Bundle of Contradictions

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MARCH 10, 2011 12:53PM

How I Failed at Anorexia

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Sometime in junior high I found a copy of “The Best Little Girl in the World,” and I was never the same. This truly awful book, written in the late 70s, follows the inner life of one Francesca Dietrich, as she falls down the rabbit hole of anorexia. I was obsessed with this book. It had all of the elements for me--a soap operatic tale, a physical freakshow, and a psych 101 dissection. I read it over and over and over again, vowing each time that I would someday succeed in being anorexic myself.

I’m pretty certain the book was intended to scare the pants off young women about the dangers of eating disorders, but it sure as hell didn’t have that effect on me. The title character, while assuredly sick and insanely unlikeable, gets to be thin, gets to be completely crazy, gets to take control back from her parents, and gets to leave school and the real world to escape to self-absorbed treatment. To a certain type of control-freakish, weight-obsessed, narcissistic teen, this sounded pretty appealing.

Eating disorders were glamorous to me in the same way that pedicures were. They were "rich" people indulgences and symbols of excess, and I was poor and horribly unglamorous. When I went to friend’s houses I would go to their bathrooms and covet their bath products--lotions and pomades and fancy French makeup tucked away behind vanity mirrors with bright movie set lighting. My bathroom at home had a massive hole in the wall from a plumbing experiment, a bathtub that was sinking into the floor, and a sink that didn’t work, forcing us to brush our teeth in the tub. People that lived like me didn’t have eating disorders, they were happy to have food to eat. But I didn’t let that restrict me. “You can never be too rich or too thin” I thought. I would have to settle for thin.

I never really got to test this adage, though, since every time I attempted to starve, my intense survival instincts kicked in and I would find myself gorging on food within a matter of hours. I would plan it all out--set up a secret diet chart in my closet, get psychologically geared up, and then cave at the first scent of something delicious. It became patently clear that despite my best efforts, anorexia just wasn’t for me.

First of all, there was nothing “delicate” about me. Dramatic, funny, powerful, and intense, I’ve always been a “What you see is what you get” in-your-face type of girl. I may have wanted to be a floaty, ethereal fairy princess, ala Moonchild in the Never Ending Story, but I was probably more akin to Atreyu. “I came to live out loud,” as my mom always used to say, and my body seemed reluctant to relinquish any of that power by starving myself.

Secondly, even aside from my bouts of binge eating, I was consistently a big eater. My older sister and my mom were as well. Blessed with relatively high metabolisms (it may be all the twitching we do), and the healthy, balanced meals my mom always prepared, the three of us put away an amount of food that was anything but ladylike. Dessert, too, appeared after every dinner, and sometimes after lunch. Typically chocolate ice cream with malted milk sprinkled on top, we each got around a cup-and-a-half in our chipped blue glass bowls.

Given my measure of normalcy, I had no idea I ate more than other people until my first year in college, when my roommate indelicately pointed it out. “Damn, girl, you eat SO much,” were Suzanne’s words to me as she watched me down a linebacker-sized dinner. “What? Really?” I said. Didn’t everyone eat a whole bag of pasta with a whole jar of alfredo sauce on it? In my defense, my 19-year-old eating habits might have been a direct result of undernourishment for the previous couple of years.

When my mother cooked, she cooked well. All throughout my childhood we were fed exceptionally well, particularly given the fact that we had almost no money. Even if chicken hearts were on the menu, by god they were good chicken hearts. But as the years went by and her job teaching brats teenagers while raising two more sapped her of energy, cooking started to fall by the wayside. Also often missing from our home were groceries in a combination one could easily make a meal from.

My mom wasn’t big on processed foods, which was great, but there was frequently nothing to eat in the house that didn’t involve serious culinary skills. If she did buy something easily consumed, like bagels or crackers, she would often complain that we “ate it too quickly” and refuse to buy any more. What she did buy, however, were condiments. Our refrigerator was crammed and overflowing with all manner of mustards, sauces, chutneys, and jams, their glass bottles clinking merrily each time the fridge was opened. Considering the size of the fridge, this was quite the accomplishment.

For much of my youth, we had used a vintage fridge barely bigger than today’s bar refrigerators. It didn’t even have a freezer, just a little extra cold cubby at the top, which could be completely filled with two cans of orange juice concentrate. The rest of our frozen goods were kept in the freezer chest in the basement, which meant a terrifying run down the stairs for whomever had been tasked in retrieving the ice cream that night. Nothing short of ice cream would have sent me into that basement past dark. Large and dark and crammed with weird silhouettes, like a potter’s wheel, an old photography enlarger, and an antique coat rack, the bowels of my mother’s 1920s home was like an underground tour of neglect.

As this arrangement was fairly inefficient, and our fridge ludicrously small, my mother finally, with much prodding from us, set out to buy a new fridge. Always a fan of shopping, I accompanied her to Sears, where she was suckered by a smooth-talking salesman into buying a refrigerator dramatically larger than what we needed. Uninitiated into the necessity of using a measuring tape, I gave my blessing, simply pleased that it was big and modern. When the thing was delivered, however, it became immediately clear we’d made a mistake.

