The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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We were born in Michigan. We were born in California. We were born in Italy. We were born in Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Canada. We grew up with money. We grew up on food stamps. We grew up with enough money to buy food but not enough to forget what every mouthful was costing our parents. We ate whatever they put in front of us. We had to be bribed and cajoled. We had to have a special spoon, a special bowl. We opened our toothless mouths trustingly. We screamed and kicked. We gave trouble. We gave no trouble at all.
We had milk money. We had lunch money. We had a Bee Gees lunchbox. We had a plaid thermos full of soup that smelled like sweat. We had a brown paper sack. Our mom put notes in our lunch: on stationery with kittens on it; on folded-up loose-leaf; on pastel post-its; on scraps from yellow legal pads. The notes said, Have a great day. They said, I love you. They said, God loves you. They said, Be good today. They meant, Remember who you are. They meant, Come back safe. They packed us notes every day and we wished they wouldn’t. They never packed us notes and we wished they would. Our moms packed us damp baby carrots. One pale piece of string cheese. A sandwich composed of geometric slabs of meat and cheese — perfect circles, perfect squares. A rectangular brownie, a perennially uneaten orange, a zip-lock bag of humid saltines, a Fruit Roll-Up, a slippery hard-boiled egg, browning slices of apple, a bent granola bar. A handful of cornflakes in a plastic bag, a wedge of lasagna wrapped in foil, a bunch of lettuce in Tupperware. A single pancake in the shape of our first initial. A wilted five-dollar bill. Five one-dollar bills, so crisp they looked fake. A handful of candy corn. Nothing at all.
We got used to eating in front of people. We got used to unveiling our meals as if they were anything but obscene smorgasbords of shameful particularity, redolent of our homes and secrets, indicative of how we were loved, or ignored, or ignored for something that should’ve invited love, or loved for something that should have been ignored. Our meals reeked of a million admonishments, failings, hopes. Reeked of everything we were obliged to swallow. We got used to it. We never got used to it. We never will.
Before there was pretty or ugly, before there was virginal or slutty, there was fat or skinny. We saw what happened to the girls who were fat, even if they were barely fat at all. Everything they did and said was discredited and illegitimate by default. If they were sad, they got laughed at. If they were happy, they got laughed at. Nothing they had could be pure. There was no margin for error.
We all showered in one big room after elementary-school swim class, watching each other. We didn’t know what it was to be desired. We didn’t know what girls’ bodies were supposed to look like. We just knew it was better for us if nothing stuck out too far.
We knew it would be different if we were boys.
You eat really slowly, people told us, watching us eat.
We took the school bus. We took the city bus. We got picked up. We waited and waited but never got picked up. We walked. We went straight home. We went to dance class. We went to Girl Scouts. We went to swim-team practice. We went to the home of some friend with parents who hit her. We were the friend who lived in that home. We had no friends. We had so many we had to implement a system: A.’s house on Mondays, then J.’s midweek, then R.’s on weekends. Our friends’ parents loved us. They looked at us askance. They thought us well brought up. They thought we were snobs. They thought we were trash. They thought we were brats. They thought we were sweet. They suspected something was wrong. They said, That poor little thing. They said, That funny little thing. They wished they had our parents’ money; they would do something worthier with it. They were glad they had more money than our parents; they were worthier by virtue of it. They sent us home with hand-me-downs. They sent us home with baked goods. They said grace, pointedly, as we picked up our fork. They smiled quizzically as we made the sign of the cross at their table. They said, Does your mother let you have this? as they poured Kool-Aid, cherry red, into a tall glass. The food they gave us was foreign, and eating it was like taking in their essence, all their poisons and antidotes and immunities and susceptibilities, taking this into ourselves and feeling it spread like an oil spill, something whose effects were insidious and seeping and lasted for generations. We knew our parents would want us to be polite. We knew our parents would be secretly proud of our hesitance to ingest anything that came from the world outside, the world they could not control.
We lived in a neighborhood with one-story ranch houses and trees that changed color. We lived on an untended plot of land with cypresses and olive trees, turtles preening sluggishly on rocks. We lived in a split-level contemporary with an American flag in front and a pool behind, coyotes slipping through like burglars, leaving fur in the ground cover. We lived in a beige apartment building with aluminum siding and a man-made pond in the courtyard; then we moved to another apartment building in a different part of town, and then another; and the rooms of these apartments, before they were filled with furniture, looked shocked and off-kilter and abashed, like the face of someone waking from a coma.
