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The Summer of Skinny
That declaration -- the decision to emulate Hollywood's gaunt (and likely drug-driven) aesthetic -- was in the summer of 2006. It was at the height of waifs walking down (and dying upon) runways, of Venti Starbucks replacing meals and suppressing hunger, and of sickly thin stars (think the Olsen twins, Nicole Richie, and Ms. Lohan) becoming the object of concern (read: pathological admiration). To be honest, I can't remember much of that time. I lived in a state of starved numbness in which thoughts of food consumed all of my energy and focus. I had arbitrarily chosen the nice, rounded number of 1000 as my daily caloric intake. When that became too much, I knocked off another 200 and shot for 800 instead. It was all a game to me, a means of pushing myself to ever more difficult, and nutritionally limited, goals. "Do I really need a whole granola bar for breakfast?" I'd ask myself. Couldn't I just eat half instead? While I was at it, couldn't I halve my daily 4 o'clock apple too? I decided I no longer needed milk with dinner. (That's ninety extra calories!) I didn't need dressing on my salad either. (Ew! Fat!) And I definitely didn't need any sweets. (Because what skinny girl would eat that?!)
For as smart as I was, I was a real idiot when it came to dieting. I thought what I was doing was normal. I thought hunger was the state in which all the fabulously famous lived. Besides, I liked the constant gnawing in my stomach. I thought it was a sign that my stomach was eating itself away, and whenever I felt it, I'd become giddy and do a little dance to "skinny, skinny, skinny" running through my head. "I'm in tune with my body," I'd tell myself time and again. I listened to its satiety cues. I knew the precise moment that I was full. Surely, I didn't have a problem. America did! They were fat, lazy, and self-indulgent, and I was the epitome of self-control. I had achieved all that the magazines had told me, hadn't I? Didn't I play the diet game and win, learning the art of restraint that few women ever master? I was skinny and proud of it, and unlike many anorexics, I didn't mind showing off my hard-earned sickly body to the rest of world.
But underneath it all, I knew something was wrong. I knew that a suggestion to eat a chicken sandwich, or worse, to drink a glass of water on a Caribbean day, shouldn't drive me to tears. I knew that moving from my characteristic prostrate position -- or just staying awake -- shouldn't require such energy. And I definitely knew that I shouldn't wake in the morning only to faint back into bed, my arms helplessly and wildly grasping the air for a chair, a table, anything to steady my legs of Jello.
On one of these summer days, shortly before the Raisin Bran and shattered bowl incident, I climbed two flights of stairs and locked myself in the privacy of my bathroom. With my shirt rolled into a makeshift half-top, I stood on my tiptoes, looking at my profile in a full-length mirror and surveying my exposed stomach. By this point, such behavior was not unusual. I did it several times a day -- when I first woke up, before and after every meal, and as a last minute ritual before slipping into bed. In fact, I did this whenever I passed a reflective surface, glancing around to make sure no one misconstrued my anxiety for narcissism. But this day was different. All I could think was "I'm anorexic. I think I'm anorexic." I said it partly out of pride, partly out of disbelief, and partly as an admission of a need for help. But I was sure as hell not going to be the one to ask for it.
If it wasn't for my parents' concern in the earliest months of my sickness, who knows where I would be now. They could have taken the easier route and convinced themselves that all would be OK. They could have told themselves that I was just being "healthy" or that this was a phase of adolescence, as so many parents do. But instead, they aired on the side of caution, stepping in after only two months of weight loss and a dying spirit. If it wasn't for the risks my parents -- and especially my father -- took, sending me to hospital after hospital, fighting with me as I refused meal after meal, and remaining vigilante even when I insisted that I was healthy, my life would have taken a very different path. And that, that extreme act of love, was the greatest gift they could have ever given.
A Tale of a Recovering Anorexic is a six-part series rooted in honesty and our communal struggle with body image. It will return next Monday. In the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts! We've been silent for too long, but with truthful dialogue comes strength.