My Life in Sea Creatures How an Octopus Helps Me Think About My Mother’s Eating Disorder
On “the animal kingdom’s bravest and most vigilant mother.”
This is , a new monthly column by Sabrina Imbler which considers immigrant and queer lives, and lives in the ocean. My Life in Sea Creatures
In May of 2007, a remotely operated submersible sunk 1,397 meters into Monterey Bay, California and captured footage of a periwinkle octopus crawling toward a canyon. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the sub, which often descended to the bottom of the sea to observe what things lived there, what they ate, and how they spent their time.
The sub returned 38 days later to find the octopus clinging to the edge of the canyon, guarding a clutch of cloudy teardrop-shaped eggs glued to the rock. This was also not out of the ordinary for the octopus, whose species is known to lay eggs on benthic cliffs, which offer some of the most aerated currents in all the deep sea.
The sub returned 18 times, always locating the octopus on the same cliff face, tentacles curled into small rosettes around her eggs, black eyes pointed toward the darkness of the canyon beneath her. Female octopuses never eat while brooding, so her body wasted away over four and a half years until her eggs hatched and she died. All female octopuses die after brooding.
When science journalists read about her, they celebrated the fact that the female octopus never ate, marveling at the great and terrible capacity her body had to stay alive while starving herself to death. They called the 53-month gestation of Graneledone boreopacifica “record-smashing” and the octopus in question “the animal kingdom’s bravest and most vigilant mother.” When I read about her, I cried. I thought about sharing the article with my own mother, but worried it would be too much on the nose.
When I visit home this past Christmas, my mother, who weighs 109 pounds, pulls me aside one morning into her closet. “I was wondering if you want this swimsuit,” she says, pulling a pale purple bundle out of a drawer. “It’s one of the many things that doesn’t fit around my fat ass.” I take the swimsuit and try it on in my own room, where my hips and stomach spill over the unyielding bottom. This is a recurring ritual between my mother and I. She gives me clothing that no longer fits her and will never fit me. I wonder if she can see that my hips will always be wider, or that hers look so fragile I am afraid they will break if she falls.
Brooding, which happens just once in an octopus’s life, is a lonely experience. In order to keep her eggs safe from predators like crabs and sea stars and continuously bathed in fresh, oxygenated seawater, a nested octopus cannot move. After her eggs hatch, she dies by her nest. So when she lays her eggs, she will never again see another place or vista, entertained only by the freer creatures that happen to pass through the icy waters. In the deep sea, these visitors are alien: fish with transparent faces and golden yellow eyes, ghost sharks, tongue-red worms.
My mother immigrated from Taiwan to Michigan in seventh grade, alone. For a year, she lived in the second snowiest city in America surrounded by tall, blonde Finns. Every day her classmates reminded her in words she could not yet understand that she was different. This was the first moment, but not the last, where my mother learned to wish beyond all belief to be as American as possible. All she wanted was to fit in, to have blonde hair like her classmates, to have their large eyes and blue overalls and long legs. She told me a few years ago that it felt like she was an alien on a cold new planet.
When an octopus lays her eggs, she has already eaten her last meal. She survives for months on the stored energy of her body. She metabolizes her own muscle to stay alive as long as she can, to protect a netted constellation of eggs that cannot hatch without her help. So over these four-and-a-half years, the octopus did not swallow. The taut fat of her tentacles sagged. The one examination of a brooding octopus, published in 2008, revealed an immaculately empty gut.
Most scientific studies of eating disorders which have been performed in the US have focused on white women. When women of color have eating disorders, which we most certainly do, we feel pressure to conform to the American ideal of beauty as we have been taught to understand it. This means gaunt cheeks, flat stomachs, and blue eyes. We learn to judge our beauty not just in our size, but also in our race. When we say we want to be thin, we often also mean we want to be white.