Our dads took off to another state, another province, and never came back. Our dads left but showed up again on weekends and holidays. Our dads stayed and prided themselves on staying and never considered any other option. Our dads stayed but constantly threatened to leave. We wished they would. We were scared they would. Our dads were surgeons. They were salesmen. They were contractors. They were psychologists, they were fishermen, they were teachers, they were sketchily and itinerantly employed. Our dads were germophobes who made us wash with rubbing alcohol. Our dads were gentle men who loved animals and distrusted people. Our dads liked to hunt; they never held a gun; they did in the military but never afterward. When we cried, they gave us a long speech about self-reliance. When we cried, they backed off. When we cried, they said, It doesn’t matter if people don’t like you. All that matters is that you’re a good person. When we cried, they said, You’re beautiful, and don’t forget it. When we cried, they said, My parents beat the shit out of me, and I’m grateful for it! When our Little League team lost, they held us hostage in the basement and ranted about how we didn’t care about victory, how no one in our generation did, and that was why we’d all end up homeless. When we got a bad grade, they said, As long as you tried. When we got a good grade, they didn’t say anything. They didn’t ask what we wanted to be. They asked constantly. They liked us best when we were happy. They liked us best when they thought other people liked us, too. They liked it when our resemblance to them was remarked upon. They liked us more in theory than in practice.
They told us stories about their pasts, and these stories made us feel proud and beholden, like the only link to a ghostly lineage that waited, imprisoned in some shadowy limbo, for us to liberate it. They told us absolutely nothing, and we felt protective of their reticence. We told them we didn’t feel well enough to go to school, and they let us stay home. We knew it would be different if we were boys. They showed us how to use a protractor. How to diagram a sentence. How to throw a softball, how to play tennis, how to swim. How to grow things in the dirt. How to tell when someone was trying to fool us. When to ignore a slight and when to punch. What to do if we were accosted by a stranger. What to do if we were offered illicit substances. How to work and work and not call attention to ourselves; how to rise to the top unobtrusively, surprising all who had doubted or ignored us. How to relax — on a couch, always on a couch, always with something to eat — shutting down by degrees until the only part of us that moved was our mouths, chewing. It’ll all work out, they sometimes told us, but we knew they didn’t believe this. Everything happens for a reason, they sometimes told us, and the fact that they believed this was scarier than if they had believed nothing at all.
Sometimes we were mesmerized by their hands, how dexterous and elegant they were; how blunt and quick; how large. If they snapped at us, if they screamed at us and hurt our feelings, if they called us names, if they threatened to kill us, if they slammed us against walls or smacked us in the face, if they told us it was our fault they had no money, if they called our mothers fat and stupid, they could fix it by taking us to a basketball court, to the park, to the pool, for a run, for a drive. They could fix it, for a while, by demonstrating speed and hand-eye coordination. Sometimes, if they were angry with us, they would not eat the food our mothers had taught us how to make, even if it was their favorite, even if it was cookies, pie, brownies, and they had a sweet tooth: They would say, Did she make it? Then I don’t want it. I don’t want anything she’s touched. Later, in the middle of the night, we would find them eating it. Standing up at the counter with a glass of milk.
Sometimes they told us we couldn’t trust boys, that they knew them, that they used to be one of them, and that all boys wanted to do was fuck us. Our dads knew this because it was all they’d wanted, too, until they’d had us.
Some of us had stepdads instead. We hid under tables as our stepdads hit our mothers in the face; as they kicked them while they were down on the floor. They hit us in different ways: with a belt, holding us up by one arm, like we were volunteering for it. They showed us magazines. Women’s body parts flapping around, women’s faces contorted, women pretending to be girls. It looked like oblivion. It seemed like a message. They came into our rooms. Perhaps you would like us to give you an image — of what they did, of what parts of them we saw, of what parts of us they touched. Well, sorry, we can’t oblige you with pictures. We do not want to think of the stepdads: their hands, their breath, how they edged close, sidling or charging; how they stood over us, casting shade. Instead we think of the food we were served in their houses: A garish bowl of creamy soup shimmering with iridescence. Syrup dripping off a skinned slice of peach. A sheet cake from the grocery store, piped with frosting thick and fluted as a dust ruffle, our names written on it in crayon-bright gel. Ground chuck, heaped on a plate like food in a trough, food you feed an animal to make it fat enough to kill.
