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It began at 4 feet 4 inches and 74 pounds.
I stand shivering and barefoot on the looming white scale in the doctor’s office. He reads the magic number aloud in a voice that sounds like a cement mixer.
“She’s certainly grown up. And out!”
My mother laughs like a bell. The sound bounces off the tile floor and rolls down the hallway. I crouch quietly and double knot the laces on my new black sneakers.
On the way out the receptionist offers me a lollipop.
“No, thank you”
My child voice wavers slightly, but before I have a chance to change my mind, mother grabs my hand and whisks me off to another balletlesson/soccerpractice/extracurricular designed to enrich me. To mold and shape me into the perfect little girl I am supposed to be.
From that day forward there was a small idea that takes root in the back of my mind. When I do not pay attention to it, it grows and ferments and mutates into something bigger and more dangerous.
In the meantime, I live my normal child life. I read, Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens and Beverly Cleary. I play sports and finger paint and skin my knees. I become a healthy, well adjusted kid.
And yet, that idea is still there, waiting. When I am uninvited to the most popular girl’s pool party, the dangerous idea in the back of my mind pipes up in a high tinny voice,
“It’s because you’re fat”
“No one wants to see you in a bikini because you’re fat. That’s why she said you couldn’t come”
I pull up my polka dot tank top and stare at my rounded belly. At 9 years old, I still have the pudgy cheeks and knobby knees of a child. I am a late bloomer. I don’t need the training bras my classmates show off under thin cotton tshirts. The boys don’t whisper about me on the playground or chase me at recess. My body is unremarkable, invisible. I poke my stomach and my finger sinks into the soft flesh. I move my hand and it springs back into place.
I strut into the kitchen and tap my mother on the shoulder. She turns, holding the phone to her ear.
“What is it?”
But her eyes don’t see me. She’s wrapped in a conversation with someone else about something else. Another time and place. I am invisible to her.
“Mum, am I fat?”
“Yes honey, ask me later, I’m busy”
It’s summer now, the pool party has come and gone. I am at sleep away dive camp, staying on campus at a college, going off the high dive and learning back flips and reverse tucks. My roommate is 13. She is bottle blonde and plastic and she tells me about her boyfriend. After every meal she goes to the bathroom to empty herself. When I ask why, she explains that the food hurts her tummy and makes her fat so she has to get rid of it.
“If it makes you fat then why do you want to eat it?”
“Because it’s too hard not to eat. I tried to once and it’s likeimpossible. I bet you couldn’t do it.”
My mouth turns up into a grin. The loose molar in the back sticks out. I love betting.
I soon discover that she is wrong. Not eating is easy and I like it. It makes my head feel clean and everything looks sharp and crisp. Things come into clearer focus when I am hungry. I become separate from the world, floating above everyone else. Weightless. Invisible.
My birthday comes. I am 10. I hide my slice of birthday cake behind the orange juice carton and throw it away that night.
My parents are beginning to worry. They see my bird cage ribs and shoulder blade wings. They know something is not right. Little girls are not twig arms and fairy cheekbones. Little girls are not birdlike. Little girls are rosy faces and pleasantly plump bellies. They take me to another doctor.
I sit in the disinfected metal chair as my parents talk a nurse who smells like cough drops and rubbing alcohol. Phrases float weightlessly over my head, little snatches of a conversation full of big words that I don’t understand. I am invisible.
My father turns to me. “sweetie, you’ve going to have to get some bloodwork done to make sure nothing is wrong with your insides.”
I know nothing is wrong with my insides. They are clean and pure and perfect and I have not failed at all lately.
We go to another doctor who bites me on the wrist with a thin needle and sucks out my blood. It smells like wet pennies.
My parents get the results back. They call the concrete mixer voice pediatrician. I sit quietly at the kitchen table while they spit out words like iron anemic and genetics and high cholesterol.
My mother tells me that my body is a bit off and I will have to eat different things to correct the problems. The new commandments are cakeicecreamcheeseeggsmilk are bad and supplementsspinachsaladbeanskale are good. She says that the reason I am not growing properly is I am eating too much of the wrong things, but if I follow those rules it will be fixed.
I smile to myself because they are wrong. I am not eating too much of anything. I have my own rules, and they fix things quite nicely.