But there is another kind of eating disorder that is learned over generations, taught to you not in magazines or high school but by your own blood. It never comes as a formal lesson, but rather in small exchanges during dinner or a graduation, when you are reminded that your body is a disappointment. Whenever I visit home, my Chinese grandma will pinch the soft edge of my arm and ask with tender remorse, “Did you gain more weight?” My grandpa is far less tactful. “Big girl!” he cackles, leaning back in his seat. “Too big!” This is how my mother learned to hate her body, and how I learned to doubt mine.
My first realization came at Christmas in seventh grade, when my mother looked at my stomach, pursed her lips, and told me I had developed a paunch. That spring she made me wake up at six every morning so that I could run up and down the winding hills of my neighborhood, all the while wishing I could be skinny. At the same time, I bought bags of Cheetos that I would chew and then spit out into the trash without swallowing. I ate many foods this way. My mother indirectly gave me this idea, always reminding me that I could just taste, that I never needed to swallow.
During one of its many visits, the submersible offered the brooding octopus small pieces of crab with its robotic hand. She refused, not even willing to taste.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has called herself a fat pig, even though her doctor tells her every visit that she is underweight to the point of poor health. I know what is going on even if she refuses to admit it to me. But I never talk about it with her. How can you know how to stage an intervention for your starving mother, especially when you might still be starving yourself?
This past summer, measuredly buoyed by the fact that my mother had, after a few years, come around to the whole gay thing, I decided to ask about her eating disorder. She was eating a salad on the couch and watching PBS Masterpiece Theater when I brought it up. I talked about my own issues and about my sister’s, how she wrote about beating her anorexia in her college essay but how I worried that the battle wasn’t over yet. Minutes passed without as much as a glance in my direction as my mom finished her salad and, a long silence later, asked me in tears, “Are you saying it’s my fault that you’re like this?”
“No, not that. I’m just—I just want to tell you that I think you—that you might be a little too thin, that you’re not a fat pig, that maybe it might be good if you gained some weight,” I hedged, uncertain, apologetic.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” she said, and left the room.
Once during my first year of high school, while standing in line to use a microwave, I overheard a half-Asian girl named Alex talking to her friend. “I would give anything to be anorexic,” Alex sighed, taking her burrito out of the microwave. “but I just don’t have the discipline.” It was the first time I heard someone giving voice to one of the things some of us desire but cannot name, and I felt a pang of agreement, or maybe it was hunger.
Before brooding, the octopus glowed a prismatic purple in the murky brown of the trench. But each year of starving turned her a little more into a ghost. Her purple clouded like a cataract, and her skin lost its texture, its metamorphic ability to resemble a frilled sea pen one moment and a rocky outcrop the next. She grew whiter and whiter over the years until almost all of her color disappeared. You could only see her if you knew she once was there.
As she shrunk, her babies grew, pairs of dark eyes staring out from beneath each milky egg capsule. The hatchlings of G. boreopacifica forgo the juvenile phase seen in so many other species of octopuses, instead emerging as miniature adults. They’re better equipped to survive than any other octopus hatchling, thanks to those 53 brutal months of care.
There were two pressures that drove my mother toward starvation, one obvious—that even she will admit—and one subversive. The obvious: that quintessential expectation that East Asian women be pale and petite, their ribs sticking out like the slats of a fan. The subversive: that if given the choice between being skinny and being white, my mother may well have chosen the latter.
I understand now that she meant it as an act of love to want both of these things for me, her half-white daughter, things that she thought she could never have. She wanted me to be white so things would be easier. Skinny, so things would be easier. Straight, so things would be easy, easy, easy. So that, unlike her, no one would ever question my right to be here, in America. I just wish I could tell her I’ve been okay without those things, that I’ve actually been better without them. I wish she would stop wanting these things too.
In October 2011, the submersible made its monthly descent and saw the mother octopus was gone at last. The scientists all felt relief that the octopus’s long ordeal was over and regret that they would never see her again. She left behind burst egg capsules that hung from the rock like silken baby slippers. Returning to the canyon months later, the sub spotted several tiny octopuses wandering around the seafloor, each bright purple and perfectly formed.