Our moms woke us up by prying our eyelids open and laughing. Our moms woke us up by ripping all the covers off. Our moms woke us up by saying, You’re going to school this morning, crisply and evenly, even if we moaned and pretended to be sick. Even if we were hungover. Our moms didn’t have to wake us up, because we woke ourselves up and stepped into the dark, glassy predawn to run or swim. Our moms didn’t have to wake us up, because we didn’t sleep. Our bodies stayed like children’s, the way they were supposed to, the way that was sanctioned by the billboards, the magazine spreads, the people on TV: flat, hipless, thighs the same circumference as our shins, arms like useless shoots, decorative and dangling. We were relieved. Unless our bodies changed, widened and swelled, in which case we were dismayed.
We became the kind of teenagers who talked back; the kind with a heightened and self-congratulatory sense of justice; the kind who relished any opportunity to point out the inconsistencies of our elders. On some level we knew we were the thing everyone wanted, and this meant we were also the thing everyone hated. We loved issuing blanket statements of condemnation but tempered this tendency in mixed company, because we never knew when the hatred — electrified and spasmodic, like a short-circuiting wire — would ignite and snuff us out.
Guys screamed at us from cars. They screamed what they wanted to do to us, and sometimes they laughed while they screamed, and sometimes they didn’t. They grabbed our body parts in the hallways at school, and if we protested, they called us dykes. In class they hissed things like Are you a screamer? And Do you squirt? And Have you ever had an eight-inch cock? If we said, No, and neither have you, they looked chagrined, like we’d misunderstood. If we said, Fuck off, they looked delighted, devilishly so: Oh, shit, she’s mad! Our anger was funny, because they knew we couldn’t hurt them. Our outrage was funny, because they’d gotten a rise out of us. The only thing that wasn’t funny was our laughter: at them, at their purportedly tiny dicks, at their unibrows, at their acne, at their masturbatory prowess, at their bad grades, at their poor hygiene, at their shitty clothes. We became practiced at a particular kind of viciousness: the viciousness of withholding, the viciousness of rejection.
A teacher took us aside and said, You need to talk more in class. A teacher took us aside and said, You talk too much. A teacher took us aside and said, I wish I had twenty of you. A teacher took us aside and said, Stop falling asleep. A teacher took us aside and said, Read this book. A teacher took us aside and said, What a surprise you turned out to be. A teacher took us aside and said, referring to a Greek myth we’d been studying, You’re a Cassandra. This meant we’d always be right, but no one would ever believe us.
We had a passel of uncles who locked us on a balcony because we wouldn’t stop talking back and running off with boys. We had a mom who said, Just don’t get pregnant. We had a mom who never said anything, because she knew we had no intention of getting pregnant. We had a guy from the police department who came to school and showed us how to disable an attacker with one quick arm movement. It didn’t work.
We climbed off the balcony at night and met up with older men. We dated a man in his thirties who coerced us into sex, and years later, trying to describe what happened, we could only say, I just gave up. We dated a European exchange student who said, You are such a beautiful! We dated a popular guy whose female friends refused to talk to us. We had sex. We stopped short. We dated no one and touched no one because our body belonged to some entity we didn’t understand: It wasn’t us, and it wasn’t God; it was something in the middle. Something between a holy ghost and a superego. Something that made our body its project, its protégé, and its scapegoat. Something that cherished our body and wanted to preserve it, covetously, like a mummy in a museum display.
Our body became like the mixtapes boys made to show us they were deep, to show us they could feel: This speaks for me!
We started in high school. We started in our twenties. We started and stopped, started and stopped. Things that made it start again: Getting stalked. Getting rejected. Getting inordinately rewarded. Being humiliated. Being venerated. Being controlled. Being disregarded. Getting mad. Being disbelieved. Failing. Being unwanted. Being wanted too much. Taking medication. Getting off medication. Remembering the wrong thing at the wrong time. Forgetting the right thing. Being alone too much. Being surrounded. Someone leaving. Someone dying. When it was about to start again, it felt like a solemn steeling of the self, a giant breath taken in advance of total submersion: Time for this again. Then going under, and staying.
Things that made it stop: There was never any one thing, and it never really stopped. We always know we can start up again, if we need to.
There were two selves: the sane one who wanted to eat and stay alive, and the one who felt somehow saner than sane — more refined, less mundane, eyes on some rarefied vista, voice genderless and supple and curling like smoke — who wanted to starve and die. Or starve and stay alive anyway, like a curiosity in a traveling exhibition. Or starve as a way to stay alive.
