I learned how to purge from my seventh grade health teacher, Mrs. Eng. She discussed poor body image and low self esteem manifesting into eating disorders. She spoke in a sad, serious voice and we were supposed to be horrified, but I was intrigued.
“This is what body dysmorphia is” said Mrs. Eng, her face expressionless.
I looked at the pastel poster of a skinny girl looking in the mirror. The reflection showed an obese person. I concentrated on the shoulder bones of the girl looking into the reflection and wondered what my back looked like naked. I subtly reached my hand around my back like I was scratching it. I felt the top of my shoulder blade and traced it down until I only felt flesh.
One night my mother brought home Burger King. My little brother squealed with excitement as fries and chicken nuggets rained onto his plate. She reached in and got my bag with a chicken sandwich and fries. I brought my dinner upstairs to the TV room and ate it while watching a “Friends” rerun.
I can’t say for certain what triggered it, but that salty, full feeling turned into guilt as I stared at the empty, grease-stained bag.
I went into the bathroom with a glass of water. In a novel I read about a bulimic girl she always drank a glass of water before purging. So I drank the water and watched it all come out. Everything about it was gross.
But every time I felt that guilty, full feeling, I would do it again. I would leave the bathroom feeling slightly invigorated. I would walk downstairs and wonder if my mother would notice my glassy eyes, or perhaps they were tinged pink.
I always left the empty glass on the edge of the sink, like Gretel leaving a breadcrumb, saying I was here.
We were a family that typically ate separately. My mother and little brother ate together before I was home. I ate by myself after swim practice and my father came home when my mother and brother were in bed and I was on the computer dialing up AOL.
One night my mother and I sat down to eat together. I must have skipped swim practice or maybe it was that week or two between swim practice ending and track beginning.
She put two plates of pasta down in front of us. I could see the oil collected on the rim of the plate.
“I don’t want you to throw up after this,” said my mother with a bluntness that left the atmosphere still around us.
She placed her fork down and looked at me.
“I won’t. What do you mean?” I was immediately hot and embarrassed.
I wondered how she knew. Could she hear me? Were my eyes watery? Was the glass a clue?
“You have to stop.”
And for the most part I did. I started to skip lunch and demand only salad for dinner. I threw out the lunch my mother sent me to school with. I can picture myself skipping proudly to the garbage can and hearing it thump to the bottom; her swirly writing on the white paper bag peaking through the rest of the trash. I started to wear knee high boots and mini-skirts to school and I got attention I never knew I could.
The night before I went away to college I cried hysterically in my mother’s arms. I wasn’t ready; I was scared. I didn’t want to leave her.
“It will never be the same!” I shouted in a whisper.
“But that’s okay,” she said and brushed my hair off my cheek.
She held me in the softest way, and told me that she would be here waiting for me to come back. I pictured an illustration from “Runaway Bunny” of the tiny bunny safe in the Mother Bunny’s arms by the fireplace.
For the first two months of college I took pride in eating as little as I could. My mother sent me with a giant container of jellybeans and I remember watching them fall noisily into the trash can in our hallway. At the cafeteria I went straight to the salad bar and piled my plate high with lettuce, chick peas, and red wine vinegar.
I would get drunk at parties and cry about being fat to my girlfriends. One night a senior on the lacrosse team with dark hair and hazel, tiger eyes asked me to come upstairs with him. I nestled into his arms and he told me how pretty I was. We lay on his bed listening to Dispatch and talking about our love for mountains. When my clothes came off I felt small and exposed and reached for his warm body to cover me. He touched my collarbone lightly with his thumb. He let his hand glide to my waist and held onto my hips. “You’re so skinny,” he whispered.
When my parents arrived for Parents’ Weekend, they brought me what they believed to be necessities, items I missed or needed as replacements: big plastic bags of hangers, new pajamas, Special K I requested. And then I saw it – a huge box of candy bars: Snickers, Milky Way, Three Musketeers. I stared at them horrified, angry enough to feel my blood boil. And then suddenly I climbed into the trunk of their car, ripped open the box, and ate an entire Snickers bar. I must have looked like an animal.
That winter I got my tonsils out and ate mashed potatoes every day for a week. It felt gluttonous and delicious. I nestled under blankets and read “Harry Potter.” My mother put flowers next to my bed with piles of magazines. She made penne a la vodka with heaps of cream and parmesan.
I keep this time of my life secret. If someone sees a picture of me looking particularly thin I will say, “I was weird with food then.” No one will ever know how every night I touched my stomach, hoping it felt hollow. No one will ever know how I traced my bones; how I loved the way my collar bone turned round and pointy at my shoulders; how my ribs splayed as I counted them. My hip bone a half moon in my palm.
When I had trouble getting pregnant, I remembered painfully how I stopped getting my period freshman year. I shuddered at how proud I felt then. I wondered if my secret was keeping my baby from me.
The first miscarriage was quick. I cried loudly on the phone with my doctor outside my apartment building. She told me to eat a piece of chocolate cake and I knew I would never be the same. The second was longer. I bled for weeks, reminded every day of life slipping away from me.
When I got pregnant a third time my whole body swelled. My cheeks, my arms, my ankles. Even the skin around my eyes puffed. And I was grateful. I became like that white, down blanket I slept with as a child – holding my baby with soft, thick arms. I put my hand to my stomach and let it roll as the baby turned. I felt the little kicks flutter between my hip bones. I wondered if she could feel my hand cupping her shoulder as it rested under my cushiony flesh.
Now that I’m blessed with two daughters I’ve almost forgotten about this secret of my past; how I longed to be nourished while starving myself of food.
But in the dark, when I know nobody’s watching, I put my fingertips to my collarbone. When there is a cold space between my husband and me I pull at my loose skin and let it cover my ribs. I touch my stomach where life once grew and watch it cave into cold, hard bones.