The Shape of Beauty: Reflections on an Adolescent Eating Disorder

This piece contains strong language and references to eating disorders.

The Shape of Beauty by Ahava Helfenbaum - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

I remember standing on the scale in front of the mirror, trying on my uniform kilt. It was a blue, yellow, and green hunk of tough cloth covered in pencil marks and various holes. It’s imperfections, holes, and burn marks were a map of four years of school, and my four-year transition from grade four to grade seven.

I looked into the mirror and sucked in, depriving my torso of air in an attempt to button the last faded skirt button around my protruding waist bone. The same button that had not moved an inch since grade four, and which I refused to move because it would mean I was fat and worthless of course.

I looked down as the scale’s dark screen whirred mechanically, calculating my worth. I grimaced because I was a pound heavier than last week. It must have been the rice cakes I gorged on at midnight. I knew I shouldn’t have devoured them, but I only ate them because I didn’t want my stomach to make noises in class again like it did the day before; it was too mortifying. I then calculated that if I stopped eating granola in my yogurt, I would cut out any carbs at lunch at all.

I remember glancing at the nail scissors behind me on the shelf and thinking back to my shower the night before, to the pieces of hair that had washed down the drain as I stared at my trembling hands. I remember waking from the haze of my daydream and instinctively grabbing my ponytail, feeling the jagged edges fresh from my unconscious trim. Because even in that state of delirium and exhaustion, I had to ensure that my hair was still enviable, that I was still beautiful.

I dragged my rumbling stomach down the hallway and into bed, the rest of my body following. There, I went through my nightly ritual of picturing myself in a form-fitting dress on the beach, laughing and smiling. I saw my hair shiny and nourished like it once was, my teeth white and pearly, my stomach flat, my arms and fingers long and delicate, and most importantly, I saw myself skinny. I saw me, but beautiful. Only once I had done that, would my brain be allowed to rest, and only then could I sleep.

For two years I practiced that ritual every night.

Why? Why did I let my anorexia dictate, control, and ruin my life? That’s easy. Because “the fat” was an obstacle in my way.

You see, one of the most noticeable things about me is that I am stubborn. As a child, I used to spend hours attempting to climb out of my crib. I would never cry, and I would never ask for help; I would simply address the bars of the crib as the obstacle, and freedom from the crib as the objective. Eventually, I became so skilled at escaping the crib that my parents fashioned me a sack, and when I escaped that, they gave up.

But the most fascinating part is that when I finally escaped my wooden prison after hours of focused determination, I simply crawled up to whichever parent had fallen asleep on the floor long ago, and fall asleep beside them. I wanted to escape the crib because it was my objective, because it was my goal, not because I did not like the crib.

That is how I have chosen to confront my anorexia. I was a baby, a child unaware of the world outside of the crib. All that mattered was the elimination of any excess millimeter of fat. It was a deterrent from achieving beauty. I convinced myself that all that mattered was that I became the shape of beautiful.

So I lost hair. I couldn’t concentrate in class, and my grades dropped as a result. I cried so much during those years that my eyes were constantly red and sore.

Yet through it all, I kept up appearances. I pretended I had dry eyes, and brought a dropper filled with water to school to ensure no one would question my puffy eyes. I gave away all my snacks at school, only ate one yogurt for lunch, and ate a large dinner as my one meal at home so that my mom would never think to suspect anything. I had convinced my audience, but I was living two separate lives. And it was so lonely.

As of today, I will have been healthy going on four years. Yet, sitting here, I still feel every motion and twist and turn of the crazy roller coaster that was my journey to recovery. I remember the night I cut my hair in the shower for the first time, but I also remember the day, two years later, when I finally threw away that uniform skirt, determined to begin a new chapter in my life. By then, I did not care if I had to move the button or not. And I still don’t.

And it’s funny, you know, that even though today, at 17, I couldn’t care less what I weigh, and I feel happy in my own skin, I can still feel all of those smells, and sounds, and textures. Like the heat of pride when my grade four skirt finally fit perfectly on my grade eight body, and the taste of that awful vanilla yogurt. I remember all those things, because they all had the distinct feeling of sadness, but the shape of the beauty of course.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please visit our Resources section for links to organizations that can help. 
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Ahava is a senior at Ulpanat Orot in Toronto Canada. She loves to write and posts on her blog on The Times Of Israel, as well as participating in Model United Nations, Mock trial, the StandWithUs High School Internship, and NCSY Student Executive Board as Secretary.
Accompanying photo: “Skid” by Elena Eisenstadt