Closing the Gap that Nearly Pulled Me Apart
I see things coming.
I’m the girl with the sixth sense and the sharp-as-nails intuition. When megalomania takes over, I like to call myself a visionary; when my humility kicks back in, I decide that I just have a knack of understanding future tendencies. It stems, I know, from the ever-present need to control, that I impose over every area of my life.
The truth of it all begins with that very last sentence: that the illusion of control was exactly that. My body/brain/mind/emotions on one side, and me on the other. If there was someone doing the controlling, it was certainly not me.
I sat, one March or February, in the morning or afternoon, I tend to forget. What I can’t forget is seeing myself from the outside. I was crying for the first time in what felt like years, bent over myself, cradling my head, as the last iotas of denial dissipated from my eyes.
I had a problem.
Why, in the middle of playing the piano, did this realization settle around me? Why then? Maybe it already had, in truth, and I had simply been doing the Dodging Dance, as I like to call it.
I had, in fact, not just a problem, but a serious one.
No, that is a lie.
That is how I would like to remember it, a climax so perfect and dramatic in its significance, pulled straight from a coming-of-age novel.
It was April. My father had just left, and so had my brother, after a week of visiting, and I was alone again. Nay, I was always alone. I was never not alone, except for the thoughts threatening to deepen my loneliness.
It was April, it was cold, it was dreary, I was performing some asinine task, so mechanical that for a moment, it permitted my mind to wander away from my body; and as it did, I saw myself from the outside.
And yet I still did not think I was emaciated. I still thought I looked fine. I still thought, I'm not yet done. I was fine.
Getting the eating disorder is fine, alright. It’s getting out of it that’s the real quandary. I see things coming, and I sure as hell did not see this one. Not if my life had depended on it — which, incidentally, it did.
I was sinking, sunken, drowned before the truth came back for me, like whiplash. My internal dialogue still rings like an earworm in my head, sometimes.
How. I don’t understand. How. I never get overcome, because I don’t make mistakes. How. I don’t make mistakes. How. I would have at least seen, noticed, understood. How. Not more than halfway through. Not like this, not here. I don’t understand. How.
I cried more out of shock and confusion than out of sadness. Sadness had already taken its place in me until there was no more of me to be had; and for years, there had been only that. Not shock. Not this brutal waking up, not this nightmare of a realization.
I did not see this coming.
Two thing I knew early on:
1- I had a thing for aesthetics;
2- despite my fierce, uncompromising independence, I was clearly more sensitive to outside stimuli than I would have liked to admit.
Two things I found out too late:
1- I had underestimated the insidious strength of society’s message on beauty standards;
2- what I had thought were simply tics and mild obsessions would explode into full-blown OCD by the time I was a teenager.
All of these things, all at once, funneled into a concentrated whole ended up spelling disaster. Perhaps, with only one or two of those variables, I could have gotten away with only some mild trouble, later in life.
I became fixated on achieving a gap between my thighs, the way one would become infatuated with the idea of dying their hair a wild color. That it was a destructive ideal to aspire to did not once cross my mind; that is how I know that by then, I was already ill, and far past the point where reason would have made sense to me.
It was a magazine ad that did it: a dark-skinned girl, all in black, wearing a leather jacket that positively sang on her body. I had been pining for a similar jacket for a few weeks, but every time I had tried one on, it had felt wrong, like it had been designed for someone else.
If the girl in the ad hadn’t looked like me, I would have blamed our height difference. I would have simply passed on it, the way you would pass on a piece of clothing you find too garish.
If the girl hadn’t looked like me, I would even have blamed it on the jacket itself. Too large, too bulky.
But she had looked just like me, down to the mane of uncontrollable, kinky hair — except for one detail: she was so thin that even with her feet held side-by-side, she was bow-legged.
And just like that, I thought I knew what my issue was.
That is how it starts.
Tunnel vision, I would call it now. But then, it was like a veil I hadn’t known I was sporting had suddenly lifted. I began to see people with thigh gaps everywhere. I began to see them in magazines, on television, album covers; in films and animations I watched, in mangas I read.
