Five, six, seven, eight: a count off before you begin a dance. This was screamed every time we’d start a dance at a theatre company I’d lost interest in two years ago. The wood floor was pulled up in some spots, the walls were a dirty color of salmon and the wide mirror in front of us was broken in three different places. The place looked greasy, the grungy mirror just clean enough to see myself. I’d look like a mess, reluctantly swinging my arms around with no motivation, and judging myself for how I looked in the mirror. I thought I was too fat. My mother told me, “Big legs don’t look good on stage.” I’d show up without anything to eat, exhausted from consuming nothing throughout the day. Simply looking at food would send my stomach into a reiterating gymnastic routine, rolling around and lurching at any given moment. I couldn’t think about anything except eating. My dances were sloppy and I would constantly get yelled at for not doing something right. My instructor would look ashamed. “You look like an elementary schooler! Keep your arms strong. Tighten your abdomen. Stop moving that way!” I couldn’t concentrate on dancing with my stomach churning and yelling at me.
Five, six, seven, eight times I count my stomach trembling in the middle of my first class, already struck with hunger and exhaustion. I lose count at eight. I sit in a concrete room, the four walls around me decorated with a thin coat of dirty paint and one poster that tells me to “Stand Out!” In the back of room, two desks. Me and a boy with neon shorts and a stupid face. He whips around quickly, eyeing me up and down. “You look so anorexic. Do you ever eat?” I was too wrapped up in my own head to focus on him or the teacher, a loud woman drenched in dollar store spray tan and sarcasm. In that moment, I knew I needed help.
Five, six, seven, eight seconds tick slowly on the clock hanging above the door, next to a poster talking about individuality. A small dog among big ones all in a line. What is it with teachers and motivational posters? A few minutes until lunch. Lunch. My personal hell, sitting on cold benches and talking to people who never really seemed interested. Talking to my mother that night about how I just wasn’t interested in eating. Everyone with neatly packed food, all in tiny plastic containers with chips, sandwiches, and fruit. Some people chose to eat the special meal of the day, a beige-colored glob with a side of crusty green beans. Occasionally a cookie would be thrown in, and everyone would lunge for it in desperation. I never moved. Every lunch I would go up to the line of children and buy a bottle of water. No calories, no fat. No fat on me. I drank water and ate breath mints throughout the day until I’d get home for dinner.
Five, six, seven, eight dollars flew out of my mother’s wallet at the drive-through window. Seconds before she hands me a drink and tells me that the meal was “too expensive.” “We need to stop eating out so much. It’s too much money, we need to save.” Usually after that she would talk about how irresponsible my father was, curse, slam on the brakes, curse at the car, and keep moving. I sat in the passenger side feeling guilty about the five dollar kid’s meal I just ordered. The small cheeseburger lay in the bag looking at me, taunting me with a feeling of shame. The wrapper was lazily crumpled over the sandwich, half of the bun exposed. Eight fries were in the carton they came in, the rest scattered on the bottom of the bag. Everything held in a small paper sack, designed with pictures of animals against a pastel background. This meal was meant for a seven year old. No one over the age of nine should eat practically nothing. Smaller portion — smaller price — less blame on me for being broke. I made everything out to be my fault, when really hardly any of it was.
Five and six were years of boisterous life. No worries, everyone accepts you! Life is good. No homework on the weekends, just because teachers wanted to be nice. Every elementary school teacher was the Oprah Winfrey in the world of homework passes. No one actually cared what they looked like. Pink neon shirts definitely go with khaki Bermuda shorts! Be an individual! Stand out! I’d look in the mirror, my hair jutting out from behind my ear wrapped in seven different color hair ties. My ears decorated with large earrings in the shape of different animals and my face cloaked in sun and a giant, crooked-tooth smile. I was proud of myself. I strutted through the hallways with my rolling owl book bag and couldn’t understand why the older kids would kick my bag away from me. Once someone told me I was a loser for having one, I developed a method to shove the bag under their feet and knock them over. They would pick themselves up off the ground, and I would start crying from laughter.
