as I was massive compared to the average child), sputtering out something that I couldn’t quite hear.
“You look like a pink elephant in that suit.”
I walked back the locker room unnoticed as my friends told him off, and stood in front of the full-length mirror, slowly pulling off my swim cap and staring at the girl in the glass with chubby cheeks and chlorine-green highlights in her hair. She was me. I took in my legs that had no space between them, the rounded shape of all of my limbs, and looked down at my pink-streaked suit to see the soft mound of my stomach that blocked my toes. I was only twelve.
Pink Elephant became his nickname for me. When I wore the blue suit I became Blue Elephant, the same animal with a different coat. We swam together for three more years before I quit.
My freshman and sophomore year I ate everything I laid my eyes on. I had at least three lunches a day, and an ice cream sandwich as a pick-me-up at three pm before volleyball practice. My cafeteria bill was exorbitant. My mom packed me lunches every day in an attempt to stop be from eating all the food in sight. It barely helped. But I was lean and growing so it made no difference to my body.
And then halfway through my sophomore year I stopped eating. I couldn’t tell you what exactly flipped the switch. On breaks, instead of going to lunch with friends, I would sit in the library in silence as my stomach gnawed on itself, hunger fading away as the walls closed in like a vacuum. Mental illness, depression, eating disorders are often romanticized; they should not be.
In the mornings, my parents were so busy trying to get themselves, my brothers, and me, ready for our days that they barely noticed if I ate or not. They made me food and left me to my own devices when it came to eating it. I wrapped it up in napkins, stashed it in my backpack, discarded it on the way to my first class: wheel throwing.
The feel of clay is soothing. Fresh, it is wet and slippery. The more you touch it, the more water it loses, and it becomes grainy and hard and loses its malleability. The entire process of wheel throwing is cathartic. Gathering up the softness, pounding the lumps against the table to get out the air bubbles, slamming the ball onto the wheel so that it sticks, dripping water over, shaping the clay into some useful vessel. Sometimes I would press my hands into the wheel until they bled. They were so numb from the pressure I couldn’t feel it. Round and round and round we go.
There is an addictive quality to starving yourself. There is a numbness. After a certain point, everything become light and tingly and you find yourself thinking that you can feel the flesh burning off of your bones minute-by-minute. When you skip a day of food, you look in the mirror and do not feel perfect, but at least you are accomplished, better somehow. When you eat something, you instantly feel rolls on your stomach that were not there before (even though they were), creases where your body is meant to bend that feel unnatural to you. You obsess over every bite and every calorie and weigh the things you must eat in front of people to seem normal with the minutes you have exercised that day. On the days you don’t go to the gym you hate yourself; I can’t sleep if I don’t work out.
Everyone tells you how wonderful you look; how slim! They tell your friends. They tell your family. They tell you again. So you believe it. When your clothes begin to hang a little off of you, it’s okay because it is a trend that is in right now. We are supposed to be all angles and corners, all bones and sharpness.
Growing up, I was always larger than the other kids my age. Taller, and wider. I weighed a hundred pounds when I was in fourth grade. I know girls my age who weigh a hundred pounds now. I’m twenty-one.
My father has always called me a ‘big girl.’ I don’t think he really means anything by it. Our entire family is big: all of the men six feet and over, the women all at least five-eight. But somehow it got stuck in my head that I was especially oversized.
My dad has an obsession with food. It started right about when I was in middle school. He had some health problems, and had to change his lifestyle so he could live a pain-free life. He’ll periodically ask me how much I weigh. I never know; I don’t weigh myself anymore. He weighs himself obsessively. He is four inches taller than me and only weighs twenty-five pounds more than I do at normal weight.
I was an active kid, and have always had the stomach of a horse. If I want to, I could probably eat half a dozen donuts and an entire pizza alone. I go through periods of my life where I average five desserts a day. But, in front of my father, there is always a comment after I eat. And his memory of food is astounding, especially considering he still can’t remember my birth date off the top of his head. He is an amazing cook, and will make pot roast and fried rice and baked pork chops and fish pasta and serve me mounding plates of steaming food, followed by seconds and hand-blended milk shakes. I eat all of it. And then after he’ll talk about how surprised he is that I could have eaten all of that; where does it fit?
