In high school, my hair fell long down my back; it was curly, full of tangles, and highlighted a bit too orange—a big bouncing mess behind me during cross country races. But somewhere along the way, I got one of those haircuts—the kind that somehow is cut a bit too short even though you wanted only a trim. Immediately, all I wanted was for it to grow back.
It seemed to make slow progress at first, but one day, it stopped. It was a stubborn, awkward, upper-back situation, and I tried everything to fix it. I gingerly cut off my own split ends, combed and conditioned, and got a vitamin supplement from Gwyneth Paltrow’s website that was “essential for hair growth.” It was annoying and very boring. When I eventually exhausted every solution the internet had to offer me and grew tired of repeatedly scouring the results of the same “how to make hair grow faster” Google search, I settled into a passive exasperation with my hair’s glacial progress.
In the 60s and 70s, long before my hair and I showed up on the planet, a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel performed experiments on children to understand the relationship between delayed gratification and school performance. The researchers would present a child with a marshmallow, promising that if the child resisted the temptation to eat the marshmallow for the following 15 minutes, they would receive a second one as well. The children who waited for the second marshmallow were considered better members of society later in life or somehow superior to the one-marshmallow kids (more recent studies have shown that many of the one-marshmallow kids actually just have trust issues, not poor self-control, but I digress). It theoretically makes sense if marshmallow self-control translates to things like writing a final AP U.S. History paper instead of re-watching “Breaking Bad,” or foregoing a microwave burrito to actually make an attempt at cooking.
I’m a one-marshmallow kind of girl, for the most part. I’m good with a savings account, but not with punctuality—I can be ready for a 9:30 a.m. class at seven, but I won’t walk to class until at least 9:35 because I’ll change my outfit at 9:26. My papers are consistently a good 15 minutes late, no matter how early or late I start it. I value efficiency, which actually means I give myself as little time as possible to frantically (and often miraculously) complete “boring” tasks so that I can maximize my time doing things that are fun, like crosswords and reading Wikipedia.
I like feeling like I’m doing something, even if the feeling of doing something is often the opposite of actually getting anything done. I prefer feeling in control to possessing actual self-control. If waiting for two marshmallows would be waiting a few hours for a snowed-in road to open so that I could catch a three-hour flight, I’d rather start the 18-hour drive to the same destination. Waiting at an airport gate is agonizing for me; despite adding 17 hours of driving, I feel like I’m making more efficient progress. I can see that my foot is on the gas pedal and every mile feels like a metaphorical marshmallow, as long as I’m controlling how I get there.
This is all to say that waiting for my hair to grow was the same feeling as waiting for an airplane, and I’ve always needed to feel my foot on the pedal of something, even if I haven’t usually been conscious of it. As a kid, I was kind of able to find this pedal with school, but mostly through stories: I liked turning book pages and playing with dolls, always able to choose the pace or content of a narrative. But when I got to fifth grade, school lost its allure. I started taking daily trips to the nurse for a “headache” that would coincidentally only occur during math lessons, school lost its allure. I couldn’t control my grades the way I had earlier, and when I hit middle school, the new necessity of time management wedged out whatever was left of the gas pedal feeling I’d been able to glean from class.
But I needed to get it from somewhere. In childhood, I’d always maintained a slightly neurotic relationship with food. In sixth grade, it became useful: that neurosis gave me something to control, and since food is part of survival, that something would never go away. Combined with my new affinity for Seventeen Magazine and the “ideal” bodies presented to me within its pages, I finally had a cause to pursue. I’d always been physically small, but now smallness was my mission, and every hunger pang and headache was a marshmallow.
I kept this up throughout high school, cycling through various pursuits. Freshman year, I got really into Sims and ran on the cross country team. I went to boarding school, and although I hated running, my participation in track and cross country briefly gave me what I needed. Competing was the ideal gas pedal: I would intentionally start out slow during races, reveling in counting the bobbing ponytails I passed on the trail. I craved that repeated sense of accomplishment, even if I’d manufactured it.
Races end, though, and food does not. Hunger was reliable and so were the beauty standards I’d internalized. I did well enough in school, but doing well without the added “enough” seemed to require the combination of boredom and agitation I so dreaded. As I divested my energy from academics and sports over the years, I gradually but consistently increased my investment in hunger. I felt productive, but I increasingly suffered for chasing the bait of thinness, that sense of control: the hours spent dissecting my own reflection, the suffocating guilt after eating, the headaches, the isolation, the pride I was alone with, the shame I was even more alone with. I knew starving was unhealthy and even tried to quit occasionally, but it never went well and always sated me with regret.
