The Number Consumption This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

January 7, 2014
By , Baltimore, MD
“Based upon your responses to this eating attitude test, your scores are similar to others who have an eating disorder or at risk for developing an eating disorder. You are at significant risk for an eating disorder…”

That’s what I read on my illuminated computer screen shrouded by night’s ebony cloak. My pallid face gazed at the screen, and then I sharply turned away in alarm. I hastily exited the window, erasing my search history. My results disappeared into infinite cyberspace, intermixing with YouTube searches for Jenna Marble’s “Landshark” or Google Images of “Stuff on my Rabbit.”

My screen returned to the familiar image of my friends, their assortment of nymph-like smirks, permanently frozen in minute pixels. I frantically rubbed my eyes, an attempt to scrub away the label the test plastered on me, the simple black and white graffiti forever tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. This contemporary calligraphy evokes a wave of nostalgia: on my way to church in downtown Baltimore, we drive on I-83; before, I used to gaze out through the glass window of the car to the outside where murals of graffiti ran by on a canvas of cement alongside the road. One Sunday I noticed they were gone. In their place was straight-lined, Spartan black paint covering those images, those hallmarks, those voices. Yet, the graffiti still remains. The wall will never return to the clean, untainted slate it once was; no coat of pristine perfection can hide what lies underneath.

Numbers act the same way as graffiti does, ubiquitous and therefore unavoidable. I always liked them: with numbers, there is always one answer, plain and simple, black and white, nothing to question.

2,000 + 100 = 2,100. That’s my Basal Metabolic Rate, BMR for short. 2,100, that’s my recommended allotment of calories per day.

2,100 – 900 = 1,200. That’s the minimum number of calories I should consume each day.

1,200 / 6 = 200. That’s how many maximum calories that remained in my system every day for part of last spring. That is 30 calories less than a regular bag of M&M’s.

Numbers are ubiquitous, pedestrian even. [“Anti-jokes” are a modern and witty form of humor with a notorious sardonic brusqueness.] As a child, one often hears the simple, “number joke”: “Why was 6 afraid of 7?” In an “anti-joke,” the subsequent, curt response is “numbers are insentient and can therefore feel no emotion.” Those satirical people of “anti-jokes” are right; numbers are really just cold, rigid, detached, unfeeling black lines on a white sheet of paper.

“I really want to lose 15 pounds,” my father would incessantly grumble aloud. Everyone in my family already knew his efforts were futile because he could never part with his precious Hershey bars and Root Beer. I decided to be proactive, lead by example. So together we sat on my bed one night, my mattress heaving, complaining about the weight of two. I searched in the app store for a calorie counter. 1 out of 329, but it does not matter which one I chose. I could have selected any one of those 329, each one of those aesthetically pleasing apps, the products that reflect marketing surveys show the public wants. They all scream out “Pick me!” as they wait in their perfectly bordered display boxes to be chosen out of the crowd. I opted for one individual out of the multitude, but what is the difference between app number one and app number 200? They all convey the same message, the same slogan: “If you are unhappy with your body, do something to change it!” I heeded those 329 apps, but nothing is that simple.

Initially, my diet consisted of healthier foods, ones with more nutritious food values. After every meal or snack, I recorded the calories religiously.

I stashed a scale behind the snow-white, wood door of my bathroom closet, bunking it with my snowmen-embroidered towels. Habitually, I bent over to remove the thin, clear plastic scale and placed it on the frosty sheet of snow beside its toilet cohort. The privy sat there, a white throne of ice, born from the snowstorm around it. I stepped onto the scale, naked, with only a bra and underwear, because even clothes bear a person down. I exhaled slowly and then looked down at the number. The cruel measurement stares up at me, reflected by the subjugating assaults of disgust and disapproval in my eyes.

