Photo courtesy of Jennifer Burk.
In one month, I turn 26, and I want to lose six pounds.
I have a thing about patterns, so I guess it makes sense that when I turn 26, on the sixth, I want to be six pounds lighter.
I also have an eating disorder.
I’ve had it for a while, even before I started actively calling it that. And this is what I’ve learned: when you have an eating disorder, it is always on your mind. I could be doing or saying or thinking anything, driving through pouring rain that requires my complete and utter focus, or talking to a friend of a friend at a two am bonfire, while my dog wanders around, and there’s still that constant drumbeat in the back of my head. Should I eat? How much can I eat today? I never want to eat again. When did I work out last? Will I pass out if I don’t eat and then work out? Would it be worth it? They’re called intrusive thoughts, but to me, they aren’t intruding. They’ve always been there.
And it’s not just the thoughts. I often find myself absentmindedly squeezing parts of my thighs, stomach, and hips, like my fatty bits are Silly Putty. Like I can pull them off, roll it all into a ball, and bounce it away out of my life. I’ll pinch my thighs as I ride a stationary bike or elliptical at five in the morning at the gym, relishing in the strength of my muscles but still upset at the excess stuff on my legs.
A lot of people can pinpoint where their eating disorder came from: body image issues passed down from their mother, or a single traumatic experience. I have none of that. I just have a long-term, silent obsession with not being desired. It nested in me in fifth grade, when my hips expanded but my chest didn’t, when I got body hair before most of my classmates and was mocked about it. When I started sixth grade at a new school and my new friends were all lanky legs and tiny arms, while I jiggled with every step. It was my friend’s mom telling me, at age 12, that I had “child-bearing hips” before I really even knew what that meant. It was no boy in middle school, high school, or college having any interest in me. It’s this idea, rooted so deep in my brain: until I have thinner thighs and a flat stomach, I’m nothing.
So that’s fun.
I have one friend I can talk to explicitly about our condition. (I hate calling it an eating disorder, or–mega cringe–anorexia. It feels so Degrassi: The Next Generation, like I’m a scene away from coming back from a run in an oversized sweatshirt to my friends and family gathered around a coffee table, ready for my intervention.) I asked recently if she tracks her meals. She said no, that it makes her even more obsessed with what she can and can’t and should and shouldn’t eat. I get that. Last night I had a panic attack about mayonnaise. But I still diligently track my meals and exercise habits (four days a week at the gym, plus yoga on Saturdays). This morning I made a slice of toast (60 calories), and was going to allow myself a bit of Earth Balance spread (despite the fat count). But the toaster was turned up too high, and the toast burnt, so I took that as a sign I shouldn’t be eating breakfast. Most important meal of the day? Hard pass. I stuck to my homemade latte.
So I count my calories when I eat. And I make tally marks on my inner left wrist for every hour I don’t. Only once has someone commented on them. Most people don’t notice, or they ignore it. What they don’t ignore is how “skinny” I’ve gotten. When people first started noticing it, I freaked out–partly because I didn’t believe them, and partly because, what do I say? For a second I thought, y’know, joke about having an ED. But for some reason, most people don’t think that’s funny. So I started shrugging and saying it’s what happens when you’re poor and can only afford Trader Joe’s black beans and Two Buck Chuck. I usually get a smile and an, “I feel ya,” because all of my friends are poor millennials. No one is the wiser.
About a month ago, when I really started to spiral, I emailed a few therapists I found through my health insurance. In every email, I typed, “I have an eating disorder.” Then: backspace, backspace, backspace. I didn’t want to tell them. I don’t want to tell people. It freaks them out. They look at me differently, see me as weaker, sadder. Once people know that I struggle (what a terrible word) with this, it’s never not on their mind, just like it’s never not on mine. What’s that line from Pineapple Express? “Pandora doesn’t go back in the box”? Perfect analogy.
And listen, I’m aware of the societal pressures on women–and everyone–to look a certain “way.” I started getting Seventeen magazine in sixth grade; I diligently dressed for Pear Shapes, did their “Six Tummy Trimming Exercises,” and followed their “Four Simple Steps to Slimmer Hips.” Logically, I know my distorted body image is because for years–and years, and years–I’ve been told, both consciously and subconsciously, that there is only one way to look. And I can watch mainstream American culture begin to embrace different body types, look at the women in my life, women who are “real” (whatever that means), and see them as beautiful.
But I have also watched this lie seep into every corner of my life. My reality still begins and ends with the fact that as long as I have lived, my body has not been desired by anyone, least of all me. And that fucking sucks.
In one month, I turn 26, and I’m wondering how much longer I’ll think this way. I know I need help. One day, I might even get some. My biggest fear is I’ll wake up at 43 and realize I’ve been struggling (that word again!) with undiagnosed depression and an eating disorder for decades. But maybe it won’t be like that.
Maybe something will click, and I’ll understand self-care, and I won’t worry so much about how people see me. Maybe I’ll see toast for breakfast as a source of energy, not fear, and mayonnaise as just oil, egg yolk, and vinegar (actually, that makes it sound even grosser). Maybe I’ll find peace.
But for now, I’m working on those six pounds.
A little Patsy Cline and a little Nancy Sinatra, Quinn Glass lives in New Haven, Connecticut. She recently became best frenemies with a raccoon who lives in the dumpster near her apartment; please contact him for questions regarding appearances.