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Wasted (Marya Hornbacher)


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  I began to chain-smoke. I stood on the back of toilets in the dorms, tight up against another girl, our faces lifted, baby-bird-like, our illicit, punishable-by-expulsion cigarette held up to the vent. I signed out to leave campus, walked, sometimes alone and sometimes not, down the worn road, into the woods. This was the first time in my life when I began to like being alone. I had always had a sharp fear of solitude, but now, the walks were necessary. I wanted the exercise. The girls and I had discussed the length of the walk from campus to the strip of shops at the edge of Interlochen. We estimated about two miles, and we debated at length whether you estimated how many calories you burn by the length of the walk or the time that it took. I figured by length because it would mean more calories.

I wanted the solitude. I walked, my steps matching the rhythms of words in my head. Words, a sudden unfailing companion: Turn left at the gate of the school, breathe, walk a while, and then the words would come, swinging like a metronome in my head. I'd walk and with each line breathe in, and with each line breathe out, and step, and step.

On weekends, we were 350 children dressed up to attend evening performances, the like of which I've not seen since. Still as snow, we sat in the audience, holding our collective breath, hearing the music in the dark. Our fingers clutched the programs in our laps, our muscles followed, involuntarily, longing, the figures in their dance. On Tuesday nights, we shook our heads in time with the barefoot and goateed jazz combo, their calloused hands seducing sax and string bass into some song that moved, belly deep, through the swaying, sweating room.

Winter inched into the small world where we lived, drifting through small fissures in our walls, wind leaning its shoulder into the buildings making them groan and sigh, the ground high and white, roads crunching under our feet. The snow fell in soft convulsions, quilts of white drifting over our heads. In wool and scarves we blew from class to class, breath coming in small white explosions from our mouths. Inside, short of breath, fat flakes clung to our hair, their perfect geometries melting into patterns of crystalline drops.

In the cafeteria I'd pour myself coffee and dribble one-third of a teaspoon of cream on the top. A small plate: carrot sticks, celery, mustard. As the year went on, I began to fill a bowl with a ridiculous amount of mustard, eat mustard straight, using a carrot stick more as a spoon than as an edible. It didn't actually seem that strange to me at the time, no matter how often people told me it was weird or made jokes about it. I was first and foremost concerned with the loss of weight, and hell, if mustard and carrots had no fat, no calories, and filled me up, then what the hell did I care? No one else was eating normally either, so who were they to talk? Most of the time, a big group of girls, including me, would jabber on about our diets, how much we'd lost. Other times it would look like someone was pulling ahead of the pack: so-and-so is throwing up, one girl says, and we'd all freak out. Oh no! we'd cry, as if we weren't all doing it. That's awful! Or the famous anoretic on campus, a dancer who (we whispered) had been in the hospital once (gasp) and had (we leaned closer) only four percent body fat! We said, No WAY. Are you SERIOUS? (The healthy range of body fat for most women is between 18 and 23 percent. Did it occur to us that four percent was potentially fatal? We were jealous.) Of course, there was body fat testing day for the dancers, and they all came back crying. Or if there was someone who usually ate more food than the rest of us, but who ate only celery for dinner one night, we'd be all over her like a pack of dogs, yapping and snarling that That's like REALLY dangerous, you won't have any energy, stop THAT RIGHT NOW! She'd burst into tears and say that her boyfriend wanted her to lose weight. Fuck him! Who needs it? we cried, and gave her hugs.

If I was terrifically hungry, I'd eat a few pretzels, a bit of corn, or some rice with lots of salt. Like, a really disgusting amount of salt. Dehydration, induced by both incessant vomiting and a lack of nutrients makes you crave salt in the worst way. It makes mustard delicious. It makes you want a salt lick. People stare, then try not to as you shake and shake and shake on the salt. You glance up, say,"What?" When you get to the hospital, you will scream at the nurse, the nutritionist, the doctor, the laundry boy, because you only get one of those little teeny packets of salt with your meal. You want handfuls and handfuls of salt.

Sundays, we'd binge. Several of us, unspoken. On Sundays there was a dress-up brunch in the cafeteria, buffets of sugary institution rolls, muffins, Danish, coffee cake, huge stainless steel trays of crusting mashed potatoes, eggs, sausage, hash browns. We'd eat and eat and eat. But we ate strange things: seven blueberry muffins, an entire plate of salty mashed potatoes, fourteen chocolate chip cookies. Sunday afternoons, you'd see us, faces pinched, hopping aerobically up and down, pedaling wildly on ancient stationary bikes. One Sunday, standing in the cafeteria with Lora, eating frozen yogurt, a friend of hers said to me: God, do you do anything other than run and eat?

l said, defensively: I don't eat that much.

