a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[Content warning: eating disorders, body image]
“It’s really not that bad, Nia. You own far less flattering dresses.”
Gee, thanks Maddison, for your incredibly helpful feedback. I’ll make a point to write it down.
“I don’t know, I hate the way it fits around my hips.”
I hate my hips.
Maddison steps forward, eyeing my body critically. Maddison’s hips are tiny. They can’t be larger than 32 inches, which is probably the size of my waist.
“I think you’re being silly. They look fine. If anything, try working out for a week, and it’ll look great. I do like the way the color looks on you.”
Somehow, that’s the most offensive thing I’ve heard Maddison say in a week. It’s worse than the “if you wash your face once a day, you won’t get acne” or her favorite “it’s pretty easy to maintain a six pack.” She has a remarkable ability to tell me exactly what I didn’t want to hear, at the worst time possible.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’m going to be able to lose like what… five pounds in two weeks? Is that even possible.”
I don’t know what compelled me to say that, because, of course Maddison was going to latch onto it. Maddison’s whole thing is trying to involve herself in my life. And fitness. I doubt there’s been a time since she graduated high school when Maddison didn’t have a six pack. And I considered myself pretty good at dodging Maddison before this.
“Why don’t you let me help you out? For two weeks before your prom, the two of us can workout together, eat healthy, and cheer each other on. It’ll be fun!”
Fun, Maddison promises. Not once in my life has losing weight been fun. And more rarely than that has hanging out with Maddison been fun. It’s always awkward. And maybe that’s what compelled me to say yes to Maddison’s ridiculous request. We’d been living together for a year, and I still didn’t directly address her. I call her Maddison in my head, but Dad wouldn’t like that if he heard me say that out loud. Mom, that was Dad’s introduction of her. This is your new mom.
Technically, Maddison is my step mom. My real mom is on the other side of the world, in the mountains of Malaysia, meditating. When Dad announced his engagement, my formerly stable mother decided it was time for a change. A change that involved abandoning me and my eleven year old brother for goats and yoga. The internet there is terrible. Every time I call, we barely talk for two minutes without the screen freezing. Dad is barely at home nowadays too. He travels all over for work. So really, my senior year has involved Maddison, Louis, and me, alone in a gigantic house. If I didn’t know how to drive, I might have gone insane. The good news about the house’s size is it’s pretty easy to avoid Maddison, but sometimes, she’ll hunt me down. Like the time she tried to make dinner for the three of us. Maddison cannot cook. At all. And while she didn’t say that outright, the charred brussel sprouts and flavorless chicken spoke for her. I managed to finish half a piece of the chicken before Louis told her it was disgusting. Poor Louis. Dad yelled at him for hurting Maddison’s feelings, which I think was unfair. Maddison gets offended really easily. She compares herself to my real mom, celebrities, and her co-workers at least once a day. It was hilarious the first few times, hearing my dad reassure her that my mom was a cup size smaller than her, but now it’s annoying, like everything else about Maddison. And listening to her talk about how fit her colleagues are is brutal. But as a given to working at a CrossFit Studio, Maddison knows how to workout effectively. So she and I start a rigorous two week plan to help me “feel comfortable in my own skin” at prom.
“Ok, so at work, I always tell my clients that there are two parts to every good weight loss plan. First, exercise. You should do two workouts a day, one two mile run, one toning workout.”
Maddison brings out a whiteboard to help with our plan. I’m sitting in the kitchen, snacking on a box of blueberries, the day after Maddison drove me to the mall. She came in quietly, sneaking up on me in her usual uniform of Lululemon yoga pants and some tank top. Then, she tells me she has a “road map” for me to achieve my goals. Her version of a road map has glittery gold stars and pink dry erase markers.
“I’m not sure I can run two miles everyday, let alone work out too. Is running really necessary?”
I’m not sure I can run a mile in general. Maddison runs six miles every day. She once ran the New York City marathon, and finished in the top ten percent.
“You’ll be fine Nia. At your age, running was a breeze for me. Your body is young!”
Hearing those words from someone under forty seems wrong.
“But even so, the most important part of our plan is going to be the meal plan. Do you eat protein bars?”
Maddison goes on to explain the difference between LUNA bars and Kind bars and then she brought out a giant box filled to the brim with all different types. And I learn I’m going to be limited to five protein bars a day. Which is basically just enough food to survive on without passing out. I thought she was kidding at first. But apparently, Maddison did this for an entire month when she was in her sorority at college. So, just like that, my supposedly peaceful senior spring became hell on earth.
“Do we start tomorrow?”
