Anthropology of a Body: The Highs and Lows of Recovering from an Eating Disorder
In order for bread to rise, the dough must be strong.
In its most brutal form, anorexia kills.
Look at me, a real girl, eating.How do you eat so much but stay so thin?
Typing #proana in the search bar produces a feed filled with women smaller than children—their hair thin, their arms smaller than silver dollars—even though anorexia affects all genders and body types. Lying on my bed, on my back, my feet propped on the wall, I scrolled down the timeline of familiar postings, recognizing the desire to seek help but refusing to ask. In the early stages of my disorder, my mouth lacked the language necessary to describe my pain, so instead I relied on my body to show my suffering. Flash-forward from those empty days to this moment on my bed—I’d sought help, declared myself deep in the recovery process. But there’s always warmth in familiarity.
To find a single tweet discouraging destruction means to invite hundreds of others encouraging starvation:
“Only drank black coffee today. My hands are shaking.” “You can do it! Sometimes eating an apple stops the shaking.” “Going on a forty-eight-hour fast! Who wants to join?” “Halfway through my fast. Need accountability. Heeeeeelp.” “Resist or regret.” “I let myself go today and gained two pounds. I want to kill myself.” “Stop listening to #proana. Professionals can help.”
It was after midnight, and I wondered how many were going to die that night. I wondered if, when they run errands, they walk near the bakery of the grocery store to smell the fresh bread. To see carefully packaged pastries. I wondered if, when they realize how many hours they’ve gone without eating or even drinking water, they feel faint. If their hearts seem to pound a little harder.
I moved to the edge of my bed and placed my head between my knees, kneading my fingertips into my temples until I felt a pulse. I am okay. I am here.
After sitting up, as though craving participation in the ritualistic practices of communion, I wrapped my index finger and thumb around my bicep, sighing because they no longer touched.
Limos was the goddess of starvation, standing opposite Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Mythology says they could never meet in person. Erysichthon, king of Thessaly, chopped sacred trees in Demeter’s garden, angering Demeter, who then sought revenge by sending a nymph to Limos and requesting cooperation. Limos then snuck into Erysichthon’s chamber and destroyed Erysichthon by forcing herself in his mouth, throat, and lungs. He became so hungry, so inconsolable, that he ate everything. Even himself.
There is something to gain by forgetting there were days when I consumed nothing but a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Sometimes I waited until the ice cream thawed into plasmatic liquid. Then I tipped the bowl to my mouth, feeling the coolness drip down my esophagus as though falling into an empty well, cold and all-consuming. I felt it in my body’s every empty space.
My first therapist asked why I felt the need to restrict my intake, and I couldn’t answer, couldn’t say anything other than I liked tracing the plateaus of my ribs and hips. When she asked if I had a healthy sex life, I looked to the floor. I told her there once was a man. I told her there once was a real me. I told her I didn’t know where that me was anymore.
Focusing on food and my restriction allowed me to regain control of my body—a commonality among those of us who’d lost all sense of agency. My desire for control just happened to bleed into my relationship with food, and later, with sex. I always wanted to be in control, to never feel vulnerable. I always wanted to know exactly how much my body needed to consume in order to have enough energy. Not eating meant no driving but eating a handful of trail mix meant I could. I needed exactness. To eat less meant a possible accident, and I didn’t have room for accidents.
Starvation caused an unrelenting drive to engage in maladaptive behavior. Days without food felt like an achievement, and I wanted to succeedsucceedsucceed, but I also wanted to remember what it was like to feel full and healthy and in love with my body. To feel like a real person.
But will I ever eat without craving starvation?
Sometimes I crave emptiness. I’m afraid. I crave returning to a community of starvers. Sometimes I wonder if the warmth I felt in that space is greater than the warmth I feel in this space of healing and recovery, and then I wonder if loneliness can ever really feel warm.Regret washes over me as I consider what effects these desires have over me—someone who now eats more than she starves—because to cross the finish line into recovery doesn’t mean to stop. It means to keep going. It means to actively work to not backslide, to not slip back into that place of starvation. To live in a space of healing more than a space of suffering means to acknowledge the pain and the wounds and the inevitable scarring. Thinking we can disregard our scars will never make them invisible. Neither will regret.
Before seeking help, I found a surplus of memoirs written by cishet white women about anorexia’s effects on the body. I read each text as scripture—not to recover, but to feel understood, if only partly by my privilege as a white woman in this community—and I wonder when, or if, my obsessive reading crossed the line from understanding to fetishizing.
I read about the ways eating disorders can give birth to manipulation and impulsivity. Through my own daily devotions with these narratives, I witnessed their effects on many befallen relationships centered on women who loved men. But I didn’t read narratives by starving women who loved women. And when I examine my own desires, because I find I am attracted to all genders, I didn’t know how to take up space in this community—a community in which I craved acceptance. I didn’t read about starving women who loved women, and so, brimming with shame, I tried to stifle this penchant for exploration. Because I tried so desperately to hide these identities, they are forever intrinsically linked. Mistaking this literature for an instruction manual, these characters’ tricks in love and starvation became my own.
I told her there once was a man. I told her there once was a real me. I told her I didn’t know where that me was anymore.
