There is a photo of me, the best one I have. Maybe the best one I’ll ever have.
It was one of hundreds taken by a professional photographer whose pleasantly scruffy assistant spent hours flitting around her, holding a disc reflector to throw the Parisian summer light onto me just so. Before she’d even picked up her camera and he’d reluctantly put down his cigarette, a makeup artist had spent 90 minutes on my face, my hair, my nails. They were going for a ‘50s bombshell look – I’m not entirely sure why, now, but it made sense at the time – so there were hair extensions and curlers and false eyelashes and very bold red lips. In this photo, I’m sitting on a staircase, my hair mimicking the a curly black wrought iron bannister, with my hands demurely in my lap but my mouth slightly open in a Jessica Simpson-ish kind of way. My wrap dress, which I almost never wore in real life because it was too revealing, too clingy, is showing just the right amount of flesh. My eyes, thanks to the falsies and whatever witchcraft the surly makeup artist did with my brows, look enormous.
After the shoot was over, the photographer culled just three photos from the hundreds she took in the space of a few hours, and sent them to me. This is the best of those three. Years have gone by, and this is still the best I’ve ever looked in a photo. It’s also the unhealthiest I have ever been.
When it was taken, I’d been heavily restricting my food intake and compulsively over-exercising for about a year-and-a-half. I was the thinnest I’d been in years, and not that much thinner than I’d been when I fell down that hole, which, now, makes me feel both relief (thank god I didn’t do too much permanent damage) and regret (if I wasn’t even skinny, what the hell was all that suffering for?).
I was unspeakably miserable, literally: Despite being a professional writer, I couldn’t muster the courage to explain to anyone but a therapist how unhappy I was, or marshal the words to do my misery justice. But I was functional: working, traveling, and maintaining a social life ― even though I had to run extra miles to compensate for whatever I ate when people were watching. And this photo shoot was to accompany an essay I’d written for a well-regarded weekend magazine, an international byline, a big deal. The night before, I went for a run and ate lettuce for dinner. The morning of, I drank coffee and ate nothing.
The photo was taken before the rise of Instagram, though Facebook and Twitter were already in full force. Had I had access to a photo-focused social media network at the time I’m sure I would have posted it, probably with a performatively self-effacing caption, and watched with grim satisfaction as the likes and approving comments piled up. This week, in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I decided to post it, and to be honest about the wide chasm between what that photo shows and the truth.
“Thinness is an achievement for women, one we’re expected to work for if we’re not blessed with skinny genes, and offer sheepish, secretly-smug apologies for if it is gifted to us by nature. It’s a trophy we’re expected to hold on to at all costs.”
The truth was that I was drowning. On the outside, things looked pretty good: My career was humming along, I was dating a great guy, I was spending the summer in Paris doing research for grad school, and hey, I’d dropped two pants sizes. For young women, this is what winning looks like.
In fact, scratch the first three-quarters of that list, and just keep the newfound sense that you’ve earned the right to wear shorts in public: for young women, this is what winning looks like. Skinniness covers all manner of other failure, just as failure to be skinny can dim the sparkle on all manner of other success. There was a reason people were complimenting me on my “accomplishment,” praising my shrinking body. Thinness is an achievement for women, one we’re expected to work for if we’re not blessed with skinny genes, and offer sheepish, secretly-smug apologies for if it is gifted to us by nature. It’s a trophy we’re expected to hold on to at all costs.
Never mind that much of what I produced that summer was garbage, limp and listless writing that had to be redone because it lacked rigor. Never mind that I was lying to that great guy, pretending to be the healthy, naturally slender woman I knew he wanted to be with. Never mind that I spent those months denying myself French food and running along the pretty streets of Paris without ever really seeing them. Never mind; look what I’d accomplished. It was right there in the photo.
My illness never manifested as anything other than an achievement, because it was largely invisible. In that photo, I’m the thinnest I’ve been since hitting puberty in earnest, but I’m not skinny. I do not look sick. I do not look like a person who is suffering. I look like a person has succeeded at losing weight – and so I was. Very few people noticed that something was terribly wrong, because it looked like I was doing something right. This is not uncommon: eating disorders are exercises in secrecy, and while some of us fit the stereotype of the hyper-skinny anorexic, all bones and eyes, many of us don’t. Many of us hide our worst behavior behind closed doors, and hide the rest in plain sight.
I starved myself for two long years, with very little to show for it in the way of weight loss, and even less in the way of proof that I was sick. Again, this isn’t uncommon: There are lots of us out here starving, bingeing, purging and over-exercising, looking nothing like your mental image of a person with an eating disorder. You may think this makes our suffering less real, less corrosive. We may even think that ourselves – I did. I was wrong.
“There are so many people walking around looking the “best” they’ve ever looked, and paying far too steep a price, a hidden cost they feel compelled to keep paying.”
When, after a year-and-a-half of seeing a therapist, something finally shifted, and I started eating properly again, it showed in photos. In pictures from that year, I look puffy in the face and arms, like my body is clinging to every scrap of fat it’s given. Which, of course, it was. The body is smart: if you starve it once, it will forever be preparing for the next famine.
In those newer photos I am the picture of health, or at least, the picture of healthier. And yet, I don’t like to look at them. I don’t like the photo of me clambering on an ancient Sequoia with my colleagues on a work retreat. I don’t like the photo of me smiling at a dear friend’s wedding and surrounded by brilliant, loving women. I like the old photo, the bombshell photo, the photo that tells lies. It’s in a frame on my new boyfriend’s windowsill. I’m healthier now, and lucky to be so, but if there had been a oath to mental health that had involved no weight gain – well, I’d have been in recovery sooner, and I would have recovered faster.
My suffering made me look great. There is no getting around this: my self-inflicted pain was rewarded with praise and sexual interest and even short-lived flashes of self-confidence. And there is no getting around the truth that I like the old photo better than the new ones. Just as I am working to accept that some people will always offer, “you’ve lost weight!” as a compliment, I am working to accept the uncomfortable, unhealthy truth: I have never looked “better” than when I was at my worst.
And I know I wasn’t alone. There are so many people walking around looking the “best” they’ve ever looked, and paying far too steep a price, a hidden cost they feel compelled to keep paying. To those people I say: I know your pain, and I promise it won’t always feel this way. It took work, to travel from that hungry day on the staircase, all dolled up and empty inside, to where I am now. It takes work every day, sometimes every hour, and it’s never a straight line. I look fine now, I suppose. I feel fierce, and I mourn the years I lost.
So the photo stays. As reminder of where I used to be, as a way to mark how far I’ve come. And as a reminder of the gap between truth and pretty fictions.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.