“Oh my god, that thing is huge!” my sister said, with a worried look on her face. “Yeah, isn’t it great?” I said. Somehow the delivery man got it through the narrow hallway into the kitchen, where it sat like the 8th wonder of the world. “Ok, yes, it’s too big,” my mother and I admitted, but what was there to do? Calling upon the help of a friend, my mom had one cupboard almost completely sawed away to accommodate our new appliance. “There,” she said triumphantly, “It fits.”

“What the hell is that?” we all asked twenty minutes later as we ran to the source of the noise. Our new fridge sounded like an airplane taking off, spinning and whirring as it worked. We soon learned that the noises came and went as the fridge pleased, bringing on nightly panic as we adjusted to our new kitchen symphony. Soon though, my sister had given it the pet name “Monstro: The Largest Refrigerator in the World,” my mother had filled it with condiments, and it faded into the background along with all the other quirks about the house.
Part II can be found here

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@ Quinnmama-I second that!
This is great fun. Like you, I thought anorexia sounded like a really glam rich girl disease, but could never pull it off. We're both lucky!
I understand. Back in the day, I used to wish to be anorexia too. I see no dishonor or wrong in admiting as much. Back when I tried to be anorexic, the condition had no name & there was no Internet to look it up on. I am certain girls (and boys) of all walks of life try to enter the percieved world of 'Isn't it tragically glamorous that I am anorexic'.

Anorexia may be horrible, but as it is tolerated and very-nearly-exhaulted in Ballet, acting, modeling, it is no wonder young people lust to be among the ultra thin.
I can do anorexia for maybe half an hour. Your story so reminds me of my family. Our bathroom wasn't broken, but there was the huge water stain on the living room ceiling from the yearly roof leak. I went to the best public high school in the city. You had to have the grades to get in, it was non-district. Most of the kids there were affluent. They went there instead of the private school their parents could afford. I got an education in how the other half, at least the upper middle class, lives.
I can do anorexia for maybe half an hour. Your story so reminds me of my family. Our bathroom wasn't broken, but there was the huge water stain on the living room ceiling from the yearly roof leak. I went to the best public high school in the city. You had to have the grades to get in, it was non-district. Most of the kids there were affluent. They went there instead of the private school their parents could afford. I got an education in how the other half, at least the upper middle class, lives.
Wow, that's quite the compliment, Quinnmama. Thank you so much!

Eva, we really are lucky!

Good point, ybmagpye. It really is associated with and even encouraged in the glam professions.

Sirenita, I wonder if many people in our type of experience felt the same pull. It would be interesting if there was a study on what happens to poor kids when put into schools with lots of people with more money. Interestingly enough, in retrospect, most of my friends were just solidly middle class. I just thought they were rich because I had no experience with true wealth.
Definitely brings back the memories.

I'm pretty sure that book was a how-to guide on anorexia because my friends and I studied it in the seventh grade and then all rushed into the bathroom after lunch to practice throwing up. Based on that book, I lost 15 pounds between seventh and eighth grade. ..and I didn't need to lose weight. Of course it didn't help that our seventh grade gym teacher stood us all in a line, weighed us one by one and then yelled out our weight so everyone in line could hear. I've got a 12-year-old daughter. So glad times have changed.
Cedar, that's right. They were not really rich, they had parents with professional jobs. I ended up there for a while myself. But the first time I ate dinner at someone's house and there were different kinds of forks, I thought they lived on another planet.
Sirenita took the words right out of my mouth: "I can do anorexia for maybe half an hour." I guess us sturdy girls have to survive so that the tragically fragile ones don't cause our species to die off.
my deceased brother had an unusual anorexia not based on body dismorphia. several times he went to the hospital where the doctors injected him with a feeding tube, while he insisted that it was not his decision to make. Im glad youve found a way to make such light of this disorder. I would write more about my brother in my blog, but am not sure what point it would serve. it almost certainly wouldnt get an EP like you just did. not only because of the subj matter, but Ive now written over 100 posts over close to 2yrs without a single EP. I guess I just have to laugh at it, like you do about anorexia in this post.
Ingrid Ricks--They should seriously just ban that book.

Lisa Kern--Sturdy ladies unite!

vzn--I'm incredibly sorry about your brother. That must have been awful for you and I'm sure it still is awful. Please don't feel as if I'm making light of anorexia. I know that it is an incredibly destructive disease.
The part about the noisy refrigerator really made me laugh.
Well I must say of books/memoirs are going to influence your life then I modeled my life on the book ' Go Ask Alice' a 1970's book based on a diary of a drug addicted girl in San Francisco in the 70's. She died I lived but at the time I thought her life was very glamorous. I wish I could read this book now to see why I thought drugs were so great!!
Thanks, Mark!

Lolligirl-I still haven't read that book but I'll check it out. It's one of those books I've meant to read for awhile and never got around to.
Love your sense of humor ! And uh.....don't feel bad..... I brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink for two years....and believe it or not, I BRUSHED them in the KITCHEN SINK , up until about three weeks ago ! It is so nice to have a real bathroom now........ Excellent writing. Rated.