Soon, I began to search for them, earnestly: on the girls I crossed in the street, on the people I knew and talked to everyday, in the slender men I ogled. I would even imagine them on the heroines of the books I read, even when nothing indicated their physical appearance. Frustration that was nestled in my chest, the one that had unknowingly made me compare my body to others’ since I was a child, was beginning to quietly bloom. Others had something I didn’t, which told me that I was the anomaly. I was somehow wrong, unfit. Defective.
Whether I understood it then doesn’t really matter in the grand scope of things: I had weaponized the full force of what I didn’t yet know was the eating disorder mindset, into something tangible.
Before I knew it, I was aiming it at everything in sight.
I stopped wearing clothes that would show my legs, the legs that disgusted me so much that sometimes I couldn’t even touch them. I felt “Skinny-Fat”, thin enough but in all the wrong places, with my jutting collarbones and bony feet. I threw out my wardrobe, article after article, if I deemed them too tight or revealing. I began to hide behind dresses and oversized sweaters, behind layers that could conceal my curves: anything to carry on the charade that I somehow looked as normal as others did.
And I managed it, on some level. I looked effortless, when in truth, everything was calculated. Every time I was complimented, the beast in my head preened contentedly, while simultaneously, my Imposter Syndrome deepened.
The collective uprise in the glamorization of the thigh gap, which peaked around five years ago, rose in tandem with my own, vindicating me completely: if millions of others wanted it as well, then certainly, I couldn’t be that unreasonable.
I prowled Pro-Ana websites, stalked pictures of girls on Tumblr who had achieved what I was promising myself. Only a matter of time, only a matter of time. I spent my allowance on laxatives, exercised until my entire body shook, counted calories, fasted, and when I broke, and with it my resolve, threw up anything I ate.
And I still, I thought: the cost is not that high. It is like staying up all night to study for something important the following day. It is like training one's fingers bloody, to master a piece of music. It is like depriving oneself of instant gratification, and saving money in the long run. Every worthwhile goal requires some sacrifices.
Never mind that in this case, the goal in question was as devastating as the so-called sacrifice it entailed. I knew how mad this sounded.
No, that too is a lie.
In retrospect, and I retrospect only, I know.
Then, I could not have found a single thing wrong with this line of thinking: and that’s what is so dangerous about eating disorders, and the stealth with which they crawl upon you. The dominos of your common sense fall piece by piece, slowly, soundlessly. By the time you realize the whole formation is supine, it is past being too late. I held level-headed conversations with people who began to notice something was wrong with me.
No, I would reply evenly, I just diet a little, diabetes runs in my family and I have to be careful.
No, I’d say, with condescension edging in my tone, I’m not just writing food down. I just like to keep track of my allergies.
No, I’d smile, waving their concern away, I already ate, I might have a snack later.
There is something powerful about believing the lies you tell yourself. When I refused to get help for other, different issues I faced later on, it was a knowing sort of refusal. The kind where I was in full cognizance of my problem, but was better off not acknowledging it.
This was different. There was nothing to acknowledge because as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t even in crisis. I never thought I’d be one of those people who ended up lacking so much insight that they could have killed themselves, and still found other causes to explain it away.
I say this to myself now, still reeling with the incredulity. I see things coming. I am the girl who sees things coming. I am the one who warns others of impending danger, not the one who finds herself surrounded, caught unawares.
I say this to myself now, painfully aware that I am painfully aware.
It wasn’t always the case. Ironically, I spent the first few months of my pre-teenagehood feeling blissfully pretty, in that frantic way you do, when you notice your body changing, and realize that you carry within you the power to make others like you.
I remember being catcalled at age eleven, and walking home with a simultaneous disgust with myself, and a clinical kind of curiosity. It was novelty itself. What other kind if attention could I get? I had gone from a shy, gawkish girl who inspired nothing more than passive affection to someone rude men whistled at (it was never about me or what I looked like, of course. It was, and has always been about creeps on a power trip who can't control their impulses, as I would learn going into my twenties).
