There was a book called The Best Little Girl in the World that she read when she was a teen—an overweight one at that, about a girl with anorexia nervosa who saw herself as fat and both starved herself and was bulimic in order to get her body to the weight that her body dysmorphia-affected brain told her was good enough, best.
The doctor who wrote it very much got the teen’s need for control over something, the lack of feeling of control over anything else—and to the not-so-physically small girl reading the book at the time, the idea of being thinner appealed, and not just because she was called fat every day and had really only one or two friends. The idea of throwing up her food to lose weight had never occurred to her before—but now, she knew it would work, because a doctor had written it down in a book.
Books had always been a source of true consolation when she was lonely. They did not judge, criticize or demand attention she didn’t have the energy or emotion to give—they accepted tears or the need for some quiet.
So like the book said, throw up she did, but she didn’t stop there. She also started to exercise—run—eat yogurt instead of cake for her breakfast—insist on chef’s salad for dinner instead of the highly caloric food her heavy-set mother would cook—but she threw up the heavy food (free, U.S.D.A food tickets she had to go accept from the teacher in front of the class) she ate for her lunch right afterward, and she didn’t keep the chef’s salad down all that long, either. Her mother never suspected, because wasn’t it good hygiene to brush your teeth after dinner?
And just like the book said, she began to get thinner. She could feel the ladder of ribs under her fingers, see the ends of her clavicles jut up in the mirror and the ends of her elbows point sharply when she crossed her arms over her chest, her always-small breasts looking like barely inflated balloons. When she’d lie in her bed at night, her hipbones would crest over the trough of her belly, the gap of underwear elastic between hipbone and flesh letting fingers slide over pubescent skin, a body she had no regard for except to make it get thinner.
People noted that she lost weight, but you understand, see, she’d always been heavy, and she had these healthy new habits that the adults could observe, and she was a straight-A student, such a smart, quiet, sensible girl. Just as she was getting a bit scared about the heartburn she was getting from throwing her food up all of the time, she went to sleepaway camp and was bit by a tick who left a bullseye-type bite—and got really sick, really could no longer keep her food down, some days couldn’t walk, her knees hurt so badly, and by the time all was over and done, she was 145 pounds, 5’6”, pale and if not totally wraith-like, then looking like she’d come out of the end of one of those Gothic romances, more Jane Eyre than Sweet Valley High.
She was twelve, and it was the fall of eighth grade. She made another girl friend that year when her first (only) best friend discovered boys more seriously—and she and this other friend were both bookish in the same ways. They were happy to read together, sometimes—and our Jane Eyre was thinner than her new friend, which, though not kind, was a source of private satisfaction to her.
In high school, she discovered sports and the fact that with running, a high school student can eat pretty much however she wants, and even a nerdy, bookish one can manage to score a couple of dates, including with boys who didn’t know her when she was fat—because with the loss of baby fat, it turned out she was rather good-looking. (The boys who didn’t know her before and therefore let her be whomever it was she felt like being right then in the moment, were the ones she liked best. It was her first taste of what it meant to have some sense of self, apart from wanting to be liked or at least not tormented by others.)
She has been panicked about being fat ever since, and while she certainly has been fat—as much as 230 pounds at her most—she hasn’t ever thrown up her food since. She has learned that much control, if not over her eating. She blew up, then at the advice of a doctor and some other, different books and a new diagnosis or two, lost the weight, gained the weight, lost the weight all over again.
She gained the weight once more, didn’t notice because her mood was beyond her control (something she noticed but didn’t, because, well, the medications she was taking and mood she was in prevented her from having that bit of control over herself, despite her best efforts, and oh, how hard she tried, always tried so very hard because she needs to be the best at everything that she does, even if it’s just being the best compliant crazy little girl in the world) and then– it was years later and she was blinking, crawling out of the Cave and into the sunlight on the other side of the mouth, looking at herself as she wondered how she’d gotten so fat.
