“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. I lift my eyes and all is born again” -Sylvia Plath

What does it mean to view one’s self accurately? Is there a difference between a self-image that is positive and one that is accurate? Does either imply the other? I must think not.

As we self-reflect we quickly face the limit, the native language of the sensual information from which we cannot deviate. We cannot even conceive of fluency in another. We cannot even imagine what that other might be. The territory of logic is neither exception nor refuge. It is equally problematic. We trust it similarly because we have no choice, and yet it betrays us. From a single contradiction, everything follows. And over and over again we contradict, and then we revise, and nothing is steadfast.

I am no longer dysmorphic, which is to say, I am no longer preoccupied by some part or whole of what I see in the mirror. This is not to suggest that what I see in the mirror corresponds to the way strangers and friends see my body, The point is I am not preoccupied. I know I must base my self-image on the empirical. Many people are attracted to me, therefore I am attractive. It is uncomfortable to exist this way. Perhaps more poignantly: Imagine you do not have hands. You look down and have stumps. Yet you when you try to do things which require hands, you are miraculously successful. You tie your shoes, you grip things, you play the piano, you make your lover come. It is impossible and yet it happens over and over again. But you do not have hands. But it as if you have them so it does not matter. And if you try to explain to someone that you do not have hands, he or she looks at you in sheer disbelief. Clearly you have hands, look at all you can do. And then you look down at the stumps at the end of your forearms. The are unsightly and useless.  If only you had hands. Think of all the things you might do!

From a single contradiction, everything follows.

“God made the integers, all the rest is the work of man.” -Leopold Kronecker

I wonder if

the obsession 

with those fine hard metrics

is because there is nothing else to cling to,

run amok. 

 

I tried to explain this to my friend today, but the way she looked at me, I knew she thought I was ridiculous. Her misunderstanding was comforting. Perhaps there are some of us who exist always outside these walls. 

In 6th grade I over heard these two girls talking. One says to the other, “If I ever weigh over 100lbs, I just don’t know what I’d do.” After recently becoming self-aware that I had a body and that its shapes and composition and 105lbs of materials meant something to someone, this drop off the eaves really stung as I digested its implication. Never mind any of the insanity of such an idea, the situation was irreparable.

In 10th grade I was doing laps around the school with one of the girls I routinely would not eat lunch with. She would steal her brothers ADD medication cause they made her lose her appetite, and go running around her neighborhood at 3, 4, 5am cause it was peaceful then. She would lay on her bathroom floor almost unconscious from pills and puking. She made me feel like I had a nice tight grip on my eating disorder. She fueled my myth of autonomy. The rest of the conversation doesn’t matter. I said to her as we rounded a corner, “If I was ever big, like wore a size 12 or something, I just don’t know what I’d do.” And around that corner was another classmate. She was tall and well-developed in a way that was vicious to the boys, but most certainly wore a size 12. The situation was irreparable. 

One of my friends in college lived in a house that I could have not. My recovery would have not persisted in that environment of extraordinarily over-involved well-meaning polite passive-aggressiveness, nor one where everyone had their own brand of disordered eating. One of her roommates lamented to my friend how her thighs had gotten so large, that her legs were getting to big. Although they were similar heights with similar body composition, my friend had a good 15-20lbs on her roommate and a naturally bigger build. Then another roommate, the tall, lanky dancer one filed similar complaints. I hope that these roommates are clueless to the painful exercise my friend endured, reasoning her way around these comments and then redirecting their violent potential energy away from her psyche. 

Each time this exercise is completed, the muscle is not strengthened. It does not get easier. The absurd walls instead grow taller, more difficult to scale, and more angled inward as if to better foster claustrophobia. 

I was invited to compete in a power lifting competition by one of the girls at my gym. She also invited our other friend, who wants to compete but feels she may be too overwhelmed by the her weight being written next to her name so publicly. I hope the situation is not irreparable.

Why do we cling so hard to numbers? Why do we feel so defined by a set of symbols? Perhaps because they are symbols we are free to make their meanings so much more than what they are. Or perhaps we forget that they are symbols and see them as concrete and stable through chaos and uncertainty of life. Are numbers and logic some terrible last resort shield against the ontological hell of epistemology, our first and last response to that first person singular lens we cannot escape? Does it matter if we used them so illogically, to define the whole of our beings?

I think the pragmatic answer is to fight the misconception. Here I am. Here is my mass and what it can be. 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” -Walt Whitman

I have a friend. She intelligent, witty, creative, vibrant, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of her is this unstoppable, unquenchable passion for life. We joke sometimes that when we hang out it is a meeting of our mutual admiration society because while one of us recalls her latest adventure, the other listens in awe. Just thinking about this friend makes me feel empowered because I feel her belief in me and her love, and I feel those things back for her and suddenly become aware that anything and everything is possible.

