I’ve Never Felt Worse Than In The Moment I Looked My ‘Best’

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There is a picture of me, the best one I have. Maybe the greatest one I’ll ever have.

It was one of hundreds taken by an expert photographer whose enjoyable shabby assistant spent hours fluttering around her, holding a disc reflector to throw the Parisian summer light onto me just so. Before she’d even picked up her camera and he’d hesitantly put down his cigarette, a makeup artist had spent 90 minutes on my face, my hair, my nails. They were going for a ’50s surprised look– I’m not entirely sure why, now, but it made sense at the time– so there were hair extensions and curlers and false eyelashes and very bold red lips.

In this photo, I’m sitting on a staircase, my hair mimicking the curly black wrought iron banister, with my hands demurely in my lap but my mouth slightly open in a Jessica Simpson-ish kind of way. My wrap dress, which I almost never wore in real life because it was too revealing, too clingy, is showing just the right amount of flesh. My eyes, thanks to the falsies and whatever witchcraft the surly makeup artist did with my brows, look enormous.

After the shoot was over, the photographer removed just three photos from the hundreds she took in the space of a few hours and sent them to me. This is the best of those three. Years have gone by, and this is still the best I’ve ever looked in a photo. It’s also the unhealthiest I have ever been.

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When it was taken, I ‘d been heavily restricting my food intake and compulsively over-exercising for about a year-and-a-half. I was the thinnest I ‘d been in years, and not that much thinner than I ‘d been when I fell down that hole, which, now, makes me feel both relief (thank god I didn’t do too much permanent damage) and regret (if I wasn’t even skinny, what the hell was all that suffering for?).

I was unspeakably miserable, literally: Despite being a professional writer, I couldn’t muster the courage to explain to anyone but a therapist how unhappy I was or marshal the words to do my misery justice. But I was functional: working, traveling, and maintaining a social life– even though I had to run extra miles to compensate for whatever I ate when people were watching. And this photo shoot was to accompany an essay I ‘d written for a well-regarded weekend magazine, an international byline, a big deal. The night before, I went for a run and ate lettuce for dinner. The morning of, I drank coffee and ate nothing.

The photo was taken before the rise of Instagram, though Facebook and Twitter were already in full force. Had I had access to a photo-focused social media network at the time I’m sure I would have posted it, probably with a performatively self-effacing caption, and watched with grim satisfaction as the likes and approving comments piled up. This week, in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I decided to post it and to be honest about the wide chasm between what that photo shows and the truth.

Thinness is an achievement for women, one we’re expected to work for if we’re not blessed with skinny genes, and offer sheepish, secretly-smug apologies for if it is gifted to us by nature. It’s a trophy we’re expected to hold on to at all costs.

The truth was that I was drowning. On the outside, things looked pretty good: My career was humming along, I was dating a great guy, I was spending the summer in Paris doing research for grad school, and hey, I ‘d dropped two pants sizes. For young women, this is what winning looks like.

In fact, scratch the first three-quarters of that list, and just keep the newfound sense that you’ve earned the right to wear shorts in public: for young women, this is what winning looks like. Skinniness covers all manner of other failures, just as failure to be skinny can dim the sparkle on all manner of other success. There was a reason people were complimenting me on my “accomplishment,” praising my shrinking body. Thinness is an achievement for women, one we’re expected to work for if we’re not blessed with skinny genes, and offer sheepish, secretly-smug apologies for if it is gifted to us by nature. It’s a trophy we’re expected to hold on to at all costs.

 

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