I was a teenaged anorexic. I wasted away while others watched in alarm. I got noticed.
I lost my period for a year and a half. Teachers called me in after class because they wanted to “have a talk”. I was shy and geeky and awkward and had no idea how to engage men. But as I got thinner, I became more vulnerable, more fragile. My outside matched my inside, telegraphing to the world how much I wanted to be cared for.
I’ve read that a woman’s sexual body language includes physical gestures intended to make her appear smaller. At 16, I had no sexual voice, but I knew enough to make myself smaller. Anorexia plagues high-achieving smart girls (it was rampant at Princeton) — no doubt because there’s a logic to it. It’s a way of succeeding, competing in the sexual arena. Against other women, against ourselves, against estrogen-rich bodies that want to keep us fat.
I didn’t have a lot of friends as a teenager, but anorexia changed that. Inexplicably, the most popular girl in our class befriended me. Another anorexic. One night, I was spending the night at her house. We were changing out of our school uniforms, and as we stood there in just our tights, she said “You’re getting really thin. I’m really worried about you.”
“I’m really thin? You’re really thin. I’m worried about you.”
Our friendship might have been a case of keep your enemies closer: suddenly, I was in danger of becoming thinner than her, more fragile, more noticeable, more starving on the inside and thus able to starve on the outside. More deserving of love by virtue of my neediness, fragility and discipline. This was a rival she needed to keep tabs on.
It takes courage to carve your story down to the barest flesh and heart and bones. We cloak our work in extra material, extra words, extra flesh, fat, because we’re afraid of showing our true selves. We’re afraid it’s not good enough, so we pad it out with more dialogue, more description, more scenes, more jokes. If you’re really afraid it’s not good enough, chances are you need to get leaner.
Find the emotional heart, track that and don’t be afraid to show what you’re made of. Your story is an anorexic carving out her body so that her tenderest, most vulnerable frame will show. She has an intuitive understanding, a radar, for detecting exactly what she has to do to inspire love, care, nurture, attention. She’s a smart girl. She shivers in the glare of scrutiny, exposed, eager to show you the curves of her bones, all the well-traveled paths to her heart. Her body screams: SEE ME. NOTICE ME. CARE FOR ME. LOVE ME. Your story starves its frame to focus maximum attention on its most tender parts. And you want your audience to feel like concerned teachers and parents and competing anorexics, so moved on seeing it they can’t help but help. You want your audience to feel so sucked in, they’re part of it now. You want your story’s starved drama to be emotionally compelling, and your audience’s response co-dependent.