DISCLAIMER: This essay does not intend to imply that all bulimics are female, nor that all females are bulimic, but rather attempts to account for the starkly gendered statistics of eating disorders in which those who identify as female outnumber males 10:1.
by Kym Cunningham
It’s presented as a perpetual occurrence, like every time we eat a salad, drink a smoothie, we run for the bathroom door, first two fingers down our throats. Maybe they do exist: people who shove others out of the way, “’scuse me, I gotta go throw up,” before launching themselves into a bathroom stall, knees hugging the pee-stained porcelain base, the smell of disinfectant as sharp as the bile in their mouths.
I’ve never met anyone like this, but then again, I’ve never known a woman willing to talk about bulimia other than the vague “same here” or “me too” that accompanies self-reflective nodding. Bulimia is not something women speak about the way we speak about eating celery to burn calories or drinking products like SkinnyMint to give that extra laxative push in the morning. It is not among the weight-loss strategies approved by fitness experts like Jillian Michaels or up-and-coming fashion icons like Kylie Jenner. There is no American Society of Bulimics to commune with, handing out tips on prevention of enamel decay. Those who participate in this distinctive method of body management know that unlike weight loss, unlike fitness, bulimia is not a social event.
It is personal. It is done in secret, behind locked doors: the shower running to cover the plunk of undigested food. A roll of toilet paper stationed at-the-ready, sheets and sheets to melt against acid-entrenched hands and speckled surfaces. All articles of clothing, apart from underwear, off and to the side, out of the splash zone, same with jewelry and hair ties, except the one currently pulling the follicles up and away, cinching them tightly against the scalp. A glance at the Hawaiian Aloha Febreze to be used after-the-fact, its sweetness designed to mask the air’s telltale souring.
Kneel out of respect, leaning like Narcissus over the toilet bowl. Examine flaws as they emerge; the water reflects more clearly than a mirror. A mirror smudges, bows in or out, brightens with artificial bulbs that distort reflection while maintaining the illusion of reality. Water does not pretend. Look too closely at a reflection and it dissolves, revealing the self’s abyss.
Test vulnerability, sticking one, then two fingers down, spasmodic gagging at first—then choking pressure—then release.
Now is the time to be completely open, to revel in the personal, a kind of meditation—imagine it as the most intense form of yogic breath.
Breathe in—and release.
We listen to our body, continuing at our own pace until the bile from the bottom of our stomach tells us that we are finished.
We rinse our hands, turning on the faucet gently with our uncorrupted elbow, massaging slime from between our fingerprints, pushing any errant food particles down the drain. We splash water on our chin, wiping our mouth, investigating the sting of skin split from being forced open. We stare at ourselves in the mirror for a few seconds, cheekbones already more prominent, lips appearing fuller and redder courtesy of laborious flush, before turning our attention back to beauty’s workspace.
We flush once for the larger lumps, watching what seems like pounds of varicolored half-solid baby food disappear into the bottom of the bowl. We wipe the edges of the seat, above and underneath, around the base, checking for splatter on the walls and cabinet sides. We throw the paper mash into the toilet. We grab a new handful and dampen it in the sink, wipe again, erasing every trace of what we have done. We flush again.
As we watch the discolored water swirl down, down, down, and new water come up clean, we survey the tableau, congratulating ourselves on spotless work. We feel satisfied, right down to the core of our beings, in the way that food never seems to satisfy, a way that is only just for us.
Then we remember the shower is running, wasting water, and we strip the rest of our clothes off in graceful feline swoops and embrace the cleansing scald.
With the water seeps guilt—the unnecessary flushing, the rampant toilet paper abuse, of course the shower—self-incrimination growing a drop at a time, until we are forced to acknowledge that the food we just flushed down the toilet could have fed another human being. We become disgusted at our wastefulness, at our privilege, ashamed that we lack self-control and common decency. To salvage some shred of humanity, we tell ourselves this is the last time.
But like so many other lasts—cigarettes, potato chips—this bargaining is part of the ritual.
