[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Counting
I don’t remember when I knew I was fat and knew it was a bad thing, a misstep, a failure. Maybe it started with my father forcing kid-me to go on miles-long walks in the summer heat, asking why I couldn’t just control myself. Or maybe with my mother. I watched her yo-yo diet and pull at her abundant hips in her floor-length mirror, saying “Nobody could ever love a fat ass like me,” passing down her insecurities and shame. It could’ve been the kids I went to school with, the ones who laughed at me, at my body, the way my thighs rubbed together, how my belly, soft like rising dough, stuck out. The boys I cultivated crushes on who mocked me, called me a moped, “Fun to ride, but not something you’d ever want to be caught on.” The magazines that advertised how to lose weight to get and keep a man. Clothing companies that sold me overpriced shapeless sacks to hide my fuck-up of a body. The movies and television shows that only featured thin, white women as love interests, categorizing fat Black women who looked like me as Sassy Best Friend or Oversexed Behemoth. It could’ve started anywhere.
At seventeen, I developed an eating disorder that fills my brain with paranoia and numbers. I crawled through pro-anorexia websites, picking up tricks from professionals who knew exactly how long you could go without food before your body started to shut down. They gave me tips on how to hide. How to take small bites and push around food on your plate to give the appearance of eating. I devoured mantras superimposed over candid photographs of fat people on the street: Nothing tastes as good as thin feels across a disembodied ass and Do you want candy or collarbones? from a stranger’s back fat.
We anthropomorphized anorexia and bulimia into Ana and Mia, two girls who had hit their magical goal weights and found happiness. When hunger pangs became too much, we looked at the Ana and Mia art drawn by website members, reminding ourselves that if we could hold on, we could become them. There were multiple reposts of The Ana Creed and Thin Commandments on the forums, providing spaces for us to pray to these tulpas for strength and secrecy, and to, as The Creed goes, find salvation through starvation.
As an adult, I know I’m expected to take up as little room as possible, and that my Blackness and fatness and womanhood intersect to create a flagrantly disobedient body. I understand my value as a woman is tied to my desirability, to how fuckable men find me. I let men use me because their attention looks like validation. It’s the only way to feel whole. I let men hurt me because I’m convinced I don’t deserve better, and that, because of my body, I should be grateful they put in any effort at all. I’ve grown up believing that every boy is the last one, that somehow, if I don’t jump at this opportunity, it’ll be gone forever. I have been denied so often and for so long, that any taste, no matter how sour, is fortifying.
I did 2-4-6 days, where you eat 200 calories one day, 400 the next, then 600. I’d buy food for friends, a way to trick them into eating and make myself feel superior, but also to live through them, closely watching every bite they took. When I did eat, I’d try to stick to Safe Foods: Diet Coke, black coffee, 180 calorie pre-packaged miso soup, and pickles. I dreamt of having my own apartment stocked only with these items, and no one around to force me into joining them for dinner, or to ask, “Is that all you’re eating?” My eating disorder made me feel special, like I was smarter than everyone else because I had the secret to becoming perfect.
I wrote long, disjointed rants in journals about how my body wasn’t speeding fast enough toward my goal weight because I wasn’t applying myself, how I was a monster because I’d gone 300 calories over my self-imposed limit, or wasted that day’s calorie allotment on fruit. I knocked down my original goal weight from the seemingly high 150 to 100. The number was a neon sign in my mind. A buzzing reminder at the base of my skull. In class, instead of listening to the lecture, I’d calculate how long it’d take to get to 100 if I lost a certain amount of weight every week, scrolling through Ana suggestions on my laptop, trying to figure out how to squeeze out extra calories at every opportunity.
I don’t believe my family history is enough of a reason why I’ve turned out the way that I have. I’ve made choices in my life. Decided to go left instead of right, but that history has influenced my inner monologue. I’ve got this broken record in my head. When depression snakes around me, the playlist starts up. Fat ass. Stupid. Fuck-up. My first instinct is to restrict food, or break apart a razor to drag across the soft underside of my forearms, or pull hard on my hair and rip myself into a new person.
I started fasting. It felt spiritual, like I was closer to God with each hour I went without. The Ana Creed seemed less ridiculous every day. Fasting was penance for all the times I didn’t make better choices. My body was supposed to be a temple, but there I was, eating chocolate-covered strawberries at graduation parties, or taking a second serving of my grandmother’s cornbread dressing. My biggest achievement was fasting for three days, at the end of which, I couldn’t walk up staircases without my heart feeling like it was going to throw itself out of my chest.
