Broad Recognition

A Feminist Magazine at Yale

The Unlovable Body: A Reflection on Disordered Eating

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Every single daydream starts with there being less of me. It doesn’t matter what it is: I’m sleeping with Michael Fassbender, I’m Poet Laureate of the Universe, Sleater-Kinney gets back together and adds me on bass—every idle fantasy begins with the caveat that I am ten, or twenty, or thirty pounds lighter than I currently am. You could make an argument that I don’t want anything more than I want to be skinny. You would probably be right.

I was anorexic and bulimic for many years. I never got bad enough to be hospitalized, but I was a scary-looking person, I would stop getting my period for months at a time, and there was a constant sly whisper in my head saying worthless, undisciplined, fat. Skinny was my idol, starving my religion; I counted calories like I’d once prayed rosaries. I had a black notebook that I kept hidden behind a bookshelf in my room, and in it, every night, I wrote down four things: my current weight, what I ate during the day, how much I exercised, and how many times I threw up. On good days, when I’d done hundreds of sit-ups and eaten next to nothing, I would feel virtuous, clean, filled with light. On bad days I would curl up on my bathroom floor and sob, wondering why I was trapped in this thing, this body I hated, this clinging robe of excess flesh that I longed to discard.

Relationships seemed impossible; I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever want me the way I was. And so I spent a lot of time alone, at war with myself, doing quiet, devastating violence to my own body. There’s a line from a poem I wrote at that age that comes back to me sometimes: I want to read my ribs like headlines. I thought there was some secret knowledge that thinness would bring me, some magic in it that would make me more successful, more lovely, more loved. I never found it.

In many ways I am better now, but some things break and stay broke. I have a vivid memory of myself at sixteen, facing sideways in front of my mirror and pushing the skin of my sunken stomach into what I was sure was a potbelly. I stood there staring at my 5’8”, 100-pound frame, and seeing, literally seeing, someone vast and bloated and monstrous staring back. How much can you ever rely your senses again after that? How can you trust your own mind? There are other scraps of delusion that I can’t ever seem to root out. No matter how much I try to forget I could still tell you without hesitation the number of calories in a handful of almonds or two and a half Saltines. I still steal glances at my reflection in shop windows and feel horrified at how thick my thighs are, or how round my cheeks. I am healthier and happier now, but I can’t help but think I was prettier then. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m locked in a body that I will never love.

I am not alone in this. I am one of a multitude. I have met women of my age who eat what they want and couldn’t care less if they gained two pounds over Christmas, but I am firmly convinced that they are the exception, not the rule. The rule is that if you are a woman in America you want nothing quite so much as you want to be a little smaller. The rule is you are always trying to lose.
It’s no coincidence that this is primarily a women’s issue (although I don’t want to discount the growing number of men who fall victim to disordered eating as well). Even in today’s society women’s bodies are not entirely our own, and we are not always able to avoid others’ attempts to pass judgment on or make demands of or possess them. We are obligated to be attractive in a way men are not. We have been made responsible for the cultivation of other people’s desire. We are constantly under the scrutiny of a hegemonic male gaze that demands beauty and accepts no substitutes, and we are left to placate that watchful ideal by tithing gym trips and skipped dinners. And so whole nations of women spend their hours not reading books or loving bands or making the goddamn revolution but instead agonizing over the inches of a waist, strengthening the bounds that tether us to a sinking anchor.

Still, I can’t pin down exactly what it is that makes us this way. For my trouble, I could maybe blame the Vogues I pored over in our public library as I dreamed of the life, and the looks, I would have when I finally got the fuck out of Iowa. Maybe I should credit my gymnastics coaches, who could examine a ten-year-old girl and talk openly about her body line. Maybe the problem was my namesake, Catharine of Siena, the only saint to starve herself to death by eating nothing but communion wafers. Or maybe it’s no one’s fault but mine. I honestly couldn’t say. So this is not an essay where I will offer solutions, because I don’t have any. I won’t call for more resources, because I don’t know what they are, or that they would help. And I can’t rail against an enemy, because I don’t know who it is that we are fighting, except ourselves.

Instead, I mean this as something like an elegy. For the girls I know and the girl I was, and sometimes still very much am, who construct entire lives engineered for emptiness. For those who have died, or died a little, or who feel like failures for doing what they must to stay alive. For a generation of brilliant, driven, angry, wonderful women who get up, and look in the mirror, and demand so much less of themselves.

Katherine Orazem is a senior in Yale College.  She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

Comments (15)

  • Kate,

    I love this. It made me cry. That you for writing it; it really gripped me.

    Chloé

    posted by Chloe Rossetti      September 19th, 2011 at 10:55 am

  • Kate,

    You’re an amazing writer. I completely understand everything you’ve said here. Please read my website: http://www.lastingchangenow.com and let me know your thoughts.

