I Accepted My True Self Long Before I Accepted The Case It Comes In
As a teenager, I used to wish that I was anorexic. Hoping for thinness was too far-fetched, even as a fantasy—there was too much work involved with exercise and eating less food. Wishing I was anorexic meant I could dream about another version of myself where I’d gained the control to starve myself. Since I’d spent so many years eating too much all the time, anorexia seemed like swapping out one form of physical abuse for another, but it might be worth the pain if it meant I’d become skinny in the process.
I gave up on skinny anorexic daydreams years ago, but I still don’t like my body very much. When my jeans were a 26, I thought I’d kill to be a size 16. When I fit into a size 16, I longed to wear jeans in a single digit. When I dropped down to a size 8, I knew fitting into a size 6 wouldn’t be good enough, either. I understood, albeit briefly, that my size wasn’t my problem. I started to understand that becoming smaller wouldn’t fix whatever was that matter with me, but I still continue to try and prove that theory wrong.
Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is the most powerful piece of writing I’ve ever connected with in relation to the warped perception of my body and my disturbing obsession with what I eat. In Starvation Mode Elissa Washuta documents her struggle for control over her body and her mind while establishing rules she creates around the food she consumes compulsively. Her writing has always made me feel both exposed and less alone, so I was excited to get to know her better over email as we conducted the following interview.
RULE 1. DON’T EAT THE CAT
When I was forming my personhood, my parents were sliding from their West Coast hippiedom into the realities of late-eighties New Jersey parenthood, which I assume was well-stocked with books warning Mom and dad about all the ways they might undo my creation.
LG: I never start an interview with a generic “tell me about how you grew up” kind of question. But after I read these sentences in Rule #1 I put a bracket in the margin with my pen, carved a large asterisk next to the bracket, and then scribbled “NJ” and underlined it a few times. I was born and raised in New Jersey, and I loved growing up here. Every summer was spent down the shore, weekends were spent driving with my family into Brooklyn to see my grandma in Williamsburg, which was basically a ghost town in the 80’s compared to what it is now, or even what it was 15 years ago. As I got older and went to college at the University of Dayton in Ohio, I realized quickly that I didn’t relate to the Midwestern kids I was meeting in my freshman class, so I stopped trying to. I’ve travelled to different parts of the U.S. and enjoyed myself, but there’s something about being raised in the Tri-State area that feels like you’re living in the center of the universe. At least that’s how it was for me, and still is, since I still live in Northern New Jersey (with tremendous pride!) Can you share with me your experiences with growing up in New Jersey? Does Jersey feel like a sort of identity to you in any way?
EW: University of Dayton! I was in Dayton a few months ago—I live down the road in Columbus now. I agree, there’s something different about the Midwest, even though the land is so similar to North Jersey in some ways. At least, it’s a lot more like the land of my upbringing than Seattle, where I lived for ten years before relocating to Ohio. It wasn’t until I had moved from Jersey to Maryland for college and then to Seattle for grad school and then stuck around there for a couple of years that I began to suspect that New Jersey was not the center of the universe. I began to hear accents in the voices of the people around me when I went back to Jersey, and then started to hear one emerging in my own voice. Had it always been there?
When I was growing up, New Jersey was the only place in the world. I went other places, for sure, but they were in my periphery and seemed to be a little weird in comparison. To quote the Log Lady, “I grew up in the woods. I understand many things because of the woods. Trees standing together, growing alongside one another, providing so much.” The North Jersey Highlands / Ridge and Valley Region is not the Jersey that comes to mind for most people from elsewhere: it’s wooded and farmed and it’s not densely populated and it’s haunted by malingering spirits. I grew up very close to Shades of Death Road, and its name did not strike me as being unusual. It’s really only in the past few years that I’ve really noticed the details that made the place: the weird industrial plant across the farmland that looks straight out of The Simpsons, the ubiquitous diners with their characteristic placemats and chrome, the unrivaled array of coffee options at a QuickChek.
