I am finally admitting defeat, and it’s a very good thing.
Ten years ago, under the familiar sallow glow of the bathroom light, I began vomiting blood. Just a little at first, a few drops. The taste of blood has always made me nauseated, so after the first few drops slid down my tongue, I vomited more, minus the intention this time. The amount of blood was probably just a tablespoon or two, but it was enough. I wasn’t scared, exactly, so much as resigned and satisfied. Here was undeniable proof of how ruined I was, how sick and wrecked and wretched I could be. I felt like I had earned a trophy.
I went to the emergency room, and while there was nothing physically wrong with me (just a small tear in my throat), I ended up in the hospital for three days. I put myself there because I was punctuating nearly every two hours by purposefully vomiting in an attempt to lose weight. At one point, I was up to 12 times in one day. Once, I ate a small cup of applesauce, which I noted was 5 calories, and vomited it anyway. I never did get thin, only sick and bloated. I broke capillaries under my eyes, caused my face to swell up, and looked like I was near death at all times. So much for an attempt to be pretty.
While I was in the hospital, I had doctors prod and pry into something I had essentially deified. I guess I’ve always been more than a touch maudlin, because there’s something beautiful to me about a certain kind of suffering. It was insulting to have them be so dismissive, dutifully cataloguing the scars on my legs and trying to get me to translate the words I had written there with a razor blade.
“What is that? Is that a boy’s name?” It wasn’t. I told them I didn’t remember, but I did. I refused to tell them what the words were, only consented to let them know they weren’t all glossolalia.
It unravelled my saintly pride to have nurses say things like, “Well, we’re going to keep you out here in the activity room after dinner so you don’t puke.” Or to have a doctor, in group therapy, say (while laughing) “You know, this [gagging noises, miming slashing his legs] is a really stupid way to deal with your problems. You’re too smart for that.”
I tell that story to people sometimes, and they’re typically horrified. “That’s insensitive/how could he say that/you should have complained,” etc.
It was exactly what I needed to hear and see, though. Had they legitimized my masochism and regarded it with reverence, I never would have stopped. But I did. It made me realize that I wasn’t going to be some waifish tragic figure with a trail of mourners, all lamenting her noble beauty and delicate suffering. I was not a self-harm version of a Victorian consumptive. I was just a fucked up teenage girl who was giving herself scars that would never go away, and throwing up rather than dealing with her shape in a healthy way, and blaming every problem she had on feeling ugly because she needed braces and was kind of chubby. I haven’t cut myself since I left the hospital ten years ago.
My issues with food, however, are far from over. I’ve certainly thrown up since then, but not on a regular basis. Rather than vomit food, I simply digest it via a complex, inner system of guilt and shame and bargaining. Food is weighed against other food, and I have to cancel out bad food with virtuous food. Lucifer Chips are fighting an eternal battle against Archangel Michael Salad with low calorie dressing. My relationship with my body has not gotten any better on the internal side of things, I just punish it less. Or, rather, I do things that don’t feel like punishment, but are really finely crafted forms of torture. Last June, I spent a week by myself while my then-boyfriend was out of town, consuming nothing but liquids and working out compulsively.
Here’s a recipe for what I ate three times a day: five or six leaves of kale, one cucumber, a handful of parsley, half a green apple, a thumb-sized chunk of raw ginger, and half a lemon. Put that all into a juicer, and you have all of what I ate for a week. The ginger was so powerful it made my eyes water and my throat burn. After “eating” that green monstrosity (I’ll admit, it was actually weirdly delicious) I would work out for over an hour a day, in a gym with no air conditioning. I passed out face first onto the elliptical machine once, and thought, “Wow, I’m glad nobody else was in here, or they’d make me go home now.” Did I lose any weight? Maybe a little. It’s hard to tell.
I think back to how fucked up I was about food when I was a teenager, vomiting all the time, and am glad I’ve gotten better. Then I look at what happens when I am left alone, and remember eating no solid food for a week and feeling like I wasn’t done working out until I was dizzy. That was less than a year ago.