It wasn’t all starving, of course. But if starving was our primary tactic, we felt virtuous. There was a hierarchy: starvers looked down on bulimics, and they both looked down on bingers. All of this was unspoken but universally understood and as effortless as breathing. Of course, few of us were purists. Most of us would starve for a while and then eat a ton of food all at once, on one preselected occasion, or on a recurring basis, or just sporadically and spastically, as if possessed. Some of us threw it up, and some of us didn’t. And some of us ended up crossing a fatal line — the line beyond which food mutates irreversibly into lumps of matter designed to trick us, matter pretending to be edible but as toxically synthetic as cloying air freshener. Some of us became as paranoid as kings who fear being poisoned. Some of us enlisted others as our tasters: Let me watch you eat this! Once the line was crossed, hunger went away.
Only a couple of us went that far. Far enough for an intervention. And by the time we did, the pathology was entangled in other things. It was not our foremost quality. It was not, we thought, our main problem. We had other concerns. It was incidental to the backdrop of our lives: Crouched in a studio apartment in London, the one with no heat, the one with the bed frame and the shelves we built ourselves, the one with the threat of electrocution in the shower and the rotted floors we replaced alone. Or standing behind the counter at a coffee shop in Michigan, joking as we made lattes, trying to save enough money to hitchhike across the country with nothing but a French press and a flute. Making a painting. Writing poems. Coaxing kittens out from under cars. Living with six people in a house that reeked of pot and kept getting broken into. Making provisions. Not asking for permission. Carving out a route. We were so animated, so industrious, so hummingly driven that it all seemed a trick of the light: the rippling of our spines, the blueness of our nails. We were past the hump — the grinding, mechanical drudgery of the conditioning period — and finally seasoned, on autopilot. We didn’t think about starving; we just starved. We didn’t look in mirrors anymore. We didn’t notice food. We were finally getting on with our lives. We were unobsessed, immaterial, free. We had found some miraculous detour. We were getting somewhere, and all we had to do was keep moving, to prove to ourselves that we could.
This is always the point at which someone steps in.
The National Health Service in the UK footed the bill but kicked us out when it was time, a month later, even though it was three in the morning. We had gained the weight, and they needed the bed. They gave us a biscuit and tea and let us stay in the waiting room until the underground started running. Or our long-lost dad popped up and footed the bill for the inpatient program in Florida, throwing in a used car when we got out. Or no one footed the bill because no one could, and we dragged our bones to the outpatient dietician once a week and went into debt that dogged us for a decade. Or we just got a handle on it somehow by ourselves, cold turkey, out of panic and guilt and obligation, and we became the anorexic equivalent of a dry drunk: different behavior, same mentality.
We did not resist the attempts to help. There was no pulling out tubes and screaming. We understood they were trying to care for us. We just wanted to reach a point at which this problem, this set of instinctive and foolproof protocols, was not the only thing we’d be allowed to talk about and think about, not the sleeping giant around which we planned our tiny, mincing lives. We wanted to reach a point at which this was not our emergency plan, our poison- control center, our list of numbers on the fridge.
But it always is.
They tell us to replace it with something, but we don’t know how, because it was never a stand-in for anything in the first place. It coexisted, more or less seamlessly, with everything else. It was of a piece with the rest of life. That was its genius: adaptability. That was what made it irreplaceable. So now there would be a hole. A void that nothing can fill.
They say it’s an addiction, a compulsion like any other, from which we will perpetually be “in recovery.” But there are key differences. There is no withdrawal. This addiction starts, rather than ends, with abstinence. To get better, we normalize consumption; we make no proclamations at family dinners; we ask for no special conditions; we wave our glasses to be filled; we are, at long last, members of no special club; we are, at long last, one of you.
Once we left our parents’ homes, we didn’t have to smile for pictures anymore, so we stopped. The freedom to smolder was intoxicating. There are pictures of us standing dizzily on a roundabout in the nighttime, spindly and unkempt as a Manson girl, wearing men’s corduroy pants and a shrunken T-shirt. There are pictures of us dressed as a fairy for Halloween, emerging from a portable toilet, holding another girl’s hand. There are pictures of us flipping off the camera while wearing chunky Peruvian gloves that smelled like a wet dog. There are pictures of us peering wistfully through the bars of a bike rack as if we’re in prison. We pretended these pictures were candids. They were not. Now we find these photos and see them as proof of something very important. A somber disorientation descends, and we try to say something about it. We say things like What a waste. We say things like I should’ve been happier. We laugh at our outfits. We say things like I did everything wrong.
