I have no idea what I’ll look like after the age of, about, forty-seven. Not only do the women in my family not subscribe to the idea of “growing old gracefully”, they don’t believe in growing old at all. That the befitting imprints of mother nature are something to be fought, much like an ex-husband’s dwindling alimony or the premature cancellation of “Dynasty”. Such an antiquated notion cannot be uttered without a scornful sneer or contemptuous cackle. Surely no one falls for that line these days? Who were these rubes? Sigh. Peasants. Yes, there really are those who speak this way. I’m not especially proud to admit that I share DNA with them.
The first time cosmetic surgery was proposed for me, I was thirteen years old. My grandparents were taking me on a holiday across Europe, and while being outfitted for a more tasteful wardrobe than I apparently packed for, I noticed my grandmother inspecting my face. She was scowling. She rarely scowled. Frown lines, you know.
“If only we could do away with your father’s nose. Maybe for your sixteenth.”
Well, now. I’d never been overly fond of my nose. But this was the first time ( it would not be the last ) that it had been targeted as an operation-warranted defect. To say this made me self-conscious is the epitome of understatements.
My father’s side of the family is Greek. On the rare occasions when the clan gathered en masse, my pallid cast and towhead made me the undeniable white sheep of the family. This was a perpetual matter of disappointment for all of them. My prominent nose was the only feature that I shared with the swarthy, olive bunch and despite the fact that I was becoming increasingly displeased with it, I felt it was my sole connection to an important piece of my heritage. I couldn’t decide if I was ready to let that go or why I was supposed to want to. And if I did, could my Grecian roots be maintained strictly on the basis of my love for baklava and ouzo?
When I was sixteen, the discussion of the banana on my face was temporarily tabled in favor of a more pressing matter. My grandmother and I were standing before a mirror. I was wearing a bikini. We were vacationing in St.Tropez, France and I was being encouraged to go topless because “NOBODY here wears a bikini top!” I told her somebody would now. Uh oh. I was getting the face. The Chanel eye glasses were slipped on and the poking and pinching began. I was all lean muscle, a competing gymnast and trained dancer. I had also developed seriously disordered eating behaviors that should have been caught. Should have been arrested. But instead, were encouraged. Especially during the summers spent with my grandparents.
“Hmmm, how much do you weigh?” I told grandmother (honestly) that I didn’t know. Just a few years later, I would be weighing myself a dozen or more times a day. I would ensure that I had no make-up on. No deodorant or earrings or perfume. Nothing that could conceivably make me even a smidgen heavier. “Are you.. (sniff of disdain)..happy with the way your body looks, Jennifer?” I wanted to defy her. To raise my chin high into the air and tell her I was strong and powerful. That I could soar and fly and tumble. Perform feats with my body that most could only dream of. But she had hurt me. Struck my greatest complex. And she knew it. I hesitated a moment too long before my proud “Of course.” She had me. It was all over.
“Look at those fat thighs. Those beefy arms..and women aren’t supposed to have muscular stomachs like that…it’s gross. What boy wants to date a girl who is stronger than he is?? I don’t want you coming out with your grandfather and I tonight. It’s embarrassing. Here.” She went to her tote bag. She carried this bag with her that was roughly the size of La-Z-Boy recliner. She was ahead of her time as far as supplement madness went. She could swallow handfuls of vitamin tablets and capsules dry. Just open her throat and slowly push them all down much like a snake swallows its prey. She might have been able to unhinge her jaw, but I have no proof of this. I watched the scene play out before me twice daily with both fascination and revulsion. This time though, she had some magic beans for me as well. Having been deemed too fat for a public viewing, she had no recourse but to fix me. Drastic times..
I don’t remember the color or the size. Just the generous quantity. The pills neatly filled my hand. I was instructed to take them and lose my “disgusting blubber.” I vividly remember that scathing review of my figure. I took them. Why wouldn’t I? I had no desire to be a shut-in all summer, shaming members of my family with my wanton obesity. My grandparents left for a night of operatic arias and five-star dining while I had been left to sup with the devil, holding a massive overdose of laxatives. I had no idea what to expect but I found out soon. I entertained the possibility that those miniature, seemingly innocent pellets, could kill me. Within the hour, cramps like I hadn’t known were possible, racked my entire body and sent me plummeting to the floor, writhing in paroxysms. Laxatives will have their intended effect, sure-enough, but as an overdose is toxic, the body will also retch furiously in a desperate attempt to expel the contaminant. Both usually happen at the same time. But hey, you might drop five or ten pounds of water weight..for a day. Score! It’s just a shame that you can’t stand up without assistance to enjoy the svelte new you. That night, my grandmother inadvertently began my expedition into the realm of purgatives and emetics that would eventually broaden to include diuretics and ipecac syrup.
If anyone reading this has not had the sheer delight of poisoning themselves with laxatives, let me take this opportunity to advise against the experience. Vehemently. Though incredibly popular in the world of eating disorders, such a method is not only viciously unpleasant and completely ineffective, (reread paragraph above) it is highly dangerous. Even deadly. Immediately preceding my admission to inpatient treatment for anorexia in May 2008, I was admitted to the emergency room of our county hospital. I had been purging all weekend when, without warning, my body decided to put a stop to the whole business. My gag reflex went unexpectedly kaput. In a fit of panic, I searched the city for ipecac. I can only imagine how this looked. A gaunt and wasted woman, frizzy hair and wild-eyed in Betty Boop pajama pants and a holey Rolling Stones T-shirt, lurching into every drugstore within a twenty-five mile radius.