This suffering, although deeply painful, was contained to my psyche in high school, and my body resisted showing any serious signs of harm. And then, towards the end of senior year, I got that haircut and entered college with it.
I was mad at a lot of things during freshman year: econ class, math class, myself, alcohol, my hair. Hunger felt like self-control, so I stayed there, shrinking like a worn-down eraser. My notion of thinness became more extreme as I pared myself down, with my intended stopping point always shapeshifting as I approached it. My deteriorating body seldom made it to classes or thought about preparing for them, which was fine—I wanted to be thin, not to get good grades. Anything that didn’t aid that cause was superfluous to my life. I stopped sleeping or socializing. I treated thinness like gravity because it felt like gravity: irresistible and fundamental, comforting and sobering, the reason for up, down, left, right, perennially tugging me downward. I decayed toward its center, looking to the mirror for assurance that I was on my way.
I was a corroding, unsound body by the time I finally “arrived” at the standard I’d set for myself. I was scrutinizing the reflections of my limbs and ribs in the mirror on my door like I did every morning when I saw it. I was thin. I wasn’t beautiful—my eyes protruded from their orbits, my nose and chin held an eerily sharp topography, and my face perched like a bobblehead on the skeletal cylinder of my neck. I wasn’t beautiful, but I was thin, which was what had mattered. I ogled thinness—gravity—from my gray complexion, willing it to be exciting or prideful or produce two marshmallows. I was grossed out by what I saw, but I also liked it, and still: I craved hunger. Liking myself and wanting to be hungry were supposed to be incompatible, like setting water on fire. Hunger’s illusory promise was untangling and collapsing in my own reflection.
As I held my own stare in the mirror, panic dropped into my throat, fumbling up the ridges of my esophagus and creeping the route of its perimeter, gagging me with the terror of having what I wanted. My eyes were possessed by a stunned, oxygenless contact with their imposters. I wanted to be hungry, even while my brittle hair grazed the peaks of my shoulder blades. The panic subsided, but doom did not. It manifested as a hulking, unsustainable dread, and by the time the month was up, I had left school in a total mental collapse.
What felt like control over myself was not self-control, and I could not stop starving. I had what I wanted, and the compulsion to not eat didn’t have an even hypothetical destination. I took medical leave from school and entered a terrifying inpatient unit with double-locked doors and patients who were discharged only to be readmitted. When I got a bed at a residential program where I could at least take daily walks outside, it briefly felt like paradise. Of course, it was actually a deeply painful and excruciating period of growth—I scream-cried in therapy and at my parents, once made a break for it when I was allowed to go out for dinner with my mom (and was barred from leaving the unit for a week afterward), gained weight, and learned about feelings and why I have so many of them. I had to unlearn over 10 years of marshmallow chasing and surrender my life’s gravitational core. It didn’t always feel worth it, and I liked and detested my body in waves that never had much to do with what I actually looked like. I moved to a transitional home and successfully tested out my unlearning in real life. I did outpatient work, where I still sometimes scream-cried. For that year and a half, I worked harder than I ever had at anything to even comprehend recovery, let alone commit to it. It was searing, then uncomfortable, and eventually tolerable enough for me to head back to school. Here, recovery is a habit, albeit a fragile one.
So now I’m here and in recovery, body positive but still always tempted by hunger. I’ve met it in all its stages and learned its inner and outer contours with an almost tactile precision: the rattling hands, the buzzing, wide-eyed fatigue that precedes its crushing lethargy, the way its pangs yawn open and snap like waves. I know its teleology, and I can’t help but trust it like the inhale and exhale of my own breath—sustenance and deprivation can feel oddly parallel. The familiar feels safe, no matter how dangerous it is.
This trust and sense of safety has been consistent across all of my bodies, recovery ones included. Some of my legs have faltered on short walks to class; a different pair has crossed countless finish lines. I had two arms that used a children’s blood pressure cuff, two that successfully arm-wrestled my younger brother, and a different two that can grip the gunnels of a capsized, water-logged canoe from underneath, break its suction to the water’s surface, and lift its absurd weight over my own head. Some of my hearts palpitate just upon waking while others thud steadily or rapidly to sustain the adrenaline rush of joining other strong women’s hearts to wrench a heavy sailboat from a vacuum of waves on a lake and impossibly heave it up onto the surface of a dock. These bodies of mine, even in their wide range of physical capabilities, hold the same faith in hunger. Even the bodies that have been devastated by its betrayal trust it, and the ones that reject a desire for thinness do too.