I didn’t do it alone. Almost no one does. We starve in packs, sharing our secrets over the internet, swapping thigh circumferences, and fighting over whose body’s the worst, who’s the most disgusting. I’d met Therese first through mutual friends. We both liked the important things: makeup and music. We were sad in that dramatic, teenager way, and bonded over a shared hatred of our bodies, even though I was eternally envious of hers. She was flat and smooth and round in all the right places, her hair never frizzed, she’d never needed braces or glasses. Boys looked at Therese. Boys looked through me.
Therese and I passed notes to each other in the school’s halls, page after page of thickly folded paper where we wrote scathing reviews of our female classmates. “Can you believe Sofia wore that? God, doesn’t she know how big her ass is?” and “You see Leah today? When’s somebody going to tell her to just stop wearing those fucking shorts?” In the margins, we drew our ideal bodies. Waists slimmed down to the physically impossible. Thighs splintered to toothpicks. Our cheeks hollowed, emphasizing our jaws. We’d write about the shame of late night binge eating, gloat about fasts, the meals replaced with black coffee. I was in constant competition with her. If she fasted for twenty-four hours, I’d announce a thirty-six hour fast. She’d eat a bowl of miso soup, I’d eat half.
We formed a two-person girl gang, and when we weren’t busy avoiding eating, we’d spend hours turning down the contrast on selfies and making fake wanted posters in Microsoft Word. Have You Seen These Girls??? Wanted Across Seven States for General Mischief! Do Not Approach Unarmed! shouted one poster under barely recognizable photographs of ourselves. We smeared lipstick over our mouths, an homage to the skinny goth rockers we idolized, whose photos hung on the walls next to our posters. Therese and I created our own universe where we were strong, and most importantly, we were thin. Beautiful. Made boys feel as unsure of themselves and as unsafe as we felt around them.
I’m not sure if Therese would’ve been my friend if I hadn’t been some sort of motivation for her own eating disorder, a cautionary tale of what could happen to her if she didn’t watch out by calorie counting and overexercising. And while she’s never told me that, never even given me any indication of it, I can’t help imagining how I’d react to her if our roles reversed. Me, the white, tall, leggy brunette whose body fit more neatly into the rigid parameters of what bodies should look like. Her, the dumpy Black teenager with acne and thousands of dollars of embarrassing orthodontic work and god-awful eyebrows. I’m sure I would’ve seen her body as something to avoid, and in the ways I brought food to people under the guise of friendship, how can I not wonder if she kept me around because some small part of her wanted to feel better about herself in comparison?
My perception of my body is constantly in flux. I rub my hands over my belly, thighs, arms, wondering how anyone could ever love a fat ass like me. I have good days where I’ll think, Not too shabby, and bad days where I can’t get out of bed, can’t move because then I’d be aware of the body I’m stuck in, and how much it misrepresents me. Most people’s response to this is to tell me I’m beautiful, thinking my problem must be that I just haven’t realized it and that once I achieve that, I’ll be cured. It’s not that I think I’m ugly, it’s that there’s this disconnect between what I see and what others see. I could have that perfect body I dreamed of as a teenager—and still do—and it wouldn’t make a difference. There will always be a perceived flaw that makes this body unwearable.
I tried harder, restricting more, going to the gym longer. Nights were spent hiding in my room, pacing, convincing myself that nothing could taste as good as skinny felt, that I did want collarbones. Candy was temporary. Food had only ever brought me misery, and without it, I could finally start my life, the life that had always been out of my reach. I’d started having nightmares where I’d eat a whole pizza, or cut myself slice after slice of cake, feeling the icing ooze between my fingers, watching my body balloon around me. I doubled down and lost eighty pounds over a summer.
No one even considered I had a problem; fat people can’t have eating disorders. We simply lack the self-control. I couldn’t talk to my family about it. In plenty of Black families, mental illness is a White People Thing, like unsalted food or square dancing. Black people don’t have mental illnesses. When my father found out my high school therapist suggested I had clinical depression, he laughed. “Everybody gets sad sometimes. Black folks have plenty of reasons to be sad. ‘Clinical depression’ is white people shit. You get sad, you get over it. You move on.” I’d always heard that the answer to mental illness was finding God and making church a bigger part of your life. People struggled because their spirit was lacking. It was merely the devil trying to lead someone off their path. If only people could open their hearts to our Savior, anything and everything was possible.
