I stared at the clothes. Well, here we go, I thought. It's been a while since I freaked out about this stuff. I'm overdue.
I was moving, and like many people do when they move, I was attempting to divest myself of as many possessions as possible so they didn't take up space once I made a fresh start. Weeding out the clothes I didn't wear anymore was a logical place to begin.
Except I knew what was there, and why.
I've spent the last 12 years recovering from an eating disorder, which means I've been gaining weight for years. I know it's good for me, and I've become about as okay with that as I think most women would be with going up a size every few years. I've stopped wearing the clothes I wore at my sickest, one item at a time. The moment when I realized each one didn't fit wasn't fun, but usually there were no tears. Each time I reminded myself that it was all part of the long, slow process of filling out my life again.
Except I didn't get rid of them. Any of them.
The blue silk size 0 skirt I bought in 2000 when I lost my first 15 pounds my freshman year of college? Still there. When I lost 15 more pounds, it hung on me. That's when I knew I was really getting somewhere. Deeper into the closet I came across the delicate, unlined silk dress that I liked because it was pretty but also because I thought only a thin person could wear it. It had a geometric print -- faint fuchsia brushstrokes on top of pale, fine-point stripes, and it bloused a bit at the waist, so you had to be tiny below that for the look to work. It was bias-cut, too.
You don't have to be an eating-disorder specialist to realize why I'd hung onto these clothes. First, the obvious. Every so often I entertain the fantasy that I could fit into them again and the even more fabulous notion that I could do so without being sick. I could get there by some as yet undiscovered healthy path to emaciation.
I think I also kept the clothes as an oddly self-protective move. As tantalizing as the idea of being that thin again can be, I know now what achieving and maintaining it entails:
Narrowing your life to the service of a single, self-focused cause that produces nothing.
The risk of weakening your bones and losing the ability to have children.
The inability to concentrate, and the cognitive after-effects of not giving your brain enough fat to function -- for years after I started feeding myself again, my thinking felt blurred. I couldn't summon the word I wanted to use when I wanted to use it. When I could, I often transposed the syllables. My deductive reasoning was shot.
The loneliness. I checked out of my life while my friends moved on with theirs.
So the thin clothes also served as a warning. "If you ever find yourself wearing these, you will know you are back in that place you are never allowed to visit again."
But the main reason I kept them is that I was afraid that by giving them away I would leave my identity behind. Who was I if I wasn't the sick girl?
The paradox of anorexia for me was that it helped me disappear -- from life, adulthood, responsibility, sexuality and everything else that scared me -- but it also served as a way of standing out. Refusing to eat was my way of refusing to keep pain interior any longer, of forcing other people to see that I couldn't take it anymore. And in my anorexic brain, my ability to refuse food also made me admirable, enviable, worthy of attention I didn't feel I deserved otherwise. My secret for years into recovery was that I felt becoming anorexic was the most outstanding thing I'd done -- more impressive than my college degree or any award. The clothes are trophies of a sick former glory. In a world where all sorts of terrible things happen to people that they can't control, I was proud that I was able to starve myself.
I can't take full credit for that warped logic. American women my age grew up in a nation of overweight people who found thin people special and beautiful. It seemed like every third USA and Lifetime original movie focused on the melodrama of the anorexic. I read "Reviving Ophelia" when everyone's mother read it and noted which kinds of girls were deemed worthy of Mary Pipher's concern -- many of them had eating issues. I noticed how often publishers put out memoirs by girls with eating disorders. They had supernatural abilities. They weren't like the rest of us.
The shameful truth was that I thought anorexia made me interesting. The clothes I'd kept in my closet reveal that until very recently, I still did. Getting rid of them says the unthinkable: I'm well. Nothing to see here.
If I'm kind to myself, I can note the ways in which the clothes were souvenirs of getting better. It took several years for me to gain much weight at all, so the things that fit me when I was in the throes of my illness also fit for most of my early 20s. In that sense, they're my sick clothes, but they're also what I wore to my recovery.
A purple fitted turtleneck dress, for instance. It was tighter than anything I usually bought at 23 and 24 -- before getting sick I would have thought I couldn't "get away" with something so, shall we say, figure explicit. But as much as wearing that dress was about being thin enough to wear it, it was also about new-found appetite. I bought it for a date with the first woman I ever remember letting myself desire. I wore it because I wanted her and because I wanted her to want me. It worked, probably in part because in that dress I became someone less interested in self-denial and more interested in satisfaction.
The last thing I decided to part with was the blue and lavender dotted dress I used to wear to everything. It's the single garment I should miss most. We spent the most time together. We took the best pictures. I've written about it. It was a character in my life. It's also the dress I wore during the time I was most yo-yoing between the sick me and her familiar triggers and obsessions and someone else who seemed to be emerging.
Here's the amazing part: I just felt tired of it. Bored. And that was how I felt about the whole process of emptying my closet, once I got going. The truth is that throwing out the clothes wasn't as hard as I expected, nowhere near as hard as a lingering part of me wanted it to be. It took about 30 minutes, enough time to pull them down and put them in a duffel so I could take them to the nearest secondhand shop. I was ready to consign them to the past.
Maybe it has to do with turning 30. Maybe it's being in a relationship I feel certain about. Maybe it's that I've slowly rebuilt my identity and my life around things besides my eating disorder. I have a career I believe in, slightly more comfort with routine and a sense of where I stand on marriage, kids and living in Manhattan. I have an idea of what I might want to make happen in life in five and 10 and 20 years, and that I want to have a lot more to show for myself than a few left-over dresses, ghosts of my chosen brand of early-20s self-destruction. I finally find the story of the sick girl not all that interesting. I'm much more invested in finding out what's next. I wonder what I'll wear.
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