The woman I stood behind at the checkout counter at the pet store this morning was very thin; I’m pretty sure she has an eating disorder.
It’s not just that the thin was extreme and borderline-hospitalization level. I’ve encountered plenty of thin people who don’t have eating disorders. I wonder about them. How do they stay thin without obsessive thoughts and self-hatred? How do they exercise without going over the top? Are they okay with people noticing them, with the attention their small bodies garner?
Maybe they don’t constantly compare themselves to others, although my brain can barely take that on board. Constant comparison is a common eating disorder behaviour (it’s becoming more common in the “normal” world, too).
She didn’t look healthy. She wasn’t thin in a way that made you feel good. She was thin in a way that made you think of campaigns that raise money for malnourished children overseas.
She was wearing the heavily blinged-out pants favoured by the teen set. You can wear what you like, but it seemed incongruous considering her age and attempts at invisibility. They were enormous, engulfing her diminutive frame. I wonder if they used to fit or were bought in size far-too-large, another common eating disorder thing.
The pants seemed empty as well as sparkly. They sagged from the belt into empty-looking legs, that seemed to balance on the thick-soled, skateboarder-style runners thank only to the strength of the denim. However, the hands that poked out from the oversized hoodie confirmed the existence of limbs.
It was her face that made me think of anorexia as the explanation. It’s because I caught a glimpse of her profile when she turned towards the cashier. People with eating disorders have a look to the lower face and jaw: something in the musculature, in the set to the face, the cast of the mouth. I see it. I’ve wondered before if the non-afflicted do. Maybe it’s a case of, “like speaks to like.”
Her hair reminded me of a friend of mine. I met Lily years ago when we spent time as eating disorder in-patients together. She had what I’ve come to recognize as eating disorder hair. This woman’s hair was much the same: oddly wig-like and too much for the head; a perceptual reaction to the thinness of the face, perhaps. The hair is not one’s crowning glory when you starve yourself and eliminate all fat. Lily’s hair was always dry and brittle; this woman’s hair was much the same. She also sported the same “I don’t care about myself as a human being” ugly ponytail I often wear.
I wonder what I looked like to other people when my eating disorder was at its worst? I wonder if I looked that unhappy and frail when I was out and about?
Her eyes caught my attention before she looked back at the floor. They looked tired, with bags that made her overly-pale skin look bruised. Skip foods with iron long enough and you, too, can be whiter than white. The worst thing about the eyes was the familiarity of the expression within. The despair. The defeat. The look you have when you give up because the fight’s too hard, and you can’t do it anymore, and what difference does it make anyhow?
The clothes were familiar too. The baggy jeans, the oversized top, the chunky shoes. She could have raided my closet to get dressed. This is not fashion-forward dressing. This is how you dress when you’re hiding. Because you’re too gross for anything else. You wear what will best hide the body. . Even when you get thin. Because it’s not quite thin enough. Soon. One day.
The camouflage is important for audiences foreign and domestic. If you can’t see my body, you won’t see it’s lacking. You won’t notice its, and therefore my, essential wrongness. If I can’t see my body, then perhaps I won’t notice how gross and fat and wrong I am either. Maybe then the inside voice will take some time off.
She never takes time off.
After a while, I started to pretend the incredibly oversized look was stylish. I pretended I dressed the way I did because I was an original. That wearing jeans four sizes too big and giant men’s t-shirts was fashionable. That my efforts to hide my body were a personal choice unconnected to my eating disorder. That I didn’t have a problem.
Her body language reinforced the clothing’s vibe. Her head stayed down most of the time, tucked into her chest between hunched shoulders as she avoided eye contact with the cashier during the transaction. She kept her body mostly angled away from the cashier and me, cutting off access and exposure. Her arms wrapped her torso and she only half-unwound when it was time to pay. She left quickly too, and quietly, with her head still down. Her walk to the door was almost a run and so damn familiar. Everything about her presence screamed “don’t look at me”. Everything about her exit screamed “escape.”
I used to walk quickly all the time. I used to think I liked walking that way, that warp speed was my speed. It was easier to fool myself when I lived in the city. Everyone walks quickly. It was easy to pretend the racing wasn’t avoiding people. It wasn’t me trying to flee.
Part of me wanted to be intrusive and go talk to her. I wanted to know if I was right. I wanted to see if she was all right. I wanted to help.
I made no moves as I watched her walk out the door. Because although I wanted to help, I was also glad to see her go. Eating disorder memories are not where I like to spend my time.
And then there’s the jealousy. That used to be me. My eating disorder is rubbing her hands, thrilled to encounter such an extreme example of thin for comparison purposes. She knows her audience: I was curious and concerned, but I also lusted after the emaciated accomplishment. Sometimes, recovery feels like failure. What good am I if I’m not damaged?
Berating yourself for no longer abusing yourself is a touch ironic.
It’s hard, though, to let the defective wiring go.
(January 31, 2018, revised January 4, 2021)
photo credit: favim.com