Eighty pounds lighter, my general practitioner congratulated my dramatic weight loss during a check-up. She nudged me with her elbow and said, “What’s your secret?” I told her I’d just been changing my life. “You’re doing yourself a favor,” she said, filling in my blood pressure on a chart. I walked out of her office feeling renewed and pressed the elevator button to go to the lobby. A white man waited impatiently beside me, tapping his toes, huffing. My head twinkled with hypoglycemic pain. He walked toward the staircase, and over his shoulder said, “You know there’s stairs, right? Consider them sometime,” and walked down. I mentally extended my fast by another twelve hours. On the mile and a half walk back to my house, I got so light-headed I had to sit under a tree until the feeling passed.
When I talk about my eating disorder, I can see doubt flash in people, that small But you’re fat, curling around their gaze. If people manage to move past their disbelief, they treat me like I’m broken. Their expressions are too soft when they look at me, their eyes cloudy with concern. I’ll say something innocuous, like I don’t want the pumpkin cheesecake muffins being handed out in class, and everyone’s on high alert. It’s a red flag behavior. When I say I starve myself, everything I do from then on becomes colored by that. All they see are the ways in which I’ve failed in being Well-Adjusted. They don’t see me.
I never got help because I knew no one would believe me, and the attention I got from losing weight fueled me too much. People finally noticed me. The invisibility of fatness flaked off. A man asked for my phone number. A customer at my job stopped me as I was restocking shelves to tell me how beautiful I was. My father told me he was proud of me. How could something be wrong when I was getting complimented all the time?
“You look so good!” my mother told me. I’d spent the majority of the summer at Therese’s house and my mother saw me inconsistently. She’d never looked too closely, was always wrapped up in work. My hair was brittle, my teeth felt loose in my jaw, and my heart pumped rapidly, even when I was perfectly still. “I’m so glad you’re finally taking care of yourself!” she said.
In my sophomore year of undergrad, the internet Ana girls started getting pushed into rehab, their blogs filling with posts about how blinded they were by anorexia. They stopped referring to it as “Ana,” and instead as “eating disorders,” “mental illness,” and a “sickness.” Even Therese slowly shook off the Ana fog and talked about how much of her life eating disorders had stolen from her, and admitted that, yes, she had a problem. Everything became past tense with her. “I used to be so weird about food,” she’d say. I felt betrayed. She shifted her obsession to fitness, taking up jogging and working on her Crow Pose. Therese didn’t look at ingredients lists just for calories anymore, it became about watching for high fructose corn syrup and trans fats. “I just want to become strong. Toned. I mean, really, can you imagine me at 100 pounds? I’d look crazy.”
Sometimes, I like to fool myself into thinking I’m in recovery. I’ve overcome this thing and am a better person because of it. The weight I’ve regained over the years is proof. In reality, my eating disorder never stopped; it’s just quieter. That voice will always gnaw at me. When stressed, I withhold food, and that same superiority rushes through me. I find excuses to skip breakfast, pass on lunch, forget about dinner. I’m better at ignoring restrictive urges, but the guilt that slides up from eating is difficult to bury. I’ll still trick others into food, offering to take friends out to dinner for their birthdays. Once, I cooked so often for an ex-boyfriend that he gained nearly fifteen pounds in less than a year. I delighted at his distended belly, at how uncomfortable he was in his body, the churning of his face at his personal high of 145 pounds. It felt good to not be the only one terrified of the things their body could do. I don’t grocery shop often, happier when the fridge is empty, that there’s nothing to binge on. At parties, I sneak away to the bathroom to weigh myself on the hostess’s scale, and the number haunts me for weeks.
I’m still thrilled by the crack of hunger. The dull throbbing at my temples that follows. How low blood sugar makes my eyes seem too heavy for their sockets. The way my head feels like it’s pirouetting right off my neck. There’s no other side I’ve come out on; it’s more like I walked a block down the street. I can turn around and see my way back, the infuriatingly easy path I could take to perfection. At 100, that boy will finally love me. I will become the daughter my parents prayed for. My body will be a home and I will be safe and warm and nobody can ever hurt me again, all I have to do is take that first step.
Simone Person grew up in Michigan and Ohio, and is a dual Fiction MFA and African American and African Diaspora Studies MA candidate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Five on the Fifth and Beecher’s Magazine, and her chapbook was a finalist selection in Black Lawrence Press’s Spring 2016 Black River Chapbook Competition.