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. On the other hand, if you’re skinny because you don’t have enough food in your household, you can try getting some assistance from sites like kinship navigator program.
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 wish I knew about Clementine eating disorder treatment program for adolescents in Clifton VA back then.
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. It was carefully explained by Pregnancy Resource Center to me.
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 if you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, this Monte Nido eating disorder treatment program for all genders in Malibu can help.
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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Dionne saysAugust 4, 2013 at 10:02 pm
Julie, you rock! What an insensitive douchebag that guy was. He obviously had his own problems. I’m so glad you had that light-bulb moment where the bigger picture became clear.
Julie Frayn saysAugust 5, 2013 at 5:51 am
Thanks Dionne. That bulb took a while to fully illuminate. I stayed with him for 20 years. I’d regret it, but I don’t want to regret anything the brought me my children. So I just learned from it instead.
Carolyn Frayn saysAugust 5, 2013 at 8:48 am
“… the perfect body is an illusion because perfection is perception and perception is ever changing… ” go sys! You do rock. I know you’re only half way there, I intend to join you… with cheese, and wine.
Julie Frayn saysAugust 7, 2013 at 11:34 am
Lots of cheese… 🙂
J Timothy Quirk saysAugust 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm
This was a powerful piece of writing and more importantly, an honest, essay on a very personal history. Thank you for sharing the story, Julie. I like that you are happier now!
Julie Frayn saysAugust 8, 2013 at 11:16 am
Thanks so much, Joe. I am happy every day, and never worried about what anyone thinks of my weight. Just me…. But ‘skinny’ is out forever.
Jester Queen saysAugust 7, 2013 at 5:18 am
I’m not sure how, but my mother never communicated her own body dysmorphia to me. My Dad was very much as “You’re getting too fat, Brad” kind of guy, even when Mom was skinny. (She could never please him. They are, to my immense joy, divorced, and have been for years, and she’s finally coming out from under that attidude.) But Dad wasn’t the one who put the ‘can’t be thin enough’ in her head. That was my grandmother’s doing.
Even after Mom was hospitalized for a disease that had no word in 1964, or if it did, such a word wasn’t applied to a doctor’s daughter, Mummum continued to hound her about her weight. She weighed nothing. She was a stick. The hospitalization was a wake up call to eat, but she did so with guilt, because she didn’t ever want to see the worry she’d seen in her father’s eyes when she was being rehydrated and fed through an IV line (thank GOD for my grandfather, who always told her how beautiful she was in his eyes. He saved her life, I’m sure.) She thought she was making herself fat for her father, even though she was making herself healthy. She became a swimmer, maintained a stick physique, grew up, became a hippie, got married to a man who might as well have been her mother, and fell right back to being fifteen. Right. Back. Again, Poppa saved her. When she got pregnant, he told her point blank she would miscarry if she didn’t start eating, and he wasn’t sure how she’d conceived in the first place at that weight. Pregnancy didn’t make her gain that much, and she smoked, and I was a small baby, so as soon as I was born, she reverted to her former behaviors. I thought she was skinny when I was young because we were broke. We lived on five hundred dollars a month and what she grew in the garden (which was enormous, and oh GOD I still love pressure canning).
But by this point, she knew what she was. Possibly Karen Carpenter’s death hit home for her, too. She was never much of a fan, but she was extremely alert to happenings in the musical world. She knew the word that described her condition. Just had no idea how to overcome the behaviors that led to the attitude that cycled back to the behaviors.
When I was seven, maybe, she stopped calling herself fat (which was a relief to me, because she was thin and gorgeous and perfect in my eyes still at that age), but she never stopped feeling it. Her pregnancy with my sister when I was five was spent largely with my grandparents, through no accident I now feel sure. They took her to Florida for those last three months when she must have felt like an inflated balloon. (She flew home two weeks before giving birth. I remember that flight. The stewardesses eyed her like a ticking package the whole ride.)
Somewhere in there, her relationship with her body did change, because I remember her telling me at one point in my teens, when I was 5’2″ and 170 pounds and depressed because I was bullied, and self conscious about my weight because my five years younger sister was still an athletic stick girl, “Good lord, Jessie, at least you aren’t anorexic. You can lose weight when you’re ready to do it for health. You look great, you’re smart, and you’re good to other people.”
What I didn’t realize, because my sister had already been hospitalized for mental illness (bipolar 1) for the first of many times, was that my sister was also anorexic. And that when Mom said, “at least you aren’t anorexic”, she wasn’t just referring to her own struggle to love her body, but to my sister’s, that eating had been one of the many things being covered in the psych ward. (Though my Dad ‘rescued’ her long before her six week stay was up. That’s another story).
Julie Frayn saysAugust 8, 2013 at 11:15 am
Wow, that’s quite a story. That’s worthy of fictionalizing into a novel. Do it, Jessie, do it! 😀 And it appears the bullies don’t care about weight. Skinny or not, bullies bully. Then make us question our self-worth. Damn them all. My mistake was marrying one of them. Never do THAT again!
Justin Bog saysAugust 7, 2013 at 11:34 am
Respect for your story, Julie, and heart. What a whirlwind. Having gone through a form of exercise anorexia in college (getting down to 145 pounds on a 6′ frame and working out three hours+ each day while only eating rabbit salad once a day, and not much of that, came to a head towards the end of that school year: I needed to stop starving myself and be happy with the way I looked and felt) . . . Good for you to overcome such unsupportive people around you too.
Julie Frayn saysAugust 7, 2013 at 11:47 am
We do crazy things, no? It was only that one person who caused me problems. My family tried to make me see what I was doing, begged me to eat, but I was too far gone to see that they wanted to help. At that age, when your parents say do this, you do that instead. So dumb in retrospect.
Cheryl B. Dale saysAugust 8, 2013 at 8:14 am
So inspiring! Sad that some people have to find fault with the ones they purport to love.
Julie Frayn saysAugust 9, 2013 at 12:05 pm
I agree Cheryl. So unnecessary. Thanks for reading!
Cindy Brown saysAugust 16, 2013 at 5:04 pm
Good God! How awful! My husband hates to be called skinny and had terrible self-esteem problems as a young man. He’s at an okay weight now, but still would rather be overweight than slender because he doesn’t want to be made fun of by coworkers now. Isn’t that awful? From high-schoolers to coworkers. I also did the diet to please my horrible (first) husband thing until I looked at a picture of myself one day and realized I looked like a cancer patient. I will never get that skinny again! I looked like I was dying. I wasn’t losing weight in a healthy way and it showed. Thankfully, I learned healthy ways over the years and don’t care about my appearance nearly as much anymore due to higher self-esteem (lots of great therapy and religion – ha ha). Glad you came through all of that okay and lived to tell about it 🙂
Julie Frayn saysAugust 18, 2013 at 9:29 am
Thanks Cindy. I’m glad you were able to overcome also. I now please myself first. Everyone else can suck it. Well, not really… 🙂