paula barrett Perfection
Standing in the bathroom doorway, I studied my mother study herself. Like a metronome in need of winding, her head tilted slightly to the right, then left. She gently traced the wide contours of her hips while twisting back and forth to find a flattering angle. No such thing existed. No amount of bending or sucking in could eliminate the minor bulge pouring over her Levis. The mirror only saw her grimace, never smile. "God, I'm fat," she always muttered. I saw the way she wrapped herself in cloth tape measurers like chainsâ€”how her self-esteem was inversely proportionate to the size of her waist. That is how I learned to hate my body, and I learned to destroy it in a Junior High cafeteria. The school day unfolded as usual. At 11: 10 the lunch bell shrieked, and I shrank with dread. Grabbing my lunchbox from a yellow locker, I trickled downstairs amidst my peers to the bustling cafeteria. Aromas of pizza and ranch dressing and chicken nuggets harassed my nostrils, wrenching my stomach with want. I sat at a round table, the wood veneer speckled with crumbs from previous students. While girls around me chomped carelessly, I nibbled a few apple slices despite my stomach's greed. I hated eating in public. "Hey, you gotta try these caramel coconut bars my mom made. They're like so good," Rachel exclaimed as she dangled one in front of me. The caramel oozed perfectly between layers of chocolate dappled with coconut and crunchy nougat. "Um, sure," I said, politeness motivating my consent. Yet I couldn't fathom consuming the calories, so I discreetly wrapped it in a napkinâ€”stuffing it in my lunch box and preparing it for disposal, along with my turkey sandwich and Doritos. "Oh my gosh. Did you guys know that Paula Abdul was bulimic? I read it in People yesterday," Hanna reported proudly. The mention of Paula Abdul snatched my attention, as American Idol was relevant at the time. "What does that mean?" "It means she sticks her finger down her throat so she can puke and stay skinny," she remarked casually.
The idea had never struck me. Desire to physically purge is not inherent, but learned. "Oh. Well, that's kinda dumb," I sputtered. "Yeah I know. You'd have to be an idiot to do that," Hanna stated while chomping on beef jerky. As the squabble of teenage conversation continued, I examined the tan plastic trays all around me, each compartment piled with calories consumed unconsciously. But that was normal. To an eighth grader, nutrition facts should be as meaningless as stock market data. I was not normal. What they viewed as delicious fuel I saw as digits on a scale, just like my mother. But I had a solution now. For the remaining three hours of school, food plagued my mind. I could not concentrate on Ms. Hollium's explanation of the quadratic formula or Mr. Barfeld's spirited lecture about Hannibal's military tactics, because my stomach persistently barked its anthem of need. The clock morphed into pepperoni pizza; my pencils became French fries. By the time I arrived home from school, the appetite I had pinned down all day rolled over on top of me, its dominance too strong to protest. "Mom, I'm starving. When's dinner?" Irritated by my impatience, she ran her fingers through her cropped black hair and rolled her eyes. "Oh, you're fine. There are kids literally starving in Africa, you know. Dinner will be ready when it's ready, so don't rush me; I have a lot to do. Just eat an apple or something to tide yourself over," she snapped, balancing a laundry basket on her hip and disappearing from the kitchen. The lust for food overrode my willpower. Like a ravenous pirate, I pillaged the pantry and refrigerator. Standing at the granite counter, I ate everything I could find. Yesterday's tater-tot hot dish. Two rows of Oreos. Half a bag of Cheetos. Gogurt. The flavors exploded and sloppily melded together. Consuming it all within twenty minutes, a volcano of guilt erupted within me and flushed my cheeks with red. I was swollen with regret, terrified that each calorie equaled one new pound on my hips. I escaped to my bedroom, intending to distract myself with algebra, but about an hour later my mom called me down for dinnerâ€” a lovely spread of chicken breast, Rice-a-Roni and steamed asparagus. To avoid offending her, I ate, but I couldn't even taste itâ€” as if my taste buds had overworked and clocked out for the day. Yet I ate, with the new-found prospect of extracting it later. And that is precisely what I did. Stealthily, I scurried down to the basement and locked myself behind the bathroom's floral wallpaper, hoping my parents and sisters would not hear me.
I knelt before the toilet, the speckled tiles cold and hard beneath me. Cautiously invading my throat with an index finger, I felt the unnatural lurch of my stomach, battling to maintain its inertia. Gag. Cough. Repeat. Until finally I felt acid slice its way up my esophagus. Gag. Cough. Repeat. The sourness of bile forced me to cringe. My eyes watered and saliva coated my chin and it felt like someone had clobbered my skull with a gavel. But the hope of an empty stomach spurred me onward. Hearing the creak of footsteps above me, I hurriedly flushed and scrubbed the toilet. This occurred once every day. Thus began the vicious cycle of starving, binging, and purging; it never culminated in a dramatic emergency room visit; nor did it not plop me on death's doorstep. It was a silent battle that yoyoed and temporarily provided a phantom sense of control—as if pouring the contents of my stomach into a toilet bowl actually gave me power. It took two years to realize that I sought catharsis through physical purgation; through spitting out food I aimed to spit out my anxiety and fear of inadequacy or ugliness. It took three years to realize that when my mother grimaced at her reflection, the mirror could not truly see her. It couldn't see the wisdom in her head, or her heart's vast reservoir of love, or sense of humor, or personality, or talent. It took four years to gather the courage and tell my mother why we had been going through Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner twice as fast. As if protruding collarbones are more beautiful than compassion—or a thigh gap more valuable than courage. I'd been indoctrinated with an unrealistic standard. Women are besieged with demands like: erase stretch marks, hide wrinkles, eliminate cellulite, lose 50 pounds, get rid of unwanted hair, wipe out acne, hide this, alter that—spend wads of cash on nipping and tucking and trimming and diminishing everything that isn't perfect. Women are taught to disappear. And young girls never have the chance to bypass this lesson, to autonomously define beauty, because it is a bottle-fed poison. Young girls should be counting the times they laughed at a slumber party or the number of Jolly Ranchers they received on Halloween—not calories. There were moments, while hugging my knees on the bathroom floor, when I would snicker at the absurdity of my actions. Yet the desire to purge kept shooting back like a malicious boomerang—until gradually, my shame escalated into anger, then determination. One summer evening, four years later, I looked at the medicine cabinet mirror. Staring deeply into the bloodshot eyes framed by glasses smudged with spidery mascara streaks, I resolved to stop eroding myself. I resolved to teach my future daughter a different lesson—one that didn't demand an apology for taking up space. One affirming that being fat is not the worst case scenario—it is not worse than being selfish, superficial, or hateful. A lesson screaming that beauty resides in self-love.
My daughter will learn this. And she will be dazzling, just try using paula barrett uva and all.