A common experience of the anorexic is the sensation that one cannot justify the space that one occupies. And thus the desire to be lithe, as weightless and transient as a snowflake, is fueled. And in weird twist of self-inflation, the space one occupies seem enormous, and every action, every spoken word becomes an apology for being so relentlessly huge. I am sorry, I am so sorry that I am here and that I am useless. And as one tries to erase oneself and slip deeper into shadow, this enormity is only magnified until   the one is both completely insignificant but also so big and so everywhere and omnipresent.

So when I spoke of this and how far away from it I feel now, particularly as I develop my physical strength, my beautiful, wonderful friend replied, “You know, the very first thing you learn in Women’s Studies in that we are taught above all to not take up space.” And I instantly saw it and all the detriment of this idea, particularly powerful being explained by this friend.

I felt unjustified in existing because I clung to this fantasy of insufficiency, that I was somehow a leech and had nothing to do but suck the lifestuff from others by my mere presence until I was thin enough when SUDDENLY my volume would equal my worth (due  perhaps not just do a decreased volume but also because those of less volume were worth so so much more, the differential equation describing this behavior is complicated but can be found in appendix B) and at this time the rest of my problems would also be solved, cause that’s how my dreamworld worked.

But it was in diminishing myself that I was being overly selfish. If prevented myself from effecting external, except to spread negativity. I could not explore my passions or invent or create or improve or enjoy, and above all I could not help others do the same.

If one does not exist, one cannot offer anything to the universe. So we must be, afraid of neither who nor what we are, and be as large and enormous and ridiculous and contradictory as we need to. And this, I think, is why I admire my friend so much. She shares her talents and passions and does so both bravely and consciously. I’d like to to be just like that when I grew up, but she will tell me I’m already there.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

Part II.

So I found myself at the base of this intimidating mountain, the summit extending infinitely skyward, obscured by clouds; up and up it goes, rudely puncturing the atmosphere on its way. Straining my neck, I knew the peak must be in the darkness and calm of space, if it is there at all. And to my right is this deep gaping ravine, threatening to swallow the earth around it and all the little things clinging to the soil. I wondered, if the infinite ravine got hungry enough, would it swallow up the mountain?

I knew I was going to face this conundrum at the beginning of college. Do I climb or should I just jump and be over with it already? I wanted to climb so badly and yet the part of me that was the disease teased me, telling me I could not succeed so why should I waste time trying, only to fall even farther when I did.

And this is when the periphery of my assertion began to form. If health was not my ultimate concern, I would stumble.

I had the privilege of backpacking for two weeks before the beginning of my first semester with other incoming freshmen as a sort of orientation trip. I flew across the country and found the strange statue in the airport, our meeting point, and looked for the other confused kids with oversized packs. I looked forward to the adventure, the new places and new people, yet the greatest discovery I made were pristine territories inside myself.

When you hike for a very long time, even with people you do not know, there is eventually the inevitable silence of people in deep thought. Even having just met, after a few days we had exhausted our inquisitions, songs, and stories for each other and turned inward.

I examined piece by piece how it had come to this. How I was here.  The truths I unearthed terrified me. The mosaic of my disease ceased its formlessness. I was not alone in intense reflection on this trip.  One day, we intentionally hiked alone, spread out along the trail, for a mile.  I went first and when the second person caught up to me at the meeting point, I asked what he had thought about. He replied, how much I hate myself. It was strange to see this person later at school, living so boisterously and so hard, appearing so big and confident, unable to forget what he’d said.

The universe conspired, in a fit of synchronicity that the trip’s leader, the head of the outdoors program at my school, would who I needed to meet: this tiny wild man, an ultra-runner with aspirations of being a missionary. Our first morning in the mountains, we awoke having camped in this beautiful meadow, saddled between two peaks.  He got our whole group running around the meadow, leaping into the air to “catch love.” And we did this for about twenty minutes and it was wonderful.  During the course of the trip, he continually yelled at me for constantly apologizing. He said it was like I was apologizing for my existence, and suggested that when I felt the need to apologize that I instead say “Fuck you.” In fact, he insisted on this. I felt so uncomfortable not apologizing, and even more uncomfortable saying this, I kicked my habit.

It was filtering water one day, using my inner thighs to push the pump, in and out, over and over again, the soft sloshing sound of this activity hypnotizing, speaking with him, that I dissolved all my boundaries. I told him everything I could think of about my eating disorder. I told him how scared I was to go into this new place where I felt something so forcefully trying to push me into the ravine once and for all.  He told me it would be okay, he told me knew I could overcome it. He revealed to me eventually that he too had at one point been an addict, and that I too could reclaim myself.  And there in the woods I knew I could climb, forever if I had to.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” -Winston Churchill

Part 1.

