Grace: Treat me as a patient.
Tinker: (considers in silence. Then takes a bottle of pills from his pocket)
Show me your tongue.
Grace: (sticks out her tongue)
Tinker: (puts a pill on her tongue)
Tinker: I’m not responsible, Grace.
—”Cleansed” by Sarah Kane
It is difficult to be true to yourself at any given time. Truth in all of its religiosity boils down to purity. Pure? What does it mean? On any given day, I can’t tell you what I put in my body is okay and what I put in my body is not okay. For years I’ve struggled with this notion of pure, true consumption. The struggle is the obsession with food, the endless commitment to planning meals, deriving the nutrients, flattening the belly, widening the gap between my legs. In a workshop across the ocean with Eileen Myles once (how often can I say that? I’ll say it forever), she spoke about her own curse, how she used to be obsessed with food and think and plan almost religiously—and I nearly cried I understood so well what she meant. Or, I thought I did. Never before had I described what I do as an obsession. It was ascetic, deprivation, control. It couldn’t be obsession because of my inherent refusal to collect a thing, to possess it.
Starving yourself is pretty easy, honestly, when you don’t know you’re starving. Or at least you don’t think you’re starving. You’re fine. The appetite is gone. How can this be obsession? It’s nothing anymore. You can comfortably tuck your whole hand under your ribcage and hold your ribcage tight. There. I just did it. And starving is apparently acceptable sometimes. It can prolong your life and vitality, according to Steve Hendricks’ essay in Harper’spublished some years ago called “Starving your way to vigor.” I read it on a plane. Where was I going? I don’t even remember where I was going, but I remember staring at the unopened snack on my tray as if it were an obvious algebra equation. Solve for X. Hendricks did a very long fast; it made him chaste, calm, self-righteous, empowered. The answer to many questions of longevity and litheness could be solved simply by realizing your food is an effluvium, some sort of Edenic test of resolve and virtue. A group of mice which fasted once a week outlived the group of mice that carried on in their unenlightened animal ways exponentially. Hendricks even waved the cancer prevention card on this one in similar mice studies. I ate this article up. My snack would be picked up later by a sterile hand unopened. I was so proud.
I’m so easily convinced. In high school, I was 5’6 and weighed myself every day to ensure I didn’t get heavier than 108lbs. Then one day, I was 116lbs. That was a terrible day. Years later, I accepted 120lbs. Today, I can accept 125lbs with a little acid in the back of my throat. I still calorie count. I exercise compulsively. I downloaded the My Fitness Pal app and put 115 lbs as my goal weight and then I deleted the app because I only used it so it could tell me at the end of the day I wasn’t eating enough calories. I recently downloaded it again. The goal weight is still the same. Everything is where I left it, like coming back to a room after a great storm lay waste to everything around it. I put in my foods, I put in my daily cardio, I get the red flash at the end of the day that I’m not eating enough. I smirk. I grimace at my smirk. The new day begins and I promise to be different this time about the whole thing. I smirk. I grimace at my smirk.
Recently, when I didn’t exercise for a few days and had allowed myself a weekend of fried food god forbid, I thought I might try a juice cleanse. I’ve heard both their benefits and their bogus claims, but in every discussion was the word reset. You could reset your cravings, your bad habits. No longer would you ever choose a cookie over kale. A juice cleanse would diminish the needling pressure of meal choices, the guilt of letting all sorts of poisonous food enter your body. And what are poisonous foods? The words, through this lens, get substituted for toxins. Toxins, like Robert Burton’s humours, haunt our system, are the source of our melancholy. They’re easy to believe in. I wanted the toxins out of my body. I’ve starved before for no cause. I could starve religiously now, to chase out the demons. I should wonder if a clean modern blood-letting bar opened up across the street from my Greenpoint apartment, would I pay $15 for the removal of an ounce of blood?
The cleanse was easy because it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know I could do. I stopped at the end of the third day because I knew it was a lie. It wasn’t to get more vitamins, to cleanse my liver, to purge my intestines of toxic gunk. It was a starvation ritual in every hue. It was the dream my body always had retching over a toilet in college. The unopened peanuts on the airplane. The thigh gap gapping. When every other day, I’d look at my body and feel like what I was doing to myself wasn’t earned. Because my torso and thighs became muscular from exercise. Because my bones didn’t shadow my skin. Because I could sit down comfortably on the subway without the pinch of bone and skin. But during the cleanse, I felt lighter, I felt twiggy, I felt like the right kind of skinny. Did I look skinnier? If one were to show me two images, the image of my torso on the second day of a juice cleanse and the image of my torso tonight post-Chinese takeout, would I guess correctly? I suppose that’s the point. I suppose it was an obsession. It continues to be an obsession. Even the working through it to improve, that too, is an obsession.