I think my mother always knew. I never did tell her, but I guess I didn’t really have to verbalize it. Mothers have a freaky intuition when it comes to their children. My dad had no clue, but then again he didn’t understand teenage girls to begin with. My brother was too preoccupied with his own demons to notice. My friends knew nothing, but when it comes down to it: I didn’t have a lot of friends.
Jackie* was my best friend, but even when we were close a part of me hated her. It was difficult not to let my emotions take control of me and allow my jealousy turn into hatred. She was the skinny, outgoing, and pretty one. I was the sidekick with braces, glasses, and a few pounds to spare. Despite our differences, we had been inseparable since we first met in fourth grade. The way we met may have been foreshadowing; I was always the needy one, seeking validation. I approached her at a lunch table and asked her to be friends. She said yes, I sat down, and magically we were friends. It was just that simple. We bonded over our love of drawing and shopping at the mall. She had numerous family issues but her bubbly personality hid her dark side.
The dependency started almost instantaneously. She was so charismatic and she made me feel special whenever we spent time together. At the age of 11, we wished to escape childhood so we did things beyond our developmental age. Alike most one-dimensional teenage girls in poorly made films, the mall was our sanctuary. We went shopping for provocative clothes in name brand stores that exploited young children. The hair that hung around our faces was colored with drug store hair dye. Jackie also brought me along to boy-girl parties where we spent hours in a hot tub with a bunch of hormone ridden teenage boys. I would shy away from getting close to anyone and hid my body under an ill-fitting one piece, but still the experience is not one to have when you are barely prepubescent.
We had just reached middle school but we experienced so much life in a short amount of time. Older guys would hit on her and I was always left with the loser friend that tagged along. Even the reject guy wouldn’t bother talking to me or even looking at me for that matter. Whenever we went out somewhere, everyone would know her. Jackie was so beloved by our hometown and no one even knew my name. Sometimes she would ditch me to spend time with her more popular friends. I didn’t even mind when she ignored me because at least I could still consider her a friend.
We didn’t always do things in public. I liked it best whenever she slept over at my house or I slept over at hers. That way there would be nobody else to distract her and she would be forced to pay attention to me. We had so much fun, just the two of us. There was no one to impress. Jackie didn’t have to hide me or make an excuse up about why she had to bring me along. I often brought out my fake microphone and my purple boom box so we would sing along to Hilary Duff. We filled sketch books with comic book style doodles until the markers dried up. Those were the type of activities that eleven-year-olds should be doing. Those carefree memories are the ones I wish I could recall clearly without having to dig tirelessly in my subconscious. Instead, a few of the poignant ones that stuck were our many guy discussions. When we would talk about guys, her stories would be about what actually happened and mine would be about what I wished happened.
Once I reached fifth grade, strangers would spit out insults about me from behind their computer screens. Though it was nothing directly said to me, they would harass Jackie for being my friend. No one could understand why such a wonderful person like her could be friends with such a stuffy and ordinary person like me. She spent a great deal of time defending me through these social networking websites, but sometimes when it came to standing up to her friends about me, she chose to remain silent.
Jackie invited her friend Eve* to one of our infamous shopping outings. I was browsing through the new swimwear on display when a cute bikini caught my eye. Eve took notice and couldn’t stop herself from commenting on it.
“Don’t even try to wear that. You will look so fat in it,” Eve said harshly.
Unable to speak up for myself because of my deplorable lack of self-confidence, I looked to Jackie. She pretended not to hear and continued to explore the rest of the store.
It didn’t take long for everyone’s opinion of me to sink in with Jackie. Our daily phone calls became less frequent until they stopped altogether. I took initiative and called her house once a day for a while. My determination was fueled by my desperate need to save my one and only friendship. When we passed in the hallways, she couldn’t even make eye contact with me. I noticed that she started spending more time with her high status friends. Regardless of that, I continued to eat at our lunch table. I had been demoted to a seat on the end instead of my usual seat right besides Jackie. Day after day I would listen to the group chuckle. I felt so alone knowing that I used to be a part of their inside jokes. They always seemed to laugh louder around me, as if they were trying to rub their good time in my face. Or maybe it was just my imagination amplifying it all.
Normally, lunch is everyone’s favorite part of the school day, but I dreaded entering the lunch room with my water-stained lunch box hanging by my side. I would still be sitting at the end of a table packed with people I grew to hate. It really made me detest everything associated with the meal, including food.
As if I didn’t already feel like an outcast, the table began making fun of me. They would speak at a normal volume and throw out negative comments like: “she is so weird” and “why does she still sit with us?”
I remember the moment I felt as if there was no hope left for me in the world. It was a warm spring day; I recall this obscure fact because I was wearing a pair of blue shorts that were admittedly a little too short. These shorts were the impetus for the entire table to join in and criticize my weight, directly to my face.