Still, I felt a newfound assurance, compared myself to others and came out of it thinking myself the victor of some imagined race. I imagined myself decades ahead, a confident woman who coasted through life on the strength of her appearance (an optimism which, in retrospect, reeked of naivety). I wore tight-fitting clothes, reveling in the shape of my legs, in my lashes that seemed to have sprouted overnight, in the shape of my face that had begun to lose that youthful contour.
It didn’t diminish, even as I saw others with bigger breasts and prettier skin. It didn’t change, even as I read magazines using words like “hourglass-shaped” and “stunning”, in regard to girls a little older than me. It didn’t even change as I heard whispers surrounding my sister’s friend who was exercising so much it worried everyone around her. I still had time to join that coveted club, earn that title of Pretty Girl.
It took one comment, casually thrown my way one afternoon, as I settled to watch a film with a friend, to undo that carefully spun confidence.
Oh, I didn’t know you had belly fat.
My tank top, stretched tightly across my stomach creased, when I sat, to reveal rolls I had, until that very moment never noticed. She had meant it in passing, carelessly and fast forgotten; but the words nestled close to my ear, and started a litany that soon became my very own white noise.
My hands began the work my mind hadn’t started catching up to: namely dissecting every surface of my body until they had recorded what I began to consider flaws. It was as if until that moment, I had been drawn in loose watercolor, but was now tracing the bold, sharp outlines of a warped, misshapen-looking thing. My fingers absentmindedly pinched and pulled at the extra skin, circled the ridges where I felt cellulite, prodded at the soft parts, sometimes hovering over it all, like my body was dangerous.
If you asked me where I saw the beginning, I would point you in that direction: someone else indicating my body to me, and my having to see it, truly see it, for the first time.
But maybe this, too, is part of the lie.
Eating disorders don’t come out of a vacuum. If it took a well-placed sentence or wanting smaller thighs to make or break me, surely, it was more deeply rooted than that.
Maybe it was years before, as a child, watching my mother obsess over her own weight and appearance.
Maybe it was feeling unpretty as a young black girl in a society that didn’t value people who looked like me.
Maybe it was taking ballet classes, faced with my reflection all hour long, all the while idealizing the svelte prima ballerinas who had come before me.
Maybe it was noticing the way boys my age had gone from callous to suddenly nice when puberty came along.
Maybe it was the nascent currents of mental illness that would float to the surface years later, mining at my fragile self-esteem.
Maybe it was my anxious nature that gradually became ruthless perfectionism, when it concerned achievements and excellence.
Maybe I paved my road with the good intentions of getting in shape, an intention that warped under the vanity I had nursed as a rosy-eyed child.
Maybe, maybe. I still haven’t decided.
I see things coming, and this one was the curveball of the century. Even when I fainted in public, even when my menstrual cycle petered out, even when something as simple as sitting up from my bed rendered me breathless, even as I killed myself as surely as if I had walked into oncoming traffic. It took over ten years, many downsized clothes, and many glaring, glaring hints to come to the Understanding, that cold and dreary April, while I washed the dishes.
In hindsight, knowing what I know now, this was a lesson I needed to learn. My humility has since emerged from the ashes. Admitting it to myself was the first step in admitting it to others, and from there, asking for help, although an absolutely foreign notion to me, felt less punishing in the long run.
As strange as it sounds, I am grateful that I didn’t realize what I didn’t know; because it made me pause and take stock of everything I thought I did; and reevaluating those notions brought me closer to the degree of insight I had always boasted about, but had never really possessed.
Sometimes, I am foolish, stupid girl.
So, while advice from an aforementioned foolish, stupid girl might sound as abstract and as hollow as swirling dust motes, I will pass it on nonetheless: pay attention. Really, truly pay attention. Even when you think you know. Even when you think you don’t.
Pay attention to the undercurrents you find uncomfortable, burdensome. Pay attention to the issues that circle back to find you when you thought you had dealt with them. Pay attention to the white noise you ignore because you’ve simply gotten used to it.
Because when it finally pierces through and becomes louder than your thoughts, it means it’s already got you in its grips. It means it might be too late.