By the summer after my junior year of high school, the delusion that what I was doing to myself was going to end well was gone.

I had spent five years of my life entrenched in anxiety and the hope of somehow overcoming the laws of physics while remaining a functioning inhabitant of the universe. Not that I had done nothing but develop and nurture this eating disorder in that time, I had done a great many things, had some wonderful friends, and succeeded in a variety of other ways. I was going to be perfect someday, after all. But my other successes, my time spent with those I loved, was all under a black cloud. When I was happy, it was brief and fleeting and always replaced by the thought of how much farther I had to go until I was thin and perfect and everything was finally okay. Then in a rare instance of providing myself with enough time to think, I asked, what if it wasn’t okay when I got there? What if I was never okay? Why was I so convinced of the okyaness that lay before me? Did I feel owed something by the universe for my suffering?

These questions dissolved the delusion that my eating disorder was in anyway going to help me. I felt, I knew, I would never get to the promised land of perfection and okayness unless it was by the hand of death, and perhaps not ironically at all, knew that my current behaviors would cause just that. But I did not want to die. I wanted to live.

I wanted to live.

And this desire meant a huge flood of cognitive dissonance. If I wanted to live, then I must like something about being alive or know that I could find something to like in being alive. And since I could not experience living except through myself, then I must be able to find something enjoyable about being me since I am me, I am myself, inextricably.

This realization, though paramount to successfully recovery, was very difficult. It forced me to admit how much damage I had done to my self and how much I hated myself, and at first I hated myself even more from being so awful. I was both sadist and masochist. I wanted to punishment for waging this war, this cycle of self-hate and punishment making such a perfect circle. The part of me that was my eating disorder did not want to die. More and more of me, it wanted to consume, until at least together we reached that pyrric victory, death and perfection. But I saw that circle. I saw my eating disorder trying to trick me and I said no!

I have this really distinct memory of telling myself I was going to eat normally, swallowing two grapes and one of those tiny preztel sticks, and feeling so full I was convinced my insides would explode and that would be how I died, a bloody mess of wasted organs on the kitchen floor. I kept trying to recover for the rest of high school. I’d get slightly better and then silently fall backwards. But I kept going. I wasn’t gonna feel my heart flutter painfully in the middle of the night, I wasn’t gonna have purple lips and fingertips, and if I was lucky, I might even work up the courage to talk to people I didn’t already know.

I would not be successful in trying to recover until my freshmen year of college. The universe was giving me a chance. I could leave behind that shy little girl trying to erase herself, trying to become a shadow. I could leave behind the environment so entwined with my deadly habits. I could begin anew. This chance was terrifying because I also knew it was an opportunity to throw myself over a cliff and get worse than I’d ever been before, if I let myself.

“No longer will we agree to protect the hearth at the price of extinguishing the fire within ourselves.” -Celia Gilbert

All that time spent in elementary school, the careful arrangement in rank and file, the endless slideshow of what it might look like, the inadequate explanation of what it might feel like, wasted. No one attended the parade. Yet as my classmates traipsed bravely forward in their new bodies, I tripped, relieved as I was trampled.

Not eating retarded an already slow march through puberty and then reversed it. This slow campaign against myself left my body with no resources to contribute to potential reproduction.  My barely developed breasts deflated then diminished, my nipples receding back into my rib cage. The monthly hemorrhaging from between my legs stopped. When my friends all complained about having to buy new jeans when their hips grew, I laughed. I was invincible to biology’s cruelest joke. Avoiding puberty, I knew, would help me reach perfection.

Of course I read about the damage I was doing to myself – increased risk of osteoporosis  possible infertility, a whole host of digestive issues, heart damage, death. Of course I felt the damage – withdrawal, damaged relationships, fatigue, OCD, the weight of all my lies, and so fitting and reflective of everything else, a coldness that would not leave. My lips and fingertips maintained that bluish hue. I shivered as the sun shone on me in 80F weather. I had nothing to say to anyone and everyone had nothing to say to me.

I was not consciously trying to avoid my sexuality through my eating disorder, albeit this was another change I did not know how to cope with. Your whole life you just get to be a person and then one day you grow breasts and hips and you’re suddenly both more than a person and not even a person. We are cruel.

I distinctly remember being sexually harassed in 8th grade in my shop class. One of two girls, we received a lot of attention. The other girl, bizarrely ample, showed her body off and seemed to welcome being grabbed and pinched, to revel in the salacious rumors of after school blow jobs behind the building. I wonder now how she actually felt. Was it an act, an attempt to regain control over a treacherous body? I’ll never now. I shyly completed my projects, trying not to make too much eye contact or talk to much.

