Don’t eat after seven, mum says. Don’t eat after seven if you love me.
I’m ten years old and living with my grandparents; they say it’s for the time being. My parents have just been through a particularly messy divorce and I’ve witnessed most of it through the paper-thin walls of my tiny bedroom. Dad’s gone off with his new beau and our beloved French bulldog. Mum’s taken up smoking and is collapsing into herself. I feel like none of my friends can really feel my pain, so I come home from school and I eat. When I feel bad about eating, I eat some more.
When they got married and had me, my parents were barely of legal age. It wasn’t even a shotgun wedding, it was worse — young love amidst the crumbling USSR. It was dark and cold and hopeless, the ground littered with heroin needles and bullet shells; there wasn’t much else to do but to play house.
My relationship with food was formed while my family members stood in bread lines for hours on end, taking toddler me with them as their only source of entertainment. I remember how the taste of bread came to mean comfort and warmth, although fleeting and finite. I remember grandma’s sad “Poverty Cake”, made of sour jam and coarse cornflour, and brine-soaked noodles — imitation cheese. I learned to eat with desperate urgency, as even the saddest dishes were the luxuries not everybody could afford. Then, luckily for the economy, but sadly for my family, things started to pick up.
Once the dark curtain of the nineties was finally lifted and capitalism flashed its plump thigh at us, suddenly there was food — so decadent, so tempting and moreish. All at once, there were crisps, and fizzy drinks, and pretzels, and ice-creams, and chocolates, and pizzas, and a whole lot of real, actual cake. From the land of egg powder and potato soup, I was magically transported into a curious cornucopia of candy shops and hot dog stands and first-ever McDonald’s with its tantalisingly heartwarming, artery-clogging smell of frying oil. And to fuel my budding appetite, there was plenty of fresh sadness to go with the newfound plenty — of grandpa saying my dad was a bad man; of my sweet, sweet Frenchie being paralyzed and put down; of school bullies; of my tall, skinny stepmom; of pretty boys who never say past my adolescent chub. A tale as old as time, of heartache and hunger.
While I saw food as a source of comfort and joy, mum saw it as the ultimate villain. In her mind, men never left their skinny wives and daughters and everything would magically fix itself as soon as all the extra weight — the bug in the system — was eradicated. I watched her starving herself, working out obsessively, befriending a weight loss pill lady, losing half her body weight and putting it back on. “Am I bigger than her?” I remember her asking while at the beach, gesturing at another woman nearby. She wasn’t, but suddenly I was, in all of my pre-teen, pudgy glory. It was my turn to be fixed.
I started taking dance lessons with a teacher that turned out to be a garden variety bully. Even though I loved dancing and always tried to put my best foot forward, I was called names, mocked and made to jog around the hall as the skinny, “normal” kids watched and giggled as I jiggled past. I cried and ate, I ate and cried. What else could I have done? Food was both my solace and my demise. I recall catching a glimpse of a Russian TV program about a woman and her tapeworm — how much weight she’d lost, how jealous her friends would get when she’d eat a whole birthday cake without gaining a single gram. I stopped washing fruit and veg in hopes of getting one myself, but all I ever got was stomach cramps. If there was an easy way out of my own body, I was yet to find it.
Despite the regular bullying, none of my eating habits really changed until the guy I was super into up and dumped me. He’d lost around fifty pounds himself and wouldn’t stop adjusting a t-shirt flap over his phantom belly — a fat kid habit, he said. We had so much in common, but one day he couldn’t get it up and said it wasn’t me. Suddenly, everything made sense. With crushing clarity I knew it wasn’t me, it was my body — the ultimate traitor. I stayed in bed for weeks, only drinking skimmed milk and dirtying some plates so nobody would think I was the kind of girl to stop eating after a breakup. Every night I cried and wished for death. Every day I was told I looked great and was asked to share my diet. I said to cut carbs, but not being good enough was the secret.
