C’est le sens qui fait vendre. —Roland Barthes
Already the person I most wanted to be—the person who in effect would allow me to stop thinking about it—changes shape, changes direction.
She is like Achilles: running as fast as he can, going nowhere.
∗ ∗ ∗
The television is always on. The house is perfectly neat. No one worries about money. Our fat mother hides at home, or crosses the cornfields alone. On the day Karen Carpenter dies she turns from the telephone. She gets back to desperate redecoration.
∗ ∗ ∗
Who believes it is possible: to “just turn off the television.” I ate my breakfast because “my stomach wanted it.”
(Do you want to be Kate Winslet or Courtney Thorne Smith?)
We all know the body’s hold on our most intimate senses—of what is, what matters, of what we must pursue for ourselves, are danger signals that should rivet our attention & bond us to collective action.
But they don’t. Why?
∗ ∗ ∗
Some of the other patients are, my sister says, so negative. We stare across plastic menus in a cold bright corner of Utah across from the Pope’s Table. Someone is giving birth or about to be married.
My sister wears an embroidered silk dress, with jewelry. She wants a Coca-Cola. A Twizzler or some French Fries. Her Schick Hydro Silk, I Love Lucy, a hair dryer, her iPhone. Self-plating is a privilege & poses special problems. It reminds her of what she has been (worshipping the gorgeous girls from afar) & everything she is not (of character or generosity of spirit).
There is only one body, & it is everywhere around her: with a rib or a hamburger.
∗ ∗ ∗
(When you are sixteen it is all solid blocks of pain.)
Too much there if you know what I mean.
(Where even the brave—how would you say—have no windows.)
(There are chicken wings stirring in those vanished kitchens.)
∗ ∗ ∗
It is the first really flawless afternoon. Leafless, near the sapling end of spring. Our mother (like everyone else she clings to her humanity) won’t eat. Her mind is wearing out at the top: like stars.
∗ ∗ ∗
I keep a picture in my mind: of what I want to look like (if I can stay thin like Peter Pan) & what’s happening to me already (my heart beating like haybails through a stereoscope).
It is conceivable—we know this from history—to starve oneself so as to account for something in one’s own life. The eating disorder is a not-unkind acknowledgement of whatever disappointments &/or failures I carry with me.
It is also conceivable—this we know, too, from history—it’s not just the patient who has anorexia nervosa; the family has the disease. In a society where consumption & identity are pervasively linked, prolonged (and intentional) starvation is a vehicle for making a statement about identity & personal dreams.
∗ ∗ ∗
Personal agenda. Resolved: not to talk about my body. Not to talk about Ed.
Hereafter I am going to eat in calories of food. I consume very slowly: graham crackers & Crystal Light, white couscous with diet butter, low-fat fajitas & frozen yogurt, miniature cheeseless Egg Replacer quiches. Deliberately I engage in daily self-conscious self-scrutiny of my belly. I am a lying hysterical adolescent. I abuse my nerves, I commit symbolic matricide. Thin is beautiful is good.
As a personally constructed form of political protest, I stop eating meat. I take an Eve-bite out of sugar-free vanilla fudge.
God alone knows how far I am going but in one essential way I have already arrived.
Like Midas with his golden touch the potential for spreading disaster was there all along.
∗ ∗ ∗
One: Nothing seems to boost my self-esteem when I feel fat.
Two: What is normal body fat?
Three: There is no three to what I know.
Three: That looks so pretty on you, I say, your necklace & your dress.
∗ ∗ ∗
Order anything, our father says unhappily, you want. Anything.
My sister stares through the menu with the blue eyes of angels.
Salmon she says. Fettuccine Alfredo she says. Cherry coke.
∗ ∗ ∗
Pretend one day our mother says: Do you really want that much chicken, or, don’t you think it’s better without dressing? Avoid: the three S’s: diet soda, dessert, second helpings. Eliminate: butter salt white sugar red meat wedding cake chocolate. Bread pasta rice bananas coconut licorice Diet Coke.
You will be tempted and you will have to choose whether you will enjoy yourself enormously in twenty minutes or whether you will dislike yourself cordially for two to three days for your lack of will power.
To be hungry is, in a sense, a faux pas. It is a matter of self-esteem; to be another fat woman in America constitutes a failure of personal morality.
What for example we understand is normal body fat.
Airbrushed we understand is still the primary source of self & objectification. Body: where if we are not careful & being vigilant, we will turn into our mothers.