“How did it start?” psychiatrists ask with tilted heads. The walls are the same—something beige and nonthreatening, or for the new-age shrink, something tranquil, calming—sea-breeze blue. Psychiatrists are master space-manipulators, adept at reconfiguring prototypical office buildings into terrariums blooming with subconscious healing. Their walls bear the correct amount of posters, degrees, etc, not to overwhelm, but to communicate authority, to provide patients the security necessary to abdicate adulthood and responsibility.
Shrinks never do manage to get the furniture right, though. Their chairs are unsightly lumps of puce suede or uncomfortable plasticized geometric angles, Pottery Barn in a funhouse mirror. Perhaps this is for added effect as well, the physical embodiment of the mom-worn cliché: nobody’s perfect.
Because that’s how it started, isn’t it, with the first time we questioned our mothers: why can’t I be perfect? Or, at the very least, how do I convince others that I am, how do I keep myself a secret, safe from everyone but me?
We don’t tell this to those searching eyes, bespectacled or not. Instead, we come up with a date, as though we had circled it on our calendars. “Second semester, sophomore year of high school. I was 16.”
The psychiatrists smile and write something illegible down on their legal pad, confident that they are really getting somewhere. All it takes is time.
They don’t know that the first time was not important, just as the food consumed was not important, or the fact that we were watching shitty tv, or that it was late at night. At some point, it came to us in a thought, sans action: I could throw this up.
And we continued to sit on the couch, each another brownie or two, maybe some Sour Cream ‘n Onion potato chips, before we thought: I should throw this up.
And maybe that first time was in tenth grade, or maybe it was even in middle school, and maybe we did it once and stopped for a few years and then started up again. Or maybe we did it consistently for the better part of a decade or maybe one day we stopped cold turkey or maybe we’re still doing it.
But how can we tell them that the idea just kind of popped into our heads without them looking at us like we were fucking crazy? Because that look is even worse than the look we get when we first tell non-bulimics, that transparent mixture of pity, derision, and curiosity.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” they say, as though we weren’t doing it to ourselves.
“That’s terrible,” they say, hunkering down for more details.
But we will never tell them all of our secrets. They will never know that the first time we remembered feeling fat was looking at pictures in the first grade, being able to distinguish that our cheeks were chubbier, our belly pudgier, our chin rounder than the gymnasts or soccer players. We will not tell them that we used to resent our younger sisters for their slender legs and tight ribcages. That we still do.
We will never explain to them that we enjoy this selectivity as it allows us to manipulate the conversation, to disclose only what we think they should hear. Bulimia is, after all, all about perception.
It is the perception we crave, the idea that others might see us as strong, as fearless, as instinctively thin. We want to be the heroines we read about in novels, who eat whatever they want, kick ass, and never gain a pound. We want to look effortless in clothing, trick society into believing that we are self-assured, that we do not need to wear make-up. We want everyone to believe that we are the natural ones.
And because bulimia is about perception, the battle of belief over substance surreptitiously flushed down the toilet, it begins with the idea of itself.
Health class, sixth grade. The eighth grade boys whisper dirty suggestions concerning teeth and pubic hair as we try to keep the flush from our faces and our gazes level, actions that to them, resemble coy acceptance. We do not yet understand the art of perception.
The teacher, middle-aged and slightly pudgy, though she seems ancient and fat compared to our youth, lectures loudly on the perils of the unhealthy lifestyle, which include unprotected sex, drugs/alcohol, under-eating, and obesity. At the mention of obesity, the older boys snigger, looking pointedly at Meghan, the largest female student in the class. The teacher does not seem to notice, clicking the slideshow forward to a photo of an emaciated naked back with the words, ANOREXIA NERVOSA, in bold across the top.
The back, unmistakably female, consists mostly of shoulder blades that jut out tightly underneath the skin like frustrated wings. Nodules of spine poke out from between the wings as from a vacuum, then curve back into the ribs’ well-defined corporeal abyss. A light coat of hair, so pale as to almost be translucent, covers the body like a shawl, a last-ditch effort to keep out the cold.
Groans of male disgust undulate through the classroom, but we are silent, holding our breath, shivering under the persistent air-conditioning.
There is no photo for the slide on bulimia, only a terse definition regarding binging and purging, and an eating disorder hotline. The teacher moves on to obesity.
At lunch, we bring questions of biology to our peers, who always seem to know more on this subject than we do.