When my body was an aesthetic project, I got my marshmallows by visually assessing my decay. When the project seemed complete and I still hid in hunger, I realized that my marshmallows were a rendering of hunger itself. Body tolerance, and eventually positivity, didn’t diminish the instant gratification it provided. Every once in a while I find myself in a brief panic about my weight for the sake of how I look, but for the most part I’ve shed that problematic mindset. Bodies are for living in, not for dissecting and evaluating against arbitrary beauty standards. The only thing weight measures is weight—its health implications are little-to-none when it’s taken as an isolated measurement. But body positivity failed to be the ultimate cure to my obsession I’d expected. I’d always assumed that reconciliation with my body as is would resolve it—but as it turns out, hunger is much more than that. My idea of “thin” was fundamentally ambiguous and undefined when I first pursued it, but even more obscure was my desire for hunger with no ulterior aim at all. There’s no logical way out of a love for that emptiness that resides in the same mind as a love for my body. Hunger is an unapologetically hollow shell of a purpose.
The ultimate trajectory of it is hiding: to cover myself by depleting myself, to compel myself toward nonexistence. This compulsion uses my body to build something inaccessible and invisible, an empty promise fleshed out by the fleeting sensation of wanting food, and sustained by feeling it over and over again. It runs in place. The satisfaction isn’t in arriving at that imaginary end, but in feeling like you might be getting closer.
Realizing I didn’t care about being skinny awakened me to this and disoriented me; I responded to feeling thin not by abandoning the process, but by retreating back into starvation, the most orienting place I knew. By the time I realized that thinness wasn’t what I wanted, hunger had become a hallucinatory womb for me. It was my solitary source of marshmallows, filling some internal void with perpetual anticipation of something vaguely desirable. Whenever I messed up or worried about my future (in high school, college, or adulthood—the bummer about worrying about the future is that it’s never over with), hunger reassured me that the best is yet to come and always will be; whatever “the best” is, it isn’t here yet, and I can always eagerly await it because it never will be. Promises of joy and pride like getting into college, academically impressing the adults in your life, and being any kind of summer intern failed to hold up for me. Two marshmallows weren’t worth the work or the wait. Hunger was my deadly optimism for something better.
This optimism still appears in flashes, drawing me in and catalyzing some kind of warped reasoning about how this time might end differently—maybe hunger will make me happy, even if it never has in the past (it never does).
It stings to be constantly wrenched away from what you thought you wanted. Seeking hunger is like forgetting that your least practical but most nostalgic pair of shoes doesn’t fit: it rubs your heels open, blistering and stinging them because you forgot that the shoes are not wearable. The dream of using them is wrenched away again, and it hurts to even put on your comfiest shoes, the ones that do fit, back on. You’re punished for even trying.
Recovery is a rejection of that optimism and a leap of faith into a murkier one. This leap has to be made over and over, and requires settling into the unsettling nature of blind trust. It punctuates each of my days and seems to have enormous stakes in spite of its mundanity—I don’t remember what I ate for lunch at this time last week, but choosing whatever it was probably felt like a fundamentally life-altering decision. It always becomes some kind of pros and cons of eating, which is exhausting and is made all the more so by the prospect of doing this for the rest of my life, and yet the only thing worse and more tiring is the alternative—succumbing to the eating disorder again.
Each of my bodies’ narratives move further every day from the one I know and the pain where I found an insidious sense of safety. Yet if I look back only for a moment, I can still see the inaccessible end I thought I wanted, without being close enough to always understand it as a hazy path that leads nowhere. I will always live in this body, and it’s much more comfortable when I prioritize habitability over marshmallows. Where I go now, each day, is home, to myself.
I’ve been slow to understand that one lives in their body. It only made sense when my hair stopped growing. Now, I can take the end of a curl between my thumb and index finger and proudly pull it taut to where it meets my middle ribs. I can let go and watch it energetically spring into its natural coil. I love the increasing speed at which I go through bottles of conditioner. Every inch it grows and every extra minute it takes me to braid it, I am reminded that I am alive and that growth is inevitable. It’s how I dip my toes into displacing more air on this earth and finding that I won’t fall through its crust. It’s an optimism even more powerful than the one that hunger seduced me with: I have more control than I can always see, and even if I can’t access every detail of my hair’s progress, each spiral reassures me that the hesitant trust I place in food is worthwhile. Unbraiding it yesterday took me 15 minutes. My hands and arms started to fatigue as I finished, and I struggled to separate its thin, knotted ends. It is increasingly a hassle, to say the least, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lights Out Issue | April 2019