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March 20, 2010

My Secret Diet

anna fields sitting in a restaurant

Photo Credit: Margo Silver

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Believe it or not, eventually I got myself down to about 150 calories a day. I'd count the calories in my head in class: grapefruit juice, 32 calories; skim milk, 20 calories; bran cereal, 100 calories. If I started fantasizing about chocolate, I'd dig an Equal out of my pocket and swallow its contents dry. When the powder kicked in, my stomach muscles would suddenly clench, and I'd feel ... yes, nauseous, but also relieved. And powerful. And hungry. Always hungry, as I watched the bran flakes—which my body hadn't had time to digest—dip and swirl and disappear down the toilet.

A few months later, I upped the ante yet again: I started sprinting four miles uphill, five times a week. I suspected that my parents knew something was terribly wrong, but we never discussed it. My dad would mention how I was "about a hundred pounds, soaking wet," but that's as far as he went. Maybe he felt like he'd make it worse by confronting me. Maybe he didn't want to scare me or make me feel attacked. All I knew was that I was winning the war. The fat girl was slowly melting away, like the Wicked Witch of the West. Now, at 103 pounds, I cruised the mall for sexy halter tops, high heels, skinny jeans. For the first time in my life, I felt hot. To my delight, I heard some of the older girls at school whispering, "What's her secret?"

My secrets were many. And they kept growing. A girl in my biology class taught me an excellent exercise: Suck in as deep as you can, flexing your stomach muscles to shrink your waistline as much as possible. Then push all the air out of your lungs. Count to 10—or until you get dizzy. And then repeat. She said it would tone and define my quickly shrinking stomach muscles.

I'd do the exercises four times a day—once in the morning before classes, twice after lunch, and once before bed. Afterward, I'd measure my stomach, cupping one hand around each side of my waist. If my gut stretched beyond the limits of my thumb and forefinger, I'd punish myself. Only half a cup of bran cereal today—no milk.

A born perfectionist and people-pleaser, I was determined to become as skinny and perfect as could be. Away from my mother, who had tenderly raised me on fattening foods like lemon meringue pie, cheese toast, buttered grits, bacon, country-style steak covered in gravy, and cream chipped beef slathered over slices of bread, I no longer felt I had to please her by appreciating the food she had so carefully prepared.

I tightened my self-control, acing tests and joining clubs. I would become a perfect Southern lady. Indeed, by the 11th grade, I hit a perfect size 2. Boys smiled at me; grown men gawked from their cars. I met a handsome 21-year-old boyfriend through my aunt, and I invited him to my junior prom.

Not that it was always a breeze. That spring, I spent prom night on the toilet. Soon after, my stomach stopped responding to two pills a day. Now my system needed four to perform. Lunches with friends in the cafeteria morphed into isolated events in my room. Sure, my friends were on laxatives, too, but I had taken my quest to a much deeper extreme. I installed a mini fridge in my room, telling myself it was to keep the milk fresh. But really, I just didn't want to eat in front of anyone anymore. I was becoming paranoid, and I feared being judged—even by the same girls who'd taught me my tricks.

It got to a point where I could hardly concentrate on anything but eating—or not eating. I often felt light-headed, dizzy, and daydreamy; visions of Dawson's Creek floated through my head during history class. Yet no matter how I looked in the mirror, the girl I saw there just didn't seem thin enough. I couldn't see the skin and bones I'd become. The girls who called me "Anna-rexic" behind my back? They were just jealous. And again, no one spoke up. No one dared to disapprove or tell the former fat girl that she'd gone too far.

After a year-and-a-half of my rigid routine, my mission finally came to an end. That fateful morning in the shower, I fell unconscious. I don't know how much time went by before my roommate rescued me, smacking me awake and dragging me to my feet. I was lucky; I could've drowned, slipped into a coma, or gone into cardiac arrest. I'd stripped my body of all the nutrients and electrolytes it needed to function. "Anna, it's gonna be all right," my roommate whispered. For a fleeting moment, I thought to myself, At least I would've died skinny.

My roommate and I kept that incident as our little secret. I was too mortified to confess my eating disorder to my parents or teachers. I felt terrified of being shipped off to rehab or kicked out of school. But that day changed things for me—it was my wake-up call. I promised myself: Never again. Never again will I risk my life just to be thin.

Of course, I wasn't able to change my habits overnight. While I did flush my laxatives and Equal packets, I continued to struggle during my college years, mainly with excessive exercise. And I never sought professional or parental help, which isn't a genius idea, I know. I was simply too ashamed and stubborn to ask for assistance. But gradually, I shifted my focus away from my weight, eating once-forbidden foods like fruit or buttered bagels, investing in comfortable clothes instead of jeans that were so tight-fitting, I had to lie on my bed in order to zip them up. Eventually, I started writing—a new hobby that preoccupied my thoughts and filled the gap that my obsession with size had left.

Today, I'm a happy, healthy, laxative-free 28-year-old. I finally feel beautiful, inside and out. Still, the past sometimes lingers like a ghost of my former self. Every time I pass a mirror, I'm reminded of that long-ago girl, urging me—ordering me—to lose an inch here or there. Telling me the woman I see isn't the woman I really am. Only now, I'm no longer listening.

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