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March 20, 2010

My Secret Diet

For 18 months, Anna Fields lived on little more than bran cereal and laxatives. She describes the scarily extreme routine that nearly killed her.

anna fields

Photo Credit: Margo Silver

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I was 16 years old when I climbed into the shower one morning and felt my skin begin to tingle. I assumed the water was too hot, so I turned the temperature down. But then my ears started ringing, and my head began to throb. I took a few deep breaths, leaned against the wall, and slowly sank to my knees. I tried shaking my head back and forth, thinking I could snap myself out of this. But no. In a flash, I was lying on the shower floor with the water beating down on me from above. I could barely think. Then everything went black.

It all began in the sixth grade.

First my hormones exploded and turned my face into a pizza. Then my mother took me to an eye doctor, who fitted me with a pair of coke-bottle glasses. On top of all that, I was a porker—a big-butted, 5-foot-2, 145-pound Moon Pie in size-14 jeans with an elastic waistband. This meant I spent Saturday nights alone, doing "fat girl" activities like reading romance novels and eating potato chips, while wondering if I'd ever have a boyfriend. When I'd wake up in the middle of the night, I'd go downstairs to find my mom sitting in the kitchen, ready to comfort me by spreading peanut butter between two Ritz crackers. "Want a sandwich?" she'd lovingly ask. I'd been chubby my whole life, thanks to a healthy appetite and my mom's generous Southern cooking.

Public school in Burlington, North Carolina, only reinforced my insecurities. Showing up every day was like jumping into a shark tank filled with cute cheerleaders. I'd been swimming with them since kindergarten. Or rather, they'd been swimming; I'd just been floating along like a big, fat buoy. But one Friday in gym class, in the ninth grade, something changed. As I struggled to hide my cottage-cheese thighs from the stares of the stick-thin girls, someone shouted, "Everybody duck—here comes the thunder!" That's when I decided I wanted to be popular and happy and hot ... which, in girl terms, meant skinny. The fat girl needed to die.

First, I tried the usual dieting. I ate fat-free lunch meat and chicken noodle soup. I even tried my Granny Ruth's "buttermilk and cornbread diet," which, naturally, was more tasty than effective. Nothing worked. I needed something more drastic. I needed to be inspired. I needed major motivation to transform myself into a svelte Southern belle.

My answer came in the form of a premier, all-girls boarding school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was home to some of the South's most prized debutantes—upper-class Scarlett O'Hara look-alikes who officially enter society like little ladies in lavish coming-out balls. I'd never thought of myself as debutante material, all dressed up in satin and lace, dancing with my daddy before being presented to society at a fancy ball. But when I enrolled in this school at age 15, my thinking began to change. Tenth grade was a whole new world, full of late-night gab sessions with my roommate and new best friend. I started to feel less alone.

One day, after listening to me whine about my weight for the hundredth time, my roommate suggested a solution: a little pink pill—a laxative. "It'll change your life," she said. Later that night, a miracle happened. My muscles burned, my stomach cramped, and what felt like half my weight in water ran down the toilet. When I looked in the bathroom mirror, I was astonished. My stomach looked distinctly flatter. For a second, the fat girl inside me felt almost ... pretty.

After that, I started taking laxatives every day. The pills felt like Excalibur in my hands. With their help, I began waging war against the fat. Yes, I had to run to the toilet constantly, necessitating all kinds of fibs to get out of class. I'm sure my teachers were suspicious, but nobody ever called my parents or mentioned my frequent bathroom breaks to the dean. Instead, as the weeks went by and the pounds slipped off, everyone complimented me. My grades were improving, I was feeling more confident, and boys on the street were starting to notice me.

Feeling inspired, I decided to take my mission to a new level—by restricting the food I ate. I started skipping breakfast; for lunch I'd eat only a cup of bran cereal, topped with the smallest amount of skim milk possible. Dinner wasn't allowed because I couldn't burn off the calories before bed. My new circle of friends also advised me to down laxatives with black coffee—a diuretic that would force excess water out of my body and help make me lean. Of course, coffee plus laxatives made bathroom visits more necessary than ever. "You need to learn to hold your liquor," my friends said. My stomach rumbled all the time, so my pals told me to chew peppermint candies. Chewing on them tricks your stomach into registering the sugar as food, so your muscles stop churning, or so I was told.

Over the months, I watched my weight drop on the scale—130 pounds, then 123, 117, 110. I was thrilled. Yet somehow it was never enough. When a couple of girls in my AP English class taught me another trick to keep my body laced with laxatives, I embraced the idea wholeheartedly. They showed me how to steam open a little blue packet of Equal sweetener and fill it with finely ground laxatives. The thinking was this: I could keep a stash of these Equal packets in my purse and sprinkle the contents on my cereal, coffee, or tea anytime—right in front of my teachers' eyes. My friends and I thought we were incredibly clever. Yes, we could've just popped a pill in private in a bathroom stall, but this was real subterfuge. Cool.


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