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Nancy Chen

 I woke up sweaty, my mind bleary. My skin felt taut, caged by an exoskeleton of salt spray. Sand stuck to my face.

I was in AndalucĂ­a, where I spent the summer before my senior year of high school, staying with my friend Marta. Her family doesn’t speak English, so the trip was sold to my parents as an opportunity for Spanish immersion. In reality, I spent a few weeks lounging on Mediterranean beaches and hanging out with Marta and her boyfriend. Mostly, I slept, binging on culturally sanctioned naps.

At night, I slept in Marta’s bed, the air conditioning unit mounted to the wall cranked unbearably low. With little body fat, I shivered late into the night. When I stood in front of her mirror, fixing my hair, I could see myself and, through the window, the coast of Morocco. Exhausted by my life of leisure, half my days were spent lying in a sun-soaked siesta— the perfect opportunity for my gluttony. I must have been bloated with vitamin D.

I stirred, not remembering where I was or when I had fallen asleep. My eyes opened to a blinding neon pink towel. Its nubs rubbed my face as I turned my head to the side. Lying on my belly, I squinted through a curtain of knotted, sand-colored hair out over the beach. I pushed up onto my elbows and had to clutch an arm over my chest when I felt the sea breeze cooling my sweat. An untied bikini top lay flat on the ground. At 17, I still retained a shred of modesty. I lay back down and awkwardly reached around my back to tie the tiny top back on. My palms brushed over my ribcage, counting each protruding bone.

Visible ribs aren’t the only things I used to collect. I have a collection of 3,000 buttons. As a child, I would dump them out onto my living room floor every afternoon, play, and then meticulously count them as I put them away. Three thousand buttons, each of which was personified in a tiny, codified city where I had 3,000 best friends. I got older, and my penchant for simple mathematics had a new outlet. Like so many other pubescent girls, I found my best friends in the numbers on a scale. Every day for a year, I woke up at 5:15 a.m., early enough that the repetitive buzzers wouldn’t disturb my family members. I’d pad down the dark hall of my suburban house, turning knobs entirely before opening and closing doors. My footsteps lightening with my body weight, I’d sneak into my parents’ bathroom and stand naked on the scale. As I lived this particular story, the representation of my weight and I were at our tightest. The ones digit, the 10s digit, and me—no room for a fourth.

I sat up slowly, feeling sluggish from the heat. I looked over the sea, then at my feet, shins, and knees. My entire body had turned its own angry shade of pink. The ache in my skin intensified as the color deepened to a lobster-red during the 45-minute drive back to Fuengirola. At home, I was met by tsks from Marta’s mother Carmen as she handed me a giant bottle of After Sun Lotion, and was sent to take a shower. There, I pulled out the pins that were binding my hair. Each made away with a few strands. As I shook my hair down around my shoulders, my hands fell to my sides, fingers threaded with blond locks. I turned the shower on, keeping the knob at cold. The sudden stream of water stung my raw flesh before it soothed. By the time I stepped out of the shower, hair covered the drain. Even then, hair loss didn’t scare me. I toweled dry and began applying the lotion Carmen had given me. Starting at my shoulder, I stood in front of the mirror and watched the slow descent of my hand smoothing the lotion toward my elbow.

My descent into anorexia had been equally slow. For me, anorexia was a disease of privilege as much as it was a coping mechanism. I liken it to the antiquated notion of a glutton binge-eating to obesity as a display of wealth. Except anorexia wasn’t the act of my gluttony—it was the means. When I was thin, I could binge endlessly on attention. Gluttony is about satiation. I have never felt more sated than when I was starving. Affirmation has always been my banquet of choice.

I smeared the lotion over my side, hands reaching for my protruding shoulder blades. My wing bones—the more they stuck out, the better I’d be able to fly. Anorexia was a perverse act of self-love, and I loved anorexia. Until it terrified me. I reached my arm further behind me, trying to touch the sundried skin of my back. But as much as I wriggled, twisting my body in front of the mirror, I couldn’t reach the chasms that hung on either side of my spine. For a split second, I saw the way my skin clung to my bones, and I felt fear. Alone in a foreign bathroom, without the buoy of a chorus of approval, I didn’t feel empowered by my thinness. I felt vulnerable.

I am a glutton. I am desire. But in my desire to become the platinum object of desire, I lost my ability to take pleasure. Obsessed with my reflection, I was a mirror image of what I believed society expected from me. Just sun-bleached locks caressing collarbones, the quiet of carefully calculated caloric deficit exhaustion.

Sometimes, saying I struggle with an eating disorder feels like saying that I’m a middle-class, cisgender girl who highlights her hair. I was the 17-year-old picture of perfection, a dancer who was on honor roll. I had complete control over everything, and yet I was completely out of control. My wing bones weren’t wings at all—instead, the protrusion of my spine was the result of a tugging helium balloon. I was going to float. Float through my recovery, until body fat brought me down. Those blonde hairs that bound me to the mirror, they grew back. I think I resented that.

anorexia eating disorder recovery spain summer
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