“Oh my God. Why would you wear those shorts?!” A girl named Brenda* asked rhetorically. She followed up with the endearing sentiment of, “You look so fat in them.”
The whole table laughed in unison, which I took as their agreement with her. Then they proceeded to rattle off all the specific reasons why I shouldn’t be wearing those shorts out loud. They must have taken my shocked silence as an invitation to list everything they believed to be wrong with me. I sat down and listened to it all without even opening my lunch box. The only time I got up was to throw out my sandwich still preserved in saran wrap. The rest of my lunchbox’s content followed its descent.
I walked home from the bus stop pretending that the day never happened, but the world wouldn’t give me reprieve. Adding insult to injury, Jackie emailed me saying that I was kicked out of the table. I put on a tough guy act angrily typing that I didn’t want to be at their “stupid table” anyway. It was all a façade; soon the anxiety of being unsure of where I was going to sit next filled my body until it freed the tears from my eyes.
I didn’t come out of my room that whole night. My mom was especially worried when I didn’t even drag myself downstairs for dinner. She knocked on my door, but I was ashamed to show her my tear streaked face. My mom respected my privacy and left me alone.
Because of my deprivation of friends, I became exceptionally attached to my mother. One night she brought me along to an aerobics class meant for middle-aged women in order to get me out of the house. It was five minutes before the class started and I began weeping for the first time in front of her. My mom held me and let me cry into her cotton t-shirt. I told her nothing about my friend rejecting me, but she already knew.
“I’ll be your friend,” she said while rubbing my back. The sobs rumbling through my chest slowed and soon I was thankful that this unbelievably caring woman was my mother.
After the waterworks display, I told my mom that I needed to find a new lunch table to sit at. She encouraged me to make friends with girls in my class that seemed nice. The next day I went up to those three girls and guilt tripped them into allowing me to sit with them during lunchtime. I told them my story and the sympathized with me. Everyone seemed to have a hard time in middle school, which made it easier to relate to people later.
We got along well, but I wouldn’t classify it as friendship. We ran through the same routine every day. First, I’d carefully unpack all the food in my lunch box. Then, they watched me as I opened every container. No matter how closely they scrutinized me, they never saw me disturb the food inside. By the time my daily ritual ended, they were standing in the lunch line for ten minutes. Once they were all out of sight, tucked behind a corner or a large pillar, I stood up and threw my lunch away without a morsel of food touching my mouth. The grumbling of my stomach was painful, but the satisfaction of knowing that I was in control of my body pushed me to repeat my actions on a daily basis. I thought seeing myself as skinny would be worth my temporary pain.
I didn’t feel guilty for hurting myself, but I did begin to feel guilty for wasting all the food my mom meticulously packed for me. After going out one night and pretending like I had overindulged myself, I wrote my mom a sticky note saying: “After tonight’s feast at the mall, I am stuffed. Can you start packing three items instead of five for lunch? Thank you.” This way, I had less food for my act of pretending to eat. Even then, I tried not to waste it all; just because I wasn’t going to eat didn’t mean that I should let other people go hungry. I always gave a snack to my friend claiming that I was too full from my robust peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She was very skinny herself. At the time, I thought I was above her. I felt like refusing to eat was a conscious decision on my part and she was starving herself without really realizing it. Now it is obvious that we were always on the same level and we had the same problem.
Within a few months, I started waking up late so it could be my excuse to skip breakfast. Still my mom watched closely as I ate a granola bar at the kitchen table. When it came to dinner, I couldn’t get away with much. I would pick at my food and reluctantly swallow it. I grimaced as I felt the meal slithering down my throat. Each bite was a step away my goal to be skinny. No matter what food I was eating, it tasted like fat. I cut up my meat until it was just a bunch of asymmetrical lumps staring up at me. I would only eat a few of those small pieces deeming the rest inedible and convincing my parents that the meat was marbled with fat.
In middle school, my shoulders were always slumped, emphasizing my shoulder blades’ sharp presence on my back. My ribs were seen noticeably through the billowy shirts I had been accustomed to wearing. My arms and legs belonged to a skeleton, not a human being. My hair was very brittle and I had a hard time brushing it without it falling out. I perpetually had dark circles under my eyes, no matter how much sleep I had the night before. The slightest breeze would send me in to incredibly powerful shakes. I continued on with it, never feeling content with my body. I think I was really trying to change something deeper and nonphysical about myself by changing my appearance. My hatred for my personality manifested into something damaging to my health.
Everyone could see the change except me. Family members commented on how I had lost all my “baby fat”. The image in the mirror looking back at me did not fulfill the image in my head. That image of perfection haunted me for years. A pretty blonde girl with skinny limbs, big boobs, and a beautiful face was the ghost that followed me everywhere. I was skinny but I was still me. Still disgusting and ugly. I poked at my stomach harshly, hoping the stabbing pain would convince the slight chub that remained to melt off. I knew “dieting” wasn’t enough. That’s when I started doing 800 sit ups on my bedroom floor each evening. I also drank copious amounts of water to trick my body into thinking that it was full.
