What Happened When I Tried Anorexia

Erin Britt essays

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I can remember the exact moment I decided to become anorexic. Yes—it was a decision; there was no gradual, mindless descent into an uncharted abyss. I stood before the trash-can in my college dorm-room, tossed an entire saucepan worth of tasteless, over-cooked noodles into it, and said aloud: “F*ck food. I am doing this.” Then I threw away all my other food too, and took out the trash so my roommate wouldn’t know what I’d done.

For the next two weeks, I subsisted on two grape-sodas per day plus whatever free beer the nearby bars funneled down my under-age throat. I slept four or five hours per night, attended all my classes, aced all my tests (as always), and acted like everything was normal. I told no one what I was doing. I knew people would find out eventually, but I wanted to be too far gone by the time anyone noticed.

My love-obsession at the time was added motivation to stay committed to my plan. He was a statuesque, Miami-born Al Pacino-type, a drug-dealer whose breath always, I mean always, smelled like mint. I had thrown myself at him with a profound and glorious absence of dignity. One night, after I’d drunkenly blurted out that I loved him, he’d shown me pictures of his girlfriend back home—a girl who was a million times more beautiful than I could ever hope to be, with flawless ivory skin, black hair, and kind, generous eyes. She was the kind of girl who you just can’t imagine doing a number two. I could never be as perfect as her…but I could be thinner.

In addition to my new liquid-only diet, I worked out at the gym for an hour-and-a-half every day. After about two weeks of this, I got out of the shower one day and pulled up my favorite pair of pants…and they literally fell off.

I was so happy.

Around that time, my friend Lily asked if I would come to the student commons to have dinner with her. I told her I would go to keep her company, but that I’d already eaten. She was fine with that. But when we got there, she ordered me to get a plate and put some food on it—she was going to buy me dinner. I told her no. She said if I wouldn’t eat, she would make a scene. “How much have you lost, Kristen? 20 pounds?” (YES—20 pounds exactly.) Al Pacino was there too, witnessing Lily’s scolding. “Don’t you think she needs to eat?” she asked him. He agreed.

So I ate. It felt so good, that flavorless, overly-salted cafeteria food hitting my starving belly. But still I cried through the whole meal, knowing my stint with anorexia had ended as swiftly as it had begun. Now that Lily knew, I couldn’t get away with not eating. She was the type who would do whatever it took to stop me from moving forward with my plan.

And she did exactly that. Lily routinely dragged me with her to the student commons, paid for my food, and then followed me around for a couple of hours afterward to guarantee I wouldn’t go sticking my fingers down my throat (though I never could get that to work anyway unless I was exceptionally drunk).

Over 15 years have passed since my failed attempt at anorexia. Fortunately, I did not retain many residual food-issues after those absurd two weeks of starvation, and I currently have what I consider to be a mostly-healthy relationship with food.

But I’m ashamed to admit, it has only been since I became a mother that I’ve truly begun to evaluate why I tried to starve myself. It horrifies me to think my daughter could ever doubt her beauty and worth the way I once did. I feel like I can better prevent her from traveling the same path if I fully understand my own motives.

Of course there are the usual explanations: I was influenced by the media’s impossible standard of beauty. I was jealous of Barbie’s legs. I was molested as a child, and abused again as a teenager. I was told too often that I was pretty—or ugly. I was naturally insecure. I craved attention and validation.

But more than that, I think for me, attempting to become anorexic was a kind of test to determine whether anyone considered me worthy of rescue… because I was not sure I was worthy of rescue. To put it more simply: I did not love myself—and by extension, doubted my lovability.

I never want my daughter to be so powerless. I don’t want her to associate lovability with beauty, thinness, vulnerability, or even intelligence. I’d rather her focus be on attributes like kindness, compassion, loyalty, tenacity, and courage. I’m already trying to teach her these things, though she’s only four.

And when my daughter is old enough, I’ll tell her my stories. I’ll tell her about myself and about Lily. I’ll tell her every bit of it, even the ugly parts—the ones I’m ashamed of—with the hope that if she is ever in a situation where someone needs to be rescued, that she is the one doing the rescuing.

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Erin Britt

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