[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
“Sarah,” my teacher drones, not looking up from his attendance sheet. I numbly chirp, “here,” and continue staring out the window. I’m wearing jeans and my boyfriend’s hooded sweatshirt. My boyfriend goes to a different school, nearly an hour’s drive away, so I’m only able to see him on weekends. I enjoy the space between us, as well as the social capital that having a boyfriend grants me. In adolescence, the hallmark of a cool girl was wearing an oversized sweatshirt that smelled of Axe body spray and teenaged boy sweat.
It's only the third class of the day, and I’m exhausted. I was up at 5:00 a.m. to run on my treadmill in the basement before showering, making breakfast, and driving to school with my brother, who is only a year ahead of me. The landscape outside is bleak and colorless. The temperature has not risen above ten degrees for a week, and the snow outside has become hard and icy and dirty. I dislike winter and I dislike sitting in class and I even dislike going to basketball practice after school, even though there is nothing else to do in this town.
I’m in my Sociology class, taught by a particular teacher whose approval I desperately crave. I craved the approval of most figures of authority; teachers, coaches, my parents, any adult who I happened to come in contact with. And the best way that I knew to win approval was by being smart and conscientious and good at sports and quiet. I was a good kid, a good girl, with a devilish streak inside of her that was quieted by too much exercise and not enough food.
At the beginning of the year, when my teacher handed out our books, I noticed that the first name written on the inside of the front cover was dated 1980. The book was nearly 30 years old and falling apart. I was so tired. So, so, tired, and I had two more classes until lunch, when I’d eat a baggie of carrot sticks and a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I wasn’t eating enough for the amount of activity I was doing, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I liked the dead feeling in my legs as I sat in hard, uncomfortable classroom chairs. I liked doing something that I knew none of my peers were doing; running a bunch and slowly, deliberately starving myself thin. I liked that none of my teachers or peers knew how much better I was for my willpower, my manic desire to embrace discomfort. I liked, above all, being different.
My eating disorder started very young. People often think that the media is the root cause of eating disorders, but I don’t think that’s true. I grew up on a farm with limited interaction with the outside world and very limited access to media. We only had a few TV channels and my parents only recently, like in 2021, got high-speed internet. My media came largely in the form of print; books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, and some of it was pretty fucked up, but a lot of it innocuous, light-hearted and kid-friendly.
My eating disorder originated from a need to feel in control of something. I had a perfectionist streak that sometimes kept me up at night, and I was a deeply sensitive child who internalized the words and actions of the people around me. When my family made comments about their own bodies, or the bodies of other people, I wondered if my body was under such scrutiny, too.
I was in fourth grade when a boy at school called me fat, which is exactly when I became acutely aware of my body. He was a standard bully, with the standard bully timeline: popular-bully-kid picks on everyone and thereby earns social status. But popular-bully-kid has few real friends because everyone is wary of him. He will remain a popular-bully throughout our schooling, all the way until graduation. Now, popular-bully-kid is a slightly-overweight, mediocrely attractive father living on the outskirts of the small, Midwestern town I grew up in.
I couldn’t see the future at the time though, all I could see was that popular-bully-kid made my life at school a living nightmare and I barely knew him. At least I could go home and get away from him after school, the school bus my haven, the woods behind my parents house a sanctuary.
Because popular-bully-kid made fun of me for being fat, I started writing little workout plans for myself, not because I enjoyed the process of working out so much as I knew that working out was the best way to not became fat. I started not eating sweets, and later, in high school, that restriction extended further, to any number of foods I found "unhealthy." In sixth grade, I joined the cross-country team, and then, I started winning races. Popular-bully-kid shut up as my minor successes piled up around me while he started drinking too early, getting in fights, and doing the minimum amount necessary to squeak by. I, on the other hand, was doing overtime and then some, and that isn't meant to be braggadocios. I was tired most of the time and lonely more often than makes sense.
My obsession with exercise and my dedication to winning was fueled by a need to prove to the world, and to myself, that I was good enough. That I was loveable. That I was mentally tough, capable, and above all, not fat.
Because I was a runner, I also internalized the faulty belief that I needed to stay the same size forever or else become very slow. Dozens of voices perpetuated this belief. My sociology teacher for one, the college coaches who recruited me, even people in my community who were simply spectators of high school sports. I learned that growing into a woman meant I’d be slower and less of an athlete, which is the most egregiously fucked up thing that any young girl could ever learn.
“Sarah,” my teacher says again, and I look up from my planner, where I’m doodling in the margins, “You’ve been called to the office,” he says, “you’d better go.”
I was called to the office a lot, usually to pick up recruiting letters and packages from colleges. At first, I loved being called to the office because it made me feel better than my peers. I was getting attention from important people in places that were not my hometown. I was wanted. I mattered.
But soon, the thrill of being called to the office was replaced by tedium and eventually, scorn from some of my peers. One of my classmates was especially annoyed, and let it be known. She was a different kind of bully than popular-bully-kid, because she was a girl and mean girls are nothing like mean boys. Mean boys call you fat and make fun of you to your face. Mean girls make fun of your clothes, your body, your personality, and your brain behind your back. Mean girls act like your friend while they unravel your reputation with deliberate precision.
Mean Girl wasn’t that good at hiding her meanness, though. When she smile at me, she reminded me of Ursula from the Little Mermaid, her mouth too wide and too eager, like she was a cat and I was a mouse. Except, I wasn’t a mouse and even if I was, I was too quick for her to catch. The way I overcame popular-bully-kid was to prove him wrong. I was winning races. Important people were recruiting me from all over the country. I had tangible proof that he was wrong, so he moved on. The way I overcame Mean Girl was to ignore her. Hating her gave her fuel. Trying to befriend her made her hate me even more. But not caring about her took the wind out of her sails. My actions communicated indifference, so her pettiness was wasted. But, I was only able to stop caring because I had other friends, real friends, who loved me regardless of how many times I was called to the office to fetch overheavy envelopes from men in large cities far away. I didn’t have a huge circle of friends, but the friends I had were loyal, smart, bitingly funny, and entirely unconcerned with being cool.
My best friend from High School sent me a text the other day, “Happy Birthday’s Eve” it read.
“Thank you!” I replied, “I’m at a trade show. Yeehaw.”
“I’m at a tradeshow is the most 30 sentence I’ve ever heard” she replied.
Then, on my actual birthday, she wrote, “Grateful to have you as a friend these last 15+ years. Also, that is such a long time. Our friendship has its learner’s permit.”
P.S. This is an excerpt from a larger work that is not yet finished. If you like my writing, subscribe to my blog, find me on Instagram @mcmountain or @sarahmcmahonpoetry, or buy my book of poetry here.