I learn to be more careful, to assuage suspicion. Sweaters and tights and layers replace body fat as insulation, and hide my birdboney body from view. Tight ballet buns restrain the thinning hair that sheds on my pillow and in the shower. Long sleeves cover the angry cat scratch marks I have been making to punish myself for my mistakes. My smile hides my secret.
I am a natural actress. I learn to be the girl people want me to be. I jump through the hoops and create a perfect cover, an identity that I can rely on. I get good grades and make varsity and volunteer at the animal shelter. I am the very picture of healthy, happy and stable.
Sometimes I will eat. I will get tired of this torture and I will gain weight and cook and laugh and-
Then I will look in the mirror and see how the blobby fat is suffocating my birdlike bones. Weighing me down. Keeping me from flying.
Usually I do not eat. I drink water and write and run until I am tired enough to sleep without nightmares.
I discover thinspo on the internet. I learn the proper words for what I have been doing. I start counting calories. I learn the tips and tricks of the trade. I embrace pro-ana.
I get older.
11, 12, 13
My prepubescent years are spent standing on a scale, staring into the mirror.
I am 5’0 now, and I want nothing more than to be below 74 pounds again. Below the number that I realized I was fat.
More time passes. I am too focused counting pounds and calories and inches and miles to worry about days or months or years.
I am 100 pounds, then 82, then 94 and back down to 78. I am a pingpong ball, up and down on the scale. Back and forth through life.
I am 15.
I have a best friend. We share secrets like currency, trading our trust for promises. I tell her about my mind, the things that scare me. How my stomach claws itself apart when I try to force food into it. I show her the white scars on my legs, the reminders of my weaker nights. I tell her how I am trying to become a bird, weightless and free.
She tries to fix me. Tells me how what I’m doing is wrong. How I’m hurting myself. How I am going to die. That I’m going to fade away.
I laugh to myself.
That’s the point, you see. I am trying to fade away.
It’s 3 am now and I am running on the treadmill. It is the 3rd day in a row without food, and I feel deliciously lightheaded and floaty. On mile 4, inky black spots swim in front of my eyes and wrap around my mind, making everything disappear for a minute. I ignore them. I am stronger than the body that I inhabit, and I do not need to stop running. The black ghost spots come back. I reluctantly turn off the machine and lie down on the dusty brick floor to make the room stop dancing and spinning around my head.
I open my eyes.
I don’t know how long I’ve been out.
My heartbird is fluttering between my ribs, desperately trying to break free of the bones that cage it.
Then it stops beating its wings.
It starts again. Sporadically.
It cannot decide whether to give up for good.
I am scared.
I don’t want to kill the heartbird.
I do not want to die.
So I stop.
I let it go.
I let go of the idea. Let go of starvation and hunger. Of self control and power. Of my desire for a boney bird body.
The ghosts that had been hiding behind my collarbones and the back of my mind float out of me. Weightless, they fly away.
I learn to trust. I tell secrets and share my feelings. I talk. It’s messy and confusing and scary. Some days I get lost and I wander back into the darkness, but when that happens there is always a hand to hold to lead me back out. I am gaining. Not just weight, but emotions and creativity and even hope. I am growing.
I am finally free. I am no longer an eating disorder. I am not numbers or calories or inches or pounds. I am not anorexia. I am a girl. I am an odd fondness for graveyards and clementines and the smell of film developer. I am my two brothers and a dog who is the color of cinnamon. I am a grey house in the woods, and crickets sing me to sleep at night. I am my mother, with a smile that could fix the world and my father, with a voice like flannel. I am rain and pine needles and the color of the sky in the morning. I am hair that curls into swirly spirals with a streak that is the color of the fuchsia crayon. I am watercolors and acrylics and black and white film. I am tall enough to reach the top shelf in the cupboard and I weigh enough to keep my body tethered to the earth. I am food that tastes like folk songs and smells like a campfire. I am friends who can recognize the sound of my laugh across a room. I am down pillows and my old teddy bear and patent leather flats. I am sadness and confusion and anger and sometimes happiness and hope. I am a child and an adult and everything in between. I am growing and changing and becoming who I am.
I am no longer invisible, I am free. I am the bird I always longed to be. I am me, and that is all that matters.