An essay circa 2007:
Long term, I would love to be a size 2. But, perhaps my first goal right now would be to get back in my old jeans. I remember the day I fit into size 2 Gap jeans. I danced in the fitting room.
I am a psychological anorexic. I don’t know that I have ever been an actual anorexic, but I came close I’m sure. When I was in Senegal, West Africa, I lived with two girls. These girls became my close friends and I love them. They were also very small. While I was struggling to fit in my size 12 clothes, they were sharing size 4 outfits. When the three of us took photos together, I felt like a beached whale.
At 5 foot 7 inches tall and 158 pounds, I was only technically “overweight” by three pounds, but it might as well have been one hundred. As a girl growing up, I had never worried about my weight. I was physically active during my school years, playing kickball in a city league and softball in high school. My mother cooked meals most weeknights and I was not concerned with my diet. I was a size 7 in the juniors department, which is about equivalent to a misses 4 or 6 sans hips. While not overly concerned, I do remember wishing occasionally that I could wear size 3 like my best friend (never mind that she was 6 inches shorter than me).
I went to college initially in my hometown, but I lived on campus. I subsisted almost entirely on fast food and Rice-a-Roni for two years, but miraculously did not gain weight until I transferred my junior year. Living in the dorm, I ate most meals at the school’s buffet-style cafeteria and often ate a fourth meal at a fast food restaurant in the wee hours of the morning while “studying” with friends. Our favorite midnight hot spots were Taco Bell, Subway (where I ordered a meatball sub, not the turkey on wheat I have come to know and love), Waffle House and “The Truck Stop.”
My father was notoriously tight with money. He pinched pennies and only let go with grumbling. One day during my second year in Arkansas, I discovered that I could no longer fit into the size 10 jeans that I had gradually gained to need and called my father to ask for money for more clothes. When he asked why I needed money and I fought to hold back tears as I told him that I was too big for my clothes, he immediately sent a check for more than I asked for.
In retrospect, I see that body image issues affected me more during those college years than I thought at the time. I remember feeling the need to run at the track or work out at the gym many days, but never formed a habit of exercise that actually made a lasting impact on my mind or body.
I never understood how anyone could resist food. Anorexia baffles me. I love food. I love the flavors and tastes. I love meat. I love potatoes. I love sweets. I love Mexican food and Italian food. When I am so full it feels like I might explode, I put another spoonful of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in my mouth.
Bulimia, now that is a disorder I can understand. Being able to eat whatever you want and not gain weight? Sign me up! The only problem is that no matter how hard I try, I cannot make myself vomit. I am terrified of puking. My body knows this. I can count on one hand the times I have thrown up. Like, ever. The last time was seven years ago when I became violently ill in Africa. At first, I wouldn’t even try to make myself vomit. But the desire to lose weight eventually overpowered my desire to keep food in my tummy and eventually, I gave in. Still, when I attempted to activate my gag reflex, I was disappointed to find that nothing happened. Either I did it wrong or I am incapable of self-induced vomiting.
After college, I left for Africa wearing a size 12, but relatively unconcerned with the fact. The first year in Africa, I was on a team with six other girls and two guys. The guys lost weight while the girls gained despite each having the opposite goal. We ate a carb-based diet of rice and sauce and sat around all day. That was the cultural lifestyle and we were made to comply. At African friends’ homes, we ate everything we were served, which usually involved being over-stuffed, so as not to offend.
Weight and body image issues attack girls in a way that is vicious and unrelenting. One of the girls had been an aerobics instructor in the States so she gathered us on our large roof and held aerobics class to the cds we had brought from home. One of our favorites was Huey Lewis and the News. We jammed to these tunes in a jazzercise style in the early morning or late evening hours when the heat was not stifling.
I remember looking at the other girls and starting to compare myself. I wanted Alison’s shape and Jodi’s thin legs. Body type has never made a difference to me. Envy for someone else’s physical features does not recognize whether or not it is actually possible to achieve that goal. I will always have cellulite. I will never have shapely legs. I will never look healthy in a size 0. I will always lose weight disproportionately, remaining two sizes smaller on top than bottom. I know these things, yet I still shoot for them.
The real trouble began when I moved to Senegal, for that is when my thoughts overflowed into action. This is when I moved in with the two tiny girls and became “the big one.” I snapped and made a New Year’s Resolution that not only stuck, but took over my life.
