13 April 2009

body talk: part 3

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

IMPORTANT NOTE: I cannot stress enough how this is not intended to be a “how to” for someone seeking to lose weight. I now recognize the patterns described below as self-destructive and all too common for women who use extreme and unhealthy means in an attempt to achieve the cultural standard of beauty. I share these details because I think it’s important to recognize how slowly and seemingly innocently these patterns can develop, how they can snowball, and how all-consuming they can become. In order for my recovery to mean what it means, this ugly piece is vital to the totality of the story.

Those sheets of paper were magic. They were what I had never known I had always wanted.

I studied the nutritional content of bread and pasta, of cheese and fruits, of meats and sweets, of cookies and peanut butter and parmesan cheese. I studied it all. I filed these facts in my brain, cataloging them to recall them later. For those foods I didn’t know, I referred to a book on a shelf above the cookbooks in my mom’s kitchen. It had been my grandmother’s before she died and was a proverbial catalog of every food, the detailed breakdown of its nutritional content spelled out in the most finite detail. I was in heaven.

As per the project requirements, I wrote down everything I ate on a piece of paper and estimated how much I was eating. At home, I pulled out my mom’s food scale so that I could get an idea of what four ounces of turkey looked like. I visually cataloged what a teaspoon of peanut butter looked like. I measured out mayonnaise before slathering it on my turkey sandwich and was elated to learn that mustard was virtually calorie-free. I deliberately took smaller portions so I wouldn’t have to write down a large number of calories. I didn’t want my tally at the end of the week to say that I was going to gain weight. In my mind, I was already pudgy and round and soft enough and I was worried about what Mr. F would think if my tally said I would maintain my weight, or even worse, if I would gain some. I was academic about my calculations and my consumption. I was vigilant. I was a voracious for that information.

I remember tallying up my daily calorie totals for the project. My number was higher earlier in the project and by the end of the week, my daily totals were in the 1200-1300 calorie range. In my final assessment, I said that if my eating trends continued, I would lose weight. I was proud. I felt as though I deserved a medal or an achievement badge. A gold star, perhaps? I remember when he handed back our graded assignments. I saw his comment, written in his characteristic block letters, below my final assessment of the project: You don’t need to lose any weight, Kirsten. He followed it by a smiley face.

But he had no idea. My tall, lithe, athletically-built biology teacher was sweet, but in my mind, just didn’t and couldn’t understand. He couldn’t know what it was to be a teenage girl whose soft, round body had been an object of torment. He couldn’t know how out of control I had felt my whole life with my allergies and my sinus infections and getting the flu every year and a set of DNA that had predetermined such a soft and solid body as mine. He couldn’t know how much worse puberty had made these things and how desperate I was for some semblance of control. He couldn’t know how much I wanted to silence my accusers, to prove something to those who had ever made an offensive comment about my weight and my shape. In my mind, he was simply being kind. It was his job to say things like that.

Long after the project for class was over, my personal quest continued and picked up speed. It became my primary mission. The control I felt was intoxicating and liberating. I saw my body as a project, a challenge, a wild thing that had once held me captive, but now that I was equipped, that I could tame. I would look at an apple as large as my fist and recall perfectly calories, carbohydrates, fiber. A bowl of hot cereal (how much did one cup look like in my bowl?) with skim milk. I made a mental note of my sandwich: 2 slices of bread, mayonnaise (how much? I didn’t measure), cheese. I mentally made notes of which foods had the highest caloric content and made plans to reduce and finally eliminate them. I kept track of everything I swallowed, keeping a mental daily tally of calories and fat grams.

Around this same time, my mom also started exercising more, going for walks around the neighborhood. I joined her. I also sought out other forms of exercise. I would dance or jog in place in my room, getting as sweaty as I could, challenging myself to go for increasingly long intervals. I would grab the jump rope and if the weather was bad, head out to the garage. I’d plug in the old black radio and turn on the local rock station while the green rope rhythmically slapped the floor, as I jumped and skipped and kicked my legs out, imagining myself defeating every last fat cell in my body.

Clothes became looser and others began to comment on my increasingly lean shape. People began to look at me as though I was attractive. I walked down the halls more confidently, looking up instead of at my feet and the dirty white tiles below them. I smiled more. Shopping became less of a drudgery and more of a pleasure when I took smaller sizes with me to the dressing room. I would turn to the side in the mirror and take pleasure in my shrinking belly. If feeling as in control as I did was intoxicating, then the feeling of being in control and attractive and complimented was intoxicating and powerful. The feeling was like a drug and I was addicted to the euphoria it produced.

But I wasn’t done. Hmmm. They think I look good now? I thought. I will show them that I can do even better.

The growl in my stomach was already a mark of victory in my mind, a herald announcing that I was succeeding.

To be continued …


  1. Oh, Kirsten, my heart aches for the you that was in the place you describe here. *sigh*

  2. I love you, my friend.

    This post brings tears to my eyes, and the mental conversation in your head sounds all-too-familiar to me. I've been changing my lifestyle habits the past two months. I've lost weight. I can tell, and Kirk can tell, and today when I went shopping for my California trip, even the clothes on the rack could tell. I've dropped at least one clothing size.

    I felt proud today. I'm finally losing the weight I began gaining after our wedding. It's been three long years of discomfort and shame in that department.

    But I'm just self-aware enough to know I'm on dangerous ground. With my body now adjusted to eating less and my daily schedule speeding up with preoccupying projects that help me forget that I need to eat, it's not good when I add on top of all that a disdain for food in general.

    For instance, two weeks ago I hardly ate anything. At the end of the week, I realized that I could keep this up and Kirk would probably not notice. After all, he's working 10 hours a day. So I confessed to him the truth: "I hardly ate any food this week." I needed accountability. This can really get out of control.

    I'll be honest: I'm still teeter-tottering on this brink. I haven't felt the compulsion to control my eating and diminish my frame in a very long time, but now that the eating habits are going more healthy, I find myself getting addicted to the prospect of approximating my former size again. I need to cling to Jesus to keep myself sane in this place. Your posts will help, I'm sure.

  3. Dear heart, thank you for being so vulnerable for what wounds us is the healing for another. I think I'm reading this at the perfect time, making me more aware of what my student is going through, more wise and able to give affirmation and healthy caution. I don't think there's ever sufficient reason for experiencing suffering, but may it comfort to know that good comes out of your pain....

  4. sarah, *sigh.* thank you. i've been learning over the past year or so to grieve for her, to be sad for her when she didn't know to be sad for herself. thank you for sharing that path.

    christianne, you blow me away with your thoughtfulness and with your awareness. it's a really slippery slope, particularly in a culture that values a very particular brand of "beauty". i know we care about health: consuming foods rich in nutrients that are good for our bodies and exercising to become strong and prevent injury and illness later in life. but when we also see the results you mention: a smaller pant size, the inward leaps and elation at noticing what has been achieved -- it's dangerous ground.

    i so admire your wisdom and courage in sharing that you recognized this dangerous ground. especially with a wedding coming up so soon, it is tempting for me to go to the same place. i know it works after all and as i keep hearing, i'll have those pictures forever. whew.thanks for treading this path with courage and wisdom with me. perhaps we can lean in on one another and learn how to hold each other true.

    joelle, when you first told me of your student, it made my heart ache. i do know what it is to be there. i do know what the pressure is, whether from within or from without (usually a bit of both, i think). i don't know that i have any specific answers but i do know that you can love the stuffing out of her and if this helps, then i will write, write, write some more. i do so love that girl.

    thanks for being here.