My still-wet braid dripped water down my back, providing a cool relief from the sun rays dancing over my skin as I trudged up the swim trail from the lake.
My ankles were now covered in a thin coat of dirt that had been kicked up by the boys running ahead of me, excited to be first in line for the weekly “Burrito Bar.” As my campers gathered around our table at the coveted location on the Lakeside Porch, I filled a glass to the brim with iced tea before going out to sit with my little ones under the shade of the Manzanita trees.
Beaming faces, gap-toothed smiles, and wide eyes offered the backdrop to our meals as my campers excitedly bragged about their courageous accomplishments on the ropes course between bites of lunch.
The innocence of childhood was shattered as I stared back at Andrea, my sixteen year old “Camper in Leadership Training”. I glanced down at her empty plate–a blank slate apart from a few half-eaten carrot sticks and an untouched pile of lettuce–then back at her face, showing an expression just as empty.
Andrea’s guilt was palpable: a criminal stealing calories which she did not feel she deserved, she desperately needed to dispose of any evidence of a meal. Her long, willowy arms and hollow cheeks brought me back to my own days of guilt, my own days of calorie counting and meal skipping, the days of weighing and watching, exposed ribs and hidden secrets.
. . .
It was senior year of high school, and man, I was on top of the world. I had a wonderful group of friends, a boyfriend who doubled as the school’s MVP on the water polo team, a place in the Advanced Dance class at my studio, and involvement in an array of clubs across campus.
It would have shocked anyone to find that the girl whose life was so laced with love and laughter spent her nights hungry and alone in bed, thinking up plans on how to escape meals the next day.
“Dad, I’m running late- I’ll just grab a granola bar from the vending machines.”
“It’s alright Mom, I’ll buy lunch today, don’t bother making one.”
“Thanks Matt, but I had a big breakfast. I’m not really hungry for lunch.”
“No mom, don’t worry about me for dinner, I’m eating at Sophie’s.”
“No Sophie, it’s alright, I’m going to eat dinner at home.”
I was living a double life: the girl who smiled and hugged friends around school, and the girl who frequently spent hours staring in the mirror, pinching her waist, and bringing herself to tears at the sight of her own body.
Occasionally, my public and private lives would cross paths– I would find myself wondering why my thighs touched in my desk at school or contemplating how much higher I could leap in ballet if I didn’t have all of the “extra” weight pulling me back to the ground. An almost catatonic state would wash over me, as if the world went silent to accommodate for the numbers screaming louder and louder in my head.
7 apps on my phone dedicated to calorie counting.
6 websites to calculate my BMI, only finding satisfaction when deemed “underweight”.
5 times a day on the scale to make sure the numbers were dropping.
2 secret hours at the gym after school.
0 calories consumed without being burned off.
My life had become a numbers game- constant counting, constant weighing, endless obsession.
Look at the fork. Pick it up. Stab at a piece of broccoli. Put it down. Drink water instead. Carry on conversation with mom. Look back at the fork. Pick it up. Put it down. You don’t need this. Look at your thighs. Mom is looking at your plate. She can’t know. Pick up the fork. Take a scoop of rice. Open your mouth. Chew. God, this tastes good. God, you are getting fat. Put down the fork. Repeat.
I was lucky, in a strange way, to see the negative effects my choices had on my body. I was tired all of the time; I was brittle and fragile and always bruised up; I got skinnier and skinnier, but it was never enough.
It was as if the pounds I shed from my figure returned twice as heavy to the air above me. When the weight of the world is heavier than the weight of your body, it becomes hard to distinguish between the two. Often I would mistake one burden for the other and find myself dragging around my weightless limbs like anchors.
It was a Tuesday. The lunch bell rang and students poured out of classrooms into the quad the way water fills a reservoir when the flood gates are finally let open.
Convinced I was shielded by the waves of my peers, I reached into my gray canvas backpack and fumbled around for the crinkled brown paper bag my mom was adamant about packing that morning. I kept my well-wrapped kryptonite at arms-length as I scanned the schoolyard for the nearest trash can, determined to catch not even a breath of the homemade brownies that were under-cooked, just to my liking.
I released the sweet treats into the dismal plastic bag, feeling momentarily guilty that my mom’s always-perfectly-symmetrical sandwiches and apple slices were now the equivalent of mangled pizza crusts and half-finished Gatorades. As I turned away from my abandoned calories, the pride of another skipped meal was short-lived.
I remember it as a movie scene–you know the kind–where everything is moving in a blur but there’s one focal point which remains clear. That focal point was my boyfriend. The stares exchanged between his eyes and mine made up a conversation more insightful than any words could do justice.
This was the look that told me his suspicions were confirmed. It was the look that told me I had been caught. It was the look that catalyzed my desire to be well again.
He moved closer, enveloping me in his familiar, warm scent of lingering chlorine poorly masked by Old Spice and his mom’s dryer sheets. As if his arms were the glue holding the very pieces of my soul together, I immediately came undone when he stepped away. A marionette controlled by self-hatred whose strings had finally been cut, I crumpled to the pavement feeling as small as I had always hoped I would look.
. . .
The crisp mountain air in my lungs only made my thoughts seem more muddled by contrast as I stared back at Andrea. I knew what I needed to say. I knew what she wanted to hear. I wanted to force her to believe that she was beautiful.
I wanted to let her know that she was enough. I wanted to scream that a number on a scale cannot measure your intelligence or your self-worth. I wanted to convince her that it is so much prettier to have a full heart and big dreams than an empty stomach and thin thighs. I wanted to fix her.
I wanted to love her in all of the ways that I knew she did not love herself. I knew what words I should have said, but when I opened my mouth the only syllable I could utter was a raspy “Sure”.
After all, who was I to tell her to avoid the allure of the fire while I was still nursing my own burns?
Andrea made her way back to the table with the bloodshot, watery, post-purging eyes and sniffling nose that I had grown to know too well. I forced myself to look away from my adolescent reflection sitting across from me and added another heaping spoonful of sugar to my tea–a desperate attempt to sweeten the bitter taste left in my mouth.
I filled my cheeks with the sickeningly sugary liquid and forced a swallow, hoping that if I took a gulp big enough, my secrets would be washed down with it, once again burying the words that begged to escape my lips.