In the pictures of her brother’s wedding that summer—the one she could barely bring herself to attend because if she’d shaken off enough of the Illusion to crawl out of the Cave, well, she was still on her knees—she looks just like her overweight mother. Just like—double chin, sad eyes, wattled upper arms, cankles and all.
The new job—on her feet all day, forty hours a week, melted twenty pounds pretty quickly, much to her satisfaction. How nice to feel like she could lug boxes of bags, armloads of tills, without getting winded. To feel capable, strong, in control. It brought a smile to her face, not to mention new clothes to her closet.
A new medication, though—the old one abandoned, since the funk it had put her in had really only been snapped out of when she’d (don’t repeat this at home) stopped taking it on her own—well, when it said anorexia was a side effect on the side of the bottle, the label writers sure weren’t kidding. She hadn’t anticipated the extent, though. A little weight loss, she had expected—but now she stands—strides over the store and can’t stop moving because it’s a busy job and some days she crawls right into bed when she comes home—and her pants literally fall off her pointy hipbones without the aid of a belt while all the while she’s got no appetite and has to remind herself to eat as one more task to accomplish during the day, even though she always feels better after she does. But with no blood sugar reminders, not even a headache or mere salivation, no outward controls, the medicine is that strange and bizarre, sometimes she forgets.
After twenty years of thinking of herself as one of the fat girls, worrying about eating enough to keep up with the calories she burns during the day—she’d thought she was being so good, getting up, going to work, taking her meds, playing nicely with others, but apparently not.
The ladder of visible ribs under her fingers—the jut of clavicle at the edge of her shoulders, the way the ends of her humerus stick out of her elbows—it’s not funny at all how she looks in the mirror, because she’s got no control, none, no control over any of it at all anymore. She’s got stretch marks on her thighs now that she didn’t have as a teen—her skin’s less elastic now, and her deflated balloon-breasts, her once rotund belly, though not quite so big as her mom’s– they look sad and abandoned.
Kind of like her, because damned if she knows what’s (who’s) going to be left of her when all this weight loss is done. If it’s done. Maybe she’ll just keep getting thinner and thinner like in that Stephen King story, except she can’t recall any gypsy woman she ran down with her car, any great sin she’s committed except to be one of the many flawed humans who thought and felt a little too much about some things and not nearly enough about others.
Others, though, have commented favorably—or jealously, snarkily, concernedly, or in several other moods, dependent on source—upon her weight loss, and while she knows most mean well, it’s not a discussion she wants to get into. So she says thank you in most cases—or says that she’s fine or working with doctors in others—the first is a lie, since she’s well aware that losing seventy-five (now almost eighty this week with the flu that she’s got) pounds by any cause, much less one beyond her control, is nothing to be blasé or giddy about, but she tries not to complain too much aloud because being skinny? Nothing anyone wants to hear as a subject of complaint, even when the complaint is more meta and something she’s still struggling to define.
It’s just that—as she loses her meat, she feels like she loses her me.
Every time she goes to try on clothes in a store to replace the ones hanging and bagging from her, she never gets far. Size 14, 12, 10? She doesn’t know anymore, can’t trust what she sees in the mirror because it doesn’t seem real. It’s a different kind of dysmorphia, a different disconnect, but it’s there all the same. The lights are too harsh, and she doesn’t like to look in the mirror, not even just at her face until the clothes are all on, because her face looks tired and thin and she’s sure people must see the same things she thrashes toward with her therapist week in and week out. So she hangs on to the clothes hanging on her, and at last begins to understand why—in reverse, though the reasons are surely the same—why her overweight, depressed mother never bought any new clothes, money reasons aside, when they were children.
When you don’t like what you see in the mirror—don’t know who or what the reflection is, much less who or what it’s going to be next week (size 10 still, or will another two pounds lost make her that same grade eight, post tick-bite size 8?), why would you wrap it in something that might again have to be replaced?
At least the (baggy, ill-fitting) clothes are familiar, even if everything else is too new. And whether she liked her old fat self (at all), she at least had some idea who she was.
The girl in the mirror’s a stranger, and Lewis Carroll was never one of the authors in whom she found consolation.