Hard to draw
part two in a three-part series on normative beauty, illness, and the U.S. culture that sustains both
Today’s essay attempts to complicate eating disorder origin stories, the beginning of my time as an investigative crime reporter in Alabama, and, most importantly, the violence of the white, skinny, feminine, (upper)-middle-class body. The third and final part in the series, out next Wednesday, will examine the categories of “femininity” and illness as they intersect with the internet and social media.
Saturday’s tarot newsletter for paid subscribers will talk occult guidance for the coming week. Have a question for the tarot? There’s also a Saturday Q&A section where I’m answering questions from readers with two-card tarot draws. Message me on Substack or email me here to participate!
“I have always wanted to write the most beautiful book against beauty.” –Anne Boyer
Everyone has such clear bulimia origin stories, or at least that’s how it seems in story circle at rehab. There are the specific locations or accoutrements of purging: This girl remembers the exact bathroom stall, this one which finger really “got [her] going,” this one still cherishes the particular feel of the first McDonald’s straw down her throat. And there are the emotional turning points that set things off, jam the trigger finger into the back of the throat and pull: Daddy walks out on Mommy, one too many fat jokes in seventh-grade gym class, an older sister unexpectedly dies and nowadays even funerals are supposed to be politely laughing matters of nostalgia and joke, all funny stories and lackluster hymns. Which means all the intensity and chaos of grief has to be ritualistically acted out elsewhere, alone, in the kitchen and shower before bed. These are the stories that get told over and over again, with such startling clarity of voice and sensation that, paradoxically, they all become a bit fuzzy.
I don’t know when I first started throwing up, only that it was in college, and I was jealous as hell of everything. I was scared too, in the way that any kid who has grown up with a parent who is a bully behind closed doors and charming beyond them distrusts anything that appears too solid, too sure of itself in the daylight. Growing up, I was the kind of pretty that is not exactly beautiful, that doesn’t always come together when you are looking at me head on. I wish I looked like her, I said about Nancy Drew, after my fourth-grade teacher helped me work out what it might mean that Carolyn Keene had described Nancy’s hair as “Titian-colored.” But another elementary school teacher, Mrs. Reidmiller, who alternatively frightened and bored me during the trace-your-hand-now-its-a-turkey style of class that comprised my introduction to art education, once told me, during a lesson on portraits or something, that my features were “unique” and “hard to draw.” True, I guess: there has always been something about my face—the soft/sharp nose, the round cheeks, little neck, the yo-yo of one thing unexpectedly mashed up against another, opposite thing—that some people find alluring, and that makes me unrecognizable to me.
True: the way I look has always been just enough to get me into trouble, to make me feel entitled to a sense of romance, or to a sense of being the beautiful one in the room, even if that is very rarely the up and down of things. I don’t know, this was before Instagram, dating Apps, the explosion of loneliness, mental illness, bad jobs as the only jobs—and the mediation of social media image both as response to and attempt at rescue from that particular hell—but I’ve sometimes had nightmares that have turned out to be prophesy. Maybe this was one of them. Whatever. The point is: I was pretty, but not pretty pretty. And I came from money but not money money. And whenever you find yourself sitting just beside the thing you think you are entitled to, well, then you become evil. Ha ha. Not really really. But kind of really.
Or maybe what I mean is: This is how I let the devil in, and story-time in an under-regulated rehab facility wasn’t going to kick him out.
Like many white bougie girls with eating disorders, I became bulimic because the tension between who I felt myself to be and what was considered “normal” by my family and the other white bougie people around me got to be too much.
You can politely sit through your father’s monologues of racial slurs and “FEE-males” and “sluts” and “homosexuals” or your college roommates’ conversations about the thousands of dollars they spend on designer drugs and shoes for only so long before some essential wire pops loose in your head and you are stealing those girls’ weed baggies out of a desperate need to sleep rather than pure spite.
Of course, I could have used this loose wire as indication it was time to get serious about the radical politics and feminism I was beginning to dabble in here and there, by way of a few close mentors, misfit teachers in the misfit departments at school. Instead, like most white bougie girls with some pretty and some money and a skewed sense of self and world, I decided it would obviously be better for me to play out onto my body my desperation to be better than the assholes around me. If I could be skinnier, I could be prettier. If I could be prettier, I could get “the guy.” If I could get “the guy,” I wouldn’t have to worry about my dad or my sorority sisters. The guy, ostensibly wealthy, from a “good” family, like nearly all of them at my college were, would provide me with the money I needed to be legitimate in the eyes of my “friends,” and the money would provide me with the protection I needed to get out of my dad’s line of fire. To get the money, I needed the body. My middle sister, six months into her own dabbling with anorexia, walked around my old high school with the hanger limbs of a high-fashion model. I could get the body.
