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In Pursuit of Perfection
Monday morning. The girl woke up with a feeling of unease in her too-large stomach. She blinked at the ceiling a few times, hoping the day would go away. After fifteen minutes she rolled off the bed, landing on the floor with a thud.
She listened to music as she went through the motions of her daily routine – brushing her teeth, combing her hair, weighing herself. She stepped slowly onto the digital scale, taking a deep breath before, and releasing it in disappointment after.
She turned the revolving mirror towards herself briefly to check that her shirt was tucked in from behind, then turned it back towards the wall. Whenever her mother came into her room she would turn the mirror towards the front. “What’s the point of a mirror if you keep it facing the wall?” she would ask.
The girl turned off the music, shoved the weighing scale under her bed and went to the living room to get her bag. Her mother was at the dining table, drinking tea and reading the morning paper over her square-rimmed glasses.
She had almost escaped when her mother said, “No breakfast?”
She sighed and grabbed an oatmeal bar.
On the road now. She walked swiftly to the bus. Brisk walking can burn 200 calories in 30 minutes. She tried to expend more energy with each step, hopped up into the bus a bit too fast and stumbled to her seat.
She sat through her classes, shaking her leg all the while. It helped her stay awake, and movement burnt calories.
On the last page of her notebook she created a dense forest, shady green trees extending up to the heavens and sweet sap trickling down the bark to the forest floor. She drew the light veins in the leaves and the way their edges caught the sunlight. She drew the grooves in the tree bark, like a maze for insects to navigate.
Lunch time. A classmate at her table was opening a box of kiwi.
“Can I have some? I love fruits,” the girl said.
“Doesn’t look like you do,” one of them sniggered. “Oh god, I’m just kidding. Here, have some.”
The girl didn’t eat the kiwi.
Mind full of a strange buzzing, she turned away from the kiwi and towards Nikita who was talking about the essay due tomorrow. She barely heard what Nikita was saying; instead, she noticed how her pants were crinkled at the seams, the fabric making tiny crests and troughs. The fabric of her own pants was stretched tight.
Home again. She sat in front of the computer and read till the words blended into each other. The grapefruit diet, the Atkins diet, the fruit diet. Ten-minute power work out, fat burning exercises, slimmer waist in 14 days.
Ideas whirling in her head like fireflies, she took out an old notebook.
• Oatmeal bar
• Half a taco
• Cheese sandwich
• Pesto pasta
• A small cookie
• A box of strawberries
She snapped the notebook shut. The dust on the cover leapt up in surprise. Just as the dust was getting its bearings, she flipped the notebook to the last page, forcing it to rise up again in a panic.
Pencil in hand, she began to draw. It was a drawing she had made many variations of before – a beautiful model, her legs perfectly shaped and tanned, her hips blooming gracefully at her sides, her collarbones sticking out as if they wanted to share in the model’s glory. She drew until the pencil fell out of her hand and she fell asleep on the notebook.
Next morning. She woke up early and left before her mother came for breakfast. She paced around the bus stop and watched the morning joggers. A woman in a neon pink sports jacket and fitted black tights ran by, smelling of expensive fruity deodorant. A middle aged man passed, his shirt covered in flecks of sweat like the markings on a moth.
She wondered how the lady fit into her tights, how the man found the inspiration to get up and run early in the morning. She wondered why the only people exercising were the ones who didn’t need to.
School. Biology class. A chart of the food pyramid was tacked to the wall. Succulent red meats, tangy, juicy fruits and soft, fragrant bread taunted her from across the classroom. She concentrated on making perfect little triangles around the edge of her notebook. Not a triangle too big, not a triangle out of place.
Lunch. She pulled out her earphones to hear Nikita ask, “Want to go to the mall after school? We can get new clothes.” She wouldn’t buy clothes herself until the scale showed 52. But it had been a long time since she had gone out with Nikita. She said yes.
After school, at the mall. The girls stood in a jazzy retail store, the smell of new clothes and upbeat pop music all around. The girl looked at the slender mannequins standing smugly in the window, the confident models in the posters. They were so happy and carefree.
She and Nikita sorted through the racks of clothes together, admiring the bright colours and new styles, deciding what they would pair with this skirt, that dress, those jeans. The girl always enjoyed looking at trendy clothes in catalogues more than wearing them herself.
Nikita and she went into their favourite ice cream parlour after. They had been coming there since sixth grade; it was hard not to return after tasting their famous cherry swirl ice cream. The ice cream tasted like actual cherries, not the syrupy kind, and it had twinkling red edible glitter mixed in. Besides, Ahmad, the guy who worked there always put extra glace cherries on top for them.
They ordered their ice creams and sat down. The girl remembered her diary and felt a sudden weight drop in her stomach. But the ice cream tasted like summer and friendship, and she didn’t want to make Nikita eat alone.
Tomorrow’s a new day, she reminded herself as she took a bite.
“Are you still trying to go on a diet?” Nikita asked, swirling the glitter in her cup.
The weight in the girl’s stomach became heavier. “I keep messing up,” she confessed in a low voice.
Nikita shrugged. “I don’t see why you need it anyway. You’re actually a normal weight.”
The girl didn’t reply. She didn’t want to be this ‘normal weight’. She didn’t want the extra ring of fat that slopped down her sides like lard when she sat, just as it was doing now. She didn’t want the struggle of forcing her jeans up her thighs, the mad swinging of her flesh whenever she shook hands with someone, the indentations the seams of her pants left in her skin.