This was also the year I had my first boyfriend. It was one of those odd, we only go out in a big group with other middle school couples, we got pushed together since we thought the other was cute situations. I wouldn’t let him kiss me. I thought I was too ugly and didn’t want him to go through with that. So after the movie this big ground attended, when we all made our way to the top level of the parking garage to clumsily kiss, he’d try, and I’d dodge and dodge. He finally asked what was wrong and I admitted the situation, my unbearable ugliness. Dumbfounded, he pried further until I explained that I had stopped eating and that perhaps at some point in the future I’d be up for it. He was very sweet and tried to help, but I wouldn’t budge, eventually breaking up with him as I pushed away anyone attempting to fix me.

I continued awkwardly through high school. As a freshmen, more than a few upperclassmen boys felt bold enough to inform me that I’d be hot once I filled out. I did not have the know-how or spirit at that time to respond appropriately: as ferociously as possible. Instead I’d giggle an awkward thanks, briefly lament the state of things, then remind myself of how perfect I was going to be one day. I was terrified if I ever recovered that I would not fill out “correctly” and that in this worst case scenario (of recovery) even this mysterious hotness I was promised would be forfeited.

An echo of the terrible boldness of those upperclassmen reverberates each time I am made uncomfortably aware of my sexuality, each time I am made into both less and more than what I am, a person.

Through my college, I took two week summer trip to the Middle East. The fact that I can be seen as meat to be fucked was most prominently made there. Men in the streets harassed my travel group constantly, asking us how much, shouting pretty, sexy, beautiful at us. Two men ever argued over how much they would pay to be with us. One of the guys in my group tried to laugh it off, telling us we’d been offer six months of their salaries. A tour guide who took us through a certain area had to be dismissed for creeping out myself and other women in our group. We all wore baggy pants or shorts that fell to below our knees and t-shirts with sleeves covering our upper arms, if not something more conservative. I envied the native women who walked, protected, by force or by choice, in their obfuscating clouds. With even just our hair covered we might be harassed less. But then our ankles might have been emphasized…..

When we returned to the US I was extraordinarily self-conscious at first when I wore my usual short shorts. I re-acclimated to my native land eventually, but I was enlightened. Every bit of me was vile, dripping with taunting feminine charm. Every bit of me and every female.

No, I am just a person, I am just being. No one has the right to make me feel like any less or any more. But I will always be guarded, just a little. When I am dumb enough to let that guard down, I find myself sitting on the steps outside a party, someone I barely know pushing forcefully on my leg as I try to leave. I do not want to sit and talk. And I have this braveness to leave and yell, but still I have to call a friend, because I am just not sure how it will turn out if I do not. When I am dumb enough to let that guard down, I find myself stuck in a room multiple nights a week trying to pretend I’m not being stared at until I am crying at 2am on the phone, feeling unsafe. When I am dumb enough to let that guard down, I find myself noticing the stares and catcalls as I walk innocently, dressed conservatively down the street with a female friend.

I have had many wonderful, amazing, respectful male friends and boyfriends. But there is this arsenal of memories of being helpless to my sexuality body ready to erupt at a moment’s notice.

Just yesterday, a male friend and I walked through a shopping center passed a restaurant. He informed me a bunch of men had given me some really intense stares, looking me up and down to see what carnal pleasures they might derive from my carcass. As my guard was up, I had not seen it myself. I do not want to see it. I do not want to know, this is the best way to be. Upperclassmen, I would say, when I fill out, you will not hear about it. This is how it works, my humanity is stolen, so I dissolve that of the onlookers as well. Together we can stop existing.

I did not start my eating disorder with a need to be thin, beauty was not in my initial musing of perfection. It just fit so naturally. The dehumanization furthered my drive to rid myself of my flesh. Avoiding puberty was in a way a bonus, but I knew well enough to realize this was can added incentive to approach for some.

When girls and women are universally not forced to be more or less than they are, then the force of body image will recede.Our bodies will not being something to drag around shamefully or with pride due to some outside reaction. Our bodies will be for ourselves and to the world we will be so much more than flesh.

“Leaning from the steep slope,without fear of wind or vertigo” -Calvino

My tastes are changing. I sucked the juice from half of a regular lemon, something I’d normally find repulsive. But the sourness was delicious and there was this faint incredible sweetness (it was definitely a sour lemon, not meyer, etc). I had plain steamed broccoli and again experienced this barely apparent sweetness. I have no desire to eat anything besides that which has been prescribed. I have no food anxiety.

My energy continues to be incredible in that I am focused and motivated. However, all of us on this challenge experience a slump at the gym today. We back squatted and the weight I used for my work sets 5% lower than I had anticipated. The trainer said this was to be expected and should subside next week. I should also admit I was very sick and had to take last week off, so I’m still getting back into it. I am patient.