Girlhood Ekphrasis

“The Fruits of Love” by 2019 Editor’s Prize finalist, Otha Davis.

I admit I was stupid for choosing the body.”

– Crystal Curry, But I Have Realized It

*

You arguably take the worst hits of your formative years in junior high; I took mine at twelve when I met Courtney Baker. Courtney Baker was a real bitch and it seemed to me her head was too big for her body. But she was also a real girl—she shopped at Abercrombie and smelled like grapefruit. I knew I’d never be like her, that any attempt would be futile, and that I’d probably cope with a bad haircut Gina Long gave me at recess one day, definitively sealing my fate as not-Courtney Baker.

Being like Courtney Baker was contingent on too many external factors. One, a cool mom—i.e. a young mom (real women don’t age) who didn’t work in a lab (real women don’t have PhDs in something gross, or worse, microscopic). Two, an absent father—think about it: all the hot girls have daddy issues. Three, not being Jewish—lots of discourse on that one, since the archetypal Jewess is a haunting and untraditional beauty only through blood libel. Courtney Bakers aren’t Jewish because they’re too busy being wide-eyed and button-nosed, lithe and delicate, standing bobblehead-like next to ornate Christmas trees in their Myspace profile pictures.

I think I opted for the theatrics of bulimia over the melancholy of anorexia out of anger­—toward myself and toward all the Courtney Bakers who had practiced girlhood more comprehensibly. I might’ve learned this anger from my mom, who might’ve learned it from her dad, but I don’t know if the impetus toward destruction needs to be taught. To break with bare hands, for example, an antique rocking chair purchased by your maternal grandmother before the arrival of her first and only child is the kind of violence that makes a woman—i.e. symbolic in intent.

*

When I broke that rocking chair, I was aiming to distract. My mom had found a folder of “thinspo” I’d forgotten to delete on the shared desktop. In 2007, the Internet offered more freedom on forums like LiveJournal, and you could talk openly about tips and tricks to starve yourself so mommy and daddy wouldn’t find out. Tip and/or trick number one, secrecy, went over my head because I’d assumed my mom to be technologically incompetent. Hubris is what makes a man not a god. I may not have wanted a body but I certainly was no god.

The folder was labeled innocuously enough and probably contained mostly kosher images of skinny models simply existing in the curated spaces of photoshoots. It only took one photo to raise concern—a body check of a girl I’d befriended on the LiveJournal community called The Anorexic Queen. The Anorexic Queen herself, a Myspace alt-girl with rainbow hair who didn’t look like Courtney Baker at all save for body type, wasn’t particularly beautiful. Myspace alt-girls, however, are a different breed. The Anorexic Queen was grimy, her eyes in yesterday’s makeup, her lips bruised from purging or kissing, two things I’d yet to do. The Anorexic Queen community was an amalgamation of alternative girlhoods. The photo that piqued my mom’s interest was from username andashleywaslike. She was 97 lbs but had ballooned to 107. She was on a six-day water fast when we first started messaging and she sent me her body-check, a photo of herself partially naked, to show her pointy collar bones and concave stomach. My mom didn’t recognize the intent of the photo and thought I was into something more sinister and pornographic. She came at me with the evidence printed in one hand and slammed the door to my room with the other. I made the connection immediately and turned to the tip and/or trick I did recall: make yourself an enemy of the home so you needn’t eat as a family.

I’d been in bed maybe reading maybe meditating maybe just having masturbated and my mom was flailing above me demanding to know what kind of sick shit I’d gotten myself into, if I was some psychopath degenerate—a term we now use tenderly. A screaming match ensued and like a smokescreen, I used it to move across the room toward the rocking chair that’d occupied the corner since I was an infant. We’d exchanged a few more choice words—I was quite verbose, even at 12—when I willed my voice loud and shrill. She plugged her ears and I took the pause in her tirade to break the rocking chair’s arm clean off. This act of destruction redirected her concern from the photo.

In the aftermath, I realized anger was essential to my worldbuilding, essential to the girlhood I wanted to usurp from other users on The Anorexic Queen, essential to the girlhood that would make me more like Courtney Baker. I could conveniently disguise my new destructions as reprobate puberty. In that way, I was already like Courtney Baker—a real bitch.

*

I didn’t think purging would feel as cathartic as the rocking chair incident, but andashleywaslike suggested I try it. Until that point, restriction was my go-to, and I’d found it easy when school was in session. I didn’t have many friends so avoiding lunch wasn’t an issue, and my parents often worked late. In solitude, I could practice my desired girlhood effortlessly—I’d break up after-school snacks into the cat’s litterbox to both make them disappear and combat temptation, leaving the wrappers on full display to solicit complaints about my tidiness. I started hiding food at dinner in opaque cups (another tip and/or trick), then I

hid those cups in my room until there was enough to toss out without my frugal father questioning why I needed a whole trash bag for a single item. The smell often set in days before, but I reveled in my nausea and blamed it on the cat. When summer came, I’d neither the daily motivation of seeing Courtney Baker in the flesh nor the house to myself. My mom, a professor with summers off, would catch on, and so disrupted the routine—disruptions, too, are a kind of destruction.