When I lose or gain weight he doesn’t comment as-it-happens, but instead after. My freshman year, I came back for spring break especially chubby; I was eating until I was sick at the buffet-style cafeterias at my school and only lifting to work out, a side-effect of extreme homesickness. At home, I ate seconds and thirds and lounged around, reading and tanning. I knew my shorts were tighter than usual and my flesh bulged out of my bathing suits in ways that I wasn’t quite used to, but I didn’t think much of it. I went back to school and ended up losing a bunch of stress-weight during finals week. When i went home from summer, my father commented on my chubbiness two months prior, and told me how good I looked compared to then. He sometimes still brings up the amount of food I ate over that break when cooking for me.
I had a friend who would puke whenever she was left alone. Every time she left class, I made up an excuse to leave a few moments later, so she wouldn’t be left alone with a toilet. Once, before PE, I couldn’t find her anywhere in the locker room. I walked over to the bathrooms and saw her feet peeking out of a stall, the sound of retching echoing off the walls as she stuck her entire fist down her throat. Do you know what puking does to you? The stomach acid burns your throat, your mouth, eats away at the calcification of your teeth. Food that goes down is not meant to come back up. I remember the feel of the cool, white tiles on my hands and knees, the scrape of the plastic on my back as I crawled under the door and held back her hair as she emptied her very life out into that porcelain bowl.
I have a best friend who has helped me through some of the hardest times of my life. She is one of the most beautiful people I know. She is strong; she is intelligent; she is kind. She shines. She almost fainted once in the middle of a workout because she hadn’t eaten all day. I didn’t even know she wasn’t eating. She seemed completely normal. She looked completely normal. She told me about how she had to turn the shower on at home so her family wouldn’t hear her when she puked. She told me about how her gag reflex evolved so that she had to start using her toothbrush instead of her finger so she could vomit.
I knew a girl who was all skin and bones and heart. I could pick her up with one hand. She was sassy and sometimes vicious, and once split open someone’s skin with her teeth when they made me cry. We often used to lie under the stars on blankets and count satellites. She always saw the most. One night, she told me that she never wanted children, that she would kill herself before she got fat; if that didn’t work, she asked me to do it for her. I laughed then because I wanted it to be a joke. She almost died.
When I eat now I overcompensate; I eat too much. Sometimes I fall back into my old ways and won’t eat, but it’s not because I forget to eat. I never ‘forget to eat.’ Even when I overeat, I know every single thing that I’ve eaten. It’s an internal counting mechanism that I can’t turn off.
When I’m around people who are skinny and eat whatever they want whenever they want it I want to will myself into oblivion. When I’m around people who comment about food I oscillate between not wanting to eat anything or wanting to order five of the thing they commented on. When I’m around people who don’t eat I eat twice as much as I should just to show everyone that I’m nothing like them. It’s a reaction to my mother’s threats, combined with the fact that once I start eating, I can’t stop. I’m obsessive to both extremes.
A few months ago I was very sick (in every sense of the word). I locked myself up in a dark room and didn’t leave my bed for a week. I ate maybe a granola bar every other day. I lost at least fifteen pounds. When I reentered the world of the living I was greeted with praise. Positive reinforcement for my body nearly losing the battle for life. How disgusting is that? I am tired of being measured by the space I do not take up. I am tired of looking in the mirror and matching the marks of cellulite on my butt and the rolls on my back and the stretch marks on my legs to the ounces of chocolate I’ve eaten that day. When I see myself in the reflection of storefronts and car windows I sometimes do not recognize the person there; who is that girl with the long legs and arms and hair? She cannot be the same as the chubby-faced child who stares back at me from the mirror.
I would like very much to be happy with what I have; I would like even to be content. I wonder if that will ever be possible. I wonder if I will ever be able to spend a day in bed without feeling guilty, if I will be able to eat a bite of pastry without wanting to puke the moment I swallow, if I will be able to buy myself a pint of ice cream without binge eating the entire thing in one sitting.
There are billions of types of beauty in the world, but it seems as if the majority of people’s definition is the opposite of what they were born with. The skinny want curves, want to be able to put on weight and muscle with ease. Those with curls straighten their hair for dinner parties. Brown-eyed people wear blue contacts. The pale go to tanning salons. Dozens of people go to the same plastic surgeon so they may all have identical lips and noses and tits.
We are born beautiful. It is society that teaches us we are not. We are beautiful even when we don’t believe we are. We are beautiful in every size, in every color, in every shape and gender and age. You are beautiful. Someday I will believe that I am, too.