I think Jersey shaped me in ways I’ve yet to understand. I’m thinking about those t-shirts that say, New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive. I never had one, but I think growing up there did imbue me with a kind of toughness and bluntness that’s not remarkable but is particular to the place.
LG: The first passage I underlined in Starvation Mode was a few paragraphs in. You write “I’ve spent years ceaselessly and desperately hungry.” I sought treatment for my eating disorder in late 2010, and for the first time in my life I became “the good eater” I could have never been when I was suffering with Binge Eating Disorder. I remember the first morning waking up to my stomach growling. That was when I realized I hadn’t had an empty stomach in at least ten years. In that decade I never felt actual hunger, I would begin eating as soon as the physical pain from overeating subsided. I was always full. After seeking treatment and making healthier choices for my body and eating only three times a day with the occasional snack, the constant hunger I felt in between meals was physically uncomfortable and also a constant reminder that even when I was being “good” I was still obsessed with wanting food. Presently I try to use the words “good” or “bad” in terms of my eating, but it is still so much work. I wondered if you ever catch yourself continuing to use patterns of eating that feel like a setback, either physically or emotionally.
EW: My appetite has been very strange for months now: I went from insatiable hunger in the spring to low appetite that’s been with me through the summer. I sometimes can’t eat without gagging. It’s different, though, from my old patterns, because I’m not trying to restrict, and I’m not thinking about food all the time. It’s the opposite. I think about food so little that hunger hits me like a punch in the gut, and I’ll realize it’s two p.m. and my stomach has had nothing in it but coffee all day, and I have to drop everything to eat. I know this is unhealthy. Everyone in my life tells me this is unhealthy. But in a way it feels like an opportunity to teach myself how to eat for the first time, with no self-punishing or guilt getting in the way. I’ve been cooking a lot, paying attention to what I like and dislike and how long a meal will fuel me.
RULE 12. FOOD IS LOVE. EAT WHAT YOU LIKE AND WHAT YOUR BOYFRIEND LIKES AND WHAT YOU LIKE TOGETHER.
Near the end of high school, I acquired a boyfriend. To Kyle, food was love glue.
LG: I am aware that whenever I am in a relationship I shape the way I eat around my partner to their style of eating. Most boyfriends I’ve ever had have loved food, and I can remember the excitement in their voices at the prospect of getting a late night snack at a diner after a night of drinking or going out for a big pancake breakfast on weekends. I almost never talk about food or all the junk I wanted to indulge in, I keep all my obsessions and cravings a secret. Being with a man who’d complain about how ‘bad’ they were being in line at Dunkin’ Donuts was always so exciting, I would get to soothe their food fears while also indulging in half of the dozen donuts they bought— I got to be bad too, and accepted as well. In my experience there is always an inevitable weight gain in a relationship, and once the man is gone, undeniable self-blame follows. If I’d been thinner, better, prettier, he would have stayed. Can you talk a little more about the bond of eating with a partner, the love glue? Do you have any experience with that bond “turning on you” when the relationship ended?
EW: I’m reaching back into the graveyard of failed relationships in my memory. Let’s see—there was the guy whose bathroom in his miniature studio didn’t have a real door, and I didn’t yet know I had celiac, so every time we ate together, I got diarrhea, and I didn’t want that fact to carry across the open space above the door, so I tried not to eat when we were together. Then there was the boyfriend who urged me to go paleo—a very uncommon diet at the time—because he thought I was too fat. When I faltered, gave into my medication-induced cravings, and ate cupcakes or pizza, he got angry at me. (He was abusive.) Then the boyfriend I used to get high and eat tons of food with. Then one who thought I was too skinny, made up plates of junk food for me, and watched me eat when I didn’t want to.
