THE last time I purged was junior spring of high school. I was in Seattle attending a journalism conference with my newspaper staff. After a sickening meal of McDonaldâ€™s ice cream and apple pie, I excused myself from the rest of the group and locked up my insecurities in the bathroom of a Sheraton suite. I bent down on my knees, lifted the toilet lid, and reached down my throat with two fingers. But nothing came out. After the third unsuccessful attempt, I gave up, sobbing as I clutched the porcelain rim.
I was 16 then, and I never tried to throw up a meal again.
I returned from Seattle, the incident forgotten in the span of a week. I completed my best academic semester of high school that June and spent a dizzying summer interning at E! Entertainment, volunteering for John Kerryâ€™s presidential campaign, and coaching high school debate. I entered my senior year refreshed, inspired, and unstoppable. That fall, I amped up every extracurricular commitment, became a National Merit Scholar, and was accepted to Harvard before most of my peers had even finished applying to college. If I died at 17, my life would’ve been complete. I forgot about scales.
At the same time that I found validation in letters from Cambridge, I started dropping weight. The editorship of the school newspaper took its toll on my health. By June, I was overworked and underweight at 113 pounds, but for the first time since puberty, I was happy with my body. For the first time since puberty, I was happy with every single aspect of my life. I was even getting along with my mother. But once you’ve purged, it never leaves you. You begin to believe that it is actually an option, as if the reality isn’t that you have troubling body image issues but that you’ve found this incredibly effective way to keep the pounds from adding up. Even so long after the fact, it was difficult to keep the thought of throwing up from creeping in every time I consumed a large meal.
IT started when I sprouted to four-feet-eight. I was on the cusp of adolescence, the first to grow breasts, and considered the least fashionable of all my newly judgmental female peers. At 11, it is difficult to find refuge in your moral or intellectual superiority. When other girls weren’t criticizing me, I filled in the blanks. After learning about binging and purging, I determined that throwing up could be a viable weight loss approach. The problem with being precocious is that you discover things like eating disorders, sex, and drugs before everyone else, but stupidly, you believe you can handle it all because you’re more mature than most.
Not surprisingly, I couldnâ€™t handle it. For years, my warped self-perception controlled my life. I was 12 when I first put fingers to throat. I so worried my boyfriend at 14 that he held my face, told me I was beautiful, and made me promise that I would never do it again. Four years later, my freshman fall hookup would give me a nearly identical speech. Showers were daily rituals. I stood before full-length mirrors, scrutinizing flaws before letting the water hit my body. And even today, I express an enthusiasm for scales incomprehensible to those unconcerned by matters of weight. For as long as I can remember, I was the girl who did everything and did it well, but like academics, my body was something I was never satisfied with, no matter what goal had been reached. I wanted to be skinny, and it seemed like it was the one thing I couldn’t have.
I hesitated at the checkbox for bulimia when I filled out my medical information for enrollment to Harvard. I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, so I feel uncomfortable laying claim to a disease which has inflicted greater pain on other women, those even less equipped to deal with their bodies than I am. But maybe there’s just not a name for the obsession of my youth. After all, the popular statistic is that one out of four American women have struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Yet even when I choose to tell my close friends, I find myself describing my experience flippantly because the lack of an official diagnosis makes my problem less real, less worthy of sympathy. So I fall back on lines, like the accurate but insufficient “I had a mild case of bulimia,” as if the disease that plagued me all of early adolescence was about as serious as the flu.
THE greatest irony about my struggle with weight is that the Freshman Fifteen saved me. As the New England leaves burned red and crisp with the seasonâ€™s turn, my waistbands dug deep into my hips and my breasts spilled out of their cups. I began asking for larger dress sizes. I bought bras in every color. It was a gradual transition I barely noticed until I stepped onto a scale. I said offhandedly, “I’m gaining weight.” But then I realized just how much I’d put on. I was a size 4. I had stretch marks.
It wouldâ€™ve seemed inconceivable months earlier. Overwhelmed by the stifling transition to Harvard, I didn’t eat the first three weeks of freshman year. My appetite fluctuated like my mood. Most of the time, I was energetic and upbeat; but other times, I felt inexplicably sad and desolate, unwilling to speak or even make half-hearted attempts at normality. I thought an apple made a perfectly good substitute for an entree, leading friends and roommates to wonder if I was anorexic. While fielding their suspicious glances and carefully-worded inquiries (”Is that all you’re going to eat?”), I almost laughed inside. I saw their discomfort before they even opened their mouths. They didn’t realize the worst was already over, that the habits they found shocking now were nothing in comparison to the paralyzing self-analysis I underwent at 13.
My problems never lasted past September. Though the climate cooled, I warmed to Harvard. By October, I ate well. By January, I was nearly twenty pounds heavier.
After the initial shock of realizing that I was no longer the svelte little thing who trounced onto campus a season earlier, I almost didn’t care that I was tipping the scales at a weight I would’ve deemed obscene a year ago. I was still far from heavy, so I doubled my wardrobe, solicited male attention, and realized that life went on. I had gained 18 pounds, one for each year of my life, and yet when spring blossomed, the world still stood. This was the final confirmation that I had not merely left a disease behind, but that I was finally okay with who I was.
I moved into Mather House two weeks ago. On my wall-length cork board, I have pinned up a series of eight pictures taken last fall. They are the result of my then-floormateâ€™s VES project on Asian sexuality. I agreed to pose for her as a favor. Only later did I learn that the photos made their way into a student gallery at the Fogg. She shot me nude — my limbs plump, my hair unkempt, and my expression unafraid. Even when I was at my skinniest, I wouldnâ€™t have been able to face the camera like that.
I remember the photography session fondly. As my floormate â€“ usually soft-spoken — snapped away, she commented that she was impressed with my security. I hadnâ€™t even realized it. I was secure.
There are differences now, subtle but enough that I trust my judgment more than I used to. This September, I found myself eating as little as I did a year ago. I stopped being able to recognize hunger pangs, an aftereffect of the havoc I wreaked on my developing body. It is always disturbing to realize that I must eat on schedule because I cannot rely on instinct. The cardinal rule of the inflicted is to never ask for help, because it is outside interference that impedes progress, so it was with a twinge of regret that I told my blockmates to watch me and make me eat if I didnâ€™t do it on my own. But at least I asked.
I promised myself that sophomore year would bring the shedding of freshman flab. It is healthy. I could stand to lose some weight. I am down to the last eight pounds now, and they are slowly but surely peeling off. There is a scale by my bed — my first, borrowed from Terra — and I weigh myself daily. Sometimes I wonder if it is healthy to own a scale. I worry that I might slip back into old patterns of thought, and I don’t fool myself into thinking that I won’t. I am not repeating the same mistake I made at age 12. I am not invincible.