What we think is, I was so beautiful. But we don’t say that.
The most immediate and accessible loss — beyond the books we could’ve written and didn’t; beyond the pictures we could’ve painted; beyond the kids we could’ve had; beyond the people we could’ve loved — levels us on a regular basis, like a punch to the gut. It can feel bittersweet, self-ennobling even, to eulogize everything we hypothetically could’ve done if we hadn’t wasted so much time being clichés. But the real legacy is always there, and shocking every time: We don’t know what we look like anymore. We have to rely on other people to tell us. Most of the time we don’t ask, and when we do, we don’t believe them. We have blunted our capacity for nuanced self-assessment to the point where we can discern only the extremes at either end of the scale. This is a disease of privilege, we are constantly told. And our innate privilege — that sick attunement; that reflexive capacity to gauge, to measure, to hone in on the incremental waxings and wanings of our bodies, like phases of the moon — has been revoked.
If we lose weight, we cannot tell how thin is too thin. Maybe we look disgusting; we don’t know. If we gain weight, we cannot tell if we look better or worse. What are we? we keep asking, and of course no one will name it for us. No one is that insane.
We are undifferentiated slabs. We are grainy. We are eternally, by our own lights, “normal.” But normal doesn’t mean healthy; it is a fake word that stands for some unknowable and unrecoverable metric. This — the body, the long-term site of our riveted tinkering — is now our blind spot. Our bodies appear to us in mirrors, stretched and smooth as inflatable dolls, marooned in some neutral and inscrutable stasis, occupying some indefinable territory between concave and convex. Between attractive and not.
Maybe this is a morality tale, a fable. Maybe it’s poetic justice. Maybe it’s mercy.
When we fret about how we look, people reassure us. If we are straight, we are told men don’t notice “imperfections.” They’re just thrilled to be with a naked girl! They’re on top of the world! They love curves!
We hate the word curves.
A lover says, I can help you get rid of that, pointing at the tiny bib of flesh that hangs over our waistband. A lover says, Aren’t there any parts of your body that embarrass you? A lover says, You’re just mad because you’re fat now. A male friend says, It starts in the arms. Their upper arms get fat. That’s when women start looking like their moms. A male friend says, She has let herself become unfuckable.
And we do it, too. If we can’t stand a woman who isn’t skinny, we say she’s fat, and it feels good to say it, nihilistically so, like throwing a water balloon out a high-rise window and watching it smash: That fat fucking bitch. We say it only to certain people, people who will forgive us. Or we say it only to ourselves.
But most of the time we don’t notice how fat or thin anyone is, just like no one notices how fat or thin we are, just like no one ever has, not really, not unless they had a compelling reason to care. Our lives revolve around other things. We have kids. We have houses. We get richer. We get poorer. We find jobs and lose them. We fail and spiral into apathy. We win and continue winning. We fail and don’t call it failing. We win and then, to make up for it, we sleep for six years. We become Christians. We become atheists. We become agnostics. We become Buddhists. We become people who walk into churches and have panic attacks and walk right out again. We become people who walk into churches and cry and stay because it feels right to be in a strange church in a strange place, crying.
When we remember it — this tendency, this problem — it’s with the rueful nostalgia of a gambler who’s not allowed to gamble anymore, because it’s irresponsible. But the cards still hold a well-thumbed vestige of grace: That is something very bad that I used to be good at. We don’t want to talk about it. We wish we didn’t know about it. Because when we think about it, it’s not the skinniness we remember — that ephemeral way station, that sharp-edged mirage — but the things we refused, good and bad, now just ghosts of themselves. They are back. They are claiming that hole, that void, as their home. They are trying to fill it. Not just the plate of canned peas, served to us night after night until we gave in; not just the orange that went in the garbage unpeeled, round and innocent as an undiscovered planet; but also the bulge in his pants, the hands around the throat, the bread, the wine, the assessments, the conclusions, the overtures, the prizes, the calls, the love. The bodies we once knew. The things that were cooked for us. The things that were meant for us. The destinies we spurned. The spoils we let sour. The things we were supposed to swallow. The things that were supposed to stay down and never come up. They’re all saying to us, We’re getting cold. They’re all saying to us, There are people in the world who are starving.