CW: Eating Disorder, Depression
There have been three Paytons I can remember — the first I've only seen in photos. I think she was still there in that one from the beach; hair is wild in much the way it was meant to be, and her overfull belly is displayed proudly between her bikini top and polka-dotted bottoms.
I don't remember her.
The second was born in third grade. I remember nothing before saltine crackers in my grandmother's closet, my secret snack before green beans.
In the mornings before school, I'd slowly assemble my achy pubescent body beneath sheathing tasked to hide my feminine secrets. Running late, as usual. I had just crammed into a scratchy training bra I normally refused to wear, but my budding body was proving too difficult to hide without sports bras and deodorant.
It was all too soon.
Just as I prepared to layer my camisole, t-shirt, and overworn pink puffy jacket that feebly clouded my figure, my father walked in, antsy. It was time to go, but he had spotted the training bra.
For the first time, I crumpled under a familiar feminine fluster. He had bulldozed in without notice, yet somehow I was the scandal. I don't remember what led me to the closet, but the feeling stuck around —my initial nostalgic acquaintance with suffering. I crumpled onto dirty clothes and wept, and didn't know why.
She was no longer a little girl; her father knew it too. Who had conveyed the crime of a woman so soon? Who had primed her with punishment?
I remember, too, of the Payton from the photos; she painted her room two shades of pink; one wasn't enough. She was forgotten there, in that closet on the floor.
From then forth, my mother instructed me in the female form. How to smell sweet and cross my legs; how to chisel — from an awkward unfinished body — something resembling an appropriate feminine figure. At 9, she gave me the bra and the "talk." The one we all get: not of birds or bees, but lessons on how to be pure and alive with new targets budding on your chest, delivered in terms meant to preserve innocence at an age when it was all suddenly lost.
She doled out a forgiving; "boys may want to look at your 'new boobies" — things they say when they mean "cover-up." She'll leave out the men for now; you won't find out about them till Thanksgiving when you change out of your new dress because your Uncle is coming over, and showing skin just wouldn't be "appropriate." This is also the explanation for why you can't go to the mall anymore, suddenly less safe than your untarnished friends who still maintained their sinless shape. It is the loss of freedom that comes when you grow up an indisputable girly girl with C-cups in the 5th grade, and a lingering desire to play with dolls and not be fondled like one. The moment you mount an unsound plank connecting girl and woman, above a sea of piranhas.
Payton, I remember, sunk in the deep.
That was around the first time my mother mentioned I was "getting chunky" and might consider joining her in daily P90X workouts. My plump face dropped, abruptly aware of the space taken up by my smile, my hair, the backs of legs— my stomach suddenly too big for the backseat.
She said I shouldn't be upset; she had also started to work out around this time. And recess could not be expected to produce progress.
It is a punishingly familiar tale; mothers taught to hate themselves, daughters taught the same— a tumbling hierarchy of feminine fatalism reinforced and amplified through generations; confining us to bodies so small we dare not take up space. It's all so decidedly unoriginal.
My grandma (on my father’s side) used to warn my mother against her repetition of the cycle. "I swear to God if you give these girls an eating disorder, I'll kill you," she would say before I was old enough to make sense of her threat. My Godparents used to sneak my sister and me ice cream after taking notice of our regimented diets. I can't help but resent the subtlety of their predictions as if it's something they all knew was coming and no one was prepared to stop. I try to let go of this anger over time — I try not to calculate the years lost.
It boiled down to a line in my stomach — a crease likely due to poor posture — to me a dysmorphic sign of my enormity. Every pair of pants were selected to cover my unsightly gash while allowing me to wear cropped tops maintaining the illusion of a slim body. I hopped eagerly onto the "Mom Jeans" trend, the perfect disguise for the ugliness that lay beneath.
When I left my international elementary school, a partial oasis of diversity, I became aware of the capacity for filth within my blackness. At a pool party the summer before 6th grade, I met my classmates from the predominantly white student body of my middle and high school. All the girls had smaller chests than mine; easily held by their pink, blue, green, and patterned bikinis, flat white stomachs, and straight hair. I undeniably stuck out — the only one in a one-piece, too scared to lay bare in the sun with the rest of them. I never wanted more to be small, perhaps to disappear entirely.
After we all got out of the pool, I lapped conditioner in my hair, hoping to manage my frizz-prone curls. I never forgot my sister's lesson: "the bigger your hair, the bigger you look" — simple geometry. If I wore a sweatshirt, my hair would have to be straightened to avoid appearing too bulky. If I was doomed to curly hair because Sunday’s homework took too long to afford 2 hours under the heat, I could only wear skimpy clothes which showed my frame and took up as little space as possible. These calculations were repeated every school day.
For a while, I floundered in its familiarity, unimpressed by three days without food or the panic attacks in the cafeteria: due sacrifice to "maintain a feminine figure."
Somehow in mid-high school, when depression set in, assignments piled up and I ran out of excuses; I was forced to explain it all to myself. What was wrong? Why couldn't I sit in the cafeteria? Why did I fear the pool and the heat of summer? Why did I hate myself? Why did I do this to myself? Why did no one care?
What to say of the mind at a time like this? In the depths of despair, you forget what it is like to breathe clean air.
I told my parents a few times — thrown out like ammo in a string of careless fights. “Something is wrong, I don't eat, I don't feel good,” desperate pleas for them to ease up on workouts and expectations. It was written off as dramatics, even ploys for attention, and I began to believe the same. Soon my brain found kryptonite in the merciless male gaze and designated my worth and beauty in their acceptance. Many brute harsh hands held me before I had the strength to hold my own; it is a grim path to those who take it.
By my freshman year of college, I had already gone through a string of cruel and hungry men who had taken my body and left it just as easily. I begged for help but my family still denied the need for therapy. I did my best to glean meaning from 20-minute counseling slots with campus mental health services.
Then, unfortunately, and unfairly and for the first time, I fell in love — I mistook a beast for a prince and undid myself all over again. I traded my heart and mind for someone willing to play with its corpse. He was a soft-spoken pianist and I fell on a fall day watching him play my Great-Grandfather's favorite concerto. It was those moments that tended to obscure the rest. I loved who he said he was but continued to show me he wasn't. I mistook pain for passion and insults for the usual lover's spat. I was unaware of any reason to leave. Still, after he told me how to tweak my body more to his liking, still, after he traded details of my nipples and moans for boyish camaraderie, still even after he told me that without my eating disorder, he probably wouldn't love me as much, still as my sister wept each week she saw my pathetic frame wither — still, then, I hated myself too much to recognize the thorns in his tenderness. I hated myself too much to realize I was unloved even as he screamed it from his throne.
When he ended things as carelessly as they began, I was overwhelmed with pain. The heartbreak heaviness mingled with deeply rooted disdain for myself. I began to see him clearly and my own reflection in it all. The question was not why he had treated me that way, what kept me up at night was why I saw no problem with it. The ache was too much to handle; I was 90 pounds and torn asunder.
A crossroads became clear: I could not live like this, and yet I could not die. I had reached my maximum misery threshold. Every choice that had led me to this pain needed to change; I was determined never to feel that depth of melancholy again. I knew I wouldn't survive it. Around then, my parents saw it too. My emaciated body, usually draped in glamorous colors and elaborate fabric topped with an intoxicating false smile, became a decrepit canvas for tears and sullen gray. I had physically and mentally withered away.
Suddenly, I was equipped with a therapist, a nutritionist, and a dietician. Of the boy, we spoke briefly — I was shocked when they began to trace my pain to something that started long before. They put me on antidepressants designed to help me gain weight, something else for anxiety, and something else for appetite. And they worked.
At some point, a switch flipped. Perhaps when my therapist, a direct tough-loving black woman, told me I was taking 7 years off my life (the average effect of one year of Anorexia) to feel better in a bikini. Perhaps, when I started eating and rediscovered the taste of strawberries and chocolate, especially when together. Possibly, when the SSRIs quieted the thoughts in my head that had occupied my mind since the third grade.
I don't know the exact moment I realized my life was not worth the price of a perfect body, but sooner or later, I scraped together the self-confidence to prioritize life and living. To find again the sweet sanctity of dinner with friends, and overfull bellies after family dinner while we sink into sleep in front of movies on the couch, and of Christmas cookies and birthday cake.
Three years ago, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, and it comes in its usual waves. Recovery is not linear; sometimes, it feels incomplete. Yet, there is a difference between the Payton who sunk into the bottomless seas of a vicious depression and the one who clamors for air and dry ground.
Some describe the recovery from depression as a process of coming up from water. To me, it has always felt like quicksand: something you not only drown in but get continually yanked deeper beneath every moment you are without air. I came up from this, and Payton was born. The one you see, the one who writes now. The one who wears a bikini, crease and all, and is too alive to care. The one suddenly so aware of the sunken place, but who has fought her way through it once and will do it again.
So, hello — it's Payton, and it's sincerely nice to meet you.
Edited by: Ava Emilione