I was consumed with diet and exercise. I ate zucchini for lunch and an occasional fat-free yogurt treat. Dinner was a modified version of whatever my roommate cooked, such as veggie spaghetti sans pasta. I also worked out at least two hours a day. I turned down invitations to visit African friends and basically, forsook the work I came to do in Africa in order to lose weight. After a couple of months of this, my pants were baggy.
My desire for thinness was insatiable. I did not see the progress; I only saw fat that needed to come off. I ran in the triple-digit heat in jogging pants because shorts were culturally inappropriate. I made up aerobics routines and danced to the music on my laptop. Africa forced creativity. I learned just how disciplined, or rather crazy, I could be.
There was a pair of shorts that one of my roommates owned. I wanted to fit into them. They were terribly cute. And terribly tiny. In January, I could get one of my legs up to my thigh and that was it. By April, they were on. Tight, but on. Not presentable in public, but on, and what I considered a small victory in a much larger battle.
That summer, there was a retreat for all the missionaries in West Africa. I saw friends that I had not seen since moving to Senegal. All week, people complimented the way I looked. One did not even recognize me, which was the biggest reward to date and fueled my fire to continue losing.
It was bizarre. The more I lost, the more I needed to lose. I considered it healthy because I was eating “right” and exercising. Overkill was not part of my vocabulary.
I left Africa and returned home to Texas in September. Since all I wore in Africa were wrap-around skirts and my old American clothes I had arrived with two years earlier, I had no idea what size I had become. My first shopping trip proved that I had lost weight when I fit nicely into size 6 pants and size 8 jeans. Temporary euphoria set in and the thought of all the yummy American food I had not been able to eat for two years momentarily seemed better than losing pounds.
Then, temporary was over. Again, January set in and I determined to be 115 pounds. Incidentally, according to the Body Mass Index, a person who is 5 foot 7 inches and 115 pounds is considered underweight. I chose 115 simply because it sounded good. 120 sounded fat.
My second New Year’s Resolution stuck even more than the previous one. My friend, had lost seventy pounds on Weight Watchers and she had just started her second go-around. Because she gave me her first set of materials, I became a self-taught Weight Watcher and did not have to endure the sob stories shared at the weekly meetings. Besides, I had no need of support. I was more than motivated on my own.
I was given twenty points per day and thirty-five extra points to use freely during the week. I never used more than twenty and rarely dipped into the extra points. I could not afford a gym membership and did not need one. I ran in my neighborhood, usually for about an hour. My weekly treat was homemade spaghetti (I allowed myself the noodles this time) and fried okra, a southern staple.
I looked at myself several times per day in the mirror. In a public bathroom, I made sure no one was around and then checked my tummy in the mirror. At home, I stood stark naked and studied myself to find areas of fat that needed to be removed. If I was lying flat, I always checked to see if I could feel my hip bones.
My size 4 jeans were getting baggy (this was probably around the time of my size 2 Gap jeans in the fitting room triumph). I ordered the smallest size available of a bridesmaid dress for an upcoming wedding I was in and it hung off me, even after alterations. My seat belt started to leave marks on my hips as it built friction with my skin. I found out later that my friends were talking about me, worried that I had an eating disorder.
At some point, I wondered if I had one as well. One day, a friend interviewed me for a counseling class assignment. She told me to make up a problem and we would role play a counselor/client relationship. I “made up” an eating disorder issue. She recognized the reality of what I was saying and stopped the recorder in mid-interview. Despite her best intentions, I walked away that day with one thing in mind: a new means of losing weight, laxatives. She had used them in her own pursuit of skinny, and I now saw their amazing potential to make all my dreams come true.
I began using the laxatives, but discovered that I had to perfectly time their use in order to not miss work. The directions on the box suggested 1 per six hours, but I would take five. I would then become quite ill for the next twenty-four hours, so I learned to use the laxatives on the weekend so I wouldn’t miss work. The sickness I felt, to the point of crawling to the bathroom and being unable to sleep, was rewarded when I stepped on the scale each morning.
The lowest weight I have ever seen on the scale is 121.
I don’t really know when it got better. I remember being in a friend’s wedding out of town and eating whatever I wanted for seven days because I was on vacation. I got home and was sickened by what I had done, but I never regained the kind of discipline I had before going to Georgia. Gradually, I regained some weight and five years later, I now maintain a BMI in the exact middle of the healthy category.
Eating disorders are forever. Although my external behavior is no longer indicative of anorexia, it is always on my mind that I should lose weight. I still calculate Weight Watchers points on an irregular basis, consider trying to join a weight loss program, and feel guilty when I am full after eating. While my habits do not reflect a problem, I know that I am, and always will be, a psychological anorexic.