I discovered the masochistic joy of skipping meals when I was 11.
Twelve hours without food left me feeling clean and alert, attuned to the taut flatness of my stomach, the pleasing sharpness of my ribs and hipbones. After a day or more I would feel lightheaded, hollow and aching, but proud of my discipline. Desperate hunger was a pretty pain. I felt strong and controlled. Thin and beautiful: the twins born on a runway, conjoined by high fashion.
I have always embraced femininity. As a child I was absurdly vain of my long hair, and nothing pleased me more than prancing around in a fluffy dress and my mother's high heels. But my post-puberty body never felt womanly enough, a disappointing physical counterpart to the girl inside me.
Beauty prescribes behavior as much as it does appearance. In this country, that means dieting crazes and the mass consumption of cosmetics. I have made considerable effort to correct my imperfections, wasting inordinate amounts of time and money on calorie counting and buying "flattering" but uncomfortable clothes, hair care products, Clearasil, cocoa butter, triple-bladed razors, wax, depilatories, push-up bras, makeup, stilettos, etc. When it comes to beauty, there is always an etc., because you can never do enough to grasp it. You always need more.
Magazine covers, commercials and billboards feature slender women, photoshopped and airbrushed to perfection. While I know these images are unrealistic, tampered with, fake, I still look on them with yearning. Overcome with desire to be as lovely as the woman in the ad, regardless of cost or pain. Too late, I realize I've made a deal with the devil. Beauty remains unattainable — sometimes just out of reach, more often far away — and the things I have sacrificed in the struggle may never be fully recovered.
My relationship with food has suffered the most. I spent years unable to eat without anxiety or guilt, without making excuses to myself. It became a numbers game first — how many calories, carbs, fat? — and nourishment second.
This is what disordered eating looks like: Days of consuming nothing but yogurt cups and Coke. Granola and grapes to get you through the weekend. Pushing food around your plate to make it look like it's going somewhere, because it sure as hell isn't going in your mouth. Weighing 103 pounds and still sucking in while you smile for the camera. Shrinking smaller and smaller ... so how can you blame your loved ones for not seeing you?
This is what disordered eating feels like: hunger pains, sinking in your gut like a stone. Pride warring with shame. Wanting to hide the secret. Needing to tell someone. Knowing you are fat in your skinny jeans, no matter how skinny you are. Hating your body, this vessel that is not pretty enough or thin enough or enough in any respect. Hating yourself.
When I do not police my food I am voracious. A woman who inevitably picks the highest calorie thing on the menu. Who orders an appetizer, entrée and dessert, then eats every bite. I take my steak medium-rare, and when I drink sweet tea I prefer it with a pint of sugar, please. I am an ice cream connoisseur. It's one extreme or the other, starvation or borderline bingeing. Better to eat badly than not at all, I suppose.
I only recently started trying to change my attitude toward food, to abandon my fixation on being beautiful and embrace a body-positive mindset. This means eating every day and letting go of the hatred that took a lifetime to learn. I have to realize that modesty is just self-destruction in disguise. Praise every aspect of my person instead of deconstructing Scarlett down to an itemized list of flaws. Touch myself with good intentions. Pamper my skin and hair. Not for the sake of looking pretty, but simply because it feels nice.
I talked to one of my best friends about all of this. Her advice was to love the shit out of myself. Stretch marks are tiger stripes, she said — signs of change on my body's landscape, little (or big!) white-hot lightning across my skin. She told me I need to take selfies, buy bath salts and call myself a goddess more. Other people will hate me for loving my body, she said, but they'll hate me for hating it too. So stop playing.
She also bombarded me with body-positive quotes. This one, by writer Sierra DeMulder, I will never forget: "Your body is the house you grew up in. How dare you try to burn it to the ground."
I've been burning this house, trying to tear it down, for more than half my life. Now I think it's time to start rebuilding.