(The chop: it waits in the night & the bright sunshine, & each piece of earth is good enough & greedy for our ending.)
∗ ∗ ∗
I dream of a body that cannot be injured, violated, or sickened unless it chooses to be. An impermeable, self-sufficient body, not subject to uncontrollable needs or desires, be they its own or those of others. I should like, as poet Denise Riley writes in “Waiting,” to live among the leaves and heather like the birds, to wear a dress of feathers, and to eat berries.
∗ ∗ ∗
Anorexia nervosa was—we know this from history—born in the nineteenth century, flourished at the end of the twentieth, and it seems uncompromised in the New Millennium. Moreover, it is a syndrome with a specific cultural address (i.e. Middle America). Appearance plays too important a part in a girl’s life not to have her grow up to be beauty conscious.
As historian Joan Jacob Brumberg cautions us: regardless of social class, the body is (still) the American girl’s most powerful paradigm. Or, as Helena Rubbenstein sums it up in her 1930s advice manual The Art of Feminine Beauty: an abundance of fat is something repulsive and not in accord with the principles that rule our conception of the beautiful.
∗ ∗ ∗
(How to stop agonizing in a world in which your body is very, very important.)
(It does not pass.) (We are held to it.) No matter which way you add it up: the rose-drenched girls, they must go to school & be thin.
Concealment. Privacy. Our airbrushed cheeks. Our boob jobs. Our carbohydrate counting. Our skinny jeans. Our twenty-four inch waistlines.
Nothing is unique. I am writing about a monstrous ordinariness, a symptom of our wired post-industrial, post-feminist, post-humanist society, an expression of the individualism of our time.
It is Friday in the mid-nineties and you do not, the Nike advert advises, have to be your mother unless she is who you want to be. You do not have to be your mother’s mother or your mother’s mother’s mother. You may inherit their chins or their thighs but you are not destined to be the women who came before you .
∗ ∗ ∗
My sister half clears her plate. Flutters. Her mind around the salmon butter sauce & peas: like a sparrow. I don’t think I can eat this.
Should I call your mother & tell her, our father says, to book a flight?
I don’t, my sister says, know.
Well I told her, our father says, to clear her schedule.
∗ ∗ ∗
It’s the end of the twentieth century: tornadoes fall down, & drown themselves in the Mississippi. Pink & white four o’clock sun sets. All her faith seems to be turning inwards. Our mother carries it in her freckled skin. That secret bit of humanity tucked inside the wreck we make of motherhood.
Everything in her life that could go wrong / did go wrong—there’s nothing left to go / wrong. Love them, she thinks, or leave them alone—?
(Maybe the past weaves free like cows. Or telephones.)
(Maybe Fate is like this: in gravity’s grip.) (Hopelessly retrograde.) (Maybe her God is inventing a secret country in the yellow mud.)
(She doesn’t want to get lost in a hospital somewhere.)
∗ ∗ ∗
I butter toast.
I eat a bit of beefsteak the size of a caramel.
I forget my keys.
I get a haircut.
The fat-free body in the panic of what comes after, I think…
In between I think.
Uncooled in the morning dope light.
I have stood at the edge & fallen in.
I have been lured & slammed my elbows against the walls.
The places where I am thinnest lie quiet until dinner.
It takes physical arrogance / the arrogance it takes to turn disaster into art.
∗ ∗ ∗
Anorexia is—we know this from history—an affluent miracle.
Anorexia did not exist when women’s options were more limited.
Anorexia—we know this too from history—is the good girl’s primary strategy for passive defiance. Like the alcoholic, the anorectic denies her problem. Her addiction to starvation is a stereotypical behavior pattern that illustrates a national trend: most Americans “abuse their nerves from cradle to grave.”
By thirteen, 53% of American girls are unhappy with their bodies; by seventeen, 78%.
The anorectic in other words is the dutiful daughter of the curious psychic burdens of a people with plenty. She cannot be both the author of the body, and the body itself.
∗ ∗ ∗
In professional come-hither eyes the housewife weighs chicken breasts & takes long joyless walks. She eats, only not so much.
It is 1968, the year of the No More Miss America Demonstration, & our mother is born (impossibly) on Christmas Day. In other time zones, women burn girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, etc. in Freedom Trash Cans. Nose jobs get done over lunch hour. The Best Villainess arouses men (& often, to evil). Hard bodies jog to therapy in feathered hair.
