Making Ourselves Sick

Anna B. Moore

The spring I turned fourteen, I decided to become bulimic. I switched on my nine-inch black and white television to General Hospital, sat on my bed, and ate twenty-four Keebler Fudge Stripes—the entire package. It was 1984, and Frisco Jones was singing “All I Need” to his love Tanya while I sipped water between bites. I had lots of questions. Would the food come up more easily if I drank a whole glass of water at once instead? Was drinking water a good idea at all? And what would happen when I stuck my finger down my throat? How difficult would this be? How long would it take? My index finger seemed like the right choice, but I realized once I got started that one finger did not generate enough gag power. To force partially digested food from the stomach through the lower esophageal sphincter and then back up the esophagus—a distance of about ten inches—you have to gag really, really hard. Especially if you have no experience making yourself vomit. This act of gravitational reversal is more arduous than people who have never made themselves vomit might realize. It is literally gut-wrenching. It is disgusting. It is the most unnatural act of self-hatred I can think of, and the fact that so many millions of girls and women in our country despise themselves enough to see this gruesome process through should make us all sick.

That first purge did not go well. To the jingles of Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s from my bedroom, I saw ancient stains in the toilet bowl of our rental duplex, even though we lived in a middle-class area of Iowa City. I gagged for nearly an hour—newly aware of rust that striped the porcelain from under the rim down to the waterline—but purged only a few slimed blobs of Fudge Stripes. My sinuses filled with a blend of vomit and gastric juice, because when food churns up from your stomach, acids leak through. They dripped from my nostrils and burned the tissues in my nose. (Drinking so much water had not been a good idea after all. Lesson learned.) To reach my fingers far back enough into my throat, I had to cram nearly my entire hand into my mouth. My incisors scraped the skin beneath my knuckles. And I hadn’t even rid myself of all I had consumed. I was disappointed but undeterred: being a good bulimic would just take patience and practice—two virtues I knew I could muster, having recently completed Diet Center’s Weight Loss plan.

Over a two month period, I had taken their supplements and eaten all the packaged food they required me to buy. One item was a packet of salad dressing they called “Italian” that I squished onto an iceberg lettuce salad and ate as quickly as possible, cringing at every bite from that sharp, artificial tang. To get that mandatory salad over with, I ate it for breakfast and rewarded myself with my quarter of a cantaloupe. I drank most of my eight glasses of water per day from a plastic cup in my junior high locker that I filled from the water fountain. A large Red Delicious apple every afternoon. 4 ounces of chicken. 4 ounces of tuna fish. Four ounces of cheese. In two months, I went from one hundred forty pounds to one hundred twenty-five. I wore white shorts with purple pin stripes and a lavender shirt, tucked in, a slim purple belt buckled around my waist to show it off.

I also celebrated my weight loss with my mother. We ordered for delivery a pizza from Felix and Oscar’s—a thick, crunchy deep-pan pepperoni pizza, with cheese in the middle and sauce on the top, the best in Iowa City at the time. And then I resumed my previous patterns of eating. Since my mother bought no junk food because it was all processed and expensive, and I lived only with her, I ate peanut butter and Saltines for snacks, bowls of Grape Nuts with raisins after dinner, four pieces of French toast with four pieces of bacon every Saturday morning. When I had money—and I often did, since I delivered papers or cleaned houses after school—I bought boxes of Little Debbie Snack Cakes, gazing at her pert nose and bright smile while I licked into the chocolate frosting between layers. Tiny cakes. I could hold one in my hand. I often ate with my friends, chips and dips and sodas and candy spread before us on the carpeted floors of their basements as we watched Whitney Houston or Belinda Carlisle on MTV or About Last Night for the third time. But when they stopped, when they had had enough Doritos dipped into warmed Philadelphia Cream Cheese or Betty Crocker Brownies or Hostess Fruit Pies or Totino’s Pizza Rolls, I kept eating. I persevered. None of them pigged out like I did. They all thought they were fat and some of them had tried to “make themselves,” as we all put it, but none of them could ever get the food to come up. Sometimes I couldn’t either, so I bought Jane Fonda’s Workout Tape and spent a few weeks doing the beginner side—thirty minutes—and then a few years doing the advanced side—sixty minutes. I also jogged. Sometimes my weight went up and sometimes it went down. I was never fat and I was never skinny. I carried it all inside myself.

