By Julie Frayn
I was a skinny kid. Renowned for it, really. Teased unmercifully. And no amount of eating changed it.
My mother dubbed me ‘bird’ because of the way I ate. No, I didn’t pick at my food. Did you know that most birds eat half their weight in food daily? At the ripe old age of eleven I could put away five chicken legs (breaded, skin on, dripping in yummy melted butter), two big scoops of scalloped potatoes (Mom’s ‘famous’ recipe, drowned in white sauce made with, yup, butter and milk and flour and often even cheese), broccoli and cauliflower drenched in, you guessed it, cheese sauce. Then I’d go back for seconds. Then have dessert. It was my favourite meal.
I never gained an ounce. I was a scrawny, asthmatic, sports-challenged, flat-chested nerd girl who always got the best grades and was the math teacher’s pet. In the mid-‘70s, that was about six more reasons than some schoolmates needed to torment me.
Fast forward to my last year of high school. Still skinny (though a few curves had started to bloom) and still flat, but I didn’t have the same appetite. And I had grown to appreciate my thin frame, to realize I was lucky to have a bird’s metabolism. Or so my friends told me.
When I turned eighteen, I met a boy. I had dated before, kissed a few young dudes (and one older one). But I remained a virgin. Another ‘bird’ trait I possess – I’m a chicken shit.
There was something different about this boy, something kind of dangerous. We were polar opposites. He never went to my school so didn’t know my nerdy reputation. We met in a bar the week after my birthday. Friday the thirteenth. A closet atheist (how to break that news to the parents?), I wasn’t superstitious, but in retrospect, could the writing on the wall have been any clearer?
We started to date. He wrote me poetry. I lost my virginity. He proposed to me. I said yes. Eighteen years old. So much for being the smart one.
His mother thought I was too thin, that clearly my parents weren’t feeding me enough. So she fed me. A lot. And I didn’t know how to say no.
Within two months of meeting this boy I put on fifteen pounds. My jeans were too tight. I got a bit of a potbelly. In hindsight I know that I was still skinny, but at that time, it was a shock to my system. And to my brain.
Now add a ten-gallon-hat of asshole boy and mix it up with my fragile state of mind. He’d seen me naked. I was gaining weight. My self-esteem was at an all time low (and it was never high. Ever). Now he was telling me I was getting fat and that he’d leave me if I got any fatter. I went from the most beautiful girl he’d seen to the object of insults and threats. His love was contingent on the numbers on the scale.
So I began to exercise – something I’d not even considered before. I watched my diet. I counted calories. This was 1981 – before VCRs were common in every household and a full decade before the Internet. I bought a calorie book and memorized everything. I went to the library and researched diets and weight loss. I found exercise shows on television (the headband, leg warmers, diagonal striped leotard kind). When the shows ended I’d go to my room and do it all again from memory — jumping jacks, running in place, bike rides, anything to burn off a few ounces.
Every day I calculated how many calories I shoved in my big, fat, mouth, how many I sweated out to make up for every morsel of food. I started to lose weight. But it wasn’t enough.
So I took laxatives. At one point I couldn’t take a shit without a couple of doses of senna in my system. Dexatrim was in easy reach on every drug store shelf. I ate them like candy. My heart palpitated and I was dizzy most of the time. But hey, who cared? I was losing weight!
Then I started lying to my parents. I don’t remember ever doing that before. I would tell them I was going to the boy’s for dinner, and then tell his mother I’d already eaten. Some weeks the most food I would consume was one bite of a hamburger. I’d scold myself for being weak enough to have even that and double up on the exercise to burn it off.
I refused butter, drank my coffee black, avoided anything remotely sweet. Food went from something to savour and enjoy, to something to fear and loathe. Food was the enemy. The only saving grace was that I never forced myself to vomit. And I didn’t give up beer.
Beer saved my life.
I weighed myself daily. Hunger pangs became rewards. I wore size zero jeans (and those are hard to come by in a thirty-four inch inseam). I watched the scale drop from the 140s, past the 130s, through the 120s and into the 110s. No matter how low the number got, a fat girl stared back at me from the mirror.
The boy finally stopped telling me how fat I was. Now I was too skinny, my hipbones hurt him when he fucked me. My boobs had all but disappeared. I couldn’t win (a reality of being in a relationship with this boy that would follow me for years to come). But I couldn’t stop dieting, couldn’t stop exercising, and couldn’t stop taking appetite suppressants and laxatives. I couldn’t see myself for what I was.
In February of 1983, Karen Carpenter died. It was the first time I’d heard of anorexia nervosa, but I never connected her disease with my life. I mean, she was skin on bone with sunken eyes and dark circles. I didn’t look like that. Right?
By the spring of that year I hadn’t had a period in eight months. I peed on a dozen pregnancy test sticks, even had an ultrasound to be sure the sticks weren’t wrong. I wasn’t pregnant. My childhood doctor told me the solution was to gain five pounds, preferably more. I never went back to him.
After almost two years of near starvation my hair was thinning, my gums receded, my nails were brittle and easily broken. And I married the boy whose cruel words started me on this tailspin.
I awoke one day in July, weighed myself, and stood naked in front of the mirror for my daily ritual of self-loathing and self-flagellation. But that day the truth stared back at me. A pitiful girl with dull eyes and dark circles, sunken cheeks, and hipbones that stuck out farther than her stomach. My butt cheeks were concave. I was skin on bone. When did that happen? And why did I now see the reality of what I had become?
I was twenty-years-old, five-foot-ten, and weighed ninety-eight pounds. And I was damn lucky to be alive.
I forced myself to eat. For weeks, the extra food felt like lead in my gut. I fought against the nausea that surfaced with each full stomach. But then eating became easier. I even started to enjoy flavours again. I still avoided fat and sugar. Still weighed myself daily. Still exercised far too much. But I put on a few pounds. I was recovering from a disease I didn’t even realize I’d had.
Here I am, thirty years later. I divorced the boy. Weigh seventy pounds more than my lowest point. I’m healthy and strong.
Hunger pangs are not rewards, they are reminders to eat. A reminder I rarely need. I still care about my weight, but now have a realistic idea of what it should be. I still exercise, but in moderation and to maintain health. I love food, and I mean loooove it. I do try to be careful with my choices, but I splurge whenever I feel like it. And that is okay.
I think “eating disorder” is a misnomer. No one has a bad relationship with food. It’s just not about the food. Take your brain, your self-esteem out of the equation – if your body is hungry, you eat. Anorexia is a mental disorder. It’s the manifestation of your own dysfunctional relationship with yourself. It’s your brain’s way of taking control of the small parts of your life that you do have control over. Even if everything around you is swirling down the drain.
Here’s what I learned. That if someone’s love is conditional on what you weigh, they don’t really love you, and you’re better off without them. That the perfect body is an illusion because perfection is perception and perception is ever changing. That I don’t want to die thin. I want to die as happy as I am today. And I want to live to be a very old lady.
I’m fifty. I think I’m halfway there.
Thank you, Julie, for sharing your story with us. I hope women can find comfort in your words — we’re all too hard on ourselves!
Check out Julie’s website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook. As always, please take a look at her books (Suicide City, A Love Story and It Isn’t Cheating If He’s Dead) and purchase them. Support authors!
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