∗ ∗ ∗
What memories of history will our daughters have?
Four waffles & unlimited coffee at thirty-something.
Sugar-Free Jell-O. Promise Margarine & Miracle Whip.
The First Lady’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.
A pregnant housewife ordering a strawberry daiquiri.
Where you & your food can be alone. Be the best calorie you can be.
Our mother cuts four lighter slices of America.
∗ ∗ ∗
When your sister is twenty-two & has a twenty-minute time limit for handwashing.
(It is a debt to be met with each decade.)
(An act she has a right to as a grown woman & a free agent.)
∗ ∗ ∗
We pass aspen with the rough hide of January, sparrows grateful to witness our passage, barking dogs across dark intersections, anonymous confetti aftermath of a wedding.
Appetite is not, my sister says, a vehicle for making a statement about identity & personal dreams. (Proof you can leave your mark if you can leave.) You will be tempted, my sister says, & will have to choose whether you will enjoy yourself enormously in twenty minutes or dislike yourself for two to three days for your lack of will power.
She is on the verge of becoming a new person. Unsequinned & on the far side of fate.
Robin for example, my sister says, is not actually an inpatient, & is allowed dinners & weekends at home, but, my sister says, she pays extra to stay overnight & for Sunday dinner. She has, my sister says, five kids. Meals, my sister says, are very chaotic & she can’t focus on eating.
∗ ∗ ∗
I have a dream. I am sixteen. I change my handwriting. I am one-hundred-five, in an invulnerable silhouette clean & hard as the Christian martyrs. I am nearly so thin I die of envy. I take up cigarettes I cut my hair in the severest way possible I buy a gold & crème micro-bikini I fall in love with candy anger & sleep. My belly moves when I move, distorting my motives.
∗ ∗ ∗
One demented moment later I am twenty-five I am always thinking I have left the pain behind me but sure enough here it is, this awful past full of enormous secrets.
Words will never be able to fill it. I’m twenty-five, & I mean this. The world won’t, I say, ever be as good as you think you can make it. Don’t expect anything I say. That way you can’t ever be disappointed, &, if you’re lucky, something good will happen & you’ll be surprised.
Everything in life isn’t—it’s just one thing at a time. To get anything out of it you have to let yourself be broken.
Like so. The Victorian breast or the silken thighs.
Put it simply: once you look yourself again, you won’t have to worry about it so goddamn much.
(Freedom: is only possible when you believe in no one.)
(I leave a message.)
(I leave a message: “Moving West.”)
∗ ∗ ∗
Just shy of the end of the century hemmed in by invisible mountains our father orders coconut hazelnut low-fat lattés & we stare at a framed map of pink Canada & buttercup United States & an upside-down trombone. Promise me, my sister says, you won’t tell dad.
Promise she says. You won’t tell dad.
You have to promise first.
I can’t, she says, eat in front of her right now.
You can’t, she says, tell dad.
When you look outwards, you must look upwards to see people / your father.
(Why go there & do that.)
(The little decorations of ambition are thin braids laid over the surface of the dread of this mis-remembering.)
(He loves us, but he can’t be trusted.)
∗ ∗ ∗
Try it. Who gets blamed for who.
∗ ∗ ∗
In the last states of separation, my sister says, you recognize Ed’s “rules” in your life. You learn to distinguish, my sister says, between the standards Ed holds for you & healthy boundaries, which, she says, you set for yourself. Then, she says, you understand that Ed’s rules don’t make sense & in fact are designed to harm you & you can act from a position of personal strength & positive self esteem. You can, she says, forgive yourself & even learn self-acceptance. You can, she says, eat what you want. Wear comfortable clothes. Chew slowly & digest.
Elbow to the sink & I don’t want this memory I want I think a drink. I want I think to take her by the shoulders & say where have you / has your dream gone?
∗ ∗ ∗
It’s three o’clock in the morning on Friday when the new century could survive / when the new century could survive mortality could care less. There is no order of events, there are no events. All that matters is the detail.
My sister marries a preacher, buys a condominium in the suburbs, teaches inner-city second grade, worries her students are victims of neglect or sexual abuse, & sometimes they are.
She is twenty-two. She has made a terrible mistake. Her real self is a world apart from everything she has been trained to believe & admire. Like everyone else my sister clings to her Destiny (it can’t be this).