Seven and eight were years of absolute hell. The rolling book bag went in the garbage along with my rainbow hair ties and khakis. I became more conscious of my surroundings; people became more conscious of me. I started to go to teen stores with bright lights around an excessive amount of mirrors, while the songs on the radio talked about sex with bad electronic beats behind trashy lyrics. This was the real deal. The adult world! Shiny and expensive and promiscuous. Racks lined every inch of the shiny, tiled floor filled up with disorganized clothes and empty hangers. We’d walk up and down aisles while my mother complained about the trashy clothes they make now. “They just don’t make things like they used to!” She scoffed, picking up t-shirts and showing me each one. If I liked something, she’d hand me an extra small even if I really needed something bigger. Still, she would throw it at me. “It should fit you!” It never would. I’d have to go try it on in the dressing room with too-bright florescent lights that accentuated my body. I’d stand there looking. The shirt laying on the concrete floor in a heap next to a larger pile of self-hatred. I would stare at the rib bones, scratching at my skin to get out, and my eyes lined with dark circles from lack of sleep and malnourishment.
Five, six, seven, eight bathrooms I went into after eating out, contemplating the idea of sticking my fingers down my throat and throwing it back up. I stood in the stall of a movie theatre bathroom surrounded by ugly blue and yellow subway tiles. The stall was dark, a few lights in the bathroom dead from old age. I put my head against the dusty purple wall of the bathroom resting my eyes with too many germs and ghosts of people who’ve been there before. I heard my friend’s voice and looked out of the useless crack in the side of the door, watching her pale skin and dark hair as she confidently washed her hands and smoothed the wrinkles in her clothes. I walked out of the stall slowly as she eyed me with a worried look, “Are you alright?”
Five, six, seven, eight models I eyed on the television ad for a lingerie commercial, scantily clad women with small pieces of transparent fabric strategically placed around areas that would cause the company to get sued if they weren’t there. They danced around slapping each other with pillows and dancing on the beach covered in golden suntan and light mist. Each one of them had a tiny waists that magically morphed into giant hips when the panty shot came on. I watched, each girl laughing with a pained looking smile filled with bleached out teeth. Their hair a fake shade of blonde, the kind that feels wrong, that led up to obvious brown roots. I felt bad for them. They didn’t look real. Why do people want to look that way? Why did I want to look that way? I picked up the remote and changed the channel.
Five, six, seven, eight conversations I had with two friends who told me the same thing:
“Tell your mother.” It sounded easy enough. Approach her one day after work and explain the situation. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Each time I’d think about it I’d be filled with dread. Every time I would attempt to tell her, she would be tired or angry from working all day. Her eyes looked back into mine with an uninterested gaze. Eyes locked with tension. My mother and I would have an unplanned staring contest, like children battling for dominance. She could tell there was a problem, but she didn’t want to believe it. My mother’s attitude is confusing, I can never tell if she feels like helping me. I want to tell my mother, but I’m too afraid. She horrifies me in every sense and going to her with anything personal is like asking for someone to push me off of a boat in the middle of the ocean.
So I am left alone. The sky a pitch black with no stars. Water stretches around me, a vast expansion of dark sea. My body jolts up and down from waves. My arms are numb and my legs have lost all feeling. A shark surrounds me making five, six, seven, eight circles. The fin cuts at my body. Treading water is becoming difficult. No support, no food. I haven’t eaten in five, six, seven, eight weeks. My only option is to send out a cry for help, shoot the small flare gun in my cold hands into the night. But my hands are too shriveled up. If I shoot, the shark might attack me; if I don’t, I might miss on an opportunity to be saved. I take in five, six, seven, eight short breaths before a spark stands out against the black backdrop of the night sky.
“Dealing with a mental issue alone for so long has taken a toll on my emotional stability. By writing this personal memoir, my teacher, who is wonderful, has helped me tremendously by helping me be more comfortable speaking to my parents. This eating issue that I have makes me, me, as it has made my life so much worse, but I am doing my best to cope with it. This situation has caused many of my friendships to end, and it has had a serious impact on my health. Having this issue has made me think of life in many different ways and has made me a more mature, independent person.” –Hannah Burton, RBC Flaunt It Award Finalist