The bragging was the worst. I hear this in schools all over the country, in cafés and restaurants, in bars, on the Internet, for Pete's sake, on buses, on sidewalks: Women yammering about how little they eat. Oh, I'm Starving, I haven't eaten all day, I think I'll have a great big piece of lettuce, I'm not hungry, I don't like to eat in the morning (in the afternoon, in the evening, on Tuesdays, when my nails aren't painted, when my shin hurts, when it's raining, when it's sunny, on national holidays, after or before 2 A.M.). I heard it in the hospital, that terrible ironic whine from the chapped lips of women starving to death, But I'm not hun-greeee. To hear women tell it, we're never hungry. We live on little Ms. Pac-Man power pellets. Food makes us queasy, food makes us itchy, food is too messy, all I really like to eat is celery. To hear women tell it we're ethereal beings who eat with the greatest distaste, scraping scraps of food between our teeth with our upper lips curled.

For your edification, it's bullshit.

Starving is the feminine thing to do these days, the way swooning was in Victorian times. In the 1920s, women smoked with long cigarette holders and flashed their toothpick legs. In the 1950s, women blushed and said tee-hee. In the 1960s, women swayed, eyes closed, with a silly smile on their faces. My generation and the last one feign disinterest in food. We are "too busy" to eat,"too stressed" to eat. Not eating, in some ways, signifies that you have a life so full, that your busy-ness is so important, that food would be an imposition on your precious time. We claim a loss of appetite, a most-sacred aphysicality, superwomen who have conquered the feminine realm of the material and finally gained access to the masculine realm of the mind. And yet, this maxim is hardly new. A lady will eat like a bird. A lady will look like a bird, fragile boned and powerful when in flight, lifting weightless into the air.

We feign disinterest and laugh, and creep into the kitchen some nights, a triangle of light spilled on the floor from the fridge, shoveling cold casseroles, ice cream, jelly, cheese, into our mouths, swallowing without chewing as we listen to the steady, echoing tisk-tisk-tisk of the clock. I have done this. Millions of people have done this. There is an empty space in many of us that gnaws at our ribs and cannot be filled by any amount of food. There is a hunger for something, and we never know quite what it is, only that it is a hunger, so we eat. One cannot deny the bodily response to starvation, and that is part of the reason, some nights, I sat in the basement of the dorms, locked in a bathroom, watching myself in the mirror as I stuffed candy bars, chips, vending machine anything into my mouth, and then threw up. There is also a larger, more ominous hunger, and I was and am not alone in sensing it. It squirms under the sternum, clawing at the throat.

At school we were hungry and lost and scared and young and we needed religion, salvation, something to fill the anxious hollow in our chests. Many of us sought it in food and in thinness. We were very young at a time in our lives when the search for identity, present and future, was growing intense, the hunger for knowledge and certainty extreme. Many of us came from less-than-grounded families. We were living inside a pressure cooker, competition tough, stakes very high, the certainty of our futures nonexistent, the knowledge that one is choosing a difficult life clear and the awareness that one's chances of "making it" were slim. This created, quite simply, a hunger for certainty.

We lived in a larger world where there is also a sense of hunger and a of lack. We can call it loss of religion, loss of the nuclear family, loss of community, but whatever it is, it has created a deep and insatiable hunger in our collective unconscious. Our perpetual search for something that will be big enough to fill us has led us to a strange idolatry of at once consumption and starvation.We execute "complicated vacillations...between self-worship and self-degradation," the pendulum swinging back and forth, missing the point of balance every time. We know we need, and so we acquire and acquire and eat and eat, past the point of bodily fullness, trying to sate a greater need. Ashamed of this, we turn skeletons into goddesses and look to them as if they might teach us how to not-need.

