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By Hannah Howard

The cool girls didn’t worry about weight, or so I imagined. They were effortlessly, magically skinny. My middle school classmate, the burgeoning soap opera star, could be found eating French fries by the tray-full during lunch. She was long and lean and slim as that cafeteria fry.

I jumped up and down and up and down (repeat…) when I got into college — my dream school in New York. I would recreate myself; embark on my new, shiny, fabulous NYC life reborn. And so: a diet.

I dieted with zeal, and my efforts worked. I bought new clothes. People said, “you look great” with a lot of feeling.

The cool girls were different in college. They went to parties far, far away in Brooklyn and came back with paint streaked across their backs. They were always eating wonderful things. Cornbread muffins, JJ’s curly fries, roti rolls stuffed with eggplant and paneer from Bombay Frankie. Fancy sandwiches on crusty baguettes. Many beers and bottles of Two Buck Chuck. And always, they were skinny.

I credited my new skinniness with helping to land me a job at the fanciest of fancy Michelin-starred restaurants. (“Hostesses are the trophy wives of the restaurant biz,” my coworker tells me.) I bought a black dress from Loehmann’s in a smaller-than-ever size. “You look so fancy,” a man in an artfully askew cap told me on the subway.

“You go to Columbia?” the sinister GM asked during my interview. He had an expensive suit, a poochy belly.

I had no experience. I was hired on the spot.

The job was enlightening. I got up close and personal with the famous cheese cart, where I learned about Alpine wonders, buttery robiolas, washed rind stinkers and the brilliant monks who coaxed them into perfection. In our pre-service meetings, we discussed kumquats and uni and sunchokes, rabbit rositto and sabayon. My mind exploded. In this chandeliered restaurant with a coat closet full of furs, I felt alive.

I tried a bite of Portuguese azeitão. (Do you know this cheese? You should know it. It is sheepy, feety, savory, and revelatory.) There were fireworks. But then I worried about my new size-tiny jacket and resolved to eat nothing else that day. It was worse than worry, a savage fear that made my stomach sourer than azeitão.

My butt hurt when I sat. I was fascinated by the emergence of pointy hip bones, the concave scoop above my clavicle. But I knew this new body was unreal. It did not belong to me. I hadn’t gotten my period in months. I passed out in pilates class.

My diet became an anorexia diagnosis. My anorexia diagnosis felt like an awful joke. I daydreamed about soft-ripened cheeses. I made elaborate meals and nutty muffins for my college housemates, braising short ribs by day and mixing big bowls of cookie dough at night. We threw parties with hors d’oeuvres on trays we stole from the Spanish department. I mustered all my might; I didn’t partake.

And then, something shifted. I licked the cookie dough spatula and it was so deeply good, I wanted to cry.

I wish I could tell you I saw a therapist and nutritionist (I did) and they wondrously cured me and I lived happily ever after (not so much). Instead, what followed was years of binging and restricting; ten course meals and fine wines and midnight mac ‘n cheese; boxes of cereal scarfed in minutes; lots of sizes of jeans; eons on the stupid elliptical; days of nothing but coffee and bananas; a self-hatred so fiery and consuming I sometimes felt my vision go wobbly, my heart drop into my stomach like a bowling ball.

This torment was confined to the deepest recesses of secrecy. My best friend knew, she said years later, and tried lovingly to talk to me. “I’m fine,” I insisted until sometimes, I believed myself. I read everything about eating disorders, and diets, and nutrition. I knew better.

My beautiful best friend, the cool girls, were innately skinny. I had to preform all sorts of feats to become and stay that way, and failed even at that. 

An eating disorder seemed an unbelievably lame thing, the antithesis of cool. Cue the Lifetime specials. They felt antifeminist. And superficial, and ridiculous. Dull and predictable. Yet here I was, sobbing on the scratchy dorm room carpet because my tiny designer jeans that Jose the runner sold me for $20 in the locker room wouldn’t button.

Just like a disproportionally large percentage of the bartender population are alcoholics, so are many, many of us food people riddled with complicated, dysfunctional relationships with food. The shame is pervasive, and deep. Dana, the pretty manager at a restaurant where I worked, made her cup of lowfat Greek yogurt last the whole 12 hour day, sucking away at scant spoonfuls. So silly, and so sad. A fellow food writer mentioned the bulimia that haunts her. Courses that never end at the fanciest restaurants, that frantic search for somewhere to throw them up.

“I haven’t told anyone,” she told me. “Not a soul.”

Not to mention the wildly dysfunctional relationship our culture has with food. Food is love, fun, joy, identity. It is good and evil; sacred and profane. Our bodies mean everything. If a girl has made it into an adulthood without fighting a war with her food, her body — wow.

When graduation rolled around, I was leaving for a fancy restaurant job in LA. I had truly great friends. My professors urged, “don’t stop writing.” My GPA was a big, respectable number. Yet I felt I had failed utterly. My thighs rubbed together under my sky-blue gown.

I’ve since found a tremendous amount of recovery and peace. An understanding that it’s not really about the food — it’s about my head, and heart. I’ve unearthed a cast of demons, and shared them with people who understand, and some who do not. They too are as kind as they know how to be.

I’ve come to know that cool girls are apparitions, and that skinniness is not a magical city where every breath in is ecstatic. But it’s one thing to get it and another thing to feel it in my bones. Slowly, slowly, I’m getting there. I love my food life fiercely: the never-ending quest for deliciousness, joy, and freedom.

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