The Year I Avoided My Scale
Anorexia, my new word of the day. I didn’t think I knew what it meant. Sitting in the exam room after school, in an open-backed gown, surrounded by humming white lights, I felt sick. Am I sick? I remember asking myself. Is it a disease? A virus? Am I normal? My doctor, with a concerned expression on his face, asked my mom to leave the room, then asked me how I felt.
“Good,” was my response, although I didn’t really mean it.
“How do you feel about your body? Do you think you’re too tall, too big?”
That’s what anorexia meant, I decided. Feeling too big, too heavy. “No, I really don’t.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, I really do feel good,” I said as I nodded my head. I knew I didn’t sound believable, even to myself.
He stepped outside. I sat in the room with the white lights and white walls. A bright red pamphlet on the wall stood out to me, the words Anorexia: a Parent’s Guide on its cover. I could hear my pulse in my ears. A pink pamphlet titled Teenage Depression was below the red one. I felt like laughing, but not in a normal way, not a sane way. I focused on sounds instead of sights. The crinkling paper I was sitting on. The rhythm of my breathing. The murmur of voices outside the door. Those murmurs, my mom would later tell me, were my doctor questioning her about my diet. He had asked her to hide the scale in our bathroom.
I hadn’t stepped on a scale for a year, since before I lost 10 pounds and grew 3 inches. I learned to say the word no that year: “No, I don’t want seconds.” “No, I’m not hungry.” “No, I’m OK.” I didn’t think that I was unhealthy. I didn’t question my behavior. I had watched my friend who loved food, the one who would grab it right out of my hands, begin to refuse my offerings. I was giving away my food because, like her, I was worried about what I ate.
It only takes looking back to realize how bad it was. I heard a friend joke about killing himself; he’s now in therapy and doing better. I remember watching another friend come to school with new scabs, 12 cuts that went down her arm. It was the first time I cursed. “Fuck,” I told her when she rolled up her sleeve. I remember reading statistics in the news about depression, self-harm, dieting among teens — without realizing how much they applied to my life.
I remember feeling upset and frustrated with school, and I had a thought that scared me: Just end it. I told my mom, and she asked if I wanted to see someone. I used the word no again and sat in her lap, sobbing, with my arms around her. It took me weeks to feel like I could trust myself again. I had to decide that I loved myself, that I needed to stop being scared of myself. When I rolled out of bed, I told myself that I was OK.
This past summer, I lapsed back into a little darkness. I began to watch what I ate again, and I retreated. As we came back from dinner in New York, I remember telling my mom — my confidante, the person I told almost everything to — that even though I had just eaten a salad and skipped dessert, I didn’t need anything else to eat. “No, I’m full,” I had said.
“Are you counting calories?” she asked as we settled into our hotel room.
“No,” I told her. When she started watching TV, I went to the bathroom and examined my stomach in the mirror. I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t the first time I had done that.
After New York, we traveled to Virginia, where my aunt praised me for being so skinny. I smiled and thanked her.
When I returned home, I decided to stop. I wanted to be OK. I truly did. So I went back to school with a newfound sense of focus. I continued to notice small things about my friends. New scabs on someone’s arms. Another packing her own lunches with only a bowl of rice and a chicken wing.
I started cooking. I baked meringues on the weekends. Right under the title of the recipe were the words 15 calories per cookie, an old habit that drew me in. I brought the meringues to school and offered them to my friends. The one who seemed to be dieting refused. She had just told me in the hallway, “I lost 10 pounds!” She seemed ecstatic, but all I could feel was pity. “Nice!” I had said. Later, I offered her a meringue again, but this time I added, “Only 15 calories!” She took it reluctantly.
I bought the bread with only 60 calories per slice, the almond milk with 45 calories per serving. I knew in the back of my mind that it was wrong. But I still continued. Not an addiction, I told myself.
The doctor’s appointment was supposed to be a simple physical exam, a confirmation that I could play sports. The first thing I was asked to do was fill out a questionnaire. Have you felt hopeless, depressed, or frustrated with yourself? No, I answered. Have you ever watched your calories or taken dieting pills? No. There were many other questions, but those were the ones that lingered. I watched the scale in the doctor’s office — 103.5 it read. Not my best, I thought.
I really did know what anorexia meant, I guess. It meant that you watched your stomach in the mirror, worried about your calories, and enjoyed being praised as skinny and seeing small numbers on your scale. I had also gotten my HPV shot that day and was handed graham crackers. They were 60 calories each.
Over the weekend, my dad told me to eat my eggs. I told him I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t fail to notice his comment, “You barely ate anything.” I later talked to my mom in the car, just her and me. I asked her if she thought I was dieting, and we had a serious talk about my health for the first time that I can remember. I told my mom the truth, the truth about everything. I felt like a weight had been lifted, a blindfold removed.
I’d like to say I’m better, but better doesn’t mean healed. It doesn’t mean comfortable. I have learned that stomachs are round, not flat, that the people I wished to look like are not always perfect. I’m stronger rather than better.
In the closed, quiet white room of the doctor’s office, I had asked myself whether I was normal. The truth is, I’m not, but really no one is. That’s where I’m choosing to find my comfort, the thing that’s making it easier to stop. I’ll go back to the doctor in three weeks — a routine of scales and white rooms and questions that I will have to endure, my own personal Groundhog Day because I am being monitored. And I’ll deal with it. I’ll answer the doctor’s questions, assuring him that “no, I’m OK,” and I’ll mean it.