In 1944, the University of Minnesota conducted a study referred to as the “starvation study.” They enlisted a group of men, all in peak physical and psychological condition, all conscientious objectors who still wanted to contribute to humanitarian efforts. The study aimed to explore the effects of starvation in a controlled environment. For the first few weeks, food intake was normal, though recorded carefully. After that, those in charge restricted the men to half of their previous food intake, a ratio qualified as “semistarvation.” The men began rapidly losing weight, as expected, but this weight loss also led to psychological manifestations and altered behavior: the men toyed with their food, hoarded parts of meals to eat alone and painstakingly later on, reported “vicarious pleasure” from watching others eat, took hours to consume what should have taken only moments, and fixated on food photos and recipes. Deprivation warped their relationship with food. In short, the men behaved just like individuals with anorexia.
* * *
I was anorexic for about a year when I was in college. It’d be easy to qualify this, to say but some of that time you couldn’t tell, or but I was seeing a nutritionist and trying to get better. This is true, but I think it’s useful to take the agency away from words by using them rather than fearing them. Anorexic. It took me a long time to get to a place of clarity and honesty, even when everyone else could see plainly that I was slowly killing myself. It took me a long time to admit how bad it was.
The 1944 starvation study fascinates me because I didn’t set out to lose weight at the beginning of that year. Rather, over the summer I worked my first full-time job and decided to be disciplined in other areas of life, including exercise. I went running before work every day and packed salads for lunch. I dropped weight, which I’d been taught to consider a good thing, and the habits solidified. Anxiety heightened, as if on its own, and soon every meal was a ritual and a process, every calorie a calculation.
Like the subjects of the study, my results were first physical and then psychological. My habits didn’t match the more common understanding of eating disorders. I didn’t have a weight goal; I didn’t think I was fat; I didn’t tape photos of models above my mirror to motivate myself. I began losing weight, and I spiraled.
That’s my scientific explanation of what happened, anyway. I watched the number on my bathroom scale drop and I felt a small thrill of victory because I’d been indoctrinated with the diet culture of the nineties. I was succeeding at a goal I’d never even articulated, a standard so preached to me that I couldn’t separate the language of society from my own desires.
The men in the study participated voluntarily, but they were also men, and the expectations surrounding their appearance were inherently different. I wonder where I fall on the spectrum of disordered eating—entirely, like the men, proof of the physical manifesting in the psychological, or, at the other end, more like the teenage girls who are told by bullies they are fat and then force their body into submission through starvation or purging.
Neither of these categories fully explains what I went through, and, likewise, there was no one thing what led me back to health. Healing was a combination of factors, among which were extended grace and awkward conversations and a desperate grasping to be seen as a person and not a frail, troubling burden.
* * *
My mom has confessed, more than once, that she’s afraid this was her fault. I always shake my head, but I don’t fully disagree, because I did learn from her how a woman can hate her body, and who’s to say this didn’t contribute?
She would pinch her stomach and sigh, complain about her legs, go running every morning and biking every evening, say things like “I just want it to be my body, not the extra stuff,” as though any ounce of fat was an illegitimate part of her and thus had to be dissociated and eradicated. These days she’s careful with how she phrases things, or she at least qualifies herself: “You don’t have to worry about this, but ugh, I can feel the cookies from last week,” she says, spreading her hands across her stomach and pressing in. Objectively, she is small and fit, but she is the one person who still cannot not see this.
“I have—I think—I have a version of something,” she said once, years after I’d recovered. She shrugged, as though helpless. This is the closest she’s gotten to any sort of recognition, beyond blaming herself for my issues. She blames herself easily.
* * *
I remember seeing a friend’s mother eat a slice of sausage pizza thinking: Moms eat pizza?
The first time I tried my mom’s words out: I was at an indoor water park, in Ohio in the winter, with my cousins and aunt and uncle. I put on my bathing suit, a two-piece, and I stepped out of the bathroom.
“I look fat,” I said, testing the words on my tongue, testing the biting quality of insulting myself. My cousins were all larger than me, and my aunt as well, and I must have known what sort of reaction I’d get, must have wanted the reaction.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you tiny thing,” my aunt said, which I expected. “You’ve been spending too much time with your mom,” she also said, and I didn’t expect that.
* * *
In the fall, I looked good. Toned and tanned after a summer of running and salads for lunch and light dinners by the pool. This was obvious because boys asked me on dates: five in one week, even.
“It’s like your life is The Bachelorette,” a friend said, but there was worry behind her eyes, and looking back I can see why: these new boys were affirming what was alarming to those who had known me for longer. I saw this from the other side years later, on a spring break trip, when I watched a guy chase after my emaciated friend who hadn’t admitted she had anything close to anorexia—in fact, she’d recently gone on a shopping spree and donated her old clothing, committing fully to her new, near-skeletal figure. I sent daggers at the young man: stop praising this, I thought fiercely.