“I was wondering if you sold..um, I think it’s called ipecac syrup? Or something…It’s for my first aid kit at home.” And I need it right now. At seven in the morning. When the hell did they stop selling ipecac over the counter?! Order it?? That does me NO good! Act casual. Maintain. I bought two boxes of laxatives on the way out. Something I hadn’t done in at least ten years. I knew they were only a temporary fix at best. Hardly worth the suffering. But my hysteria was swelling and next to suicide,I failed to establish an alternate course of action. I couldn’t do nothing. I downed the sixty pills in the car on the ride home. It disturbed me that they were candy-coated.
Six hours later, nothing had happened and I was pacing my hallway. Restless. A virtual volcano of anxiety showing imminent signs of eruption. Cold sweat. Hands on the hollow of my belly to quell the butterflies rollicking in there. More! That’s all. I must just need more to remind my system what it’s supposed to do with this stuff. Back to the drugstore. Another box. Another thirty. I wait. My husband, Jeff, finds the empty boxes. I hadn’t bothered to hide them. I had more pressing concerns. Before I knew what was happening, EMT’s were in our living room speaking gently but adamantly in their composed EMT-ish way. They would indeed be taking me in. Yes, they knew I felt fine now, but once the pills kicked in, and they would, I would lose fluids rapidly and my potassium would drop so low I was likely to have a heart attack. Besides, one man added, “you’re gonna want a little morphine to help you through this one.” Sturm und Drang, I rolled my sunken eyes at them all as I was loaded into the ambulance. Sturm und Drang.
Three days later I was still vomiting little pellets. Now that I could have really used that candy-coating, it was gone. And that EMT was dead on about the morphine drip. Except I could have used much more than a little. And perhaps a shot of heroin would not have gone amiss. Unfortunately, it seemed to them that the latter was an unreasonable request. I spent a good amount of this unexpected vacation talking with an overworked and under-appreciated social worker named Paul. He flashed statistics, results of never-ending blood tests and my electrocardiogram films. Told me that if I didn’t get help, I would die. Showed me how my kidneys were showing early signs of failure. How my heart was straining to beat. I turned away from him and culled all the energy I could muster. Concentrated intently on sustaining the rhythmic pulsations that I had taken for granted for so long. I fielded incessant and inane questions. Are you trying to kill yourself? Ninety laxatives? Can you spell “world” backwards? Ninety laxatives? Do you hear animals talking to you? NINETY laxatives?! Yeah, yeah. Ninety. I couldn’t get rid of a dozen doughnuts..what would you do? I was evidently alone in this very logical rationalization. Was I trying to kill myself? For sure. Clearly, death by crapping is the ideal fatal arrangement. Please. Rookies.
A couple of months later I was recounting this experience for a graduate student who was writing her master’s thesis on the role of caffeine and laxative abuse in eating disorders. I’m not sure she was adequately prepared for me. Or more precisely, for any of us who have been enslaved to Ed and the mirror. Who have been willing to dance to the edge of the abyss and look out into oblivion and consider…just consider it. My grandparents are both gone now. My mother is still a “cosmetic re-freshening” devotee. She eschews such inessentials as food and libation (save for wine), as her now finite income is funneled directly into smoothing her crows feet, plumping her lip lines, ironing out her forehead creases, and resurrecting droopy eyebrows. She’s only fooling herself. I think she really is though. Fooling herself. Possibly, that’s all that matters.
As for me? I still have my distinctive nose. It doesn’t bother me the way that it once did. Maybe my face expanded around it some, or maybe it was my mind that did the expanding. Or maybe I like the way it diverts the eye from my once upon a time mentioned “beefy arms” (she says, tongue planted firmly in cheek). The cosmetic surgery industry is this destructive behemoth that we are continually feeding, thus it is continually growing. Recent statistics showed an appalling ten million cosmetic surgeries were performed in 2009. Ten. Million. Ninety-one percent of those being, of course, on women. This is during a period of great economic crisis facing our country. Thankfully, we have our core values well established. Thankfully, we don’t affix “sell by”dates on members of our society, hmm? Thankfully, we’re able to teach our children what can really help them face life on life’s terms. A Brazilian butt lift, permanent expressions of surprise, nipples beaming at the north star, and LOOK OUT WORLD! How do you like me now?!
I’m not implying that it’s easy to age in a world full of eternal youth. Just that I’m trying, in my own decrepit way, to show my daughter something I never saw. Maturity. Receive the furrows on my face as authentication of decades of smiles and laughter and playful winking. And tears. Acknowledge that gravity is a universal law and not a personal assault. That the silvery streaks that hug my midriff are exhibitive fruit that my body carried and nourished children whom I treasure. When I’m able to take a step back and meditate, I have to ask myself: would I be willing to exchange the lushness that is my life, to become a dazzling vision of womanliness? And who exactly has the right to determine that I’m not already? See, I know a few people who just might challenge such a view. They think I’m a pretty valuable package. Even being wrapped up, as I am, in tatters of birthmark and blemish, defect and damage, scar and spot. And if they can see through all of the flaws, to the me that radiates from within? Well, it’s no longer a hopeless expectation that one day, I might catch a glimpse too.