The following is excerpted from Mary H.K. Choi's new Kindle Single, Oh, Never Mind.
When I was born, I weighed 11 pounds and had a full head of hair. I also bore the tiniest hint of a butt chin, like my dad. My mother's chin, on the other hand, is smooth and small. Her slight, elegant alleles were no match for my father's. After all was said and done, her body snapped back to a Size 2 with an alacrity that could testify only to how alien a parasite I'd been. Lugging my enormous swaddled body around with her on buses and trains and to church must've looked like a kind of punishment, as though a royal race of fatsos had risen to power and made wet nurses of the bantam class. The primal chemistry that compels one to breastfeed a burden only so it will grow heavier is just one way that babies are scary.
Eleven years later, my mom and I are at the doctor's office. We are having our worst year yet. We speak in clipped, acid tones, and my brother and father are sick to death of us. I have a bladder infection—my first—and I am mortified. I avoid telling anyone until the pain is intolerable. It's only after I almost pass out in a bathroom stall at school and miss a quiz because it takes 20 minutes to pee that I have to explain myself. I may strongly dislike my mother, but I will not get a B in French.
I am furious the doctor is a man. Disgraced by the physical inspection, I fume as I undress. I don't know why my mother lacks the decency to leave the room while I do. My proto-boobs are dense and misshapen. The doctor takes my medical history, and I am forced to inform him that I have had my first period and also my second. I feel my mother's eyes on me—I never told her—so I stare straight ahead. It'll be another two years before my friends get theirs. The whole thing feels ungainly and is probably my fault.
When the doctor weighs me, there's a roaring in my ears. I discover that I am 113 pounds. The number is significant. Ours is not a naked house, but we all know how much our mother weighs. She weighs the same as she did in college, and I am three pounds heavier at a foot shorter. Red crawls up her neck. She stares at me as if her own leg had swollen beyond recognition. I want to die as much as I want to take her down with me.
It's not my mother's fault that being around her makes me feel ugly, and that every attempt on my part to look more like her is dark and shameful. My wiring abhors portion control and sensible weight management. I eat until it hurts and then pinch my fleshy midsection until it bruises. It would upset her to know the reasoning behind the wall of radiant anger that stood between us until I moved 2,000 miles away in my twenties. My mother is 63 years old, and her thigh gap is righteous.
My preoccupation with food and dissatisfaction with my size has been with me since infancy. One of my earliest memories is despising the number 8 because it resembled a fatty in a too-tight belt. I abhorred Cindydolls—not just because they were off-brand (like the Gobots to Barbie's Transformers) but because Cindy's face was comparatively bloated. Carrying a portly little Cabbage Patch doll only drew attention to my own physique, so I gave her away before anyone could make fun of me.
Eventually, I became bulimic because it suited my needs. (I lacked the type-A conviction to be anorexic.) I binged and purged, sometimes while reading eating-disorder books, taking strange satisfaction in the dwindling lists of foods the girls obsessively logged before they were whisked away to hospital. Each suffered the same second-act problems, and the treatment chapters were dull, but I read it all and learned so much.
From that day at the doctor's office to my twenties, ED was a kind of pop culture. I read the books, watched the Lifetime movies (one very good one starred Tracey Gold from Growing Pains), and while most carried a warning, I treated them all like a makeover episode of a daytime talk show and went nuts for The Big Reveal—that moment when your loved ones became spectacularly worried. As a teen, I sang along to the lilting melodies of The Carpenters, wishing Karen's anorexia airborne so I could catch it. Her gaunt cheeks and shiny foal eyes made her untimely death that much dreamier, more "thinspiring." She fulfilled the destiny hinted at by her pretty face. I, too, wanted to be on top of the world looking down on creation. Karen Carpenter became so beautiful that she wasn't allowed to play drums and had to sing lead. Lucky duck.
To be consumed by an eating disorder is to live for a vision of the future that will never be as great as you hoped it would be. It also hobbles any chance of enjoying the present, and the secret hobby cuts into learning about and taking satisfaction in pursuits of non-self-harm . Making lists of the food I wanted to consume and unconsume was my favorite diversion. Publicly, I was piously draconian: My two best friends and I would share a KFC biscuit three ways before binge-drinking straight vodka. I would save packets of Saltines that came with watery soup orders, shoving them in my backpack to fish out later—crushing them and dampening my finger to extract the tiny shards like Fun Dip. I would have dinner with the family, slide into my bedroom, inhale four or five pastries, and then put down a box of Chicken in a Biskit. I spent birthday money on diet pills and food.
I learned how to vomit silently. If you don't drink enough water, what you vomit will be cake-batter thick. You have to manage consistency, and it's best to throw up in your hand so it doesn't hit toilet water with the telltale splash. The sound is as unmistakable as the flipped lid of a Zippo lighter. The smell is also a problem, so you have to watch your hair.
Use mouthwash, because if you brush too many times a day, the enamel in your teeth wears off. Everyone knows this.
I never did get scary thin. I did shrink enough by the time I was 13 that I could join my friends at a water park without wearing a T-shirt over my bathing suit. There were five of us, and I was no longer the fattest. It was a revelation. We met a boy who was 16, and he was beautiful and blonde and new in town. He flirted with us all but chose me to ask out. My meanest friend was stunned and told me so. I made him laugh, and he thought I was smart. I threw my goggles in the trash because they made me look stupid, and a week later his older brother walked in on us in their parents' bedroom (the corner unit of a glass turret), me pushing him off, him coming at me with a dick like the Polaris missile. By then I was pretty enough that they'd have believed me, but I told no one. Now that I'm older, I wonder how many of my friends never told me.
I worked harder. I became more secretive. College wasn't great because dorm food was free and my mom wasn't there with her tone. Of course nobody tells you, even at a good school, that bulimia doesn't work.
In my early twenties I arrived in New York. I kept passing out in public places from exhaustion and stopped making myself sick. I didn't have dental insurance, and my teeth felt porous. I wanted the release from my nightmare of losing and gaining the same eight pounds 10 trillion times. Besides, this town reprioritizes you. It cures you of thinking that everyone sees you when they're looking at you. And if this scares you rather than sets you free, you should probably live somewhere else. Turns out, nobody gives a shit about what you look like unless you are so beautiful that it will ruin your life. Most men like girls who look crazy or sad, because what they want has nothing to do with you.
Here's what I'd tell my younger self: You become stronger as you get older, but you also become more forgetful. You stop cataloguing everyone's crimes against your self-esteem. Lately, I'm surprised by what I look like when I come upon a reflective surface. I work with supermodels and actresses who get younger and younger, and I feel no envy. I'm oldish and close enough to spy the tape, powder, lace-fronts, stitches, and wiring. My mother, with silver hair and liver-spotted hands, is as beautiful as ever. These days we talk more often and we get along. And she's still so fucking skinny.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Mary H.K. Choi is a contributor to The New York Times, GQ, Wired, Allure and Billboard. She is the head writer of "Take Part Live," a daily news show. She is a former editor of MTV Style and executive producer of the documentary "House of Style: Music, Models and MTV." She's written comic books for Marvel and Vertigo, and is a founder of Missbehave magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @choitotheworld and at choitotheworld.com. Oh, Never Mind is available on Amazon for $1.99.