In a middle school health class, we watched a Maury Show episode about a woman with severe anorexia who ate celery sticks with mustard and, occasionally, allowed herself to chew a Jelly Bean and then spit it out. I watched this documentary like I would watch a documentary about human sacrifice in ancient religions: disconcerting, but ultimately distant.
Rather than chewing and spitting out, my rituals were of deconstruction: cutting apples into tiny squares and sucking on the squares until they dissolved to a mush; using a knife and fork to eat a granola bar, peeling back the tortilla of a quesadilla and crumpling it in nearby napkins to avoid the carbs; breaking apart cookies to find and eat only the chocolate chips.
The boy I did choose to date, during this dangerously-flattering return to college, was a swimmer. He ate lightly, preferring a trim physique when he butterflied through the sharply chlorinated water, the smell of which made me dizzy. We went out to a new breakfast diner every Sunday—he was rich, and he liked to take me out, but I limited it to breakfast places because otherwise I tallied the cost of the extravagant dinners in my head like a debt to be repaid. Much of this season of my life involved tallying, usually calories, but often interpersonal interactions, too.
Once I said, “I should get extra pancakes,” and he said, “Why?”
“The doctor says I should gain weight,” I said.
“Really?” He scanned the menu without looking up, and I used this as justification for a trip to the gym that afternoon.
* * *
By Thanksgiving I lost nearly thirty pounds. By Thanksgiving, I also realized that something was wrong, that every friend I talked to shouldn’t be concerned, as they were, that I shouldn’t be thinking about food as much as I was, that I was trembling from gripping control too tightly and yet couldn’t stop myself from going to the gym for hours a day. I dreaded the holiday itself, a day of eating and watching others eat. Of the sixty or so family members in attendance, I went last through the food line. I took all the green food I could but also placed rolls and potatoes conspicuously on my plate, which I then allowed to get cold and tossed in the trash, the plate face-down.
On my birthday, as a gift to myself, I went to visit a school nutritionist, having heard about them through a friend who used the word anorexia when she told me about a girl she knew with similar problems.
“I’m not anorexic,” I told her, and she shrugged. I’m not anorexic, I told myself, and I scheduled an appointment as if to prove it.
These meetings, though, made it clear I was. The nutritionist insisted on a medical check-up for her records, and while the doctor felt my pulse, the nurses watched me like I was a crystal vase. Some days I rolled the waists of my pants over once, twice, to keep them from sliding down my hips, but other days I wore leggings and large sweatshirts because I thought the sweatshirts added the illusion of bulk. I felt people staring everywhere I went.
* * *
One afternoon, weeks from Christmas break, my mom stopped by my dorm as a surprise—she was in town for a conference—and asked if she could have dinner with me. She hid the alarm in her eyes as best she could, but I could see that I scared her. I tried to maintain a tone of levity. She asked where I wanted to go to eat, and the unexpected change of routine sent me into a spiral of anxiety. I had become a creature of habit, always eating the same weird salad concoctions for lunch and picking at the same overcooked turkey wrap for dinner.
“Don’t you want to go out? Somewhere you don’t eat every day?” she asked gently, and I knew she was right, so I shifted, listing the restaurants downtown, internally calculating the menu options I’d be comfortable with, the ones I’d had before. How many calories had I eaten for lunch, could I allow myself a larger dinner? Finally, at the restaurant, I spent another twenty minutes debating whether I should get a sandwich. “It has apple butter and turkey and cheddar, and they’re famous for it,” I told my mom, hoping she would get it so that I could allow myself to get it as well, because I could not eat more than those around me were eating.
I wanted to be able to tell my nutritionist that I’d eaten something out of my routine, because recently she had been encouraging me to break habits and allow spontaneity.
“Try one new thing a week,” she told me. “Treat it like an adventure.” But it was incredible how difficult it was to break routine.
And my mom ordered a salad, so I did as well.
“I should have just ordered a fricking sandwich,” she said years later. She should have, but I didn’t say so. These days, I try to be an example for her. I eat what sounds good, and I enjoy it, and she watches, and I hope that one day she’ll allow herself some of the freedom I have fought to allow myself.
* * *
That entire starving winter, I was freezing. It was an abnormally cold year, ice storms terrorizing the Michigan roads, wind biting into any exposed skin. When I walked with my family to give the neighbors cookies on Christmas Eve, I didn’t wear thick enough socks, and the tips of two of my toes turned purple with early frostbite. I wore hats inside and layered long underwear under my regular clothing. Everything that I wore hung loosely from my frame as though I were a wire hanger.
“I’m working on it,” I said, smiling, when the aunts and cousins commented. Many avoided looking at me altogether.