My mom relentlessly begged me to admit that I had a problem. I denied it every time, because I believed there was nothing abnormal about it. I fed her the same excuse all the members of my family had used: “I just lost my baby fat.”
I’d like to think that I magically got better when I hit eighth grade, but I still had a problem. I started talking to Jackie again through Drama Club meetings. We finally spoke about what happened in seventh grade. I could tell she was genuinely regretful about her actions. She wasn’t that girl anymore; it was just a horrible twisted up version of her stained in my memory. I forgave her, but I told her that I could never forget it. At first I was saying it to add dramatic effect, but on some level it contained the truth. What transpired had affected me and molded me into the person I am. The forgiveness allowed me to let go of that poisonous grudge that drooped my shoulders as I dragged it along.
Eighth grade was the first year I fell in with a tightknit group. We were teasingly nasty to each other, like friends often are out of love. We had our own nicknames for each other emphasizing a distinguishing physical feature. Their nickname for me was “skinny bitch”. This was the only time my friends vocalized their concern for me, even though it was just a joke. Suddenly it clicked, people saw me as skinny but even if I strained my eyes, I couldn’t see what they did.
I seemed to be on the road to recovery. Every day at lunch, I ate a bag of chips instead of eating nothing. Then towards the end of eighth grade, when I was looking forward to the summer before high school, I met Andrew*. He came right up to me and told me that he liked me. I was floored because he was the first person to admit to that. I was completely infatuated with him, so much so that I felt obligated to him, even though he was taken. His girlfriend knew about me and hated me for it. Her glares were enough to make me cower in a corner, but I couldn’t. This was the first guy to like me. It was a miracle. It didn’t matter if he was a pothead who was two-timing his girlfriend; I had to make him mine. I felt as if he put me and his girlfriend in the boxing ring. She was the strong, confident one and I was the weak, hopeless one. He rang the bell and we were ready to duke it out. Being in that imaginary competition skewed my thinking. I thought I could win him over by being as skinny as possible. I went back to skipping lunch altogether.
Andrew later broke my heart on the dance floor of my eighth grade formal. The boy that I was sure I loved chose the other girl. Though it sounds ridiculously trivial now, it made me even more insecure with my body image. Still liking him forced me to write a bunch of sappy love poems. I also avoided eating as much as possible. Along with my crush on Andrew, my unhealthy habit followed me to high school.
It was late October when I had the epiphany that I had an eating disorder. I received my school pictures for that year in homeroom. I almost retuned the envelope because I was convinced there was a mix up. I was given somebody else’s photos; the person in those pictures was unrecognizable. That girl’s face was so skinny and drawn. For as long as I could remember, I was always a chubby-faced girl. That girl had her thin hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail. My hair was thick and uncontrollable since the day I was born. Why was I doing this to myself? I no longer felt alone. I wasn’t going to win Andrew’s heart by staying in this imaginary competition. What I needed to do was find a way to get to know myself completely. Then I could reach real happiness by accepting all that I discover about myself.
People can learn to live without the most basic necessities. Those who lose their sense of sight have a hard time adjusting to being blind at first, but soon a sightless world is the only world they know how to live in. I too was living without a basic necessity: happiness. I didn’t always strive to reach happiness, like I do now. I put my need for happiness on the back burner for so long that it felt liberating to put myself first for once. Before, the hatred of my personality consumed me. I found that writing down my every thought on my external life and my internal personality helped me. I discovered that there was no such thing as normal, there was just me. Being myself is all anybody worth keeping should expect me to do. Only then did I find unwavering and honest happiness.
Years after my eating disorder recovery, I heard a shocking statistic. I couldn’t tell you where I heard it or if it’s from a reliable source but the author noted that only 30% of people completely recover from an eating disorder. I was thankful to be one of those 30%. My love/hate relationship with food turned to just love. I can stand in front of the world now and announce that I am a healthy young woman who eats three balanced meals a day.
Despite my hyperbolic thinking at the time, middle school wasn’t the end of the world. High school didn’t kill me either. Today, I have a best friend who is the kindest, most loving person. I find comfort in knowing she would never betray me. Andrew doesn’t matter to me now. A string of many disappointments later, I have realized that I shouldn’t depend on a guy to define me. As for his girlfriend’s behavior, she felt threatened and acted accordingly. I understand why she was mean to me, but don’t condone it. Jackie may have never had a reason for ex-communicating me, but now I know it was her issue, not mine. She was fighting something within herself that was bigger than our friendship. None of these people are villains; there are just humans that were unhappy with their lives. Now every time someone is mean to me, I know they are responding to something within themselves, not me.