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(pre-reading) Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

Posted by pocochina on April 25, 2007

I haven’t read Courtney Martin’s book (Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) yet, but the excerpt I read in Bitch last month fascinated me.  It’s tough to find intelligent feminist perspectives on girls, perfectionism, and eating disorders, but I hope and believe Martin’s book will be one.

It makes me nervous, though.  Every book, every study, every mild statement about girls and eating disorders makes me nervous.

I had an eating disorder for years.  From middle school, to maybe halfway through junior year in high school, I slid in and out of moderate anorexia and exercise bulimia.  I didn’t give it those names, though, until I was most of my way through college.  See, even though I was hungry all the time, exercising all the time, never staying still except in class, not even able to stay in bed at night, I was never thin.  How, I rationalized until I was almost 21, could I possibly have had an eating disorder when I wore a size 13?  I was just dieting.  Exercising.  Enjoying dance class.  Stuff that was good for you.  I have a long stream of vivid memories centered around food and weight.  I remember breaking a fast after five days of band camp with a bullion cube in boiling water – didn’t want to use two, that’d have been excessive – and being disappointed in myself when I added a couple of crackers.  I didn’t always live like that, but there must have been weeks, if not months, at a time of only a few hundred calories per fourteen – hour day.  The time in between wasn’t binging, that I remember, but regular eating would torment and change my body unforgivably.

I have vivid memories of peope who should’ve known better not knowing better.  I told my mom once that my clothes were too big, I needed to go shopping, and she told me I had to lose another size before she’d spend money on new clothes.  She thought she was saving me from her own lifelong trouble with food and weight, “being supportive,” but she was just making it worse.  I remember starting to eat again, and when I asked my doctor about my sudden and rapid weight gain she told me that my baked chips and juice after school were very, very serious and if I wanted to lose weight, I would stop right away.  Now, as an adult with some perspective, I realize she should’ve picked something up.  She should’ve realized that one in four girls suffers the way I was at the time; she should’ve seen an adolescent overachiever who had already given up fried food, soda, ice cream, all the other culprits she could think of, and known.  She should have seen the way I hugged my paper gown to myself and stared at the floor when she interrogated me about my eating habits.  But I was overweight, and so she chose not to notice.  Fatass, indulging in juice.  Guess I didn’t deserve help.

One or two of my friends suspected, but what could they do?

They told us about eating disorders at school, sometimes – drastic scare stories of girls (always girls, of course, and pretty girls at that) in the hospital who had starved themselves to death.  Literally.  They were so thin, they actually deserved help.  And I would wonder how they did it, and hope for their “willpower,” and wish I had the nerve to stick my finger down my throat when I was dying for a soft pretzel.

How could I have an eating disorder?  I was fat.  Fat, fat, fat, it was all I thought about, all I knew about myself.  It colored my humiliating crushes, came in my carry-on when I traveled over the summers, haunted me until I quit ballet and its endless leotards and mirrors.  How could I have an eating disorder, when I wasn’t almost dead?

I have a body that can’t be thin.  It just won’t.  And at the time, it was a good thing in that it kept me alive, kept on marching throughout those long days.  But it was what kept me from being diagnosed, what kept me from getting the help I needed.

I would have read Courtney Martin’s excerpt in Bitch, and not have realized she was talking about me.  I would have been painfully, hatefully envious of those girls.  And I don’t blame my dumb, teenager self for that feeling.

I coach kids now, a few hours a week.  I watch for the ashamed expressions I used to wear, I listen for laughs that are too fake.  And I just can’t tell.  I’ve separated myself from that experience.  I’m still unable to watch it from the outside.  But I try.

It took me until halfway through college to separate the disease of disordered eating from the symptom of a thin body.  I never told anyone until my senior year.  I imagine it would feel similar to come out as queer for the first time, that’s how hard it was to face my four friends in our kitchen and explain to them why our copy of Cosmo had sent me over the edge.  But dammit, it’s time to talk.  God damn it, I am telling everyone who will listen that an eating disorder looks like me.

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