The battle for my body began at my abuela's house on Calle Ocho in Miami. As a kid I was always slim, with a small appetite. When Abuela would make me vegetable soup, I would take a few sips and then push it away because I was already full.
"Mi flacito," Abuela would say, examining my svelte frame, "you need to eat or you won't be guapo like the other boys."
In college I worked hard to gain weight by going to the gym and doubling my calorie intake. What seemed to come naturally to the other boys was something I had to work at every day. Everyone told me that I looked stronger and manlier, but the extra weight did not make me feel guapo. When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone who was overweight.
I was anorexic by the time my boyfriend Jeff and I moved to Manhattan in 2006. I was 22 years old, 6 feet tall, and 118.3 pounds. I had halfheartedly followed the South Beach Diet as a quick way to drop the extra pounds, but once I reached my desired weight, I just started starving myself.
It is often said that couples who move to Manhattan eventually break up. And during that first year there were plenty of reasons to: Jeff was as an assistant at Madison Square Garden and spent countless nights working overtime, I was an unpaid intern at Marvel Comics with no source of income, and we lived in an overpriced shoebox by the Lincoln Tunnel. Interestingly enough, we never fought about money or needing to spend more time together. We only fought about the anorexia.
You see, weighing 118.3 pounds put an end to certain rituals in our relationship. Whereas we used to spend nights playing video games and ordering Domino's, we now spent our evenings in silence while I browsed pro-anorexic message boards, getting advice on how to instantly lose water weight. Another point of contention was our sex life. We stopped having sex because I was either so hungry that I was impotent or afraid of Jeff seeing me naked and thinking I was fat.
There are many studies regarding anorexia that suggest that it's a byproduct of something more nefarious: depression, sexual trauma or drug abuse. There is the fact that men also succumb to the pressures of being thin, as encapsulated by the term "manorexia," which is used cavalierly to describe the shrinking frames of celebrities like Matthew McConaughey and Carson Daly. However, none of these reasons rang true for me. I'd had a great childhood, didn't use drugs, and never felt pressured to be thin (quite the opposite, actually). So where did my anorexia come from?
As it turned out, my question does not have a simple answer. Even medical specialists are baffled as to the origins of anorexia. In the International Journal of Eating Disorders, Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik says that even after decades of research, papers about eating disorders are still being written with statements like, "The etiology of anorexia nervosa is unknown."
Recently I came across a study conducted in 2002 by the University of Pennsylvania that involved researchers comparing the DNA of patients with anorexia with the DNA of other family members also suffering from an eating disorder. The study found common chromosomal markers that suggested that there might be a genetic underpinning to anorexia. This study struck a chord with me, because my father also suffers from anorexia.
Dad was athletic for his entire life, and in his late 30s he played right field for the Cuban American Bar Association's baseball team. While he was on the team, he noticed that his body had gone soft, and that he wasn't as nimble or as strong as the younger players on the team.
He began monitoring his weight after attending the Paul McCartney World Tour in 1990. In the show's program there was a note about vegetarianism and the pivotal role that it could play in leading a healthier lifestyle. Vegetarianism was Dad's golden ticket, and he believed that it would help him regain his youth. And for a while it did. He had more energy on the field, looked younger, and was the fittest he'd been in years. He was so adamantly dedicated to vegetarianism that when he'd see people jogging, he'd slow down the car and scream, "If you wanna be healthy, then stop eating dead animals!"
However, as in my own attempt with the South Beach Diet, once Dad reached his weight goal, he abandoned the rules of vegetarianism and simply starved himself. He did this for nearly a decade and eventually became so ill with anemia that his doctor ordered him to eat meat again.
Dad and I spent a lot of time together this past summer. We discussed our weight issues and where it all began for us. He asked the obvious question: "Are you anorexic because of me?" I told him that I did not know, because growing up, I never thought of him as anorexic. Even at his lightest, he looked invincible and guapo to me.
Also during the summer, Dad ate burgers without qualms and maintained a solid gym regimen. I admired that, since I couldn't eat a burger without worrying that my stomach would protrude. It seemed that Dad had finally gotten over his weight issues. However, one day while we were at the mall, he refused to go to into the Original Penguin store, because they had male models posing shirtless in their swimming trunks. He took one look at their abs and shouted, "Put on a shirt!"
It's easy to understand that age and youth fueled my dad's anorexia and are still a source of insecurity for him. But again, this is does not answer questions regarding my own anorexia and why, when I was building muscle in college, I saw a fat man in the mirror.
Today Jeff and I have been together for over 10 years, and because of him I weigh 140.7 pounds. He never let the anorexia win, and when I was panicking over heart palpitations a few years ago, he made sure that I was on a strict eating schedule.
"It doesn't matter what you look like," he once told me. "You're my guapo prince."
Weight issues don't disappear. I don't know if I was predestined to battle against anorexia because of my genetics or if I fell victim to some nebulous male beauty standard. Anorexia is a complex disease with no simple answer. I may spend the rest of my life monitoring my weight and wondering where my disease came from, but I am lucky to have a father who shares my pain, and a loving boyfriend who will always be there to support me.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.