I’m 17 years old and my mother invites me – invites me, like it’s a golden ticket to Womanhood – to join Weight Watchers with her, despite the fact that I have nothing, really, to lose, aside from my sanity.
I’m 23 years old and watching myself undress in the mirror. A twisted striptease, I slowly remove my tank top and my newly purchased, smaller-sized shorts. Hands on my hips, I meet my gaze in the reflection. I know from years of compliments that my eyes are blue (speckled with gold, forming eclipses against my irises), but all of the light in them is gone. I run my fingers down my ribcage, listening for music — the sound of a washboard in a Southern bluegrass band. I am met instead with silence. But, turning around to see my back, I notice that my ribs are countable, or at least individually discernible.
I’m 23 years old and carrying a red, spiral-bound notebook with me everywhere. Its pages — wide-ruled, not college, although I prefer the latter — are divided into sections by purple marker: “Food,” “Group,” “Calories.” At quick glance, it seems that I prefer carbohydrates and vegetables to the other food groups, but even at this point — the darkest of my life — I still have a sweet tooth. Fat, fat, fat, fat, fat lines the “Group” column — and echoes in my mind.
I’m 23 years old and sitting, curled up next to my computer desk, on the floor. “Carbon black, nine times the volume” mascara is running thick and dark under my eyelids. There’s a small empty bag of miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups at my feet — the bag I just ran to the store to buy. It couldn’t have taken me longer than 10 minutes to get through. Ten minutes. I’m embarrassed because I have no self-control. I’m guilty because I don’t know how to purge. I’m scared because I can’t stop.
I’m 22 years old, and I wake up hungry. My eyes feel puffy — glued shut — from a night of too much crying and not enough sleep. The scene on loop playing behind my eyelids is my boyfriend breaking up with me. I’m a disaster. I haven’t been able to get out of bed, so I haven’t really eaten. I wake up hungry, but I also wake up lighter, emptier. Something about it makes me feel purer. This is one feeling that’s positive in a sea of negative. And I need the distraction. So I make a decision . . . to go on a diet.
I’m 22 years old and, lying next to one another in bed, clothes off, my boyfriend asks me, “Do you think you look good naked?” I answer quickly, truthfully: “Yeah.” He furrows his brows. He shouts, surprised, “Really?” I nod. I ask, “Why? Do you think you look good naked?” He shrugs. He mumbles about having bad body image. He unknowingly throws a comment at me that is meaningless to him, aside from saving face in the moment, but that becomes the most meaningful thing I’ve ever heard: “You’d be more fuckable if you went to the gym more.”
I’m 20 years old, in college, and in love. I’m in love with my boyfriend, but I’m also in love with food. I sleep at my boyfriend’s house every night because his apartment-style dorm shared with another student has two bedrooms, unlike mine. We order dinner at ridiculous hours: buttery deep-dish pizzas, well-oiled paninis dripping with provolone, frozen yogurts mixed with Butterfingers and sweetened coconut flakes. I balloon. He asks me to marry him. I say I want to be a plump old lady. He makes a face.
I’m 17 years old and my mother invites me — invites me, like it’s a golden ticket to Womanhood — to join Weight Watchers with her, despite the fact that I have nothing, really, to lose, aside from my sanity. I spend weeks picking at salads with light dressing in the cafeteria at lunch and eating my home-cooked dinner of lemon-pepper chicken and white rice too fast, forgetting that I can’t have seconds. And my senior year math homework isn’t just calculus anymore — because now I have to learn how to convert a combination of calories, fat, and fiber into “points.”
I’m 15 years old and my father threatens that if I don’t clean my room, he’ll take everything off of the floor and throw it away. My mother, wanting to smooth things over between him and me, begs me to explain why I don’t just pick up my belongings and put them back in drawers. I ask her if she wants the truth. I tell her that my clothes are scattered about because every morning when I go to get dressed, I can’t stand to look at my body in the mirror, and that I throw outfit after outfit onto the floor in anger. She looks at me like her heart is broken.
I’m 13 years old and my attached-at-the-hip best friend is cooler, funnier, prettier than me. She gets invited to sit in the back of the bus with the neighborhood kids, and she grows breasts while I basically never do, and everyone knows her name and just calls me “her friend.” She fits in, and I stick out, and she doesn’t eat. So at our next sleepover, I fake throwing up our extra-cheese-and-olives pizza — because we’re teenagers now, right? And I’m struggling to learn the part.
I’m 12 years old and both my Alloy and dELiA*s catalogs come in the mail on the same day. Instead of rushing into homework, I sit at the kitchen table and circle every article of clothing I wish I could have. I can’t circle the other thing that the catalogs make me wish I had — it’s more of an abstract concept. When my mother comes home from work, though, I tell her proudly, “When I grow up, I want to have an hourglass figure.”
I’m 11 years old and I decide that I want to trade my dance classes for gymnastics lessons. It’s 1996, and I’m caught up in the glory of the first US gymnastics team ever to win gold at the Olympics. I idolize the youngest one, and I wish I could look like her. For some reason, the announcers on TV broadcast her age, height, and weight whenever she’s on screen, getting ready to mount an apparatus. I buy a poster with her on it and hang it up in my bedroom. It says at the top “Size 0 — Perfect 10.”
But at 10 years old, I hear my older cousin — three years my senior, my role model who taught me that sometimes your period will make you cry, and that boys will make you cry harder — tell the adults that she’s going on a diet. We’re at the beach. I’m splashing in shallow water up to my ankles, and she’s standing on the sand in a towel. I look her up and down, thinking, “But why?” And right then and there, I vow to myself that I will never, ever go on a diet.
And sometimes I wonder what happened to her.
But mostly, when I reflect back on my life, I know exactly what happened — and I wish, instead, that I had been able to protect her.