Christmas was harder than Thanksgiving because I looked worse and because everyone was watching more closely. As I cut a slice of pie a centimeter wide, my cousin hovered at my elbow.
“You know, it’s a holiday,” he said. The anxiety swelled in my throat and made swallowing impossible.
I tried to talk to my boyfriend about it. My friends told me I should let him in. I’m sure this advice was motivated in part by their wanting someone else to carry some of the burden of caring for me, and I don’t blame them for this.
“Talk to me about anything,” he said, but when I tried to convey I’m really sick, he didn’t seem to see it, likely because I avoided using the word disorder and stuck instead to euphemism. I told him, “You don’t eat much either, and that makes it hard for me.” And he led me to his pantry where we held a sleeve of crackers between us. After five crackers, he stopped, and I did too though I was still hungry. I thought about the crackers for days after, their flaky, buttery layers, the grains of salt that dissolved on my tongue.
* * *
“I’ve heard people say you can’t get rid of the thoughts,” my dad said when I got home from a few extra hours at the bookstore where, now, my middle-aged coworkers would follow me to the breakroom and scrutinize my lunches. “One of the other teachers,” he said, “she’s new, and she was sick like you once, and she said the thoughts never go away.”
This is how I knew he was talking to everyone about me. He said the thoughts like they were a force, but he also equated my disorder to his alcoholism and gave me his Twelve Steps book because it might help.
Later, the day before my wedding, he warned my husband, something to the effect of take care of her or watch for this, and this didn’t surprise me because, in his experience, addiction does not go away. He still calls himself an alcoholic, even thirty-six years after his last drink.
* * *
Malnourishment causes a depletion of protein stores, and the body neglects unnecessary protein usage in order to keep the heart, liver, and other organs functioning. Hair loss is one of the more noticeable manifestations of this: the medical term is telogen effluvium. The body halts production of keratin, the protein that makes up hair, in order to stay alive.
It had been going on for a while, but when my weight dipped dangerously low, my hair loss was suddenly drastic. I pulled chunks of it out in the shower. I stopped brushing my hair, stopped touching it except for particularly anxious moments when I pulled loose strands out while my roommate pretended not to notice. I vacuumed every other day to keep the carpet from collecting too much. I bought all-natural hair supplements that did nothing.
This is when I realized how severe this was; looking back, this hair loss was necessary, a wake-up call that finally worked. My habits, though, were still ingrained, and forcing even a few bites of a carbohydrate was still an incredible challenge. I stared at the food on my plate, chewed it slowly, feeling every texture, and forced myself to swallow. Shush, I said to my thoughts when they began tallying calories. I threw out the scale that had been hiding under my couch.
* * *
I broke up with my boyfriend in the basement of the school library.
“I’m not going to wait for you,” he told me, as well as, “I don’t know if I should just never date again or go hook up with a bunch of girls to get over you.” And that afternoon I allowed myself to laugh as I relayed the conversation to my friends. A few days later, he posted an article on Facebook: “My Girlfriend Has an Eating Disorder.”
“What a dick,” my roommate said, while I cried as though he’d revealed something people hadn’t already seen.
The next day I got a haircut. ”Chop it,” I told the woman at the salon. “It’s a breakup haircut.” But mostly I hoped that a cut would help what was left look better.
The hair loss, and being so thin that I could actually feel my tailbone through my lower back, and the appearance of lanugo—small, fine hairs on my back that my body produced in order to insulate itself—erased any arrogance I had accrued during the fall. I was a sickly thing, and my face hurt from forcing smiles that attempted to show the world otherwise. My mom, who had been asking for months if I would go to an eating disorder hospital for an analysis, asked again, and I said yes.
* * *
We went to Mott Children’s Hospital, though I was eighteen and not a child. I sat on parchment paper on an evaluation table, speaking with doctor after doctor, med student after med student.
One doctor was short with dark hair and barely made eye contact. “Do you want to have kids one day?” he asked, and I said yes.
“It’s possible,” he said, “although until your period returns there’s no way of knowing how much damage has been done.” He paused. “The same with your heart,” he added.
“When will my hair stop falling out,” I asked. “Can you do anything to make it stop? Maybe there’s medicine?”
He glanced up, more at my forehead than my eyes, and then back at his clipboard. “You’ll need to gain quite a lot of weight before that reverses,” he said. “Thirty or forty pounds, at least.” I balked.
“You probably won’t go bald,” he added.
The next doctor took me to a smaller room, one with tigers on the walls. He had a wide face, light hair, and warm hands. He took my pulse gently and talked lightly of his wife, and I half-listened. My thoughts were: please don’t decide I need to be admitted, please let me return to school. I wondered why he worked with people like me.
“I see you’ve gained ten pounds,” he said, “since your last recorded weight. That’s good. Be proud of that.”
