A friend of mine, talking about a friend of hers, said, “She was bulimic.”
“Oh yeah?” I said, and shook my head a little. “That’s too bad. I hope she’s OK now.”
“She’s doing a lot better. It’s been a couple years.”
The conversation moved on. But now I’m sitting here, thinking about that. About how simple it was, to mention it, to comment on it, and to let it slip away. Because, in a way, it’s become normal. Or at least, it’s common enough that it doesn’t make you go, “WHAT?! WHY?!” If you said that, you’d look like an idiot. You’d look like someone who hasn’t lived in the world. When girls live in the world, they sometimes destroy themselves in order to be thin. It’s complicated. Much more complicated than that sentence. It’s a tough world. If you don’t understand, it can’t be explained to you.
But if you try to step back for a moment, you might imagine, as I suddenly did, throwing up. I was sick last week. I threw up twice. I’m a veteran vomiter. I used to take medication that made me throw up practically every night. I react like that to the pill. I react like that to heavy duty painkillers. My stomach has a lot of opinions about what’s supposed to be in it when, and it isn’t shy about showing me exactly what those things look like after I’ve been foolish enough to test its patience. So throwing up twice shouldn’t have been a big deal. But it was. Because throwing up is sort of horrifying. Every time. Even when you’re really good at it.
Before I was good at it, when I was fourteen, I used to lie on the bathroom floor, talking to God. “God,” I said, “Please. Don’t make me throw up again. Take one of my fingers. Cut it off. You can have it. I just don’t want to throw up anymore.”
To this day, I have no idea what God would’ve wanted with a severed finger. And evidently God felt similarly, because I still have all ten.
Once I got good at it, I could just calmly get up, go into the bathroom, kneel down, and – Yup. But it was still terrible. The taste lingers, in your throat, in your nose (it’s more than a smell). The clawed rawness. The hollowed out sensation. And, of course, the basic wrongness of the moment when it happens, and everything is turned inside out, and everything is wrong, and your body is fighting madly against itself.
It’s the details that matter. The gory, uncomfortable details. Women, girls, will do this on purpose. All of this. To change themselves. To be beautiful. To be better at being female. Throwing up—an act of abject desperation. Like stabbing yourself, over and over. Each time, your body recoils in terror and self-defense. And each time, you want something else enough to divorce yourself from the instinct that fights for your literal survival.
And we can say, “Oh yeah, she was bulimic.” Like she had a cold. Like it’s ever completely over, or cured. Like it was ever not a tragedy to begin with. And not an individual tragedy, but a layered ball of tragedy. A tragedy of the definition of beauty. Of the definition of womanhood. Of success. A tragedy of casualness—the collective ability to conveniently ignore, conveniently walk away. Conveniently disassociate.
I picked up The Beauty Myth again the other day. Hadn’t read it since college. I didn’t want to write about it yet. I want to do a real post on it sometime, a whole post. An article, maybe. But I can’t help but mention it now. I was scared, just opening it. I didn’t want any of it to be true. I wanted everything to be better. At least a lot better, if not completely better. I wanted to laugh a little and say, “Wow….Can’t believe anyone lived like that.”
But here we are, in a world where it’s normal for women to starve themselves. Where I can’t open my email or search something on the internet without being bombarded with “news” about female celebrities that’s completely focused on their bodies (mostly their weight). So-and-so shows off bikini bod! Whatshername loses the baby weight! Superstar lets herself go, gains 30 lbs! Was it her weight that made him stop loving her? Breast implants! Diets! THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS ABOUT YOU IS HOW YOU LOOK!!!!
It feels like war propaganda. And look, it’s a war. Because women are dying. They’re dying of being women. And even if most of us survive, physically, we’re still wounded. Emotionally, we’re limping, struggling, feeling guilty about eating, feeling guilty about our fat, feeling like we’re always failing. Even if you’re one of the ones who isn’t actively dieting, or actively wrestling your appearance into something that more closely matches the distant, ever-present, suffocating, unattainable image of feminine beauty and success, even then— can you really just eat the piece of chocolate cake without thinking about it?
The world wants it to be over, this war about women, about femininity. It’s supposed to have been won already. It’s not supposed to have slyly, expertly metamorphosed into this other form. And the new form looks so harmless. “We can’t help it,” the advertisers might say, “If women care a lot about makeup and hair!” And the content providers agree.
So that “women’s news” means celebrity gossip and fashion, along with whatever else. And celebrity gossip revolves around bodies and so does fashion.
And we shrug and say, “Yeah, she was throwing up a lot back in college.”
And we let it go. Because, well, of course she was.
* * * *
Un-Roast: Today I love that some days, some awesome, awesome days, I really do just eat the damn cake. Speaking of which, send me photos of yourselves doing the same for the Cake Gallery. Acts of defiance, people! Rebel against the system by eating cake!
P.S. My post from the other day was syndicated on Huffpo, if you missed it here, or feel like seeing it there, or something.
P.P.S. Shelby, I thought of you, writing this. Let’s write something together sometime! And people, read the post of hers I linked there. She’s fighting back by refusing to even want to fit into the jeans she’s supposed to want to fit into.