Practical, realistic, humorous & hopeful: Life Without Ed puts a personal face on her problems.
Salvation (that is beauty) can be achieved. It is a state of being—it can’t be purchased but it can be earned.
Every day: she takes her pills. Every day: she will challenge herself to order what she wants, to plate herself a manageable portion, to eat until she feels satisfied.
I am the same. I am twenty-five & I have not changed. What I wish for vibrates in a permanent present.
(The body: dead not fried.) (In an obscene silk party dress.)
(All of a piece, without seams.) (It will go on waiting for you until the day you enter it.)
Writing about it is not necessarily therapeutic; perhaps this is why I scarcely write about it, however clearly & deeply my life’s aspirations are involved with it.
∗ ∗ ∗
(Look—we’re all eating pizza!)
We all (admit it! We do!) buy into the beauty anxiety. Complimenting each other’s body, hair & dress are how we connect with our sex. We strip our imagination to the flesh. Instinct as much with love as hatred & despair.
We probably cannot give this up entirely.
(Being a modern woman in America in the twenty-first century is like that—turning & going where nothing wants it, where the door opens & a road of light falls through it from behind you & the body starts to whisper with your own voice.)
∗ ∗ ∗
With the overwatered apocalyptic moon & mountains on every horizon you can’t, I say, think it’s a good idea.
The potency of a mother’s influence can undermine even a healthy, confident philosophy of self.
(How much have we changed.) (How much is enormous ruins.)
I know she loves us but…
Recent research suggests a certain, I say, kind of mother—frustrated, I say, perfectionist, passive, unable to mirror her child…
(That’s chickenshit. Be an adult. Grow up or get out of the way—)
Frantic flakes & an arrested star like a billiard cue. The immense truth I say & its white arguments—
You forget. What is it you need to forget our father says.
A healthy brain, our father says, needs to forget.
She doesn’t, our father says, remember.
Silence. (Try not to admit you notice.) A poplar sways without its limbs, the highway swings up to sky.
…you know you can tell when she’s faking, & I really don’t our father says think she is.
I’m not sure even I, our father says, remember.
∗ ∗ ∗
Our mother eats a pint of cherry tomatoes & twenty-four gala apples. We—her little world—have made her flabby & faint-hearted. Her hunger is enormous. It is impossible to say no. Even after she is full she fears the next hour in which her hunger will begin again.
(She will never be thin again, she will never recover.)
(Instead of “thunder thighs” she wants perhaps buttercups—or a cuticle moon, casting its shadow nowhere.)
∗ ∗ ∗
By thirteen, our father says, 53% of American girls are unhappy with their bodies. It’s statistically, our father says, probable. There never was, our father says, any question of motives. You do it because you do it.
Hot coffee & the stars go running through my heart.
It’s no one’s, our father says, fault.
What’s most frightening of all is the very existence of this possibility appearing above the horizon where it had no reason to be at all. (I can’t breathe.)
(Whatever I dreamt washes itself away equal parts muscle & doubt.)
(In the pastels of winter sunlight the carnations of my heart rearrange themselves in the belly jar.)
To lay bare the white ribs of truth—to my sister, to Ed, to eternal vigilance: the price of health & beauty…
(Which is it.) (Unsequinned or on the outside of memory.)
How could she, I say, forget.
Everything, I say, she could do wrong did go wrong. How could she, I say, forget.
So lonely blooming. The memory cannot be glued cannot be penned so the music can enter.
& so I come—to the grace notes of anorexia.
What will be eaten, in what order, at what time of day…
Sometimes I believe I made it up. Essential & inexhaustible (like a circus act): it is always there, implicitly telling me how to act & what to think, what I like & don’t like, who I am.
∗ ∗ ∗
Our own parents are, after everything, only our siblings in the world. They cannot protect us. They cannot save us. At best, they will stay out of our lives. At best, they won’t make anything worse. You think your parents are capable of change, that, if they must be only your siblings in the world, they will grow up with you. But they won’t. They’ve already done their growing up. They’re stuck right as they are. You can go on, but you can’t take them with you. At some point, you have to give up on yourself & move on…
∗ ∗ ∗
I will not. I will not. Yes, on my own.
Like so. A newborn mermaid or Margaux Hemingway with her hair wet.
Newly emancipated, I have little in the way of useful experiential guides.
In a strapless white evening dress I see eyes over my shoulder looking at someone who stands behind me, a little to my left.
