Thursday 3 January 2019

For women, the sin of indulgence is the worst sin imaginable

The story of Eve and the story of my eating disorder are the same story, writes Kristen Zory King in Electric Lit. Raed on: 

I. Story & Sin

For eight years, I have been working on a story about the original sin.

It goes like this: Eve sits alone in a diner at the edge of town. Fluorescent lights glow off linoleum. The air is pale, sick. The narrator, omnipresent as the dense smell of the fryer, watches Eve, believes her grotesque. Eve’s face is ruddy and bloated. Her stomach spills over the tight waist of her jeans, her ankles swell and roll from the elastic top of her socks. There’s a smear of mashed potato on her shirt, something pink and dry crusted to the side of her mouth.

Her table is full of half eaten goods. Dozens of dishes sit before her, small bites taken out of each of them: meatloaf glazed with gravy, doughy crust on a chicken pot pie, a high stack of pancakes, eggs, now cold and stiff, fries smothered in thick, sweet ketchup. Despite this, she is unsatisfied.

This is not a woman we are meant to pity. She has everything she could want before her. And yet.

Here is where things fall apart. Enter the waitress, all yellowed nails, greased hair, dark stains on her teeth. She knows what this woman wants, knows the round taste of desire, the sweetness, relief in giving in. Over and over her quick pink tongue whispers temptation — cinnamon swirls, cream piled high on flakey crust, and, of course, tart, soft, delicious apples nestled in between it all.

This story has taken many forms. Sometimes I tell it as poem found in the words from a large blue Bible on my bookshelf. Sometimes it is a lyric, the pages stained thick and sticky with melodrama. It has been hurtful, helpful, biting, nonsensical. Sometimes what I write is good. Mostly it is bad. No matter what form it has taken, it has never quite worked.

Perhaps this — my need to tell this story, my inability to tell it — is because I started the story at age 19 and try as I might, I just can’t seem to make it less obvious. Woman as rib: clean, bare, sharp. Hunger as sin. The fat, clear juice of an apple rolling down the chin: lustful, obscene.

Woman as rib: clean, bare, sharp. Hunger as sin. The fat, clear juice of an apple rolling down the chin: lustful, obscene.

II. A Woman Takes A Bite
I stopped looking in mirrors at age 14. I avoided my reflection at all costs — not even a glance in a department store window, a flash into a bathroom mirror — knowing that each peek, no matter how brief, would result in a quick intake of breath, disgust. A conscious act of self preservation. It lasted a year.

I went on my first diet at age 8, after my cousins laughed at how tight my shirt fit across my belly, the “little buds” on my chest that refused to blossom. That summer marked a clear line from before to after, the awareness of my body sudden. I was growing quickly, horrified at the ways I was expanding, my flesh swelling around my bones. Although I did not yet fully understand the largesse of guilt, I was warm with shame each time my tiny stomach swelled with after-dinner pie from my grandmother or sweets from the corner store.

I went on another diet at 11, this time alongside my mother. The round curve of my adolescent belly was clear through my ballet leotard; I cried when the scale went from two digits to three. Sweat poured from my hairline down to my chin, from my armpits down the sides of my body, the humid July air made all the more unbearable by the heavy sweatshirt I wore to hide my body at all times.

Unconsciously, food became rapture, repulsion, something I thought of always, with agony and intense desire.

At age 17, I stopped eating altogether, save for one apple (Pink Lady, sweet, whole), one pepper (bell, yellow, sliced), and one nutrition bar (peppermint chocolate, dry) per day. Some days, after school I would break, coming back to myself only when my stomach was distended, my fingers, hands, wrists covered in crumbs from hours of binging. Despite my momentary lapses, this was the age that I was thinnest. The age I still hunger for while teetering on the periphery of recovery.

This trajectory is predictable to the point of boredom, known well by many. It goes on and on, journals full of calorie counting and loathing, years full of better, then worse, whatever “better” and “worse” mean. Even now it exists in my inability to walk into a room without comparing my own body to those around me. The tragedy is in the details (my teeth grew soft from acidic bile! I had a brief spell of religious fervor, hoping that perhaps through prayer, God would grant me a body tiny, delicate!). My disordered eating controlled every aspect of my life.

It comes as no surprise, then, to learn of my obsession with the creation story. A woman takes a bite and the whole world falls.

III. Two Facts and an Opinion
1. According to Mental Health America, roughly 20 million women and 10 million men currently suffer from eating disorders in the United States. This includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The prevalence of eating disorders “is similar among Non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians.” Eating disorders take many forms, transcend borders. They exist not, as is commonly believed, in a privileged, white, or even exclusively female world, but rather in collective agony for people of all backgrounds.

2. In 2015, the census reported the percentage of Christians in the United States at 75%. While that number is down from previous years, America still boasts the largest Christian population in the world. While certainly not all of these self-identified believers put faith fully in the story of creation, or any sort of God at all, they have no doubt been taught, at one point of another, about the fall of man, what came before, the consequence in after.

It is old and yet ever-present, this despair. Tertullian, often referred to as the “founder of Western Theology,” once declared to the women in his audience:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.
I would venture to say that the numbers of reported eating disorders are a low estimate, made up of the lucky few who are able to seek help. How could they not be? We are surrounded by conceptions of womanhood directly perpetuated by this story. It’s on the periphery of comical, overt, obvious. But whether we are a product of our culture or our culture is a product of us, it is clear that the question of the female body, of what to do with female desire, is all-consuming.