When I got my driver’s license, I suddenly had access to food in ways I never imagined. I could drive to Aldi’s for a package of Oreos and a bag of Ruffles and eat them on my way to Wendy’s for a Big Classic. To keep from waking my mother in our duplex with its one bathroom, I vomited into a silver mixing bowl late at night and hid it, two-thirds full, under my bed until it was safe to flush. I also vomited in plastic Iowa Hawkeye cups and hid them around my room—behind a shelf of books, way back in my closet behind a pile of dirty clothes. Purging had become easier. It still didn’t always work, and sometimes after a binge I could not summon the will to go through with it. Wimp, I told myself as I lay in bed trying to sleep, my hand on my full, full belly. Fat fucking loser. I wished for a giant hypodermic needle I could inject into my gut to extract all the food. That would have been so much easier. I thought of all the women and girls I wanted to look like but didn’t. Jenny Gardner from All My Children. The woman walking up the beach on that Tab commercial. Girls at school whose hair feathered, who wore sweaters tucked into Lee Baggies and still looked skinny.

But most of the time I managed to puke it all out, sometimes in just three or four retches and other times in ten or twenty. In moments of what I defined as pure beauty, I could vomit just by bending over.

In just three years, bulimia (and I had not practiced the disorder nearly as hard as a lot of the girls I met in treatment) had consumed me, just as it had made me into a truly American young woman—obsessed with herself. My daily pledges of change were never to stop binging or purging but to stay on a goddamned diet, Anna, and lose weight. My mother had become aware of my disorder, tormented by that silver mixing bowl she found mysteriously washed and left to dry in the dish drain. (A cry for help—I had become the classic therapy cliché.) I was miserable and crazy and I knew it. In the middle of my senior year of high school, I called a treatment center myself and scheduled an assessment with the therapists. When I left I hoped to get better but I was mostly desperate for a way to finally, eternally, lose weight and stay skinny. After all, I would be in a hospital; my eating would be monitored. No more binging for me.

But when I arrived at the hospital in Des Moines, the therapists, technicians, and nurses informed me that eating disorders were not about food or weight. They were about something else. I believed them. It’s not as if I didn’t suffer from depression, debilitating insecurity, and abandonment issues as the result of divorced parents, custody hearings, a neglectful alcoholic father. So of course I understood the idea of something else. Teenage girls are not stupid, so all the other patients, about twenty girls and young women between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one, understood the gist of this philosophy as well. We ranged from emaciated to skinny to chunky to heavy, and all of us were white, Midwestern girls of varying levels of privilege, with family health insurance plans that covered a chunk of the thousands of dollars per day inpatient treatment had cost even in the 1980s. Some of us came from single-parent homes like mine; some of us had been victims of abuse or neglect; some of us came from loving families that were rife with invisible dysfunction. Eighteen of us were bulimic and therefore compulsive overeaters. Two of us were anorexic, a disease I had always longed for. But I loved food far too much to keep myself from eating any. The anorexics I met were obsessed with food because they hated it, not because they loved it. If anorexics purged at all, it was to rid themselves of a carton of yogurt.

During the course of our treatment, for a minimum of thirty days and a maximum of sixty, we were expected to figure out what that something else was—what made us hate our bodies and therefore ourselves? Since we weren’t practicing our eating disorders, the theory went, since we could no longer binge, purge, starve, or over-exercise and were removed from the cycles we had created, we could focus on what was actually wrong. We could see things more clearly.

To get us to this point of lucidity, the treatment program I attended was grounded in the Twelve Steps. We all introduced ourselves at nightly meetings as anorexic or bulimic or whatever else we were, and we discussed working the Steps a lot—especially that first one, since when you’re performing such obvious acts of self-loathing, it gets pretty hard to deny that your life is unmanageable. We also attended group therapy in the mornings and afternoons, and a large, intensive family therapy session once a week that consisted of four patients and their parents or siblings. My mother, since I lived only with her, attended the family sessions. Our counselor gave me only one assignment to share: a letter to my mother written in the voice of the child I had been when our “family,” if it had ever been one, was separating. It was a heartfelt letter that I took seriously. When I finished reading it to the entire group, just about everyone was crying, and my mother broke the protocol of no physical contact and walked to the middle of the circle, opening her arms. I felt I could do nothing more than get up and meet her there. We hugged, a centerpiece of perhaps the something else that all those girls were trying to articulate: loss, fear, forgiveness, and especially anger—anger that ripped you from the inside out, that willed you to eat and then force it from your body until you cried or begged your obsession for mercy. That session was moving and powerful and real, and it is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.