The ice cream suddenly tasted like petroleum.
• Avocado salad
• 1 banana
• Two spoons of ice cream
School, P.E. The girl’s class had a physical fitness test. She watched as the school football team captain flew down the track, her classmates buzzing appreciatively near the finish line, the sports teacher writing down her time and nodding his head in approval. Then the girl shouldered her bag and left. She didn’t need a sports teacher to tell her what was already glaring her in the face.
• 1 apple
• 1 cucumber sandwich
5 A.M. The alarm clock’s frenzied mechanical cries were met by first a groan, but then a purposeful pressing down of the button as the girl remembered her plan. She sat up too fast, and then clutched the bedsheet till the cupboard in front of her was the right way up again.
She played music on low, locked her door and started trying to mimic the athletic blonde woman on her laptop screen. Start by stretching your muscles out a bit, the woman advised in an Australian accent.
The girl matched every graceful movement with a clumsy one. Every smooth transition with ragged breaths. The timer at the edge of the screen always ran ahead of her.
But she felt a light feeling in her stomach, which didn’t seem too large now. She felt the blood rushing excitedly in her veins as it felt it too.
She stopped after one set, falling to the floor, her breath rushing away from her as if it wanted no part in this new workout routine. She sat there for a while, trying to ignore the stitch forming in her side.
Later in the shower, her arm ached when she reached for the shampoo on the shelf. She sang in the shower for the first time since she had entered high school.
First period, school. The girl sat in the empty cafeteria and carefully took out a bottle with a translucent peach liquid in it. She turned the bottle around a bit, admiring the elixir as it caught the fluorescent lunch hall light. She had put a few lemon slices in it like she had seen fitness models do. Then, with the air of one about to drink holy water from the river Ganga, she raised the bottle to her lips and drank the tangy sweet grapefruit juice. A few drops remained on her lips when she was done. Peach drops on peach lips.
Throughout the day she felt the ache in her bones as she moved. Her skeleton was protesting this morning’s attempt at exercise. Her hipbones, in particular were unhappy. But she knew she deserved it. No pain, no gain, she thought as she limped towards the art room.
• 2 bottles grapefruit juice
• 1 grapefruit
The next day, after school. The girl walked into her living room to see her least favourite uncle sitting in her favourite seat. Her mother looked up.
“Say hello to your uncle, honey. He’s visiting from London.”
The girl said hello softly. The uncle’s lips smiled at her, but not his eyes, which were taking in her size.
“Quite a, ahem, healthy girl you’re raising, Vaishali,” he told her mother. He chuckled at his own observation, the same one he made every time he saw her.
As a child she hadn’t cared much, had grinned toothily up at him, half-melted foreign chocolates clutched in her hands, her Barbie t-shirt unable to cover the entirety of her stomach.
But she wasn’t a child anymore.
Sharp needles were suddenly poking her eyes from behind. She mumbled something about being tired after school and locked herself in her bedroom.
Inside, she screamed and screamed.
She screamed but no one heard her. She screamed noiselessly, with silent tears to match. Something in her chest was breaking. She caught sight of herself in the revolving mirror her mother had rotated again, her body a big blob, her face screwed up like an ugly ragdoll’s. The mirror screeched when she pushed it away.
She sat on the floor, rocking back and forth like a wooden horse she had owned as a child. All her progress from the last few days was unwinding, like a video in reverse. She hadn’t really accomplished anything. She couldn’t stick to a diet, couldn’t stick to an exercise routine, couldn’t stick with anything.
She looked down at her thighs, the repulsive flesh spilling everywhere, the stretch marks like pale red scars. Her stomach was a bulging pouch that pushed against her breasts when she bent down. She hastily looked away and up at the ceiling.
7th August, 2016
• 1 grapefruit
Morning. The girl stared up at the ceiling still, her eyes glazed, her pillow damp. Her throat felt like miners had been chipping away at its insides all night. Slowly, she got out of bed. Her mother wouldn’t let her miss school.
But she knew what she had to do now.
8th August, 2016
Soon she would be able to buy clothes again. She was going to be happy, happy as the girls in the posters. (Her stomach felt like a long-fingered-someone was scratching it from the inside.)
9th August, 2016
Her uncle would never call her ‘healthy’ again. (Her stomach was trying to twist itself into a knot.)
10th August, 2016
“Are you okay? You look pale,” Nikita said.
“I’m fine. Just trying something new,” the girl replied. (Her stomach was squeezing the life out of itself.)
11th August, 2016
12th August, 2016
13th August, 2016
Her mother had noticed.
“You look so skinny. Are you sick? What did you have for lunch today?” she asked, turning away from her laptop.
“Not much, this and that…” the girl replied.
“What is ‘this and that’? Have you been eating properly?”
Her mother’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “Eating junk food is bad, but not eating is worse. You eat every meal in front of me from now on.”
Still no response.
She pushed a bowl of grapes across the table, her expression pleading now. “You must eat.”
The girl didn’t.
14th August, 2016
15th August, 2016
A bleak morning. An emotionless room far from home. The girl sat making a light sketch of a flower. The petals were all different sizes.
“You must eat now,” the clinical voice came.
The girl did.
They extended your term here if you didn’t.