“I heard Lindsay and them were all drinking last night at Katie’s house.”
“I heard they get alcohol from Lauren’s older brother.”
“I heard Katie’s parents just leave her alone when they go out of town.”
“Oh yeah, and then they invite guys over, and they all make out.”
“Well I heard that Lauren and Jill throw up in the seventh grade bathroom after lunch.”
The bell rings before we can ask why.
After school, we bring a selection of our newly acquired knowledge to our mothers in the form of workbook pages, parent signatures required. Our mothers don’t want to talk about sex any more than we do, but when we get to the section on bulimia, they pause, finger hovering over the word, considering us.
“I was never skinny growing up, you know,” they say to us as though we can imagine that they were ever our age.
We look at them blankly, unsure of where this is going.
“I did a lot of things to make weight in the army, things that were really unhealthy, things that have made it harder for me to lose weight the older I get.”
They shrug, assuming we’re too young to feel the pressure of tight shirts against our stomachs and bikini strings around our love handles. It is this assumption that prevents them from naming it, that keeps it personal, half-secret.
“Anyway, I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did when I was young. It’s not worth it.” They sign the page and move on, while we are stuck wondering how they could ever think that we were like them.
We do not think that we are like anyone, or rather, we do not think that anyone is like us. We have been called different since we can remember, and this difference has woven itself into a coat that would totally work if only our waist was—or our thighs were—or if clothes fit correctly, like how they do on everyone else. It would work if only we could forget to be conscious of ourselves and the space that we occupy.
But we cannot forget. We are female, after all, and to be female is to be required to justify our corporeality in society.
We hear the justifications manifest so frequently we don’t recognize them anymore, these arguments over our right to social space. In grocery isles above the M&M’s and 3Musketeers, curvaceous women like Kim Kardashian explain: It’s okay that my ass is this big. Most guys would still bend me over a table to fuck me. On Amazon, reviews from XFitGirl94 clarify: 5’4’’, 135, but it’s mostly muscle.
But we aren’t as fuckable as Kim Kardashian, or as muscular as Amazonian CrossFitters, and so we are expected to deny our need for space. We sit on laps, holding seatbacks and clenching our butts to diminish the perception of weight. We Saran-Wrap ourselves into high-rise skinny jeans and lycra body shapers. We even practice geometry, contouring our faces with color pallets to hide any evidence of excess skin or enlarged pores.
But we are not satisfied, as society is never satisfied, as the male gaze can never be satisfied. We still intrude: knocking coat hangers off racks with our shoulders, plastic cups off tables with our asses. We are chastised if we speak too loudly, or glared at when we try to prevent others from cutting in front of us. We are ranked, measured, weighed—always found wonting. We are confined in boxes too small to breathe.
We suffocate in these boxes, too-large bodies pressed up against transparent plastic, the same material that once held our Barbies on Toys“R”Us shelves. Here, we understand that our bodies are public, for sale—what the dirty whispers from the eighth grade boys were trying to show us. We are reminded whenever we are catcalled or groped, propositioned or ogled. This is your space, society says. Be grateful for it.
But we are not grateful; we are spiteful. We want to be able to breathe. We want privacy. Crouching over a toilet, we carve spaces out of ourselves as tithes for existence. We become their predestined statistics.
The knowledge of statistics rarely helps anyone. It is not enough to know that more than 5% of individuals suffering from eating disorders die from health complications, just as it is not enough to know the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse. A certificate of D.A.R.E. completion does nothing to erase memories of powerlessness or injustice.
So rather than sitting on psychiatric couches attempting to remember a specific date or incident, it seems more important and more effective to come together as a community, to find the similarities in our stories, to call into question that which allowed us to consider bulimia as a solution. So that the next time we are exasperated at the size of airplane seats or the measurements of runway models, we do not seek comfort in the tile under our knees and the edges of our porcelain thrones.
Instead, we begin to understand and revile bulimia for what it is: acceptance of the patriarchal subjugation of the female body. Only then, when we seek to remedy our anger and not the food in our throats, can we be cured. Hell hath no fury like a woman full of bile. Viva la cuerpa!
Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San José State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi. She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Drunk Monkeys and Reed.