Whether we are a product of our culture or our culture is a product of us, it is clear that the question of the female body, of what to do with female desire, is all-consuming.
One woman in my family bragged often of how, on the day of her wedding, she had a 20 inch waist. Another swung between a strict daytime diet of chalky protein shakes and evenings of chips covered in melted cheese. A girl in my grade would wake up at 4:00am to run for miles and miles every day and eat nothing all day but Diet Coke, her teeth quickly stained yellow. Another would quickly drink hot cups of coffee followed by cold water to tighten her belly as though it were full.

None of these women were ever diagnosed with an eating disorder although their eating was disordered. I myself was not diagnosed officially until age 25, more than fifteen years after I had begun to obsess over my body. When I told a friend, at age 15, that I was worried about how much I was binging and purging, she answered “Kris, we all do that.”

IV. Hollow, Hallowed
Once, I was on a diet that consisted almost exclusively of raw vegetables. An ambitious adolescent, I packed my days with after-school dance lessons, rehearsals for drama club, and a part-time job as a secretary at my ballet studio. So much of my life, of my eating disorder, looked on the outside like discipline. And in between my busy and demanding schedule it was easy to hide what I was — or rather, all that I wasn’t — eating.

On this particular diet, there was no bread allowed, no dessert, no dairy, rarely any fruit or sugar. I spent weekend mornings baking cookie after cake after muffin after pie. I didn’t eat any of it, not even the thick and creamy batter from the bottom of the bowls. Instead I would force my younger brother to eat the many loaves of banana bread, the fruit tarts, the snickerdoodles, sick with envy at his ability as a young boy to eat whatever he wanted, full on pride at my own restraint, and hollow — hallowed — hungry.

During this period, I remember reading a “helpful” trick on a “pro-ana/pro-mia” online forum — yes, you are eating a salad, some celery, a black cup of coffee (perhaps half full of vodka), but close your eyes. Pretend it is something you truly desire. Something sinful, forbidden. Feel all the ways it sits on your tongue, smell its soft sweetness as it enters your mouth, slides slowly down your throat.

And so I would. As I snapped carrot stick after carrot stick between my softened teeth, I would think instead of a banana split. I imagined the thick, creamy puddles each flavor would make as they melted together in an August heat. I fantasized about the hot fudge, heavy in the way it caressed each sugary mound. It was better than an orgasm, an early form of masturbation — the plumpness of the cherry, the whipped cream so light it would cloud the roof of my mouth, the tender grit of each chopped nut between my teeth.

Of course, this meal — chosen because it practically took more calories to chew than it conferred — tasted nothing like the sundae I imagined. I ate furiously, willing each bite to be what I wanted, chugged water until my stomach hurt, until I sobbed with the feeling of fullness, with the fact that not a single baby carrot, a single sip of water, satisfied my craving.

And in truth, no matter how good my imagination, nothing was as wonderful as the one thing I desired. I could have tasted a hundred things, let them all wallow in my mouth as I closed my eyes and pretended and nothing would have satisfied. Nothing would have tasted as sweet.

V. Bones
In the story, Eve looks over the bounty at her table and then shyly up at the waitress. She is ashamed of her own desire but understands she will not be able to taste anything she brings to her lips until she gives in. She is tired of fighting. Exhausting from rationalizing. It’s a fucking apple. It shouldn’t be this hard.

The waitress raises her pen to her pad — “All finished here, dear? Can I suggest some homemade pie a la mode for dessert? It’s just out of this world.”

And this is where I stop.

No matter how many iterations this story has taken, I am never able to continue past this point. I do not want Eve to be weak. I do not know what weak means. As writer, I could take control of this narrative. Give the woman what she wants, no matter what hell there is to pay. I could invert it, change the ending, let Eve taste the forbidden without consequence. Allow room for lust without fear of punishment.

No matter how many iterations this story has taken, I am never able to continue past this point. I do not want Eve to be weak. I do not know what weak means.
But I don’t, because that’s not the point. That’s not the world I live in, the reality I’ve been allowed. That’s not the story I’ve been told.

I am lucky. I have been given the ability to change my own fate (my own story, my own fall), and the tools to do so. I have a job that provides healthcare which allows for medication, weekly therapy sessions. I have a group of supportive friends who understand and give room for my many anxieties. I have a partner who, when we were first dating and I was unable to eat in front of him, would close his eyes and hold my hand while I tasted my meal. I have access to education that has taught me about my illness but also, importantly, so, so much about body positivity. I have a voice with which I can say: yeah, this whole apple-as-sin thing? Maybe I’m being too literal here, but that feels fucked up to me.

But many days there is only so much I can fight, only so much I am able to do, for myself and for other women, for the shame, constant and hot in our stomachs, for the consequences we are forced to bear for this hunger.

Over and over we are told the story of the fall — the banishment from heaven on earth because of one raw moment of wonder. One moment of lust. One moment of taking.

But if we are nothing but bone — a rib, made from man, made from earth, dirt, worms — then we are malleable. We have the ability to sharpen and indeed we are being sharpened day by day, whittled to a point by the rough edges that surround us. Perhaps one day, I will finish my story, give Eve what she desires, fearless of the consequence. Perhaps one day, I too, will be whittled. So sharp, I can cut off a piece of that god damn apple myself.

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