Some thoughts on what is a disappointingly large part of my internal life.
It’s almost a rite of passage. An awakening from the ignorant bliss of childhood to the anxieties, the self-doubt, and the performance of femininity—at least, the white, cis-, hetero- femininity that I’ve experienced.
I remember first feeling disgusted with my body around the age of ten. My ‘awakening’ came all at once while I sat on the school bus going home. I remember distinctly the tragic moment. I looked at my thighs, pulling up the plaid uniform skirt that covered them, and saw not normal legs but two squashed, white, wide, jiggling pillars. The sight made me nauseous.
Where I got the idea that a thigh should be firm and narrow, I don’t know. My parents were good about limiting media exposure, I never had a Barbie or encountered those awful women’s magazines. My mother wasn’t the type to watch her figure or her daughters’ figures. And I wasn’t overweight, I never had been. I was a gangly little nerd with stringy hair, round glasses, a soft voice, and straight As. I read voraciously and used words like ‘truculent’ and ‘accoutrement.’ My life revolved school, my multitude of siblings, and my best (only) friend.
I remember lying in bed at that tender age, not crying but wanting to so badly. Tears never came easily to me. I would pinch the little bit of fat around my hip and wish I was strong enough to tear it from my body. I had a fantasy that somehow all the fat in my body would melt down, down to one single toe. I would cut that fat toe off with a kitchen cleaver and feel reborn.
I started skipping breakfast, going to fifth grade hungry in the mornings. I would sit in class while the teacher droned on about state capitals, unable to think about anything but food. I would play this game with myself, imagining different things to eat and feeling the saliva pool around my tongue. I would start with something delicious, maybe French toast or a grilled cheese, and move to less and less appetizing comestibles like lentil soup and my mother’s dry-as-a-bone meatloaf. I felt like I had really accomplished something when I was hungry enough to make myself drool from thinking about cold lima beans. At school I ate a salad for lunch, then rode home on the bus, hating my thighs. I would work on my homework and take a well-timed nap to avoid dinner.
I became familiar with the cycle of hunger. First was the empty feeling, a little bit painful but I liked that. If I’m honest, I still like that feeling. After that came nausea. Then fatigue, cold, irritability. And I was a moody little thing even without the stress of starvation. I remember how climbing the stairs at my parents’ house made my legs burn with lactic acid. Those eighteen steps required more energy than my body could happily part with.
Often, at the end of the day, my willpower was spent and though I never felt fully awake, I couldn’t sleep completely empty. So I would sneak downstairs to the kitchen for a bite to quiet my hated stomach. One night I was downstairs, tearing handfuls of cold chicken from the carcass, filling my mouth with a frenzy that would doubtless result in painful hiccoughs. I heard footsteps and saw my mother in the doorway. She never seemed to sleep much.
My heart skipped a beat. My face I’m sure was shining with chicken fat and shame. My eyes burned. I mumbled through the mouthful of flesh something that, in retrospect, probably only made sense to me and my twisted thoughts. I half wanted to break down and admit defeat but I couldn’t do it under her cold blue gaze. My mother, my role model for womanhood, was always quick to dismiss tears, especially her own, on ‘stupid girl hormones.’
From that elementary school bus ride on, I’ve scarcely been able to swallow a bite without first at least breaking down the nutritional content and adding the calories to my mental running tally. I’m an expert at it by now, I have the caloric value of many foods catalogued in this brain of mine. I’ve had healthier years and less healthy years but this is what I return to in times of stress and anxiety. Food is something that I feel I can take control of and exercise my will over. Which is ironic, really, because it’s not me taking control but me being controlled. It makes me feel strong and weak at the same time to deny my body.
But truly I don’t understand it. My next-younger sister, a brilliant and darling young woman, fell into a similar pattern. We’ve talked about it abstractly and concretely over the years, it’s at once something we can connect deeply over and something very sensitive and dangerous even to discuss. It’s not always good to be that vulnerable. Triggers abound. I feel a deep shame and embarrassment as a feminist and as a role model for her and our other even younger sister that so many hours, days, years of my life have been spent worrying about my waist-to-hip ratio. It’s disgusting but in complete honesty, I’ve never worked as hard at anything in my life as I have at being thin. What a shame. It’s easy to blame photoshop and waiflike runway models; it’s harder to acknowledge that this process is alive in my brain. She’s made her nest in my synapses. Mine and so many others’.
This epidemic of femininity (I realize that of course men and boys can suffer in this way but I’m speaking of my own experience, which does not include any examples of that) sadly seems to affect our best and brightest with an alarming frequency. The girls who want to achieve any perfection they can, who have sharp and calculating minds, who have so much to offer the world, turn those precious qualities against themselves and wage internal war. We who have the drive, focus, and commitment to work towards a goal through pain, through isolation and fluttering tachycardia, choose to accomplish frailty. I don’t understand this obsession/compulsion I’ve lived with/against for now more than half of my life. We really are our own worst enemies.