Every single daydream starts with there being less of me. It doesn't matter what it is: I'm sleeping with Michael Fassbender, I'm Poet Laureate of the Universe, Sleater-Kinney gets back together and adds me on bass -- every idle fantasy begins with the caveat that I am 10, or 20, or 30 pounds lighter than I actually am. You could make an argument that I don't want anything more than I want to be skinny. You would probably be right.
I was anorexic and bulimic for many years. I never got bad enough to be hospitalized, but I was a scary-looking person. I'd stop getting my period for months at a time, and there was a constant sly whisper in my head saying worthless, undisciplined, fat. Skinny was my idol, starving my religion; I counted calories like I'd once prayed rosaries. I had a black notebook that I kept hidden behind a bookshelf in my room, and in it, every night, I wrote down four things: my weight, what I'd eaten, how much I'd exercised and how many times I'd thrown up. On good days, when I'd done hundreds of crunches and stuck to my diet of carrots and tea, I would feel virtuous, clean, filled with light. On bad days I'd curl up on my bathroom floor and sob, wondering why I was trapped in this thing, this body I hated, this clinging robe of flesh that I longed to discard.
Relationships seemed impossible; I couldn't imagine how anyone could ever want me the way I was. And so I spent a lot of time alone, at war with myself, doing quiet, devastating violence to my own body. There's a line from a poem I wrote at that age that comes back to me sometimes: I want to read my ribs like headlines. I thought there was some secret knowledge that thinness would bring me, some magic in it that would make me more successful, more lovely, more loved. I never found it.
In many ways, I am better now, but some things break and stay broke. I have a vivid memory of myself at 16, facing sideways in front of a mirror and pushing the skin of my sunken stomach into what I was sure was a potbelly. I stood there staring at my wasted frame, seeing, literally seeing, someone vast and bloated and monstrous staring back. How much can you ever rely on your senses again after that? How can you trust your own mind? There are other scraps of delusion that I can't ever seem to root out. I could still tell you without hesitation the number of calories in a handful of almonds or two and a half Saltines. I still steal glances at my reflection in shop windows and feel horrified at how thick my thighs are, or how round my cheeks. I am healthier and happier now, but I can't help but think I was prettier then. I can't shake the feeling that I'm locked in a body that I will never love.
I don't think I am alone in this. I think I am one of a multitude. I've met women my age who eat what they want and couldn't care less if they gain two pounds over Christmas, but I am convinced they are the exception, not the rule. The rule is that if you are a woman in America, you want nothing quite so much as you want to be a little smaller. The rule is you are always trying to lose.
It's no coincidence that this plague primarily strikes women (though I don't want to discount the growing number of men who struggle with disordered eating). As women, our bodies are not entirely our own, and we are not always able to avoid others' attempts to pass judgment on or make demands of or possess them. Having been made the emblems and objects of desire, we do our best to live up to the role, tithing gym trips and skipped dinners. Whole nations of women spend their hours not reading books or loving bands or making goddamn change but instead agonizing over the inches of a waist.
So our personal hells are, of course, political realities, and smarter women than me -- Bordo, Malson, Wolf -- have begun the analysis we need to change them. But here, I mean to put aside polemic for a moment, and offer something like an elegy:
For the girls I know and the girl I was, and sometimes still very much am, who construct entire lives engineered for emptiness. For those who have died, or died a little, or who feel like failures for doing what they must to stay alive. For a generation of brilliant, driven, angry, wonderful women who get up, and look in the mirror, and demand so much less of themselves.
A version of this post originally appeared on Broad Recognition.
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