This is going to be a long one. And a good one, I hope. This post has been a long time coming, and by “long time” I mean I wrote the first draft of the following story in the spring of 2013 for a creative non-fiction class at Ohio State. It has since gone through many revisions and reinventions. Through all of the changes, however, the theme has remained the same.
One of the reasons this piece has never been circulated outside that class is the simple fact that it's personal; it recounts moments from developing and coping with my eating disorder from ages 11 to 19 years old. I know I’ve created an entire website around owning and talking about that type of content but it’s still scary to talk about the actual moments and memories. Stigma still exists and for every time I say that I give zero f*cks if people judge me for my writing, there is an equal and opposite moment of deep trepidation around all this. Those moments usually take their earthly form in a frantic, wine-induced text message to my best friend where I call myself hypocrite for being scared to deliver on my promise because of what people might think. But that’s why we’re here after all: to change perception.
Actually, let’s take a quick moment to remind ourselves why we’re here:
Earlier this week, one of my favorite bloggers/internet personalities/girl-bosses, Christina Topacio, said her blogging goodbye. She is on to bigger and better. In the post, she talked about bastardization of blogging. “With the death of blogging for the sake of blogging and the rise of skinny teas and gummy hair growth, who can blame those who want to call major bullshit on it all?” she said.“The authenticity is dead, almost everywhere. Not many blogs or Youtubers are sharing content just to share, so what are you left with?” And goddamn she is right. What are we left with? In a world where even the word authenticity has become a brand, where do we go to just feel human?
Well, I hope you can come here. That’s why I’m working on this project with all of you – even when it scares me. I’m not here to write you a traditional blog. Like I’ve said before, I’m just here to own my story and I do that by sharing it. Right now, in this moment, I am sharing content just to share. I’m sharing it in the hopes that someone else will share theirs. Perhaps that means swapping truths over the dinner table, opening up to a lover or scribbling in the margins of a library book; I'll settle for anything that continues our growing conversation about real things and real people.
So, this brings us back to the story: a two-strand, braided creative non-fiction essay that’s been living and morphing inside my hard-drive for four years. Woah, holy build up. Don’t get too exited now.
This post is also be the first in a new series, Owned in Ink, that explores the way tattoos can be a part of owning and even changing our stories. Owned in Ink will bring my first guest post to the site and I couldn't be more excited about where it will go from there. But first we have to get through Part One, which is appropriately about my first tattoo: a sunflower.
*Please note: the following story is written spanning the years 2005 – 2013, pulling key moments from a long, 12+ year battle with an eating disorder. This is by no means representative of my entire experience or of other folks's experiences. Like any mental health issue, eating disorders are complex.
(Content Discolsure: Eating Disorders, Self-Harm)
You know the sunflower
Age 11. I barely wince at the hot iron against my forearm. When I open my eyes and look up at the pink walls that surround me I’m almost tempted to smile at the softness. But the adrenaline fades and that brief moment of elation fades back to anger. I hate those pink walls and the dainty fairies that dance across the wallpaper in pastel dresses. I look down at my arm. A faint red mark is beginning to appear where the hot plate sat only moments ago. Pain and release, I think. Pain and release. I pick up the straightener again and fit its prongs around my arm: 360°
You know the sunflower. You’ve likely seen one in a neighbor’s garden or hanging over a stranger’s fence. Perhaps you’ve grown your own. With a dark bull’s-eye-like center encircled by long, glowing petals, sunflowers are rather arresting plants. The thick green stalks can grow over 12-feet tall to support the enormous flower heads that can spread up to two feet in diameter. Sunflowers are not like other garden dwellers; they are a bit awkward, often more like trees than flowers. They are a unique genus.
Age 12. I’m pulling up the periwinkle pants I had bought on sale at Anthropology earlier that year. They’ve begun to sag but they are still my favorite pants. I will wear them with goofy adoration until one day they simply disappear.
My sister walks in the room. Marked with a gentle tone of concern – or congratulations? I can’t tell – she comments on my apparent weight loss. Her comment is brief and passing but pointed. I am only sort-of paying attention when she says something about my “little waist.”
“Yeah, I guess” I say, “I mean these are a size nine.” I look into the mirror that sits on my bedroom floor turning from side to side, inspecting my “little” size-nine waist. I have to pause to check that my scoff really was, in fact, only inside my head. I just don’t see what’s so remarkable about it. Sometimes the person twisting and turning in that mirror feels so foreign to me. Trapped isn’t the right word but it’s the best one I have for how I feel here.
