September 19, 2011
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.