Of course, this was not the conscious story I was telling myself when I began running seven miles through the Shenandoah mountains on a diet of vodka shooters and egg-white breakfasts, heavy on the salt. What I was thinking—what I was feeling—was oh my god, I am desperate for love, for romance, for salvation, for anyone, please, to see me and not just the craziness. What I was feeling, when I did finally “get the guy,” was relief, was oh-my-god-my-one-true-love, was desperation to never let him, or this, or the body, slip away, to keep it all, thin and secure and better than, forever and ever, amen, or at least until we said “I do.”
The guy was nice, actually, and quiet and thoughtful, and really only a little bit rich. Not well off enough that he could just get a job at his dad’s company or fuck off in Europe after graduation. His dad was a pilot. Mine sold insurance. Our friends had houses all over the world, and I guess we decided we’d work on that, too. He got into law school in Georgia, and I found a job as a crime reporter in a small Alabama town a couple of hours away.
It is weird, because the job wasn’t supposed to matter, but then the job came to matter more than anything in my life ever had. Sure, it was in my field, and sure I was earnest about “speaking truth to power” and all the other shit they sold us little elite writer babies in that liberal arts college J-school. But really I just wanted a few things: to have a legitimate reason to be near the guy without my father kicking and screaming about sex and sin (which he still did, all up and down a series of hour-long phone conversations the first time the guy came to see me in Anniston. We ended up having to lie and say he was staying at a nearby hotel and not in my house. Not in my bed, you know, fucking, as one does when one body desires another, when one body has spent years at this point whittling itself down to tits and ribs so it can actually enjoy the fucking, on top, instant orgasms, no matter how inept the guy, please and thank you). And, too, it mattered to see my name in print, and journalism was an easy way to do that: to be a writer, to be Cameron Steele, the writer.
In the years since, various therapists have had different interpretations of this time in my life, why the job on the crime beat instantiated a whole host of illnesses beyond the bulimia, including bipolar disorder, an intense social anxiety, and difficulty leaving my house without some kind of something in my system to calm me down. Most have focused on a combination of external and internal factors—the dysfunction within my family of origin, genetic predisposition to mental illness, a sensitivity to cultural messages about beauty and perfection, the trauma of a job that gave me a front row seat to death and despair.
In grad school, through my contact with critical theory, I’d learn to examine the weirdness of this time as, in part, due to the shock, and shame, of having the luck of my sheltered, white, private-school-educated childhood revealed to me in such a sudden and violent way. I’d reflect on and write about the dissonance between my personal experience of my childhood as terrifying and the reality of the depth and protections of its privilege. I’d think about corrupt inheritance, and also how the belief that I could make a living as a writer was part of it. The truest thing I knew about myself was that I wanted to write, but even that idea had come from my father, who had invented fabulous bedtime stories for me when I was still young enough to listen to him, shoved books at me when I got old enough to be “disrespectful.”
Sometimes now I wonder if my obsession with “the body” and “the guy,” over and over again, ad nauseum throughout my life, was my own way of trying to force “the writer” out. Because here is the thing: at the start of this job which was really just a cover for the desire I was not supposed to be having, my name in print mattered more than any other. My body mattered more than the other bodies.
But there were so many other bodies. They were dead, and often, they hadn’t gone to college at all. Often, they were black. I didn’t expect it, didn’t account for it, wasn’t even really warned about it in the copious notes and tips file left for me by the crime reporter before me. She had been generous: which cops you could count on to let things slip, what stories were worth chasing for 1A, when to make the rounds to pick up the police reports from the night before, how a woman’s body might be received differently, in the station by the interstate, or at the county sheriff’s office down a dirt road behind “the projects.” But nothing, really, about just how many people died, and died violently, in this little town. A stray note about how I might want to do a big story rounding up the year’s homicides when it got to January.