And purging is several destructions at once—of your throat, of your tooth enamel, and later, of your asshole, when the other destructions become too much to bear and your body is forced to seek another orifice for expulsion. It’s in pointed opposition to the consumptive excess of a Shabbos dinner. It’s a destruction of the tranquility of an otherwise empty house, an old house without a noisy bathroom ventilator to cancel out grotesque heaving. It’s a destruction that requires another destruction.

I broke the towel rack, which, like the chair, was old and brittle. The snap in one fell swoop, satisfying, bought me a good twenty minutes, time my mom spent on the phone with my dad, who probably reminded her that I once spilled a bottle of nail polish on an irreplaceable photograph of his deceased father in a fit of preteen angst. My parents still don’t talk about that.

“The towel rack is meaningless in comparison,” my dad might have reasoned, the butt of the joke being I’d been worse than Courtney Baker all along.

Those twenty minutes were enough to prod my tonsils with my index finger. The first time always takes some adjustment.

*

 Stomach acid makes for foamy vomit and ear-ringing and full-body exhaustion—sequential destructions from kneeling on tile alongside a porcelain basin. All this shit—pardon the pun—coming out, a vacancy for better girlhood. An uprooting that demanded attention in its theatrics. Have you ever tried to fist your mouth? Maybe the inevitable tooth decay would make it easier.

Even now, I’m impressed with the abuse my body could take, the destructions, each one more violent than the next. I must be magic. Maybe I’m wrong about the body’s godlike sensibilities. Maybe my girlhood was transcending the corporeal.

*

While the rocking chair and the towel rack were quickly replaced with modern, sleek models, my girlhood stood vacant, still too big for Courtney Baker and too small for the girlhoods of LiveJournal. The process—this lessening of myself—needed expedition. andashleywaslike suggested orlistat.

Sold as alli™ over the counter or Xenical™ with a prescription, orlistat is a weight-loss drug that inhibits fat absorption when taken in the recommended dosage and accompanied by lifestyle changes in exercise and diet. Even now, there’s little online explaining what, exactly, orlistat is, aside from what it can do. And what it did was wring out my viscera in a way that reflected too well on the scale for me to take notice of anything else.

alli™ was difficult to get a hold of at fourteen because, depending on the pharmacy, it was often held under lock and key. It was bad enough I’d been stealing from my mother’s purse to save up for it. I’d not enough remaining integrity to concoct a story for the pharmacy clerks. When I located it at a reachable distance, the inflated mom-and-pop drug store price did not deter me.

For three months, I shit orange oil. andashleywaslike hadn’t told me that part, but she rationalized it was better than whatever the orange was staying inside me. I searched the Internet a couple times for an explanation, but I knew it was the alli™, the amount I was taking every day, before even licking an envelope (did you know envelope glue is 5.9 calories, and stamps can have up to 14?), not to mention the other powders and pills I siphoned from my grandmother’s medicine cabinet, surely expired.

For three months I shit orange oil, my mouth smelled like nail polish and I no longer needed to feign irritability. The girlhood I was nurturing, dehydrated from every orifice, was destructive in the way I needed it to be.

For three months I shit orange oil and it still wasn’t the least appealing thing about me. Being fat, as it turns out, may not have been the reason for my social exile as I’d once thought.

*

When you take the worst hits of your formative years in junior high, you think the worst is yet to come.

With a bad haircut and leaky bowels, I knew the cafeteria was no place for me. The few friends I did have knew better than to question my absence, my frequent bathroom trips. By “knew better,” I mean our rung on the social ladder was small and there was only so much verbal abuse they could take from me if we were to cohabitate.

It wasn’t recovery, per se, that I was after, when one afternoon I found myself keeled over in a bathroom stall.

This bathroom didn’t have a mirror but I didn’t need one to know my lips were slightly torn, my cheeks red and bloated. This bathroom didn’t have a mirror so I didn’t need to address how particularly ridiculous my hair—an accidental mullet courtesy of Gina Long—looked that day.

When I was really young, I couldn’t use the bathroom without first stripping naked. This made a production out of public bathroom use. But in the comfort of my home, the ritual persisted. Now, in this bathroom stall, the ritual resumed, though I couldn’t tell you if it was for the same reasons. I didn’t want my clothing—my outward presentation—to reflect in any way the series of destructions the body goes through to purge. I needed my bathroom-self to splinter from my other selves for the first time since I began to see my body as something to destroy.

Hovering naked above a school toilet forces you to navel-gaze, quite literally. Hovering naked above a school toilet confronts you with the symbolic weight of self-destruction—it’s how I knew I’d achieved peak femininity.

*

I might’ve learned anger from my mom, but I don’t know if it need be taught: the impetus toward destruction. I heard once that if you hate your nose (and what Jewish girl doesn’t?) you get it pierced—a destruction in lieu of another.

I can still fit my fist in my mouth but only do so as a party trick.

 

 


 

 

Original art by Otha Davis, a finalist for PHR’s 2019 Editor’s Prize in Visual Arts