    Beth

    posted by Beth Novick      September 19th, 2011 at 7:37 pm

  • This piece has everything that makes a personal essay great: it’s beautifully written, relatable to everyone to a certain degree, and, most importantly, rousing. My chest swelled a bit at the line, “And so whole nations of women spend their hours not read­ing books or lov­ing bands or mak­ing the god­damn rev­o­lu­tion but instead ago­niz­ing over the inches of a waist, strength­en­ing the bounds that tether us to a sink­ing anchor.”
    Thank you for sharing this essay with us Kate.

    posted by Rachel KN      September 19th, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  • Katherine, this is such a wise reflection. Thank you.

    posted by Emma Dorsey      September 19th, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  • Girl, you are so brave. This was beautiful.

    posted by Tessa Smith      September 19th, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  • “Skinny was my idol, starv­ing my reli­gion; I counted calo­ries like I’d once prayed rosaries.”

    Kate, you are so good at writing. So smart, funny when you need to be, always clever and always sensitive. This, like all other things you’ve written, is great. I miss working with you.

    posted by Tatiana      September 20th, 2011 at 11:00 am

  • Where I grew up in the U.S., 2/3 of women are overweight and half of those 2/3 are considered obese. I’m all for a little extra padding on women, but the degree to which the women where I lived were overweight/obese was a public health problem similar to starvation but at the other extreme. I think it’s now similar in other states. Therefore I can’t agree that women are mostly like you, although I kind of know what you mean about women trying to keep their figure.

    Also, since you said you were still sometimes very much the person you were, I hope you will have the courage to change and embrace a life not engineered for emptiness.

    posted by Sandy      September 25th, 2011 at 2:06 am

  • This is a phenomenally written, cathartic, and powerful piece that is so, so important. You are beautiful and brave…thank you for sharing this.

    posted by Lauren      September 26th, 2011 at 12:00 am

  • Sandy, the very serious public health problem of obesity in this country is primarily the product of a dysfunctional and corrupt food system and the misallocated government subsidies that support it. Confusing this problem with (or even putting it on the same continuum as) eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, symptoms of the cultural and social pressures that Kate so movingly elaborates, dangerously obscures the distinct causes of each.

    And I don’t think I know a more courageous person than the author of this piece.

    posted by Sam      September 28th, 2011 at 12:19 pm

  • Kate, you are courageous. But more importantly, you are weak. And you admit to it. And you elevate weakness to a state of being worth writing about, worth publishing about.

    I am so sorry to hear that were tortured. But it has made you more expressive and more understanding and more able to feel. For that, I am thankful. We all are. Through these words you have, perhaps unknowingly, prescribed two of the few cures for an awful disease called disordered eating: expression and time.

    posted by Alison Greenberg      October 7th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  • Listen to our bodies. We are them, they are us. They not seperate from us. We do not inhabit them. Our mind and body are both two and one.

    Lets try to open up the scope of the discussion here too. Eating disorders are part of a broad spectrum of body abuse. Whether its football or anorexia, we have beaten ourselves into numbness. Like fools, we value the ability to tolerate stress and pain, disrespecting the gift of life itself.

    Learn how to breathe. Learn to find your Dan Tien. Listen and let go.

    posted by tryingToBeHelpful      October 16th, 2012 at 6:37 pm

  • ah one more note::

    in the ‘spectrum of self-abuse’ the dialogue among those recovering from eating-disorders is unrivaled in its bravery.

    Kate thanks for being such a pioneer.

    posted by tryingToBeHelpful      October 16th, 2012 at 6:40 pm

  • This is the story of my life. I’ve never really been a large person, maxing out at 5’2″ and 120. But I’ve always felt big and since I was young, eating disorders have been ingrained in me. I have spent decades starving, puking, using laxatives and speed to lose weight. 77 lbs was my lowest weight and now I legitimately struggle to maintain a normal weight, as I screwed up my body irrevocably. At 95 pounds, I still hate myself with a fervor that startles me.

    I agree that there are no answers, no concrete enemy to fight. And it is so defeating. Perhaps it’s not so much about fighting an enemy as it is finding the strength to lean on our sisters in combat and change all the rules.

    posted by Kristin      January 26th, 2013 at 9:22 pm

  • Thank you for this wonderful piece.
    I suffered from anorexia too,it’s not as bad as it was, but some things never go away.

    “Relationships seemed impossible; I couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever want me the way I was. ”
    That really hit home.

    Thank you for such a wonderful piece. It helped me remember that no matter how much it hurts, I’m not the only one. Thank you so much, again.

    posted by Mandy      January 26th, 2013 at 10:55 pm

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    posted by Skinny was my idol, starving my religion! | The blog about Style by Silhouette      January 27th, 2013 at 11:36 pm

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