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My Body, My Shame: Telling My Daughters About My Eating Disorder

My husband tells my daughters about my adolescent eating disorder on a random Wednesday as I’m scooping stir-fry over rice. This halts my spoon mid-air. Estelle has said she’s not hungry, thought she just finished two hours of ballet on pointe and only ate a small bowl of milk-soggy cereal before that. 

“Your mother dieted so hard when she was your age that she stopped having periods for two years,” Pete says. 

The early autumn breeze kicks open the curtains, then they collapse into limpness. 

I glance at my husband, hoping to catch his eye. I never said you could tell them, I want to say. That was never yours to tell, I imagine saying later, when it’s just the two of us—but already it feels too late. 

“You’ve got to eat,” I say. “If you think you need to stay thin to dance, the dancing will go away. That’s a promise.” 

Estelle’s mouth opens in silent protest, but her brows furrow. I feel righteous, despite all that has changed in the past three months: the new junior high with its electives, Estelle’s backpack a granite of books, the cafeteria lunch—mozzarella sticks! Pasta bar! And she’s only a few inches shy of my own 5’8. I vibrate under the bright kitchen lights, electrified by the words I’ve spoken. The truth is I’m fed up with the weekend dance rehearsals and nightly practices. This is our first dinner together in days. I keep my face firm, place a generous bowl in front of her.

I feel sticky, as if his words had coated me in syrup. I’ve never told them how as a seventh grader, the same age Estelle and her twin sister are now, I restricted my calories to the very minimum, eating a slice of dry toast for breakfast, a salad blanketed with lunchmeat at lunch, a few bites from a mealy apple that I thunked in the classroom trashcan. I feel exposed, as if they’ve all just been transported to my childhood bedroom with its reversible striped comforter from Venture and glossy homage to Rob Lowe and Rick Schroeder. They are there to witness what I do each day after school, sometimes twice a day. 

Pete has put them there. 

There’s the white roll top desk where I do my homework, a canister of pencils with a tiny blue square of paper with equations I’m trying to memorize. On the other side of the room is a vanity with a mirror and stool where I keep my hairbrush and the few cosmetics I own.

I never asked for the vanity, but received it for my 13th birthday. Anytime I sat at the vanity I didn’t know what to do except look at myself, which reminded me of “Girl at Mirror,” the Norman Rockwell painting of a girl with fisted hands on either side of her chin, a folded-over magazine with a closeup of a movie star in her lap. The girl was not much older than me and sat in her slip, wearing the same expression I felt sitting before the vanity: one of disdain and frustration—unsure who or what I saw, or worse, worried that who others saw was vastly different from how I hoped they might perceive me. 

I felt wholly inadequate at 13 and dieting became an easy way for me to execute some control.

Only it didn’t end with food. Each day after school I’d lock the door to my room, line up my ankles and examine the tops of my thighs to make sure they did not touch. Then I’d sprawl on the floor and do leg lifts and tummy crunches. 

I see the adolescent me stretched out on the rug and my face warms. Now, at age 48, as I sit at the dinner table, stomach puffing over the waistband of my old jeans, I’m certain that’s who my family sees. 

“It’s true,” I say. “I dieted so much that my periods stopped, and my hair thinned. Now I keep getting stress fractures. Do you want to ask me about it?”

But what is it. Exactly what did Pete just share? Anorexia? I was never hospitalized. My parents never threatened me at mealtimes because they never knew. I ate a normal dinner, just less, and once I realized I’d never have breasts until I gained weight, I reversed course, packing on pounds. I made brownies from a box, Rice Krispies treats, peach cobbler with canned fruit from the pantry. 

When they don’t say anything, I ask my daughters again. “Do you have any questions?”

“No?” says Estelle, hesitation in her voice as she tilts her face to the side. 

My husband inquires about today’s math test. Our chopsticks twitch as we pick up tofu I’ve chopped and baked, only it tastes empty, like we’re all eating seasoned air. 

I’ve used my body to carry my daughters and feed them, must I also disclose all of my adolescent shame?

Will I someday have to recount how my first date ended with a boy parking five houses down from our own and then proceeding to paw me like a puppy? Or the time my summer swim coach pulled me into the water after our last meet of the summer and pressed himself against me?  I wanted to impress others, men in particular, and had placed their needs and wants before my own. Dieting had been a way for me to try and meet their unspoken expectations. 

I look at Estelle again. She is a rule follower, leans on the anxious side, and is quick to cry. At the height of the pandemic, I’d find her holed up in her room with the blinds drawn, crying. The tears would last for hours. I’d touch her back. “Can you tell me what’s wrong? I can’t help you unless I know.” 

After what seemed like days, she spoke. “I just don’t like myself.” 

How to let her know I had sometimes felt this way at 12 and 22 and now, in my late 40s?

“Just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Estelle blinked and something rippled through me. It was what I wish I had been told. Estelle hugged me hard and fast. It felt powerful all the same. 

Maybe in order for her to understand her own feelings, she needs to see me grappling with things that even now confuse and embarrass me.

Later, when Pete and I are cleaning up and the girls are showering, I speak up. “I never told that to the girls. About my eating.” The words sound tiny and compact, and I like how contained they feel in my mouth.

“You can’t assume that your issues are going to become theirs,” he says. “Did you see Estelle’s face? She really loves dance. Maybe she just wasn’t hungry.”

Did I see her face, really? I had been focused on my adolescent self. But it was true: when I threatened to put an end to ballet, her bright face turned shadowy.  

That night Estelle and her sister pile ice cream into bowls and add a deluge of chocolate syrup, laughing as they drizzle squiggles on their fingers and lick it away. Pete and I stand together and watch. Their appetites feed me, dare me to continue telling my truths. 

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which was named one of  “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). She founded the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she offers classes on the art and craft of writing. 

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