I've Never Felt Worse Than In The Moment I Looked My 'Best'
There is a photo of me, the best one I have. Maybe the best one Ill ever have.
It was one of hundreds taken by a professional photographer whose agreeably scruffy deputy spend hours flitting around her, holding a disc reflector to throw the Parisian summer light onto me just so. Before shed even picked up her camera and hed reluctantly put down his cigarette, a makeup artist had spent 90 minutes on my face, my hair, my fingernails. They were going for a 50 s bombshell appear Im not entirely sure why , now, but it induced sense at the time so there were hair extensions and curlers and false eyelashes and very bold red lips. In this photo, Im sitting on a staircase, my hair simulating the a curly black wrought iron bannister, with my hands demurely in my lap but my mouth slightly open in a Jessica Simpson-ish kind of way. My wrap dress, which I almost never wore in real life because it was too revealing, too clingy, is indicating simply the right amount of flesh. My eyes, thanks to the falsies and whatever witchcraft the surly makeup artist did with my brows, appear enormous.
After the shoot was over, the photographer culled simply three photos from the hundreds she took in the space of a few hours, and sent them to me. This is the best of those three. Years have gone by, and this is still the best Ive ever appeared in a photo. Its also the unhealthiest I have ever been.
I was unspeakably miserable, literally: Despite being a professional novelist, I couldnt muster the heroism to explain to anyone but a therapist how unhappy I was, or marshal the words to do my suffering justice. But I was functional: work, traveling, and preserving a social life even though I had to run extra miles to compensate for whatever I eat when people were watching. And this photo shoot was to accompany an essay Id written for a well-regarded weekend magazine, an international byline, a big deal. The night before, I ran for a operate and feed lettuce for dinner. The morning of, I drank coffee and ate nothing.
The photo was taken before the rise of Instagram, though Facebook and Twitter were already in full force. Had I had access to a photo-focused social media network at the time Im sure I would have posted it, probably with a performatively self-effacing caption, and watched with grim satisfaction as the likes and approving comments piled up. This week, in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I decided to post it, and to be honest about the wide abys between what that photo shows and the truth.
Thinness is an accomplishment for women, one were expected to work for if were not blessed with skinny genes, and offer sheepish, secretly-smug apologies for if it is gifted to us by nature. Its a trophy were expected to hold on to at all costs.
The truth was that I was drowning. On the outside, things seemed pretty good: My career was humming along, I was dating a great guy, I was spending the summer in Paris doing research for grad school, and hey, Id dropped two gasps sizes. For young woman, this is what winning looks like.
In fact, scratching the first three-quarters of that listing, and only keep the newfound sense that youve earned the right to wear shorts in public: for young woman, this is what winning looks like. Skinniness cover-ups all manner of other failure, just as failure to be skinny can dim the sparkle on all manner of other success. There was a reason people were complimenting me on my accomplishment, praising my shrinking body. Thinness is an accomplishment for women, one were expected to work for if were not blessed with skinny genes, and offer sheepish, secretly-smug apologies for if it is gifted to us by nature. Its a trophy were expected to hold on to at all costs.
Never mind that much of what I rendered that summer was garbage, hobble and listless writing that had to be redone because it absence rigour. Never mind that I was lying to that great guy, pretending to be the healthy, naturally slender girl I knew he wanted to be with. Never mind that I spent those months denying myself French food and running along the pretty streets of Paris without ever genuinely insuring them. Never mind; look what Id achieved. It was right there in the photo.
My illness never showed as anything other than an accomplishment, because it was largely invisible. In that photo, Im the thinnest Ive been since reaching puberty in earnest, but Im not skinny. I do not appear sick. I do not look like a person who is suffering. I look like a person has succeeded at losing weight and so I was. Very few people noticed that something was awfully incorrect, because it looked like I was doing something right. This is not uncommon: eating disorder are exerts in secrecy, and while some of us fit the stereotype of the hyper-skinny anorexic, all bones and eyes, many of us dont. Many of us hide our worst behaviour behind closed- door, and conceal the rest in plain sight.
I starved myself for two long years, with very little to show for it in the way of weight loss, and even less in the way of proof that I was sick. Again, this isnt uncommon: There are lots of us out here starving, bingeing, purging and over-exercising, looking nothing like your mental image of a person with an eating disorder. You may think this builds our suffering less real, less corrosive. We may even think that ourselves I did. I was wrong.
There are so many people walking around appearing the best theyve ever appeared, and paying far too steep a price, a concealed expense they feel compelled to keep paying.
When, after a year-and-a-half of considering a therapist, something finally shifted, and I started eating properly again, it demonstrated in photos. In scenes from that year, I seem puffy in the face and arms, like my body is clinging to every scrap of fat its given. Which, of course, it was. The body is smart: if you starve it once, it will forever be preparing for the next famine.
In those newer photos I am the picture of health, or at the least, the picture of healthier. And yet, I dont like to look at them. I dont like the photo of me clambering on an ancient Sequoia with my colleagues on a run retreat. I dont like the photo of me smiling at a dear friends bridal and surrounded by brilliant, loving women. I like the old photo, the bombshell photo, the photo that tells lies. Its in a frame on my new boyfriends windowsill. Im healthier now, and luck to be so, but if there had been a oath to mental health that had involved no weight gain well, Id have been in recovery sooner, and I would have recovered faster.
My suffering induced me is so great. There is no get around this: my self-inflicted ache was rewarded with praise and sex interest and even short-lived flashes of self-confidence. And “were not receiving” getting around the truth that I like the old photo better than the new ones. Just as I am working to accept that some people will always offer, youve lost weight! as a compliment, I am working to accept the uncomfortable, unhealthy truth: I have never looked better than when I was at my worst.
And I know I wasnt alone. There are so many people walking around looking the best theyve ever appeared, and paying far too steep a price, a hidden cost they feel compelled to keep paying. To those people I tell: I know your ache, and I promise it wont always feel this way. It took run, to travelling from that hungry day on the staircase, all dolled up and empty inside, to where I am now. It takes work every day, sometimes every hour, and its never a straight line. I appear all fixed up nice now, I suppose. I feel fierce, and I mourn the years I lost.
So the photo stays. As reminder of where I used to be, as a route to mark how far Ive come. And as a reminder of the gap between truth and pretty fictions.