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Topography of the Girl With an Eating Disorder

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Or if you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

She is 2 years old. She sits cross-legged on the stained denim couch, her mother’s arms around her shoulders, throwing up the tomato soup that she ate too passionately.

She is 3 years old. Her cousin locks them both in a closet and teaches the girl that her body was made for others to poke and prod and explore without permission. Her mother tells her, “Just say no.” But she cannot speak through the thick blanket of fear.

She is 4 years old. She runs under the slide and sobs when a classmate says she’s too fat to play princesses. Her tears don’t stop until the teacher calls her preschool class back inside. She sits at her blue desk and stares down at her thighs like they carry curses.

She is 6 years old. She’s sitting with her best friend at lunchtime in the schoolyard, looking down at her 10 baby carrots and half a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread, wondering if she deserves this routine deprivation. Her best friend gets up to play double-dutch and leaves behind a thermos full of ricotta ravioli. She checks to see that nobody is watching and sneaks just one piece, swallowing it nearly whole for fear of getting caught. One turns into three which turns into ten, and suddenly, the thermos is empty. Her best friend returns, perplexed. There is no way to run away from the shame that piles on top of her like a mountain.

She is 7 years old. Other mothers invite her over for dinner because she always cleans her plate. They praise her for her appetite and she wishes she could replace her mother’s voice with theirs.

She is 8 years old. Her neighbors are hosting a Halloween party where food is the main event. She tries a little bit of every dish and makes second, third and fourth trips to the spread. She eats until her body rejects the excess, and she stains her neighbor’s handmade bedspread with a partially digested mess. The smell of bile stains her hair and she sleeps with the bitter taste of regret on her tongue.

She is 9 years old. She sits in front of a full-length mirror, considering the new hairs that have grown into a faint trail below her belly button. Her mother walks in and her eyes go straight to her daughter’s baby-soft stomach. “Look at how your fat is starting to roll over the waistband of your underwear.” Her mother shakes her head, disgusted, and walks away. The girl pinches her stomach and wonders if curses can spread across the skin.

She is 10 years old. She is counting calories as meticulously as she does long division and spelling quizzes. Superstition and numbers begin to rule her world. Eat in fives and tens, breathe in fives and tens, God is watching and he knows you’re a damn sinner.

She is 11 years old. She learns how many calories are in a medium-sized apple, and that her womb will shed every month for the next four decades.

She is 12 years old. Her mother challenges her to a weight loss competition. Who can lose weight the fastest? Her grades fall in proportion to her weight.

She is 13 years old. The boy she likes says she’s blowing up like a balloon. She doesn’t know how to fight back yet. How many calories can she burn in a playground brawl?

She is 14 years old. For the second time, a boy teaches her that her body does not belong to her. She learns how many calories are in a tablespoon of peanut butter. She writes poetry on napkins because she does not want to stain a notebook with her dirtiness.

She is 15 years old. She finds herself frozen in the school cafeteria and forgets how to breathe around food.

She is 16 years old. She remembers that she is a balloon and trades each meal for half a grapefruit.

She is 17 years old. Her grandmother gives her a dollar for every pound that she loses. She sees her value fluctuate in dollars and cents. On Christmas Eve, she accidentally slices a diagonal line through her thumb with scissors while curling ribbon. She wraps a piece of red tissue paper around her thumb like a present and makes a fist, clutching the sting and wondering if her skin will forget how to fuse just this once. Two days later, she finds out that her grandfather locked himself in his tiny San Francisco bathroom and took his own life. She pries the wound back open and tries to summon his ghost.

She is 18 years old. She sleeps in a haunted dormitory with dirty linoleum floors and hospital-white bed linens. She promises herself that she will not eat. She keeps this promise until Thanksgiving. She sits on the floor of the communal shower to shave her legs and remembers the scissor incident last year. In geology lab the next day, she tinkers with the blade in her pencil sharpener while her classmates play with chunks of basalt and granite.

She is 19 years old. She starts investing time in an elaborate mapmaking project, tracing red lines from her thighs to her ankles, back up to her arms and back downward to her soft stomach. She remembers the mirror incident and says a quiet prayer. It is an apology to her mother.

She is 20 years old. She remembers nothing, says nothing, does nothing, eats nothing. She ruminates about trauma and it’s servants. She tucks herself in every night at eight and adds more rivers and floods to her map.

She is 21 years old. She doesn’t remember how to chew. She practices letting people touch her without boundaries. She never learned how to say no, anyway. She practices freezing time with her hand down her throat because that seems more possible than speaking.

She is 22 years old. She sits at a rectangular table with 11 other women who have forgotten how to eat and two nurse wardens with racing eyes. She doesn’t pick up her fork, she doesn’t even look at it for fear that it will follow their silent commands.

She realizes that this is the first time people have given her permission to eat. Clinicians, nurses and doctors were begging her to eat — to spin food into vitality, and to speak with the voice she forgot she still had. This voice has a name and a pitch and a volume that, much of the time, cannot be heard over the voice of her eating disorder. Still, day after day, she fights against the force that is trying to disfigure her into an unrecognizable ghost-girl. She moves her hand toward her fork, picks it up, takes one bite at a time and waits for her voice to rebuild itself into the masterpiece it was meant to be.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure

Originally published: August 29, 2017
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