“I am,” I said, and this was mostly true. I told myself this was true. In the waiting room this morning we had seen a girl, younger than me, with legs like toothpicks. I had hoped quietly that they graded on a curve, that they would admit her instead of me. She had short hair, shorter than mine, a pixie cut.
“What are you studying in school?” he asked, and I noted that he said are and not were.
“English,” I said.
He looked up, his eyes greenish brown, and smiled. “I always loved writing,” he said, though I hadn’t mentioned writing, though I had only just begun to articulate that desire quietly to myself. “I always wished I’d been brave enough to be a writer,” he said.
You’re a doctor, that’s brave, I thought of saying, but was too affected by this extended kindness, by the word brave, to speak. I nodded, my Thank you snagged in my throat.
The intern who interviewed me first—“I’m compiling evidence for a study,” he’d told me—was the one who told me I wouldn’t be admitted.
“Not today,” he said, and his tone didn’t indicate warning, but the words did, and I folded this warning up to carry along with me.
They drew my blood on the way out of the hospital. Knowing I would get to leave made me brave, and so I watched the thick silver needle enter the blue vein in the crook of my arm. Replacing blood burns calories, I thought before I could stop myself.
Spring began, and my short hair grew back curly, and I continued to shush my internal berating and force myself toward health, and it got easier and easier, and I began to feel warm again.
* * *
The thoughts have gone away now, but I’m one of the lucky ones. With normalcy of body composition comes normalcy of psychological functions—the longer my weight was stable, the longer my thoughts and compulsions were. I’ve wondered, if I were to get sick or somehow lose excessive weight without intending to do so, whether it would all return. I don’t think about this often, though; I don’t think about that time in my life often, except when I see traces of it in other people.
I can’t count the number of friends I’ve seen struggle with an eating disorder since this time—some subtly, some obviously, some without yet recognizing it, some denying it aggressively despite dangerous proof. It’s everywhere there is food.
* * *
The subjects of the starvation study were volunteers, the study designed to help scientists learn about the effects of starvation and the rehabilitation of those who had been starving. It was conducted in the midst of World War II, though, and the results were largely overlooked, because around the time of the study’s end, the severity of concentration camps was being uncovered, and the attention of the world was elsewhere.
Follow-up interviews were not conducted; there is no information about the lasting effect of the study on the men who participated. They were chosen for their psychological and physical stability, and they were all men—a control group, beginning at their strongest. I wonder, though, what the long-term effects were.
* * *
I’ve had friends who miscarried twins, who miscarried in the second trimester, who tried IVF for nearly ten years before finally conceiving a child whose labor almost killed them. I have friends who murmur It will happen when the topic comes up because they don’t want to give words to what they fear the most. I think a lot about conception, about chance, about the actual mystery of our bodies. I carried these worries with me into this year, when my husband and I decided we were ready to have a child.
I read articles titled “The Lasting Toll of an Eating Disorder: Fertility Issues,” “Being Anorexic as a Teenager Robbed Me of My Fertility,” as well as “Despite Myth, Anorexics Do Become Pregnant.” Many of the articles, despite their titles, were hopeful.
And this summer, I got pregnant. I only took one negative test before the hoped-for pregnant appeared on the tiny ClearBlue screen. Though my obstetrician hadn’t been worried, I’d kept a soft voice in the back of my head, a voice much like the cold doctor’s. Maybe. Maybe not.
But, startlingly, it was easy. I feel in some ways that I cheated the system. Others have done everything right and can’t bring a child into their family. I didn’t do anything right, and yet. I feel the grace of where I am. Given something I can’t deserve.
In this pregnancy, I have reveled in the food freedom. Thinking back to that year in college, the contrast is stark: my diet consists almost entirely of the foods I once couldn’t allow myself. Bread, butter, bread, pancakes, potato chips, bread. Everything that entered my mouth during the first trimester was a carb. I was horribly averse to salads or anything green and this didn’t trouble me.
I love the freedom, and I love the food. I can eat what sounds good to me, what I imagine sounds good to my baby, and I can be grateful that I have nourishment. I can be grateful for a body that balanced itself out, that regenerated after trauma, that now sustains a growing life. I’m grateful for this freedom because I know what it felt like to be so caged by my mind, my body, both. Now I will grow, swell, fill, and I will know that it is good.
"I think of how they begin life straight and hale, over decades or centuries to weaken against the mosses that eat their bark and the beetles that bore through them until, toppled by a storm or gravity, they lie decomposing at the feet of their kin now enjoying a clearer view of the sky."Ends in: 0 days
"I think of how they begin life straight and hale, over decades or centuries to weaken against the mosses that eat their bark and the beetles that bore through them until, toppled by a storm or gravity, they lie decomposing at the feet of their kin now enjoying a clearer view of the sky."