But it did not make treatment work. Neither did the one community session on body image, where we lay on life-sized pieces of paper and had a partner outline our bodies with a magic marker—we then taped our outlines to the wall and wrote, in the margins, how we felt about our hips, thighs, arms, waists, ankles. (Shockingly, none of us liked them very much.) Neither did the group sessions that helped me discuss the social insecurity that had overcome me in fifth grade and never abated. Neither did the individual sessions that helped me discuss the depression that had driven me to a suicidal gesture when I was sixteen.

All that therapy made self-reflection and scrutiny into habits of mind. But I believe now that the program and whatever theories were behind it pushed me in the wrong direction. What about all those external forces that drove me to consume? The hundreds of food advertisements I and so many other children had watched every day throughout our lives? The branding of candy coupled with endless images of thinness? And what about the ways in which these images—for all my friends, whether they had eating disorders or not—became distorted into standards of beauty?

When I called eating disorder treatment centers in California, where I live now, the representatives I spoke with did not seem to understand my questions. Most of the centers had at least one session a week on media and body image, but none of them offered patients any sessions about food. About how to eat, what to eat. About the empty ingredients in much of our food. About how to resist it all. We try to get food out of the picture, they said. So the patient can figure out what her triggers are. (Ads for Burger King Whoppers or Snickers Bars apparently don’t count.)

What about food marketing to children? I persisted. The power of advertising? Things like that?


Once I was released after 60 days of inpatient treatment, it took about a month until I was binging on even larger amounts of junk food and experimenting with laxatives (my roommate had been a laxative addict, so I used strategies I’d learned from her). When I left for college in 1988, I spent the first six months continuing the cycle, but bulimia was slowly easing its grip—probably because I was in a different environment, away from my mother, no longer with car or all the television I wanted. The small, residential college I attended required students to eat in the cafeteria, so food was no longer so accessible. I had new things to focus on.

But until I was twenty-nine years old, I binged and purged a few times a year with great intensity. Each episode left me more mentally ravaged than the one before, my sinuses throbbing with not only gastric juice but a deep sense of myself as weak, sick, and disordered. I had depression, borderline personality maybe—I had been through the doctors and the assessments and the medications. It did not occur to me to what extent my eating disorder might have been “triggered” by the way our media conglomerates showed food to me on the television—my childhood and adolescent companion that depicted men, women, men, children, and food all playing roles. But when I made myself puke in my apartment as a nearly thirty year-old woman, I thought of my problem as personal and psychological—not social and not political. I raised my face from the toilet bowl and saw my chin and cheeks and nose chunked with vomit and blamed solely myself.

And when I did, and when doctors and therapists and the rest of us omit food from conversations about eating disorders, we align ourselves with American individualism. We endorse a concept of resilience that is at its best unrealistic and at its worst delusional, morally corrupt, and devastating. When we ignore the disingenuous, profit-driven intentions that fuel our economy and target girls in particular, we set girls up to feel like shit about themselves. If they’re anything like I was, we set them up to feel like shit about themselves and the only bodies they will ever know for the duration of their lives. And nothing has changed, because back in 1987, ruthless food marketing to children and false, doctored representations of beauty were our norm. Twenty-five years later, this deviant norm is more prevalent than ever.

I eat fairly well now—real food, at least, not processed manufactured Plasticine fillings squished into sweetened sponges, or peanut butter with a fragrance created in a laboratory. But I am not okay. Thoughts of my body and its size still consume me, especially if I gain weight. I have a daughter and a son, and I make an effort to model for them the practices of healthy eating and positive self-viewing. I often fail at the latter and I hate myself for it. Perhaps being bulimic for nearly one-third of my life has left me as obsessed with my body as your average non-disordered American woman becomes by merely existing.

What would have happened if I had graduated from that treatment center with new knowledge? About the ways that advertisements manipulate children? About the placement of sugary, fake foods in grocery stores to make children desire and beg? About how standards of beauty are created who created them? I might have still binged and purged. But I would have had more awareness, at least, perhaps the beginnings of an arsenal through which I could view myself with more accuracy. And with anger. A precise and focused anger, turned outward. I might have even returned to school and home and work with not a sense of recovery as an attempt to make myself less insane, but recovery as a path toward justice for girls in this artifice we call popular culture.


Anna B Moore has published essays, creative nonfiction, and fiction in The American Scholar, Shenandoah, Brain Child, Native Peoples, and many other literary journals. She earned her MFA long, long ago; she is currently working on a novel.

%d bloggers like this: