by Hannah Ford
How to Lose
Sure, you weren’t ever fat, but swapping in salads and getting up a bit earlier to run feels strong, clean, bright.
To lose a few pounds, you’ll also lose an hour of sleep in the morning when you get up to exercise. Stop allowing unnecessary carbs. Lose the egg yolks, take off one of the cheeseburger buns. You won’t miss much. You’ll look fantastic in that bikini.
It started with a bikini. You were twelve, and you wore your first two-piece to a water park on a trip with your cousins. “So cute!” your aunt said when you stepped out of the changing room.
“I look fat,” you said, testing out the words and testing the reaction.
You got what you wanted: “No! You’re tiny.” You aunt wrinkled her nose. Then, what you didn’t expect: “You’ve been spending too much time with your mother.”
Was that where you learned to berate your body? Or was it everywhere, was it your disposition or your environment or nothing in particular or everything all together?
If you lose ten pounds, you’ll think this is enough. Trim, but not too trim. But it won’t feel like enough. Why not keep going? Why not a scrape off the pizza toppings, why not keep running? This way, if you slip up and overeat once or twice, you’ll still have some wiggle room. It’s like a security deposit—say no to the junk food now, and you’ll be able to say yes later. If you want to.
If you lose fifteen pounds, your friends will notice. You’ll come back to college after summer vacation, and they’ll say, woah, have you lost weight? You’ll hear it as a compliment.
I’ve been running, you’ll say.
Make a show when you eat dessert in front of them, so that they know you’re okay.
But you’ll only eat the insides of your sandwiches, and you’d rather have an apple for breakfast. Cut it up into tiny cubes so that it lasts longer. Coffee is fine. (Black.)
Step on your scale every morning. You’ll see that you’re still losing. But that’s good, right?
You have free gym access—use it. An hour a day on the bike. Soon, that won’t feel like enough. You’ll add a mile or two on the track so that you know you’re improving yourself.
You’ll be asked on dates. More than you can keep track of. Maybe it’s because you’re at the gym often enough to catch the eye of the confident athletes. Maybe you just look good. It’s overwhelming, you’ll say to your friends, the martyr that you are.
Narrow down the suitors and pick one. He’s only known you for a short time. He’s only known you at this size.
You’ll lose some of your thinking capacity, because most of your thoughts will be planning. Planning responses to “Wow, you look tiny,” to “Have you been sick?” Planning your dinner: spinach or romaine? Planning your outfits (layer long sleeve under short sleeve to keep yourself warm).
Avoid carbs. They’ll collect on your plate, neglected. Your friends will glance at them and back at their own grilled cheeses.
When you’re out to brunch with the boyfriend, you’ll drop an occasional comment. Sure, add pancakes. My doctor says I should gain some weight. Or my parents think I’m too thin.
Really?, he’ll say. Justify a trip to the gym based on that response. If you gain weight, how will he see you?
“You’re so skinny,” friends will say, some kindly and some bluntly. You’ve lost 19 pounds.
Maybe they mean well, but you’ll resent them. Especially your thin friends. Who are they to talk?
One friend will tell you about a girl she knows. “She’s been anorexic for years,” she’ll tell you. Not me, you’ll think defiantly. Sick, unstable, wrong, that word. “She sees the nutritionist here.” Change the subject.
Sleep is difficult when you’re counting the calories you ate that day. Friendship is difficult when your friends can’t trust you because they know your smile is a lie.
When the scale reads 103.7, reconsider. Schedule a meeting with the nutritionist. On your birthday, of all days. It’s a gift to yourself, your mom will say when you tell her, relief seeping into her words.
Hide your nerves. Say that you know you’ve lost a few more pounds than you should have (you can’t look too bad, your new boyfriend thinks you’re beautiful). How long since your last period, the nutritionist will ask, and you’ll have a hard time remembering before saying six months. Her eyebrow will twitch as she makes notes.
The weather is getting cold. Wear thick sweaters to cover your skeletal frame and hide your pencil thighs. Your rings slip off your white fingers. You’ll always be shivering. Sip tea. It fills your stomach.
At your family shopping trip, try on a holiday dress to show your mom. She’ll see your collarbone jutting out of the swooping neckline, your shoulders poking into the lace sleeves like a wire hanger. Her eyes will fill. You’re scaring the shit out of me, she’ll say, her voice throaty and broken and honest.
Blood tests. Anemic, low blood pressure, low everything. You can still see the needle under your cold blue skin. They’ll give you juice afterwards, but you’ll only swallow a mouthful. Juice is liquid glucose.
You expected a quick fix, didn’t you? That’s not how it works. It took time to get here. It will take time to get out.
Your nutritionist will tell you to stop exercising. Your body gets burns muscle when fat reserves are gone. Your heart is a muscle.
There’s too much time without exercising. Choose Clair de Lune for your piano performance—difficult for you, but you can spend two hours practicing every day.
Still, too much time, your thoughts erratic and repetitive.
Your hands will feel bloatedheavyanxious why? You’ll shock even yourself. Sometimes you’ll stand staring at the mirror, entranced. Skin like it’s been peeled off, shrunk in the dryer, then stretched across your bones. Even your freckles have faded.
98.4. Black spots dance in your vision after just one flight of stairs.
But still, when your nutritionist says “Incorporate more carbohydrates,” you’ll nod but change nothing.
Just eat, people will say. You just can’t.
Going home for the holidays will be bad. Please, your mom will say. Please, just a piece of toast for breakfast. Take a bite while she’s looking. Bury it in the trash when she leaves. Grab whatever you want, your dad will say at the grocery store. Oreos? Ice cream?
We have enough Christmas cookies, you’ll say.
You’ll know it’s because they love you, but you’ll hate it, and you’ll hate that they look at you like the psychological wreck that you are.
At family parties, your aunts will hover. While you fill your plate, avoiding the cheesy potatoes, you’ll feel their eyes on you like heavy coats. Spread out your food so it looks like you took more.
Your body won’t feel so much like a body. More like a wooden puppet. Pinocchio, he was a liar, too. You say you’re getting better. You’re not.
Don’t be surprised if your friend’s mom sees you at the store and literally steps back, eyebrows raised, before she composes her reaction to the diminished girl she once hosted for sleepovers.
Visit the boyfriend for Christmas. he’ll ask how you’re doing, really. You’ll cry, and he’ll ask how he can help, but he’s only known you as a waif.
“You need it,” your boyfriend’s mom will say when she globs extra hot fudge on your ice cream. Act like that comment doesn’t sting. Swallow and pretend to relish dessert while they pretend not to watch.
96.7. You’ll start to lose your hair. It will come out in the shower. It will cling to your clothing, weave itself between your toes when it falls to the ground. You’ll be horrified.
Lose the scale. Leave it at home over Christmas break.
Someone will ask what your New Year’s Resolution is. Gain twenty pounds, you’ll almost say, surprising yourself. But yes. You have to change, because you’re not yourself, not even close. Your high school best friend visited you at Christmas and cried. Your sparkle is gone, she’d said.
End things with the boyfriend. Tell him it’s not him, it’s you, which is mostly true. You’re too screwed up to be with someone who thinks you’re just perfect.
Cut the hair. Short. Tell your friends that it’s a breakup haircut. It will make your rapidly thinning hair look less stringy.
You’ll become dissolvable. Any simple “how are you?” will elicit tears. You’ll hate this. As though your pride hasn’t been stamped and shredded enough.
In sub-zero winter, you’ll get frostbite on your toes. What did you expect, that your body is capable of insulating itself?
Years later, you’ll be more humble and more patient, kinder and more forgiving of imperfections. Years later, you’ll actually be grateful for this season.
Right now, it sucks. Stick it out. Trudge on.
Your mom will convince you to visit an eating disorder hospital. “What if they recommend that you’re admitted?” a friend will ask.
You can’t begin to imagine the shame of dropping out of school for this.
When you tell your professors you’ll be gone for a few days, “for health reasons,” they’ll nod compassionately. Realize that you weren’t fooling anyone.
After a day of analysis, the professionals won’t recommend admittance. You’re now 110 lbs. You’ll be proud of yourself, but also ashamed. Hold on to the proud part.
You’ll be questioned by psychologists, doctors, even an intern. Some will treat you like a subject of study, nothing more.
Do you want to have kids? one doctor will ask. Say Yes, absolutely. Your body isn’t functioning correctly, he’ll say. Who knows what damage has been done to your heart, he’ll say. You probably won’t go all the way bald. Probably.
A doctor with warm eyes and warm hands will ask what you majored in. English, you’ll say. I always wished I had the courage to be a writer, he’ll say. You’ll be so overwhelmed by this kindness, by the word Courage, that you won’t be able to respond.
It will take months. It will be hard to lose the habits you’d carved into your life. But lose them. Because you had too many dreams to crumble here. You want to write, to climb mountains, to fall in love in a way that makes your head spin. Before, those were easy goals, but now you have to be purposeful.
(You’ll do all of that and more. Believe me.)
Keep this up. Come on, now.
Keep gaining, because you’re gaining more than a number. You’re gaining the respect you once warranted. you’re gaining patience and humility. you’re gaining an ability to identify beauty and genuinely laugh.
You’re gaining yourself back, a deeper and more worn-out version of yourself, but yourself nonetheless.
– – – – –
Hannah Ford grew up in Coldwater, Michigan, surrounded by cornfields and books. She graduated from Hope College in Holland, Michigan with a degree in English and a minor in Communication. Come August, Hannah will be attending the University of South Carolina to pursue her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, Fiction.
For the past three months, Hannah has been living and teaching at an environmental education program in Charleston, South Carolina. She likes hiking, playing the ukulele and piano, all desserts, making lists, and oxford commas.
Hannah has been published in The 3288 Review, Opus, and Lipstickparty Magazine.