Bodies Cut Knuckles
There—the small red cut marks on the knuckles, which any bulimic could identify as those made by the teeth when finger-inducing vomiting.
We know her by her hands, which are fine and olive-complected with long, pastel-painted, almond-shaped fingernails. She uses them to remove the Play-Doh Cash Register toy set from its box: a parade of colorful plastic components that, when assembled, form a cartoonish grocery store checkout.
“Today I’m super excited to bring you this cash register,” she begins, voice cheerful, words clipped. “We’ll be shopping and scanning.” She presents to us the red plastic blocks that form the play register, along with its miniature accessories: a blue basket, a gray scanner, a brown wallet. “Here’s a banana cookie cutter. We also get milk, an apple, broccoli, and a carrot!”
Welcome to the world of toy-unboxing-and-play YouTube videos, the kind with which my four-year-old son has recently become obsessed. “I want a Play-Doh video,” he squeals as he squirms beneath my arm on the couch. “I want one with the girl.” Yes, we’re very well acquainted with his favorite kid-friendly ASMR darling’s melodious voice, her capable hands. The nature of the genre is such that we don’t see her body beyond the forearms. We’ve never seen her face.
In this video, like most, after assembling the play set, she shapes a rainbow of Play-Doh into toylike approximations of kids’-menu favorites. While my son is mesmerized by her ability to model the dough into a tiny slice of pizza, a cheeseburger, a chocolate bar, I’m watching for a flash of her knuckles, which she’s mostly able to keep outside the frame.
“And here’s an apple!” she announces, rotating her neon pink-and-green creation for the camera, and then there they are: the small red cut marks on the first and third knuckles, which any bulimic could identify as those made by the teeth when finger-inducing vomiting.
The first time I saw these wounds, I hoped my suspicions were incorrect. I reasoned this vlogger might have grazed her hand on a door latch or a lemon zester. And would she really bare her bulimic tell for more than 2.5 million viewers to see? But as my son’s obsession grew, and we watched her sculpt one cupcake after another, my fears were confirmed. I saw those same wounds again and again, appearing consistently across several videos and manicures: lavender, light blue, mint green, pale pink, and an impressive iridescent. I wondered about those long, pointy nails grazing the back of her throat.
I recall the summer I worked the cash register at my Long Island hometown grocery store. It was a job my mother had had as a teenager too—and, at that age, I flailed between attempts to fit into and break from her mold with equal fury. She had always been a slender woman, and that summer, I was recovering from a case of chronic anorexia. I’d lost thirty pounds, and my psychiatrist threatened in-patient treatment if I didn’t put on weight.
I found my way back to food via weed. Marijuana reawakened a long-repressed hunger for Snickers bars and nacho cheese Doritos. But once the high waned, I felt the fat course through me, collecting at my armpits, above my knees. Being inside my own body was an unbearable experience. The remorse was too great, relieved only by purging the milk chocolate–coated orange remnants of the binge, leaving me with red eyes, swollen cheeks, and cut knuckles.
My world became very small that summer, contained not just to the fluorescent-lit space behind the conveyor belt at my grocery store register, but bound by alternate starving, bingeing, and purging. I thought about little apart from what I’d eaten, what I’d eat next, and how fat I felt. This is called bulimarexia, since symptoms of both bulimia and anorexia are present, with their common body dysmorphia. I was disgusted with this progression of my disease, having imagined anorexia as clean, neat, and controlled. Now, my mind was reeling, my body expanding, consuming and ejecting inappropriate volumes of food engineered to inspire craving, full of salt, sugar, fat, and a host of hard-to-pronounce additives.
That I spent all day staring at the checkout candy rack didn’t help. A tight circuit formed between growing faint, grabbing and guzzling M&M’s, shutting off my register light, then running to the employee bathroom to expel a rainbow. I scanned and bagged customers’ items with yo-yoing desire and revulsion. I wanted to tear the lid from a tub of Betty Crocker vanilla icing even as I wondered how this customer felt authorized to buy it. At the time, the irony of a bulimarexic working in a grocery store didn’t occur to me.
This is called bulimarexia, since symptoms of both bulimia and anorexia are present, with their common body dysmorphia.
Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California” is a conflicted paean to the suburban grocery store, reflecting on the simultaneous glittering potential and hollow disappointment of these modern outlets of industrialized abundance. The poem is addressed to Walt Whitman—who is, like me, a native Long Islander—and his presence acts as a kind of lighthouse for a (perhaps mythic) more natural, humanized time.
“In my hungry fatigue,” Ginsberg says, “and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! / What peaches and what penumbras!” Already, in this first stanza, Ginsberg is shopping not for food but fluorescent-lit images of it, not unlike our vlogger’s Play-Doh fruits, bright under the ring light.
Ginsberg follows Whitman “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans,” imagining the latter asks: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas?” These questions are meant to remind us that Whitman would have known the farmer who produced his food, unlike Ginsberg, wandering around a warehouse in which products are divorced from origins.
As a checkout girl, I never once considered where the foods I scanned and bagged came from, instead memorizing their PLUs, or price look-up codes: four- or five-digit numbers used to identify produce based on commodity, variety, and size. Apple, Braeburn: 4103; Gala: 4133; McIntosh: 4152.
Ginsberg ends the poem with an image of the river Lethe, which runs through hell. Drinking from it makes us forget our time on earth, the banal sufferings of our daily lives. And for Ginsberg, this is what consumer capitalism does: It makes us forget what’s natural, makes us forget ourselves.
As an anorexic, I forgot how to sense and address my own hunger. I was fixated on an image—specifically, Kate Moss in a string bikini—and was determined to do whatever was necessary to mirror it. I survived on aspartame-sweetened nonfat yogurt, the euphoria of starvation, and the anticipation of achieving the perfect physique. Initially, this felt good. I enjoyed the predictability, the control and achievement I felt as I weighed myself each morning. But as my addiction progressed, starvation no longer produced the same high it did early on. And even as I moved into recovery, having suppressed my appetite for so long, I’d lost my connection to it.
Years past the last time I self-induced vomiting, I continued to move between calorie restriction, overindulgence, and overexercise. Certain foods, like garbanzo beans, were deemed safe and consumed each and every day, while others, like peanut butter, were eschewed as dangerous and avoided until the desire became so overwhelming, I’d eat a whole jarful. In my midtwenties, I exercised no less than three hours a day. This is what addiction does: It makes us forget what’s natural, makes us forget ourselves. In Classical Greek, the word lethe (λήθη) literally means “forgetfulness”—and “concealment.” As addicts, we forget—and try to conceal from ourselves—what we need to live.
I have made slow, somewhat-unsteady progress in recovery. After a flare-up of calorie restriction following the birth of my son, I’ve worked to reconnect with my body and its needs—for his sake. I was thrilled when I learned his birth gender, as I knew it made him less likely to inherit my disordered eating—but I worry about his propensity for addiction in general.
In twelve-step recovery programs, there’s a saying: “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” It’s meant to remind us that, no matter how hard we might try, we’re never going to get what we need—nutrition, love, community, purpose, peace—if we look for it from the wrong source. I think of this as my son and I watch these wounded hands shape food facsimiles from water, flour, salt, surfactant, and humectant.
“Here’s corn, a cookie, a croissant, garlic, and a pepper!” the girl announces as she removes each item—food without nourishment—from its plastic mold. I look down at his little blonde head against my chest. My hand rests on his forearm. Twenty years later, the white scars are still there on my first and third knuckles.