Sunflowers have pseudanthiums or “fake flowers.” While it appears to be a single flower, the giant head of a sunflower can be comprised of over 2,000 tiny flowers growing together. These florets, as they are called, are unrecognized by most. There is more to a sunflower than meets the eye. All its parts, head, petals and center, are multifunctional. The yellow petals actually serve as protective leaves that cover the center of the head while it matures. The brown center is composed of those thousands of florets that grow individually and create new sunflower seeds. And then of course there are the seeds: the fruit, the food, the value.
Age 13. I don’t know my size right now. I wish I did. My plaid, pleated uniform skirt is held together with a safety pin. I poked myself that morning trying to shove all the extra fabric into the pin. The shirt I’m wearing today used to belong to my brother and it’s too short in the torso, which causes it to fall out of my pinned skirt. I am annoyed by this and by the attention it draws.
My science teacher is a stickler for tucking in shirts. She is a kind, eccentric woman with classroom pets like hedgehogs and pigeons; I’d always liked her. Before today, I didn't even mind spending my lunch hour in her classroom doing extra credit.
I’m sitting at the tall lab table attempting to construct an experiment while one of my closest guy friends pesters me about my strange dietary habits. This a pretty standard exchange these days. He chastises me for my small lunch, I tell him I don’t like lunch and he tells me to eat more. We’ve been through this before. The difference today is that during our exchange, our teacher had made her way across the room to admonish me for the un-tucked shirt. I don’t notice her presence until it’s too late; I look up to see her walking away, eyeing the place where my lunch bag sits. Inside it is a low-fat yogurt with 1/4 cup of bran cereal.
Cultivating sunflowers is an easy task, highly recommended for novice gardeners. It is said that sunflowers were originally wild flowers taken from North America to Europe by Spanish explorers. They are remarkably tough and desire little attention from a gardener. A sunflower can grow in almost any soil, as long is it’s not too wet, and can tolerate extreme drought and heat. However, the sunflower can be unruly when left unattended. An unguarded garden sunflower might stunt the growth of nearby plants by casting a shadow or dropping seeds that can be toxic to certain species.
Age 13. The glow of the Lincoln memorial lights up the faces of my classmates. We’ve just come from two emotional hours at the Vietnam Veteran and Korean War Veteran memorials and I am fuming. While leaving the memorials, one of my friends tells me that someone has sent an email about my health to some of my classmates. I’m furious and embarrassed. I wish everyone would stop acting so weird about it. People just need something to obsess over because they’re bored, I tell myself in an attempt to feel superior. I really just don’t want anyone’s help and I don’t want to talk about it, not with my friends and certainly not with their parents. The parents are what make me the angriest. I don’t understand how it’s appropriate for these grown-ups to ask me about losing weight. There’s the obvious fact that I’m not their child and the less obvious hypocrisy that I’m still nowhere near as small as the girls in my grade. If I hadn’t been bigger than them to begin with, I bet they wouldn’t even care. My body isn’t good enough for either party, apparently.
While long appreciated as part of the rural landscape, gardeners have embraced sunflowers as an ornamental plant only in relatively recent years. Responding to this interest, breeders in Germany, Japan and the U.S. have engineered new types suitable for home gardens. The natural sunflower growing wildly, casting its shadows wherever it pleased just wasn’t feasible in a small garden. New seed varieties have names like “teddy bear,” “mammoth” and “super snack hybrid;” there’s a brand of sunflower for any occasion. Optimum growth conditions have been debated, like placing rows of farmed flowers 2-3 feet from one another, and irrigation plans suggested. A sunflower can now be made to order.
Age 13. I hate running errands with my mom. It makes me sick: the standing, walking and being in the sun. My head starts to hurt and my eyes fill with pressure. I tell myself it must be the heat. I hate running errands but I’m stuck in another day full of them just to ensure that I can pick my own groceries. I don’t think my mom has made a trip to the grocery store without me in months. If she has, it’s because she didn’t tell me she was going.
I won’t eat anything unless I know the exact calorie content and ingredients. I’ve memorized the labels on almost everything we keep in the fridge. I spend all day at school dreading dinner; the idea of a single meal taking up almost 600 calories terrifies me. I try do my best to avoid eating as much as I can rather than deal with eating it and purging it later – but that still happens quite a bit. I’m working on it.
Sunflowers can become misshapen in a few ways; the most common deformation is a damaged head. A sunflower with a deformed head would have twisted, scraggly petals that wilt and twist in opposite directions. Sometimes the center will not be entirely circular. A damaged head is usually the fault of a nutrient deficiency, insects or disease. These threats can also cause a sunflower to experience pollination problems. A sunflower with pollination issues appears discolored in the center. The leaves of sunflowers will also grow too small or wonky when grown in nutrient-lacking soils.