I got over the guy, but I never got over my body. The beast had been awoken. The sense of security and comfort that food had once brought me had flipped; carbs had become the enemy, and stomach spasms and heart palpitations — uncelebrated trophies of true dedication. I took advantage of mum’s now dusty fitness hoard — the treadmill, the heating belt, the weird butterfly-shaped device that sent tingly impulses into my abdomen. I counted calories, walked everywhere and weighed myself twice a day. If I ate anything but instant oatmeal, I’d punish myself with cardio and laxatives. Nobody noticed though; I’ve never been small enough to raise concerns. To this day, I’m not quite sure if this is more of a victory or a defeat — a mere weakness of the spirit.
Even at my smallest, I’ve never felt at home in my body, but like renting from an increasingly obnoxious landlord, on a constant lookout for the next best thing. And the food was my emotionally abusive enabler. In my head, every compliment in my direction sounded like a compromise, like a statement with a “but” at the end. Every person to ever like me did so because other, thinner girls were unavailable. I was a bargain, a markdown — good enough value, but never a top-shelf trophy. Though, somehow, even through the darkest of times, I managed to maintain a certain grip on reality(even though it came from obsessively comparing myself to other girls )— I knew I wasn’t obese, I was always just slightly, annoyingly overweight.
Once I moved away from home, it got a bit better. What I still struggled with, however, was balance, failing to see food as anything but a victory or a downfall. I starved and binged in phases, feeling guilty in both instances. The constant comments about my appearance that I had fled from had taken refuge in my head. Food was the reason for anything good or bad to happen to me: if I avoided it, happiness would ensue; if I indulged, the punishment was sure to follow. I chew and spat. I cried over Christmas chocolate. I hated people for offering me food that I was too weak to refuse. I was either guilty and safe or in control and deprived. There was no middle ground.
I wish I could say that there was a big epiphany, an epic learning moment that taught me to accept myself and my body. Instead, I just carried on however I could, and slowly, bit by bit, things started to change. Slowly, bit by bit, I started hearing sounds louder than the one that said I was unworthy. I started feeling feelings stronger than self-hatred. I found worthier obsessions.
However, introducing my once solely weight-bound self-worth to other, more complex dimensions in which to fall short was no cakewalk either. In a way, as sad and exhausting it was to obsess over body mass, there was a certain ease, innocence even, to being secure in everything other than my body and never questioning my worth — or worthlessness — in any other aspects. Sometimes, when I’m tired and sad and uncaring, I miss believing that all my problems would just magically fix themselves if I only were to abstain from food for a couple of months. But then I remember the weight of it (ugh) — the terrible, soul-crushing shame and physical inability to care about anything else, the daily Golgotha to the scales, and I know it isn’t worth it.
The hunger — the earth-shattering, titanic, quenchless hunger is still here, but now I know it’s here to stay. It is a bottomless pit lined with sadness and guilt, a Wendigo whispering my name with the wind, forever lurking in the crevices of my insecurities. I can sometimes feel it thrashing in its little cell block of general contentment, waiting for its dark time to shine. It’s like a broken security system, but it’s a part of me — misery’s soppy sidekick. Apparently, accepting yourself means accepting yourself in full, even the bit that, if unleashed, waits food out in dark alleyways and beats it into pulp, getting hungrier, angrier with every bite. Keeping it at bay takes discipline, but a special, unfocused kind — I have to tiptoe around it; I have to indulge it, while also remaining in control; I have to keep it satisfied, but never fully. It’s scripted chaos that I’ve almost perfected through the years of trial and error. Two steps forward, one step back — a bizarre half-waltz with myself.
Mum is still chasing her goal weight, telling me about a new miraculous diet every month or so. I’ve tried to tell her to stop, that she’s beautiful the way she is, that her weight had nothing to do with dad leaving in the first place and that she’s better off anyway, but she already knows that. Plus, most of my energy goes toward convincing her, but mostly myself, that her comments don’t get me anymore. Even though I have, like every other woman I know, promised myself to never become my mother, to not fall victim to the siren call of skinny Moby Dick that’s been passed down to me like a generational curse, my primal, lizard-brain self still suspects that it’s just those twenty pounds (and nothing else) standing between me and the super me — the one with no fear of failure, the one that can achieve absolutely anything in a heartbeat. I’m never going to find out though; I can’t risk being proven wrong.