Trigger Warning: This essay discusses memories of eating disorders and sexual abuse.
When I was 16, I had a boyfriend named Alan who rolled my underwear off with his teeth. He’d had sex before, but I hadn’t, and he talked directly into my skin when he said I love you.
Even before Alan, I knew about the power of having a woman’s body, about how it could hypnotize. From the noise that followed me whenever I walked home in my school skirt, I knew I was always being looked at. The closest train station near my parent’s house was one that faced a long strip of mechanic shops, and whenever I passed, men whistled. Sometimes they said I was beautiful, and even though I liked it, I knew it was their word — not mine. I didn’t choose to be beautiful, and I didn’t choose to be looked at.
In my family, everyone had a nickname, whether they liked it or not. My older brother was known as narizon — big nose. My cousin was morena — the dark-skinned girl. My mother has always simply been flaca, or the skinny one.
One day, when I was 12, I walked by her in sweats and I was given a nickname too. Nalgona, she said, or big butt.
Her teeth chattered from laughter. It was like she was telling me a really good secret — a secret that I never wanted to know, and that Alan wanted me to share when, suddenly, I was 16.
You’re like a corpse, he would say if I didn’t moan. Back then, I had a limited understanding of sexual abuse. I didn’t know that, as bell hooks argues in All About Love, “Most men use psychological terrorism as a way to subordinate women,” and they get away with it because girls are socialized to be passive. In my case, she was certainly right — I wasn’t raised to be self-assertive, and I didn’t know how I could be.
For years, I thought the way to defend myself from abuse would be to retreat further into myself, until I finally disappeared.
I am 20 when Alan messages me. By then, he had long broken up with me, but we remain in touch. “Yo,” he writes. “You’ve gotten so skinny.”
“I run a lot,” I write back.
I hesitate. I could tell Alan a lot of things, and I could tell him about the previous summer, the summer I turned 18. Back then, I wore white shorts. One day, it was raining as I walked down the street. I heard footsteps behind me — footsteps coming faster. I couldn’t see past my umbrella, and I couldn’t stop it when a man’s hand pressed open my legs. His touch lingered on me for weeks. Eventually, the impressions of his fingers faded, but this is what didn’t: a jolt of fear whenever someone’s behind me. The way my heart still implodes at the sound of a morning jogger. The thought of me, from behind, in white shorts.
I run a lot is what I tell Alan, and that is the most I will say. But you used to have such a beautiful body, Alan replies, and finally, I smile. He’s right — I used to have a body that men would look at.
In her memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay says: “When you’re fat you get to hide in plain sight.” But the same is true when you’re far too skinny. At 20, nobody looks anymore when I walk down the street.
Unlike when I was 16 or 18, I never hear car horns or whistles. I can skip, and it feels like there is no weight to pull me back towards the floor.
I feel like I’m becoming so small that I am, to the average man’s eye, invisible.
By the time I’m 20 years old, I haven’t had a period in two years, and I feel less like a woman. I feel free.
At the height of my eating disorder, at 21, I go out to a bar with live drums. I am dancing when a man approaches. You have a beautiful body, he says. I freeze. At this point, even I know something is wrong. That even after a few pomegranate mojitos, nobody should tell you your collarbone is cute. That even though I am compulsive about safeguarding my current body, nobody should want me to look the way I know I do.
That night at the bar, I try to remember why I lost all the weight. I remember how after being called nalgona, I was suddenly ashamed, and later, when a man grabbed me on the street, I thought it was my fault.
When I heard men call me beautiful, it sounded like they were saying my body was theirs — not mine.
At home, I calculate the number of calories in two shots. I wake up early for my morning run, and think about how, after leaving the bar, I walked home from the train station alone. All I want is to continue to be safe.
That morning, I run two extra miles. By disappearing the body, I escape the male gaze. I no longer care what I look like, or to whom. I forsake beautiful; I belong to myself.
At 23 years old, I’ve graduated with honors, and I’ve returned from abroad. I work in Manhattan, and I rent an apartment. Certain fish only grow as big as their cage will let them, and this could be a metaphor for a lot of things — but it can’t be a metaphor for me. My cage is expansive, and still, I am small.
But by the time I’m 26, I am not the size I was at 23.
It’s partly to do with loving somebody. Living with him, it’s simply impossible to wake up so early, to keep my strict eating regiments. It’s impossible, like the things that he says — like how he’s lucky to have found me.
At night, when he says I’m beautiful, the sirens that warn danger still go off in my head. Whose beautiful? Is it the “beautiful” that seemingly belongs to harmful men? Or is this “beautiful” something else?
He answers, “Just look at yourself.” But when I look, I’m only ashamed. I’m convinced I’ve been eating too much, and everyone knows it. Now he’s up from the bed, goes to the wall. He says: “I’m hiding the mirror.”
When morning comes, I wake up naturally, and not because my stomach is growling. I remind myself that this is a good thing — a sure sign of recovery.
I get dressed in the bathroom after the shower. It’s here that I hear myself breathe. In this silence, I fantasize about recovery, about what that really means.
In one of my favorite poems, called “Loose Woman,” Sandra Cisneros writes: “Sometimes, sweetheart, a woman needs a man who loves her ass.” When I first read those words, at 25 years old, I cried. Those were the words of the woman I wanted to be: a confident one, in possession of her own body.
But note how Cisneros only says sometimes. What else might a woman need to be loved for? Elsewhere in the poem, Cisneros tells us: “my mind.”
The world I want to live in is a fully recovered world. A world in which a woman can feel safe and celebrated for her body, but first for her mind. Where the only words used to describe me are the ones I choose myself. Where sometimes I am beautiful, and sometimes I am not. Where whatever I am, above all, I am mine.