Age 13. I settle in on the couch to watch an episode of American Idol, the toaster pastry sits in my hands like a piece of holy communion. Mom was busy tonight so we were on our own; these are the best nights because I get control. The boys made pizza and I think they assumed or thought I’d eaten it as well.
I’ve had maybe 300 calories so far today, so I can eat this and still land safely below my daily goal. I didn’t used to allow myself this kind of treat but you’ve got to have some fun. Plus, there is no way anyone who eats ½ a box of toaster pastries every week has an eating problem…
Not all sunflowers are yellow. The red sunflower, also referred to as a “Moulin Rouge,” “Prado Red” or “Red Sun,” is a member of the genus all the same. These sunflowers are purely ornamental; they aren’t as large or fruitful as the traditional, yellow plants so they are not used in farming. A result of careful breeding, the red sunflower does not occur in the wild.
Age 14. I spend too much money on jeans. I just threw out my favorite pair to replace them yet again with a larger pair. I’m frustrated but I guess I knew this would happen. I’ve been trying to eat more lately: 1,200 calories a day if I can. It’s hard. Somedays after volleyball practice, I’ll sit in front of the TV in my bedroom with a cinnamon raisin bagel, topping and an apple before bed just to hit my goal. It makes me too full and the sensation is borderline sickening. I usually spend the rest of my time awake fighting off the desire to purge.
I feel like I shouldn’t eat the food but even I can admit things got a bit out of hand. My family will mention my “growth spurt” and even a “too skinny” phase in passing sometimes but we don’t really talk about it. I’m not sure which is better – the “two skinny” phase or this new “buying jeans every month” phase. Either way, it still feels like there is always too much or too little of me.
When a sunflower blossoms, its default is to point east toward the sun. During the day motor cells in stem tilt the flower, shedding light on shaded parts, to glean a maximum amount of sunlight. By evening, the sunflower head is usually pointing west towards sunset. The sunflower appears to reset overnight and prepare to start again. According to most gardening books, this process continues until the flower matures and grows seeds; at that point the head will remain facing east or begin to droop.
Age 15. I sit on the toilet seat unwrapping a clean, extra-long maxi pad. I throw the plastic away, encase the "used" pad in toilet paper and toss it in the trash.
I’ve read about fake blood you can buy or how some women will make a mixture using ketchup and vinegar but those seemed like drastic options. I’m not sure when my last period was, truthfully I don’t miss them. My work here being done, I flush the empty toilet for anyone beyond the bathroom door to hear.
The symbolism of a sunflower depends on who you ask. For example, it has been said that dwarf sunflowers symbolize adoration while a tall sunflower signifies false riches. Giant sunflowers, 10-feet or taller, are talked and dreamed about often but rarely seen. Growing such a large flower is challenging, making them scarce. Many botanists plant and nurture them to these stratospheric dimensions just to prove their expertise. Between the challenge of grooming such a large plant and keeping it from toppling over, a 10-foot sunflower is no easy feat. Perhaps this is part of the symbolism for the large flowers: they appear bigger and better while just barely subsisting.
Age 17. As I run through my workout, I have no time to think. If I did, maybe I’d wonder if my love for exercise is just a new compulsion or grasp at control. The answer might be yes and I might be okay with that to some degree. Because when I’m done here I am happy. I feel weightless. I am not thinking about food or my body or my past. I often have to remind myself what is normal vs. disordered behavior. I still relapse more than I’d care to admit. I still have to remind myself to take a break from fitness, too. Everything is a process.
The timer beeps. I jump off the pull-up machine and head to do pushups. Like I said, there is no time to think. For the next 40 minutes there only time for moving and pushing through.
The sunflower relies on tracking the sun for survival when it is young. Heliotropism allows the young bud capture the sun’s heat, helping it to bloom. Once the flower opens and matures, it faces east mainly as defensive response so protect the seeds from scorching. Mature flowers don’t exhibit the same exuberant movement as the buds but it is still crucial for survival.
Age 19. The needle stings my skin with an obnoxious persistency. I can feel the redness spreading across my upper back. My artist’s face peeks in and out of the edge of the mirror propped against the wall. He looks at his work intently and then takes a break to look at my sister and I; he does this less intently. We’ve been designing this tattoo for weeks via email and this is the first time he asks me why I chose a sunflower.
I tell him about the dual symbolism, glossing over the details of my adolescence. I tell him about driving through fields of sunflowers in Uganda and biking past them on the bike trail. It’s like they’ve been talking to me lately.
By the time he’s finished I’ve grown to enjoy the dull buzzing sound of the needle so much that I’m jarred by its disappearance. My sister's face lights up with joy. The mirror is placed behind me and the reflection shows a beautifully shaded, sketchy sunflower.