Fashionable in the unnatural slenderness of sixteen. Waltz, say: that crazy I loved myself once…
∗ ∗ ∗
We sit on lawn chairs, beside Christmas morning in the Old New World. This is where we must look to find ourselves—
Over there, a rabbit, who thinks we have vanished forever, who can’t hear anything & is enjoying himself. Over there, our lives are eaten away at both ends; the remains a small thigh in our left hand.
Its impossible as always crux at the night of our meats.
Clockwise, we love Ed. Impact is what / happened before it’s difficult to recall.
If she were not she but you (truly madly deeply).
& who are we to know.
∗ ∗ ∗
(The line between fiction & fact in family stories goes through the living room.)
Who does what (silver coin) to whom (fish belly) & to what end.
∗ ∗ ∗
If, my sister says, you look at yourself & see what’s right instead of what is wrong that is the true mark of a healthy individual.
Ed is a not unkind, I say, acknowledgement of whatever disappointments &/or failures we carry.
A bluejay walks one down beside the Roosevelt bush.
There is something like gunpowder on the needlepoint of speech.
(It could also be a meteor.)
(It would not give up until we invented some sort of expression to capture it.)
To be sure: this shipwrecks our point of view.
The biological self, she says, is a kindly fiction.
Heaven can, she says, wait. Inner Beauty is not immune—
Including our mother, she says, as a daughter with her own right to despair…
∗ ∗ ∗
Hi Em our father writes. I hope all is well in Vermont. We heard, he writes, a presentation today about coordinated population-based care, with a state-wide system of health information exchange & care coordination incentives. Pretty good, not too many places in the US doing that. By the way how is your foot. I got an email from the Ortho Dept saying they got no answer to your cell. I guess they finally got around to your consultation. I’ve read your first book of poetry twice. Sometimes a tear came to my eyes, sometimes I laughed, mostly I smiled, sometimes I got a lump in my throat. I’m very proud of you. I’ll talk to you soon. Love, Dadhop.
Great ribbons of highway are scalp-vein across the great plains of buffalo & telephone pole.
It’s eleven o’clock & how much has the world changed since we (born of big sky possibility that believes in prophecy & the persecuted) bothered to look.
In one pause of silver birds solid then gone—
∗ ∗ ∗
If you are sixteen & you have no idea I tell you it scarcely matters.
Ed is a need, a commitment, a rage, a matter of self-respect, & that’s all there is for it.
(Once a thing’s done there’s no one knows how it happened…)
∗ ∗ ∗
To “claim” understanding would be a kindly fiction. I understand nothing, & have no way of writing fluently about this past. There are no characters, no order of events, there are no events. I am the same. I have not changed. I don’t understand anything any more than I did at sixteen or twenty-five. It becomes increasingly difficult for me to access my own meaning. The intellectual framework that enshrouds my working life protects “what happened” from being examined, it makes a lubricated narrative of how our lives misstep or mistake, how sometimes not getting the whole story or the right moral or the self the way it was supposed to happen can be the very thing that makes it possible to celebrate the life being lived (rather than simply represent or record it).
∗ ∗ ∗
It’s the Age of the Micro-bikini, & the body does not pass. We are held in it.
∗ ∗ ∗
Personal agenda. Resolved: not to talk about my body. To stop agonizing in a world where your body is very, very important. As soon as I look halfway decent again, I won’t have to worry about it so much. When I’m thin (what’s thin?) I can stop thinking about it.
∗ ∗ ∗
Theories are fine… but in the end no theory can eclipse the power of the body, the power of the forbidden, the power of addiction, the need to control the body’s shadowy hunger, its hidden shame, its sense of guilt. Put it simply: in America in the Age of the Micro-bikini if I dislike my thighs I am unlikely to like myself. This is what I know about what it means to be a woman in the modern world. Of course I would prefer to redecorate the reality with optimistic catch-phrases, to hide behind generational problems, to make intelligent suggestions. The future identity of generations of modern women is still being prepared & after three decades of struggle for liberation from our bodies we are in trouble we are still confused about what & how it means for a woman to have power as well as self-esteem. I’m talking about how we are positive role models in a climate of diminishing cultural tolerance for body fat. I’m talking about what our daughters need, or what we imagine our daughters need, or what we imagine our daughters would have wanted were they not born in the Age of the Micro-bikini.
Because our bodies belong, as it were, to them.