Each time I stood on that scale, I stood up to the Podium of Judgment. Eyes scrutinize and mock, those same analytical and calculating eyes I see in the mirror which gaze back at me. I no longer see the eyes I recognize from my past 15 years of life, but different ones, harsher and more unforgiving. Those critics never held the emotions I felt. I thought they assessed objectively, accurately. I believed what they saw, agreed with the flaws they noticed. Imprisoned within a fragile, glass bubble of artificiality, what began as innocent, innocuous flurries raged into a full-fledged blizzard. The snow overwhelmed me; I thrashed my arms, desperately, but in vain. Trapped in my snow globe, the snowflakes amassed into a mountainous heap, smothering me with my own callous, merciless contempt. I knew failure was never an option. So I followed the only logical path, “If you are unhappy with your body, do something to change it!”

The numbers decreased. From 2,100 down to 1,500 and so on, always setting the Goal of the Week to fewer calories. The numbers consumed me. When I was little, I would wade into the icy waters of Maine searching for star fish suctioned to the barnacle-clad rocks, battling through the numbness that spread through my body like a cancerous parasite. Instead of water, it was the numbers that made me numb, attacking my body, my very self.

Yes, numbers are omnipresent, but they also became omnipotent: numbers steered my thoughts, my actions, my very existence. I created my own sacrosanct doctrines, regulating my every action. Candy has too many grams of sugar and calories, you cannot eat it. Chips have too much sodium and saturated fat; eat one, it will make you fat.

For breakfast, I would eat most of a container of yogurt and 10 to 15 blueberries, totaling about 80 calories. My lunches varied between three options: celery (12 to 15 pieces) and baby carrots (10 to 12 pieces) with one tablespoon of hummus, pretzel crisps (8) with one small triangle of Baby Bell cheese, or salad. That would range from about 35 to 100 calories. Dinners and nights at home were where I struggled most.

Unlike breakfast or lunch, hiding my eating, or lack thereof, would not go past my parents. So I ate, pretended to be fine, sat at my designated seat at the dinner table where I knew I belonged. After dinner, I permitted myself to binge on all the food I forbade myself from eating during the day, mechanically shoveling, indulging in those sacrilegious pleasures. Oreos, goldfish, Cheeze-its, ice cream, they all accumulated in my mouth, their taste of remorse, self-reproach, shame mingling with the overflowing bulge of my stomach. Then, I retreated to my room. I shut the door, blared my music and escaped to my winter wonderland, where I grew accustomed to kneeling on my worn knees in front of the throne of ice. I released all those demons clawing inside of me, but all I did was feed the inferno.

Even now, I struggle listening to my peers’ discuss their emetophobia, fear of throwing up: “My sister had the stomach flu and was throwing up all last night!”

Her friend’s quick response is “Ewww gross do not even talk about puke or else I will throw up!”

Every day I hear, “I am so fat, just look at my food baby!”

“Your stomach, please! Have you seen my thighs?”

When they compete over who is more dissatisfied with their bodies, I am sickened. I imagine myself stalking angrily away, but I never do. Nobody wins a dispute like that; congratulations, you are more displeased with your body image than she is. Sometimes I want to scream, interrupt, just find some way to make them stop, but I never do. Do they not notice how damaging their words are? The simple answer is no, they do not. When I unconsciously glance at my stomach after hearing them, they are unaware of the painful, excruciatingly shameful memories that surface from the mere mention of the words “fat” or “throw up.” I am not ready to speak, not yet. It took me a while before I could even say the phrase out loud, the words the “attitude test” predicted just months ago.

Over time, water chips away at stone and weather gradually clears the paint away until only the graffiti is left, raw and exposed. Hopefully the graffiti will be accepted, not pigeonholed as delinquencies of vandalism, but rather embraced as displays of artistry. I do not know.

All I know is that I suffered and currently suffer from anorexia and bulimia.

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Gabrielle97 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 10, 2014 at 9:19 pm
I absolutely love this essay! You have amazing imagery, your writing is beautiful!!! 
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