Underfed

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There are only two types of women who are excited to get their periods: those who are afraid they’re pregnant, and those who have lost it prematurely. I lost my period the way other women lose their car keys, not once or twice, but habitually. I kept losing it, because I have spent most of my life dangerously underweight, struggling from ages 11–20 with anorexia of varying levels of intensity.

Getting my period meant I was healthy. And that was the problem. I didn’t want to be healthy; I wanted to be skinny. And I wanted to be skinny more than I wanted to be anything else. When I was 11, a friend asked me what superpower I wanted. I told her I wanted to be invisible.

I was surprisingly perturbed the first time I got my period. I was at dinner with my father. We were eating steaks, mine well-done, his medium-rare. I watched the blood drip, drip, drip, drip out of his steak like a broken faucet. I found this particularly upsetting. I was not, as one might hope, upset for the cow; no, I was upset for myself. You see, I hate blood. I hated it even more 15 minutes later when it was coming out of me.

I was 12 years old, and I had gotten my first period. I was indignant. I felt like a 95-year-old man lying on his deathbed, asking God, “Why me?” I remember trying to barter with God. If he would remove my period, I would give $5 to a charity of my choice. This was a pledge I made frequently, whenever I thought the airline had lost my luggage. And it was a pledge I just as frequently forgot as soon as my luggage arrived.

At 12, I knew all about the menstrual cycle, since my hippy elementary school had spent an obscene amount of time discussing it. We were given important kernels of wisdom, like the fact that we could indeed make mayonnaise while on our periods. And we were made to pack prevention kits, consisting of a pair of underwear and a pad, which we were commanded to carry with us the way a diabetic carries her insulin shot. We were all fully prepared to get our periods, except I wouldn’t get my period that year.

I didn’t get my period because I was 5 feet 6 inches tall and I weighed 85 pounds. At 11, I was diagnosed with anorexia and a compulsive exercising disorder. I don’t have an answer to why I developed anorexia. All I have is a series of clichéd responses. One day I was a carefree child eating chicken nuggets and curly fries, and the next there was suddenly nothing childlike about me and I was too afraid to eat a baked apple with cinnamon on it.

Some children refuse to eat any food that isn’t white, while others refuse to take off their Halloween costumes and end up dressed as Esmeralda all year long. At 11, I had rules too. I woke up every morning at 5 so that I could jump rope. I had to jump 1,000 times, and if I messed up I had to start again. I always messed up. My hair ties had to match my socks. I would only go to bed at numbers divisible by 5.

What I remember about being 11 is packing the same lunch every day: three dried apricots, eight pistachios and half of a Nature Valley “Oats ’N Honey” bar. I remember my hair falling out in red, curly clumps in a London salon. On my 12th birthday, I refused to eat my birthday cake, and that is when my mother panicked, taking me to see a doctor who told me that if I didn’t gain 15 pounds, I would be hospitalized.

I remember going to lunch with my mother afterwards and her pushing the breadbasket towards me. I remember the bread tasted like sawdust and stuck on my tongue like a lump of flesh. I remember trying to learn how to be a kid again and failing, trying to make duck beaks out of Pringles, trying to do flips on the trampoline, trying to eat at my old favorite restaurant, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. But I couldn’t. All I could think about was that 14 Sour Cream and Onion Pringles had 140 calories, that jumping on the trampoline burned fat, that I hadn’t eaten all I could eat in a long time.

From ages 11–20, my relationship with food vacillated between high points, when I was healthy enough to get my period but still obsessed with my weight, and low points, when I stopped getting my period all together. During these nine years, I resented my period when I got it and was indifferent about it when I didn’t. This changed in March. It may sound overly simplistic, but it finally dawned on me that I was suffocating — and that it was my own hands around my neck. I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t healthy and that I hadn’t been healthy in a long time.

But realizing you want to be healthy and becoming healthy are two very different things. I had grown up with anorexia. I didn’t quite know who I was without it. But I recognized that anorexia and I were two different things. And that was a start.

I started gaining weight. It wasn’t easy. In fact, I think it was the hardest thing I ever did. People talk about looking in the mirror and not recognizing their own face. I knew my face; what I didn’t recognize was my own mind. I learned that just because I think something doesn’t mean it’s true. I went from regarding the voice in my head that told me I was fat and worthless and undisciplined if I finished the salad on my plate as the voice of truth to seeing it the way I see Fox News: sometimes funny, often dangerous, but rarely true.

I finally got my period again in July. And this time, I was ecstatic.

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