Maddison wakes me up at six on Monday, and we go running in the park. She insists on carrying a speaker system in her neon orange fanny pack, and spends the entire time blasting what I think is supposed to be empowering pop songs. Truthfully, the songs aren’t that bad, except that Maddison mouthing the lyrics kind of ruins them for me. I’m miserable the entire day at school, but I stick to the bar thing. Jason, my prom date and boyfriend, tells me Kind Bars were disgusting, but otherwise ignores my lack of meal consumption. For all of his strengths, Jason is certainly not observant. He makes me laugh, but really, the two of us know there’s no way we’re staying together after prom. Maddison, when I tell her this, looks confused. She thought she was going to marry her high school boyfriend, she confides to me on our run Wednesday morning. A 6’4” basketball player named Michael, with blue eyes and jet black hair. He would write her love songs, and he performed a ballad to her at their prom. A drastic difference from my father, who only expresses his affection with a credit card. The Chanel purse on my desk serves as proof of that. They dated throughout Maddison’s years at college, and broke up when Michael cheated. She was heartbroken, she whispers. She’d never cried that much before in her life. It was her junior year of college. From there on, Maddison had boyfriends on and off until she met my dad at her work. We stalk Michael on Instagram when we get home. He’s still dating the girl with whom he cheated on Maddison. She’s not very pretty, so I tell Maddison he downgraded. We stalk her Instagram next, zooming in on her hips, and talking about how they’re a little bit bigger than mine.
“Have you decided your major yet?”
Maddison and I haven’t really talked about college. She watched me apply, and she was the second person I told when I got in, after my little brother. Louis threw a fit about my leaving him for college, but Maddison told me she was proud.
“I’m not really sure. I was thinking about psychology, maybe? I liked the class I took junior year, and there are so many careers in psych out there.”
“When I was your age, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I went with philosophy though.”
I’m out of breath already from the run, but her words almost stop me in my tracks.
“You were a philosophy major? Really?”
“What, is that so surprising? You know, I was a little bit of a nerd when I was young.”
I did not know this. I’m almost terrified at the image of eighteen year old Maddison with glasses, braces, and a giant textbook in her arms.
“You were a nerd? There’s no way.”
Maddison laughs, her voice musical and lively, despite the ridiculous pace at which we’re sprinting.
“I used to eat in the library at lunch during high school. My skin was so bad, I was on like eight different medicines too.”
“Your skin is so good now though.”
Her skin is perfect now. I’ve never seen Maddison with a pimple.
“I went on Accutane my freshman year of college, lost ten pounds, and started working out pretty regularly. There’s been a drastic change, as you can probably tell.”
“Ok, when we get back, you better show me photos of you from high school.”
During the day, I’m fine, but at night, cravings kick in. I watch cooking videos after I’ve finished my homework, stare at the towers of cream puffs, and envy the judges who got to try the delicacies. One night, I go hunting through the cabinets for anything with a grain of sugar when Maddison comes in and sees me standing there. I take one look at her and flee to my room. We don’t talk for the rest of the night, but when I wake up the next morning, there’s a lock on the cabinet door. At school, I buy a chocolate bar. My eyes memorize the calories, the fats, the sugar amount. When I open the bar, I picture Maddison’s disapproving face. I eat the chocolate, and I’m miserable about it for the rest of the day.
“I think I’ve lost a couple pounds, actually!”
I definitely have. I feel weak, and I can barely wake up in the morning, but Maddison’s system works.
“You definitely have! You look much better than before!”
That was probably a compliment in Maddison’s mind.
“Thanks. Jason commented on it too.”
“Really? That’s so sweet of him!”
I thought it was rude. Jason can’t compliment well, though he tries. He’s like Maddison in that way.
“I’m sure he meant it to be. I’ve been spending a lot less time with him lately, so I think he’s been trying to make sure we’re still going to prom together.”
“Oh, I see. Do you think he has ambitions for after the dance?”
To Maddison’s credit, she’s usually quite subtle.
“He absolutely does.”
We keep pace in silence for a few more minutes.
“Do you need me to get you anything? I’m not going to try and stop anything, I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
I think if Maddison is going to be concerned about my safety, it should be whether or not I’m going to pass out on this run.
“No, I’m ok. I’m not sure if I’m going to go through with it anyway. I don’t know that I’m ready.”
“You should never feel pressured to do something that makes you uncomfortable, Nia.”
I don’t know how to reply to that, so we keep running in silence.
Four days before the dance, I cave. I’m out of school, officially. My graduation is in the morning, and I spend the day celebrating with my friends. Maddison and Louis cheer in the crowds, holding a banner with my name. Maddison takes around a million pictures of me in my cap and gown. She posts me on her Instagram, and for some reason, I’m over the moon. Both Dad and Mom missed the ceremony. Dad sends a congratulatory text, telling me he’ll see me when he’s back. Mom doesn’t say a word. I don’t mention that to my friends. That night, I’m out with Jason and a couple others, and we go to a drive through. And I get a burger, because my friends give me weird looks when I say I’m not hungry. I eat the burger, and I feel disgusting, not from the grease. My stomach hurts, my head hurts, and I keep thinking about my hips. When I get back home, I’m throwing up into the toilet. Now my chest and throat hurt too. I lie on the bathroom floor, staring up at the ceiling, dwelling in my misery, until I fall asleep. When I wake up the next morning, Louis pounds on the bathroom door, demanding I leave so he can brush his teeth. I pretend everything is normal on the way out, and I never tell Maddison what happened. I don’t think she would approve.