There’s something about caring and not caring and responsibility and lack of it that comes with food choices for me, and I think in these relationships, our caring too much or caring not much at all about the relationship or about each other came through in the way we ate together. It occurs to me now that it’s almost always my eating, not theirs, which has been the issue: they wanted to change me, and sometimes they would express that as an explicit desire to change the size or fitness of my body. Honestly, it would have been better for all involved if they were able to admit the truth: that they didn’t like my ambition, my autonomy, my anxiety, my oddness, my soft heart, my most authentic self. It would have fucked me up less to hear that, because I accept my true self a little better than I accept the case it comes in.
I’m in a long-distance relationship now, so I don’t often eat with my boyfriend, but he knows all about my food stuff and is truly supportive. Eating doesn’t feel weighted or charged. I am really trying to be a good eater, in large part because I can’t sleep if I don’t eat enough. Eating around him is natural, neither a performance nor something to hide—it’s just what it’s supposed to be, a self-sustaining action. It takes a lot of trust to be able to eat in front of someone like that, for me.
RULE 34: DRINK WITH FRIENDS; EAT ALONE.
What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.
LG: What have you used to fill the existential holes inside of you? I’ll go first: money, clothes, attention on and offline, fantasy, sex, unavailable men, vacations I can’t afford.
EW: I’ve tried all sorts of things. Money, clothes, attention on and offline, daydreaming about possible but unlikely futures, unavailable men, available men, La Croix, accumulating unread books, sugar, astrology, tarot, professional accomplishments, a house, Twitter, WebMD, preparing but not actively using a bullet journal, herbal supplements, weightlifting, alcohol, sex, pills, weed, writing. There are probably a thousand more things I’ve tried shoving into the hole. Filling the hole is basically the only way I occupy myself.
LG: Author Melissa Broder started a podcast called Eating Alone In My Car, have you heard it? It’s creepy and insightful and weird. I feel so connected to the content, and her, every time she posts an episode. I wondered what it’s like being a writer and creating bonds and friendships in the writing community. Do you find that other women you meet have the same issues you do when it comes to consumption, or the body?
EW: I haven’t heard it but I love Broder’s writing. Last Sext kills me anew every time. I love establishing friendships with writers: I am always looking for (possibly extreme) depth in my relationships, and having written about the depths helps close gaps between people, I think. I crave intimacy. I have a lot of friends who are obsessively consumptive in ways similar to me, so I have a good number of friends who are also recovering/recovered from addictions and figure out that inner motor through writing.
LG: Toward the end of Starvation Mode you write about the sickening satisfaction that thinness and desirability feels like mixed together. “…I dieted because I learned early that the more of my soft parts I could shave off, the closer I would be to becoming irresistibly attractive to anyone.” I’ve had moments in the recovery of my eating disorder where I questioned what exactly made me “recovered”— was the significant weight loss what made me recovering, was it keeping that weight off? I swapped out bingeing for needing validation from men, needing to be desired by everyone. That’s what fed the parts of me that caused me to overeat every day when the overeating stopped. Can you describe your experience with the confidence of thinness, or perceived confidence?
EW: Since writing Starvation Mode, I’ve begun to understand more about that desire I’ve had to change my body. I remember learning about the hip-to-waist ratio as a teenager and realizing my body was not right: my hips are too narrow, my belly too big, my butt too flat. My ass is so bony it hurts to sit, but I don’t care about pain. I care about feeling hot. I am trying to be clear with myself about what I want, and what I want is to look at my body in the mirror and not feel dread. This self-loathing got stuck into me early, and it’s not realistic to believe I can wish it away by believing my body is a beautiful body.
For a long time now, I’ve been having this fight within myself: I want my body to be different, but I feel like it’s wrong to want that. I’m supposed to be positive about my body. But I don’t feel positively about my thoughts or my feelings, and I work all the time on changing them, so why not try to sculpt my container? After all, I am an essayist whose primary interest is in structure. Manipulating the structure of my body gives me the same pleasure as getting the pieces of an essay locked into place. I like gains. I think I’m going to fail at changing my body very much, because I think Native women in my family are just shaped this way, and to try to change it feels like a betrayal in some ways, but I’m trying not to overthink it and just squat.