I didn’t think much of it, my boyfriend visited, we drank in the Peerless Saloon and had sex all over my new duplex, ignoring the cockroaches in the corners, in the sink, in the tub. We ate barbecue and hushpuppies, and I mapped out the best single-stall restrooms for puking. He left, and I returned to work, went on a ride-along with a nice white, rosy-cheeked cop. He had a picture of his new baby on the dash and liked to finger his gun while he talked. I was bored, I thought the baby was cute. Bill, that was the cop’s name. I remember it now because when his name came over the scanner a couple of days later, as the suspected shooter in a double-homicide suicide, it took a minute to understand they were talking about him. William, they called him on the scanner. I didn’t recognize it at first, I wasn’t paying attention at all, I was checking my face in my blank computer screen, bright lipstick and twice-brushed teeth to cover the morning vomit. In a few days I’d be at a funeral in the same lipstick, crying awkwardly in front of three coffins, one very tiny for the baby, barely 8-months old when his father shot him with the police-issued gun. Younger than my baby is now.
The first dead boy, and looking back maybe this was when I stopped being a kid myself. The relationship with the college guy could never have lasted, could never have overcome how much time the bodies and the bulimia came to take in the years that followed. And when it was my turn to turn the knife on myself, my parents did the swooping thing that parents like mine do, and there was a summer in rehab to think about how much pain I had brought down on everyone.
Who are you? I’d ask my childhood mirror over and over again throughout the years, the octagonal shape and white wicker frame edging a desire I didn’t understand, a girl I couldn’t, for all the Windex in Southern suburbia, see clearly. My dad looked and saw sin. Other boys looked and saw sex. I became obsessed with both, and with the kind of stories that cast girls like me as victims, pretty, misunderstood little things needing to be saved, their very helplessness part of the allure, part of the power, part of a transactional washing clean. How Nancy Drew always requires some feat of rescue in the penultimate moment before solving the crime. She’s the hero, sure, but in each novel she becomes one by way of needing someone else—usually a guy or one of her more androgynous, less beautiful sidekicks—to save her Titian-headed ass.
The mirror shattered in the back of the U-haul on my way to Nebraska, post-rehab, post-crime-reporter-burnout, but by then my new boyfriend was driving the car. I’ll fix it, he said, and I didn’t mind one way or another. That he was there, to say the words, to offer the saving, was fine enough with me.
Writing spells for Saturn in Pisces and Pluto in Aquarius plus terrible poetry that will never leave the pages of my journal. For the past several years I’ve mostly used my journals as a hodge-podge of dream analysis, tarot spells, and fastidiously copying beautiful sentences and important lines from my favorite writers, many of whom I reference here all of the time: Anne Boyer, who wrote the quote that serves as the epigraph for this essay, Johanna Hedva, Audre Lorde, Alicia Kennedy, Roy Scranton, Stacey Waite, Aracelis Girmay. Recently, though, I’ve decided to follow Louise DeSalvo’s journaling advice more closely and actually write down, in excruciating detail, the events and feelings of my days. I’m trying to pay attention to my life, to its mundanity, in a way that peels back the boring and helps me see its inner and external contents fresh, with awe, with curiosity, with less viciousness than usual. I wrote a manuscript for my dissertation that was part-memoir, part-tarot, part-theory. I love it except for its long, plodding self-viciousness. Trying to walk the line between critique and compassion a bit better so that, one day, (sooner? than later, please?) I can publish a book of my own.
Reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World. I’m late to this ecocritical classic, but I’ve found it at just the right time, somehow, too. Here Abram is, in his first chapter titled “Philosophy on the Way to Ecology:” “Yet [the] sciences consistently overlook our ordinary, everyday experience of the world around us. Our direct experience is necessary subjective, necessarily relative to our own position or place in the midst of things, to our particular desires, tastes, and concerns. The everyday world in which we hunger and make love is hardly the mathematically determined ‘object’ toward which the sciences direct themselves. Despite all the mechanical artifacts that now surround us, the world in which we find ourselves before we set out to calculate and measure it is not an inert or mechanical object but a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses.” Yes, yes, yes.
Watching The Last of Us with my hands over my eyes, because Kiernan is a sucker for a zombie show. The third episode about Jack and Frank was melodramatic, sure, and running in the grooves of a tired trope about disability and suicide, but its considerations of love and death also reminded me of a movie that I adore even while it devastates me: Michael Haneke’s Amour. If you’re looking for a better-done, less sappy, version of television with better ethics that meditates on the death, disease, and horror that love invites into our lives, Amour is the film for you.
I will be so happy to hold your book in my hands...