“Did your dad ever call you? He told me he would.”
“No, but he texted.”
“He didn’t call? That’s weird.”
“No, it’s ok, he’s been busy lately.”
Maddison gives me a weird look.
“Yeah, he has been, hasn’t he.”
Sometimes, I can’t read Maddison at all. There’s something in her eyes I’m not able to identify. At the same time, I’m not sure if it’s any of my business to notice it in the first place.
“Dad’s always been busy.”
I don’t say it, but when I was younger, Dad was always busy with Maddison.
“Did he send you a gift?”
“Yeah, a new laptop, and Jimmy Choo gift card.”
“Do you wanna go shopping then? After prom?”
“Yeah. I’d really like that.”
It’s the day of prom, and somehow, the past 24 hours have been more stressful than any aspect of my senior year. Maddison’s taking me to her salon, this expensive place a few minutes away from the mall. The employees, all friends of Maddison, gossip about keto and our neighbor who got a liposuction. I listen passively, registering every other word. My body feels numb, and I’m fixated on the crinkle the curling iron makes every time my stylist wraps it around a lock of hair. When she’s finished, hairspray fumes clog my airway, but my hair is perfect, so I don’t mind that I can’t breathe. I try not to move on the car ride home. Maddison hands me a detox smoothie, to clear up my skin, and I sip a little bit. A night ago, Maddison popped in to watch my evening workout, and suggested I just start drinking water, and cut the solids. So I’m surviving off of green juice. My head hurts. Maddison brings me Advil when I tell her. She tells me I just have to make it four more hours until pictures, and then I can gorge myself on mini cupcakes. When I get home, I do make up by myself in the mirror. It’s like I have a beauty filter on, and I’m nearly beaming. Maddison tells me to put on my dress, and I slip the silk over my arms. As I look at my reflection, I’m not smiling anymore.
“You do look much better now. Hard work pays off, Nia.”
I don’t think I look any different.
“I like the fit so much better!”
“You’re so beautiful, darling. If your dad could see you now, he would be in tears.”
I’m not beautiful at all. My body looks weird in the mirror, and I miss my hips.
“We should send him a photo.”
I hate my hips.
“I’ll take one now!”
I hate the way I photograph, I hate that Maddison is the one taking the photos.
“Oh, send him that one!”
We end up sending Dad the photo of me half smiling, standing on the front porch. Then Jason honks outside in his car, and I wave to Maddison as I head to the car.
The prom theme is Vegas, and we take photos in front of a banner with my school's name. I take photos with Jason, the rest of my friends, and pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to in my high school career. Generic pop music is playing and everyone's dancing. For two hours straight, I’m jumping along to rap with my friends. Jason and I dance to a slow song, but he’s a terrible dancer, and I wore open toed shoes, so my pinky toe is black and blue. I can’t bring myself to eat, even though there’s a chocolate fountain and more types of pasta than I knew existed. By the last song, my whole grade is crying. I sob into the shoulders of everyone from my friends to my ninth grade bio teacher. As we leave, Jason asks me if I want to go back to his house. His parents are out, in the city for their anniversary. I agree, because I figure I can always leave. We break into the liquor cabinet, and I drink too much, too fast, on an empty stomach. The world spins as he guides me to his bedroom, and I fall back onto Star Wars sheets. I’m conscious enough of what’s happening to nod along when he lifts the bottom of my shirt. We kiss, and suddenly I’m thinking about my hips again. And now I’m thinking about Maddison, Maddison when she talks about her high school sweetheart, Maddison when she talks about my dad, and suddenly I’m not comfortable anymore. Wait, I want to say. Wait, stop. Instead, I bolt from the bed, and dry heave into the toilet. Jason and I stop there. I call an Uber, and he doesn’t see me off. I know if he texts tomorrow, it’ll be a break up text.
“How was it?”
Maddison is still up when I get home. She sits on the sofa in her Lululemon, watching the rerun of some show.
“Not worth it.”
Maddison gives me a sad smile at that.
“It rarely is, Nia.”
She pats the cushion beside her, and I plop down.
“Did you like your prom?”
“Not one bit. I’d hoped it would be different for you.”
I think I’m tearing up a little bit. Maddison must notice, because she heads into the kitchen, and comes back with a bag of popcorn.
“Don’t tell, but sometimes when I’m sad, I’ll finish two full bags.”
She rips it apart at the seams, and holds it out to me.
“Go ahead, Nia. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to give in.”
I grab a handful, and the salt feels like a miracle in my mouth.
“Thank you, Maddison. I really needed this.”
I smile at her, she smiles back, and we watch TV in silence until the sun comes up.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.