The other night, I admitted defeat. I was lying in bed with Ben and burst into tears. We had eaten pizza a few hours before, which is a minefield for me already, but in a fit of fearlessness I had eaten four slices, when I usually limit myself to two and promise to eat only salad the next day as saintly penance. I was already in a difficult situation, because I was naked, and there’s no way for me to do that casually. I can’t just walk, unclothed. I have to contort to make sure my fat rolls are lessened, stand a certain way to make sure that I don’t jiggle as much, and cover up as much as possible to minimize the impact. Lying down, especially cuddling, is both a blessing and a curse, because while there’s less of me immediately visible, what’s there is distorted and much more difficult to control. All of a sudden all my flab starts to flow like lava and there’s nothing I can do about it but avert my eyes and soak up all this love I’m receiving via these sweet kisses on my shoulders and the most sincerely sweet gaze I’ve ever seen.
I started crying, and it took Ben a few minutes to pry the phrase, “I’m sorry I ate so much pizza” out of me.
“Babe,” he said, puzzled. “People eat when they’re hungry. It’s fine.”
Of course, my immediate response was my saintly/teenaged, “You don’t understand,” but I suppressed it. My assumption is that he doesn’t understand because he is beautiful, and because he’s slender, and because he is both of these things without trying and without artifice. But who am I to say he’s never hated his body? How would I know what he sees in the mirror? It’s becoming increasingly clear that self-perception based on physicality has almost nothing to do with what the person in question looks like. Some days, most days to be honest, I feel like a troll. Whenever someone reacts negatively to me, I assume it’s because I’m ugly.
I thought for six years that Ben didn’t like me, despite him telling me openly that he had done everything he could to get my attention when we first met, and that someone who fit my description was the “girl of [his] dreams.” Clearly, it couldn’t be me, because I’m fat and my face is weird. Clearly.
The smallest things can make me feel wonderful, though. When I’m wearing fake eyelashes, for some reason, I feel beautiful. Lipstick goes a long way, too, but nothing erases my self-esteem issues quite like fake eyelashes, to the point where I’ve thought about getting eyelash extensions just so that I’ll spend less time crying and more time living.
Logically, I know that I don’t look unrecognizable without my makeup on, but I’ve decided that the only reason I’ve ever been beautiful is the makeup I wear, and that it couldn’t possibly be the face underneath. Logically, I know that makeup can only do so much, but emotionally I’ve never heard that.
Every single opportunity I’ve missed, every enemy I’ve made, every relationship I’ve lost, every failure I’ve endured, every rejection I’ve faced, I’ve blamed on my looks. Every single one. If something bad happens, I assume it’s because I’m fat or ugly or both. When my last boyfriend cheated on me, I assumed my looks were the problem, not his commitment issues, my crippling insecurity (see above), his baggage from previous relationships, my need for validation, his resentment of my constant help and coddling, my need to try to make him better, his fear of failure, my upcoming move and transition into graduate school, my obnoxious intellectual snobbery, his self-consciousness about his lack of education, my desire to have a family, his issues from having children too young, etc.
The running commentary on my looks has gotten so constant over the years that I barely notice it anymore. However, there I was, lying with my head on Ben’s beautiful chest, and suddenly I was a wreck because I had eaten pizza. Pizza, for crying out loud. That ubiquitous staple of youthful diets and spontaneity feels like eating a grenade to me. That’s when I admitted defeat. This not-vomiting thing isn’t enough, and clearly my self-image hasn’t gotten any better. It’s beginning to bore me, being this obsessed with what I look like. I’m sick to death of adjusting my clothes when I sit down to make sure nobody notices how fat I am, checking myself in the mirror fifteen or sixteen times while driving somewhere to make sure my makeup’s in check, not being able to leave the house without a full face of makeup on, feeling inadequate next to beautiful women, and on and on.
I’m bored. I’m holding myself back. Clearly my attempt to manage this on my own have failed, and I am graciously admitting defeat and passing the torch. I can't do this by myself anymore. I’m going to find a community health center that works on a sliding scale or for free, and go see a goddamned therapist so I can start thinking about something else for once.