Laura Diaz de Arce
In my second-grade classroom there was a set of bookshelves that created a little book nook. The bookshelves were placed perpendicular to the desks and in one area, the space was only about three inches or less in width to move between the shelves and a desk. I remember showing off that I could fit and slip from one end to the other, that I used to show off to the other kids at how small I was. “Look! It’s not hard for me!”
This was a little over a year after I had been first hospitalized for starving myself. A trend that would continue, like clockwork, around every three months for most of elementary school. I would starve myself for long periods at a time, eventually eat enough of something that my body could not handle, and then begin a cycle of vomiting and inability to keep anything down. Then, if I failed to recover from the steady diet of lukewarm Gatorade and toast, I would be taken to the hospital.
Anorexia had taken root before I had even lost all of my baby teeth.
My memories of childhood are filled with these odd episodes of reveling in my thinness and illness, or the strange combination of both. There’s one time that really sticks out that I still talk about. During one of my first episodes when I was about seven and in the hospital for one of my routine vomiting fits, the nurse couldn’t put the IV in my arm. My arm was so thin, that locating a vein was an issue. She kept trying, over and over, jamming the stupid needle in my arm trying to hit a vein. Finally, I got so annoyed with her I took the needle from her and put it in myself. Needless to say, I don’t really have a fear of needles.
As a child, I loathed unhealthy foods. I refused burgers, hot dogs, pizza at every junction. (I still mostly dislike pizza and hot dogs to be honest with you). Instead, I subsisted on soups and salads only. Food disgusted me. Internally, I knew that if I ate foods, and especially certain types of food, I would get bigger, when I was so desperate to remain small. But I still couldn’t resist desserts, which would leave me vomiting after long periods of starvation.
The heavy starvation stopped in fourth grade. Towards the end of my umpteenth hospital stay my mother came to me and told me I had to start eating or “they” were going to take me away. It seems that maybe someone on staff at the hospital had probably gone through my record and threatened to report my parents for child abuse. I stopped starving myself for long periods of time after that. But my eating disorder didn’t stop, it only evolved.
By the time I was in middle school I developed a routine. In the morning, before school, I did 132 crunches and then sit ups. Privately, I counted my food in portions and bites. Yes, I had to meet certain minimums, but there were rigid maximums, and if I violated these I would find ways to inflict punishment. I was small, and I remained small through high school, keeping to at or below 112 lbs until junior year.
Publicly, I loved my thinness, loved the attention and approval given to it. Privately, I berated myself and my body.
I couldn’t get a flat belly, no matter how many crunches I did. I didn’t grow breasts the way my classmates were. I would pinch the light fat on my hip, pulling it out like chicken skin, and torture myself over it. I was thin, but I was never thin enough.
I wore corsets in an effort to train my waist. I gorged on celery and then binged on sweets. Then I cried about it, about how my body never remained small enough, how my bones weren’t slim enough. Thin as a rail, but the eyes with which I saw my body as a grotesque object for ridicule — too bony and angular in many places (like my nose) and too fat in others (like my stomach pooch).
My body was my own object of scorn.
How did it start? Part of me wants to blame my pediatrician, who while I was in kindergarten pointed out that me and my brothers were getting a little thick. After that, my parents put a large chain and a padlock on the refrigerator door, allowing only my abuela the key to open it during the day. This was to keep me and my brothers from snacking.
Before you begin to think that this is some sort of abuse, if I remember correctly, the chain and padlock were our pediatrician’s idea. My parents didn’t know better, and in many ways still don’t.
Or perhaps it is this weird gluten/celiac issue we discovered after I turned thirty, affecting me even then. A lot of food gave me immense stomach pain that I thought was normal, and it may have been linked with my frequent vomiting that flares up once in a while.
Even without that, though, I would have been an anorexic. I was someone for whom starvation gave me a sense of control that I lacked. Or, at least, it gave me the illusion of control. Sometimes it still does.
We live in a masochistic culture that loves eating disorders.
I was never praised, never complimented as much as when I was at my sickest. People would laud my thinness and I would go home to examine every off feature and plan on killing myself. Culminating in my first suicide attempt at thirteen, a pitiful try at drinking chlorine. I remember one, repetitive set of thoughts as I twisted off the cap: “I’m so fucking fat, I’m fucking disgusting.”
And I had great examples for this self-loathing, growing up I was surrounded by women who hated their own bodies. I can tell you all the way the women in my life hate their bodies, and I can never remember a time when someone simply liked a part of their body without adding some humiliating caveat. Bodies were and continue to be objects of extreme scrutiny, and this wreaks havoc on a developing child.
Even my own, thin body was a source of critique. It has only grown more so as I’ve gotten larger and older. I’m consistently suggested diets and weight loss tips from well-meaning friends, colleagues, loved ones. In many cases, they are doing this out of love. In a really, terribly fucked up way, eating disorders are a means of survival. We treat anyone above a certain size like shit, and if you have to kill yourself to be accepted, to lose that and take up less space than so be it. Eating disorders, mental disorders like these are not only socially acceptable, they are expected and lauded.
While I may have a diagnosed mental disorder — an eating disorder, with the hospital visits and permanent damage to my digestive system to prove it — you all have it too. I see it in the ways you casually talk about your new restrictive diet, in the ways you degrade entire food groups, in the ways you casually call yourself a fat-ass for enjoying a damn cupcake. I see it in your long gym visits, and I hear it in the ways you talk about yourself.
We call this healthy. We call this striving for a healthy lifestyle. But there is nothing healthy about hating your body this much.
Ultimately, getting diagnosed with another mental illness in late high school saved me. It got me on anti-psychotics and antidepressants which make it nearly impossible to lose weight or starve yourself. Especially since a lot of these meds cause immediate weight gain and retention. This put me on the path to therapy, and in college, at the recommendation of my therapist, I entered into group therapy for eating disorders. It was an unbelievably uncomfortable experience, but it helped me to learn to control my disorder, my harmful starvation and food-restriction urges.
Thank fucking goodness for the body positivity movement, for reframing how we feel about our bodies in ways that I learned in therapy. I’m not fully healed, recovery is a forever process for me, but I’m better, and fatter, than I have ever been.
I no longer pull at my fleshy parts, eager to make portions of myself disappear. My body is lush, cuddly and that comes with its own rewards. I take up space, I exist beyond boundaries.
Thin isn’t something I strive for or look to as validation or value anymore.
That doesn’t mean that this torture is gone. That doesn’t mean that thin isn’t one of the morbid ways we’ve learned to control ourselves and others. But hey, if my chunky sick self can fight back, maybe you can too.
There may be a troglodyte who takes this article as an opportunity to look me and harangue me for daring to be okay in my own skin and body. All I can say is that if this occurs to you, I hope that one day you grow to be a person good enough to hate the way you are now.
Laura Diaz de Arce is a South Florida writer still learning to make peace with her own body. She writes for Book Riot regularly. In 2018 she was published in Tragedy Queens by CLASHBooks. She also published a collection of short stories, Monstrosity. Send her llama gifs on twitter @QuetaAuthor.