Not everyone at school was obsessed with food. There were the others. Oddly enough, my closest friends there were marginally healthy about diet (of course, several of them were male), and simply by virtue of being young, very few of my friends knew anything about eating disorders beyond their conceptual existence. This problem, rampant as it was, did not share the same very public sphere at Interlochen that drugs and drinking did. As the dead of winter set in, my friends began to worry. I ate strangely. At meals, they'd say, too casually, Mar, don't you want some? They'd push food at me. You need protein, Anna would say. Have some cottage cheese, have some beans, eat something, you must be hungry. By December, I had decided to ingest one hundred calories a day It seemed a good number, a tidy number, a "diet" rather than a disorder, a Plan. Carrots, mustard, two pretzels, the milk in my coffee. My friends would sit down at breakfast, loudly saying: Oh, yum, I love oatmeal Mar, go get some oatmeal. It's really good today, Mar. Oatmeal is low fat, they'd say in a singsong voice, waving bowls of oatmeal under my face as I scowled, pulling back from it like a baby having a good pout. Mar, you'll be hungry, they'd say. I'd change the subject.

Christmas break came. I flew home. In the Traverse City airport, we sat, nervous and sad, distracted, laughing too sharply. Few of us wanted to go back to where we came from. I got drunk in the Detroit airport and even drunker on the plane. Calorie counting was pushed aside in favor of oblivion. My mother picked me up. Her face was tight, her mouth pressed together in a thin line. I looked about thirty. My skin was ghastly pale, my red lipstick garish, black clothes too loose and too old. She gave me a stiff hug. We walked to the luggage carousel, barely speaking. Surely she was worried, that's all it was. But I was only fifteen, and my mother is a difficult woman to read. Her face clenched with -- distaste? irritation? what had I done now? I said, sarcastically: Well, you're glad to see me. She made that tssk noise and said, Oh Marya. I said, What? She tssked and turned her head, moved quickly, professionally, efficiently. We swooped through the airport like witches on twin brooms.

January was cold, February colder. During my vacation I had achieved the acclaim I'd wanted in the form of compliments for having lost weight, giving me an oddly flat, fleeting sense of accomplishment. I couldn't figure out how to say "no Christmas dinner for me, thanks" without causing a ruckus, and upon my return to school I decided to eat once a week, in penance for the minimal eating I'd done at home. I ate on Sundays. Rice.

I did this until I began bingeing and purging almost autonomously. This sounds very odd to people who haven't been malnourished, maybe even to those who have, but scientifically speaking, your body will actually override your brain and make you eat. You suddenly find yourself hanging up the phone after having ordered a pizza, with no way to hide either pizza or the hunger it implies. You lock yourself in your bedroom and eat it and puke. Or, you find yourself alone in the cafeteria, filling plate after plate, and you're so bloody hungry that the smell of the food, the existence of all-you-can-eat buffets, the garish light and the 1aughter and hundreds of mouths opening wide and taking in food, take over and you eat and eat and eat and run to the bathroom and puke. Or, one day you find yourself walking along, and you impulsively stop in a restaurant, order an enormous dinner, and puke in the woods.

Maybe the issue is that your body remembers a time when you did eat normally. When you were hungry, you stopped at a restaurant and ate. There is a kind of buzzing that goes on in your brain, and you miraculously forget, at least long enough to eat, that you are studiously trying to be a good anoretic. Midway through the food you remember, but then it's too late and you're still fucking hungry and you're hungry even after the food's all gone, but then you feel so unbelievably guilty and hideous that you have to, you have to throw up, and so you do and everything feels better.

That's really the worst of it. That's what mortifies me now when I listen to women in the thick of it telling me how much better they feel when they barf, when they talk about the release, the comfort, the power, however illusory and short-lived, of being able to conquer nature. Of being able to spit in the face, or rather puke on the shoes, of this material realm. I remember that relief, that power. I miss it. It hurts like a sonofabitch. It's disgusting, but it was my safeguard, my sure thing, my security, my life for all those years. It was something I knew for sure, no question, that I was good at. I knew it would be there for me when I needed it. That's the thing: It's still there. It wheedles at me, after dinner: Come on, you're stressed, wouldn't it feel better? You wouldn't be so full. Come on, just this once? It's always there, every day. The bathroom is right down the hall, precisely ten steps away from where I sit at my desk -- and I have counted those steps, pacing back and forth some afternoons, ten steps, ten tiny little steps. If the need was great enough, I could make it in three long strides.

Link to: the HarperCollins page on Wasted
       Salon Magazine's discussion feature on Wasted

 
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Excerpted from Wasted by Marya Hornbacher. Copyright © 1998 by Marya Hornbacher-Beard. Used by arrangement with HarperFlamingo, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.