Once, a man hurt me. Somewhere between spiralingandstarvingandspiraling, I then formed a convoluted relationship with a different man—refusing to listen to my body’s needs—as though this trickery held the key to regaining control of my sex life. He also struggled with food, but he didn’t realize his own twisted morass until dating me. Crying in the car, he asked, “Are we the same?” I winced and looked out the window—never knowing how to respond to suffering. I wish I knew what to say. How to reassure him he was okay. Knowing if he had to ask if he was okay then he probably wasn’t.
And even now I wonder if this man acted as a placeholder—if he acted as a distraction from my own complicated relationship with food or if I fed off his confusion. Did witnessing his inevitable collapse awaken me to my own or did it distract me? This question remains unanswered.
We solved our problems by taking shots on empty stomachs and climbing into bed. Anorexia has a long honeymoon period. It isn’t until the effects—the obsessive behavior and even the slowing of cognitive thinking—really start to take hold before the sufferer realizes how mutated their life has become. How they can no longer draw the line between the good and the bad.
I now live in a place of healing more often than a place of suffering. Even so, I’m still learning that people aren’t inherently good or inherently bad—we are creatures prone to poor decision-making.
Trying to climb out of the depths of end-of-semester grading and emails and my own projects, I’d neglected my living space—accumulating clutter. Papers scattered like leaves. My nightstand became home to every empty can or trinket or receipt I’d claimed during that month, and my bathroom wasn’t much different. Toiletries lingered on my vanity. They never returned to their homes in cabinets or on shelves.
I woke with the sun and brewed a pot of coffee. Curated a playlist during the slow drip. Forgot breakfast. Truly forgot. Remembered deodorant. Forgot water. Remembered to tie my hair back. And so, I cleaned. Alternating between tidying and sipping that turned into obsessive gulps, I remained in-sync with each song. Each song was born from a different era, and they each encouraged happiness or love and sometimes they were synonymous. In the late afternoon, my focus shifted from tidying and purging my home of everything unwanted to scrubbing. Toilet, bathtub, mirrors, sinks. All blue cleaners on deck. And bleach. So much bleach.
It wasn’t until I realized how much bleach that I also realized the door was closed. Had been closed. Remained closed. Leaning against porcelain, with my knees pressing into tile, my stomach lurched—as if by some magnetic force it knew I was near a toilet.
And then I remembered I hadn’t eaten.
At this point, I’d consumed the pot of coffee and then some. Black. No food. Less than twenty calories. It was late afternoon. Or maybe it was evening. It was dark.
I crawled to my bleach-free bedroom smelling of incense and a rustic woods candle. Looking up at the ceiling, I took a deep breath and another and another and another, nearly laughing about this scene: the now-healthy narrator becomes ill from sheer forgetfulness. How it would’ve felt to remain there, on the carpet, staring at my fan spinning and spinning and spinning, wishing, if I were to float with the smoke above, I could trade places with the fan. Being lifeless means to never experience pain, and I thought about how fucked up it seemed to want to trade places with a fan. To crave lifelessness. But maybe feeling nothing at all is better than being pitted against the world, constantly thrashing between the highs and the lows of recovery.
Cut the steak and take a bite. There, that’s it. Eat a french fry. Just one for now. Not too many. Watch their eyes watching you. Eat another french fry. Wipe your face. Eat one piece of buttered bread, but not too much butter. Don’t be greedy. Throwing up bread is the worst. Drink your water—All of it, so you feel full. Feel the food floating in your stomach. Feel the bread expanding. Talk about graduation. Talk about feeling directionless. Talk about the moon. Talk about the stars. Talk about how you believe in them more than god.
In the late stages of illness—before the bleach, before the relapsing, before the recovery—there was something alarming yet validating about refusing to cave to hunger’s screams, about laying in Midwestern grass unafraid of ants swarming my limbs and fingertips. My arms reached for the sky, for Icarus, grasping for clouds and only meeting air, and I imagined I was a tree: obtrusive and long, unafraid of growth. Ant bodies dashed for solid ground. What it would be like to be an ant. September wind brushed over my body, and I closed my eyes as I held my breath, only opening them to see the frenetic energy catching light at every angle. Here, in this grass, I sought endless questions and no definitive answers.
In my late teens and early twenties, I used to put sugar in my water to trick my body into thinking it was full. A happy brain is a happy girl. What it would’ve been like to always feel this happy. To never know the abyss of starvation when the sun went down and to never find the walls in my room unless I followed the television’s blue light.
What it would’ve been like, at twenty-one, to know I now live grounded—rarely finding myself at the edge of a plateau—and I often wish I could return to that body, not out of nostalgia, but to direct her toward recovery.
Even when caught in the throes of illness, I often dreamed about living in a space of healing. What it would’ve been like to sleep soundly from sundown to sunrise. To sleep before the sun woke. To wake as an arbiter of desire. To eat breakfast without question. In the purple light between night and morning, I often woke, feeling a familiar tug of loneliness in my chest—the wind my only comfort as it exhaled through the crack of my open window. Sitting with my knees burying into the carpeted floor by the window, I traced my fingers through accumulated dust before blowing it through the open space: a farewell letter to emptiness.
Instead of eating breakfast, I wrote a poem.
My body ached for something I could not name, and so I called it Euphoria.