I think I’m battling desires that are at odds with each other: to be seen and to disappear. I want to shape my body into something I don’t feel ashamed of. But, in the part of myself that is still sick and sad, I want to be actively disappearing. I am always making myself take up less space, physically, because I have so much trouble reeling personality back. At times I hate that I am so much: so talkative, so assertive, so full of desire and need. I have tried to minimize those things about myself. It doesn’t work, so I have tried to squeeze myself into a small space or burn off as much of myself as I can.
LG: You write “I planned to shape this story into a redemptive narrative. I wanted to win in the end. My eating issues would be kicked, my body image extremely positive, my markers of health soaring. I would like myself on the inside because that’s what counts.” I had the same exact experience whenever I first attempted to write about my body, or my food obsessions. I was looking for the part of me in my writing that was finally okay, that had finally healed, but that acceptance didn’t exist. I recognize I have made a lot of progress in the last eight years , but acceptance for me isn’t about needing to eradicate my eating disorder, acceptance is learning to live with it as peacefully as possible one day at a time— sometimes one meal at a time. Can you tell me a little about your writing and if it’s helped guide that process to your own acceptance?
EW: You know, this didn’t occur to me until just now, but it’s possible that writing Starvation Mode helped me to get sober. I wrote it when I was at the end of my drinking, so I don’t remember much about the writing process, except that I wrote sober for a half hour daily in the mornings—not my usual routine, but I needed to submit the manuscript to my editor—and wrote while drinking hard cider at night. It was out of mason jars so it didn’t seem like a problem. I finished the draft three months before I quit alcohol, weed, and pills. I didn’t quit because of some catastrophe—I just realized I was sick and I was done, and it’s possible I wouldn’t have realized that without writing about that deep hunger that drove me to eat and starve and fuck and drink. I write to figure out my life, and at that time, I could not figure out how to stop feeding that false stomach that kept asking for everything.
I keep wanting to say that I accept my body, but I’m going to be honest: I do not. I keep trying to deny that, but I’ve been trying to feel positively about my body for twenty years and it’s never worked. I’m trying something new now, trying to believe that I can want to change my body without punishing it. After all, it is a somewhat sick body, and it’s okay to want something different for it. Right now, I’m trying to listen hard to what I want for and from my body, even if it was put there by a patriarchy that keeps changing its mandates about the best shape for a woman, even if it’s not the height of self-love—I am going to allow myself to change on my own terms, because that will at least be better than self-hating inaction or self-hating reflexive strain. Now, nobody in my life is telling me that I should be different, and yet I want to be different, so it’s myself I need to negotiate with, and I owe it to myself to be careful and kind.
LG: Last question. In the beginning of Starvation Mode you write, “I would like to return to a time before it got so hard to eat but eating has always been the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.” Your use of the word ‘always’ struck a deep vibration in me. I think I was in second grade when I wished I could have my taste buds surgically removed so I wouldn’t have to savor food anymore, so I could stop agonizing over always wanting more. I’m 39 now. I have days where I am miserably obsessed with trying to manage what I eat, and other days where I feel fine and hours pass where I don’t think about food or my appetite or my body. I have to ask you, do you think these feelings will ever go away?
EW: Not for me, I don’t think. Sometimes I am hyper-aware of my body of physical sensations. This is probably because of my PTSD hypervigilance. Other times I am completely checked out of it, as though I’m astral projecting into a garbage can, and I come back into my body and realize I’ve been in bed for a half hour with my arm completely asleep as it holds the phone over my face. Sometimes I need to escape sensation.
Because I can’t seem to properly fuel myself without Ensure and the ilk, I keep being hopeful that I’ll find the way of eating that works for me. It’s strange to feel, after so many years of cravings, that my body doesn’t want food. My body wants more. When I figure out what my body really wants, what then? I’m not sure I want to know.