I was 11 the first time I tried to throw up. I snuck into the bathroom one night after a large spaghetti dinner, lifted the toilet seat and squatted, tucking my hair behind my ears. On the count of three, I jammed two fingers down my throat. I gagged until my face flushed and I drooled into the water. I wanted to puke so much that I was crying. But I couldn’t. For some reason, my gut refused to give up its contents.
I remember flopping onto my bed, dejected. I remember deciding, in some dark inner chamber, that this mission was too illicit even to mention in my diary. I remember drowning my disappointment in the acoustic angst of the Gin Blossoms.
Sometime near the beginning of fifth grade, I’d come to the conclusion that I was too chubby. You can see me in my class picture, posing stiffly on the playground in an über-chic blue vest, obviously sucking in my stomach. Coincidentally, that was also the year I learned about bulimia in health class. I went to a tiny, sheltered private school and didn’t know anyone who was actually bulimic, who could get me to understand how horrible this disorder truly was. All I knew was the flannel-shirted models in Teen and YM circa ‘95 were a lot skinnier than me -- not to mention my best friend at the time, a rail-thin beauty who was starting to bask in admiring glances from the boys I had crushes on.
I was jealous, unpopular, and saddled with a powerful penchant for flan. This fascinating habit -- eating all you want, then barfing it up! -- seemed like my ticket to happiness.
The problem was, I couldn’t get it to work. After that first failed attempt, I tried gagging myself with a Popsicle stick. I tried visualizing gross things, like eating insects or laundry lint. But nothing worked.
How did other girls do it? When we got our house hooked up to the Internet (that sweet, sweet dial-up tone), I trawled this vast, new well of information for tips. In the AOL search field, I’d type, “How do you be bulimic?” or some similar, utterly wholesome question. Usually my browser coughed up a litany of “Bulimia is REALLY BAD” warnings. But every once in a while, buried amid the red flags was a nugget of gold: some high school girl’s GeoCities site, let’s say, in which she confided that she’d use a spoon to purge. Victory! …Except not.
Over and over, I hunched over the toilet and hoped that through a combination of self-loathing and various kitchen implements, I could summon up the food I’d just consumed. No dice.
I was a terrible bulimic. But it would take more than that to get me to stop trying.
Let me pause here and say, for the record, that I’m not writing this from a hospital bed on the brink of massive organ failure or some other starvation-induced malady. In fact, at 28 I have a pretty healthy body image, despite still coping with the same physical frustrations that drove me to purge in the first place.
I’m not someone who can be classified as “fat” or “thin.” My body is the type that resists categorization. It shape-shifts, like a flan-loving T-1000, advertising vastly different weights depending on where the nearest light source is. At some point during my adolescent growth spurt, my leg-to-torso ratio got out of whack. I grew a lot of leg -- which, as a legal, fun-loving adult, isn’t a bad thing. But as a result, my upper body has relatively little space along my spinal column in which to situate itself. So my belly, at a loss for what else to do, bulges out and curls into rolls when I sit.
As a pre-teen, this was a source of torment for me, and consequently, for my parents.
In seventh grade, my family took a vacation to New Orleans. We walked around for almost a week double fisting beignets. One night, at a dinnertime jazz buffet heavy on butter-soaked seafood, I gorged myself on four servings of bananas foster. Back at the hotel, I shut myself in the bathroom and moaned. This wasn’t the typical “Ugh, I made a mistake” moan. These were guttural, animal wails that sent my poor mom into a high-pitched panic. While she frantically dialed doctors from the hotel phone book, scrambling in vain to find one whose office was still open, I sank into a fat-bashing funk on the edge of the tub. I pushed my gut out to its deformed limit, lifting my sweater and scowling into the mirror for maximum effect.
You’re pathetic, I told myself silently. And to top it off, when I stuck my fingers down my throat, I couldn’t vomit.
Logically, I knew that lusting after a debilitating disease was wrong. In school, in conversations with my family, on "Full House," for Pete’s sake -- everywhere I looked, I was inundated with messages that eating disorders were dangerous. Publicly, I scoffed at people who had them. Psh, I would never be like them! I’m too smart for that! I know better! But privately, I was jealous. Somehow I was able to gloss over the whole life-threatening aspect of not getting vital nutrients. Here’s what I saw: Those girls were thin. I was not.
I went on Weight Watchers my junior year of high school. That’s when I finally began, through ritual avoidance and self-denial, to cut pounds off my figure.
One morning, as I stood on the scale, happily humming as the needle bobbed its head around a pleasant number, the thought crossed my mind that I had simply picked the wrong eating disorder to pursue. Holy schnikes, I should have been anorexic all this time! It would be so much easier than bulimia. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?
By then, luckily, I had the sense not to commit fully to this idea. Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dabble.
At 5:30 a.m., when I got up for school, no one else in my house was awake to supervise whether I ate breakfast. So sometimes I didn’t. But my experiments with going to school on an empty stomach ended the day I almost fainted in third-period French class. No adorable pair of x-small cargo flares from the latest Delia’s catalog was worth the mortification of being wheeled down three busy corridors in a chair as peers gawked and stared. (Although the episode did give rise to one of my favorite French class jokes: “Elle est verte!”)
Some nights I would tell my parents I was having dinner with a friend. Then I’d drive around aimlessly or park at the mall for an hour or two, relishing the hollow gurgles my stomach made as I deprived it of food. Those solitary waits made me feel lonely and broken, and I often went home and sulked for the rest of the night. And probably ate a banana. A very sad banana.
This last foray into bodily destruction didn’t last, for a couple of reasons. I grew tired of sneaking around and being coy when my mom offered me snacks. I missed the foods I hadn’t eaten in months, which included the entire category of dessert. And mostly, I realized that what was missing from my life wasn’t a foolproof trick for cheating calories out of my body -- it was basic self-control and self-love.
The notion I’d been avoiding was that getting the body I wanted -- an enduring, healthy-looking body, one that could be maintained indefinitely without risk of hair loss or death -- would take discipline and time. There was no quick fix for my corporeal dissatisfaction. There was only eating well, exercising, and making peace with the not-so-horrible-in-the-scheme-of-things shape I possess.
Oh, and learning to see that I had value as a person, even if that shaggy-haired demi-god outside Starbucks didn’t stop to check me out.
I’m doing OK with that, these days. And sometimes, when I’m wearing my loose pants, I still surrender to the wiles of flan.