I Developed An Eating Disorder. Then I Became Pro-Choice
Marya Hornbacher’s “Wasted” introduced me to the importance of bodily autonomy when I needed it most
In the hills of Appalachia, my mother volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center where she offered desperate women diapers, ultrasounds, and prayer. These centers were associated with our church, set up to offer assistance to women tempted to seek abortions. I was born into a fundamentalist Christian family in the socially conservative state of West Virginia. In elementary school, I held pro-life signs in picket lines. I performed in a gruesome short play entitled “The Sanctity of Life” where I gave voice to a fetus pleading with her mother to continue her pregnancy. At the age of twelve, I made a covenant to guard my virginity until marriage, and I was dutiful in this vow.
On the surface, I was a well-behaved Christian girl playing by the many rules my culture had set before me. Privately, though, there was no concept I understood more fully than that of my body, my choice. My restrictive environment had unwittingly given birth to a problem: an eating disorder. And no one understands the concept of bodily autonomy like a person who has struggled with restrictive eating.
I went on my first diet at the age of seven. After eating a spaghetti dinner, I evaluated my belly in the bathroom mirror and decided it looked similar to the midsection of the pregnant pianist at church. Even as a young girl, I had insight into the duplicitous ways pregnancy and motherhood were discussed in our community: supposedly celebrated, but in so many other tangible ways, punished. Eavesdropping on the conversations of my mothers’ friends, I learned that the women who sought assistance at the pregnancy center were pitied, at best, despised, at worst. And I knew that the help they received in the form of complimentary hygienics and counseling were not enough to substantially lighten the load of motherhood, an undertaking that our pastor frequently referred to as “the hardest job in the world.”
I kept my diet secret, lest it encounter scrutiny. I told my mother as she packed my lunch for school that I would like for her to begin sending me salads. “I want to start being more healthy,” I said. Healthy, a safe and innocent goal, one that if I were to hear expressed by a precocious little girl today would cause me great alarm. In the 90s, though, the pursuit of health had not yet been interrogated, and this aspiration was something all the adults in my life would have considered good.
Years passed. My dieting morphed into disorder–many of the textbook behaviors, all the cliché obsessions.
But here’s one component that characterized my disordered eating that was not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM): I was obsessed with reading about my own pathology. Perhaps even more than I was fixated on my body’s size, I was preoccupied with finding an answer to the question of why I was so centered on my body in the first place.
I read secretly–like I did most things that mattered to me, things that I did not want taken away. It felt, quite acutely, that the eating disorder was all that I could ever possess or accomplish that would ever truly be mine. In daily sermons, I learned that my desires were symptoms of my depravity. To want too much revealed a sinful heart, and so I tried to conceal my passions. As a girl in my religious context, I felt limited. I’d learned that women were born to submit to men, that my ultimate purpose in this life was marriage followed by motherhood. I felt able to narrow my desires in the present and my dreams for the future–that is, as long as I had my eating disorder to keep me company.
As a teenager, I quietly logged onto my parents’ desktop computer to find names of books about eating disorders. I deleted my search history immediately afterward, memorizing titles and authors for my trips to the downtown library. I felt shame checking out these books, like the librarian would realize what I was as she scanned each title.
I had a method for hiding. I found the one book I was actually interested in. Then, I gathered other books that I had no interest in at all. Inspirational romance novels. A popular YA book. A “how to” about gardening. I tucked the book about eating disorders in the middle of the pile, front cover down. I held my breath as the librarian scanned each title, hoping she wouldn’t linger, or worse, make a comment about my choices aloud.
Many people with eating disorders describe communing with books rather than people. In an episode of This American Life from 2021 entitled “Secrets,” Susan Burton interviews women whose eating disorders were the biggest thing in their lives they never spoke about.
“My main experience is that I read other peoples’ books about it,” one woman says. “I don’t talk to other people about it.”
Each interviewee describes profound loneliness in this secrecy. Nearly all confess to a fear that, if they were to share, others would think of them as shallow–an example of how pain associated with the feminine experience is commonly dismissed or belittled.
This retreat from the body into the mind is a logical one. The practice mirrors the disorder’s pathology: a fixation on keeping the mouth shut, an obsession with escaping the flesh, because, perhaps, you are in a place where it is not safe to be a body.
I read Lori Gottlieb’s childhood diary turned YA-novel that detailed the interiority of a young woman consumed by a diet-turned-wrong. I devoured Steven Levenkron’s depiction of the stereotypical anorexic (white, -cis, female, upper-class, and thin) cured by the (loosely autobiographical) white, male savior therapist in The Best Little Girl in the World. I checked out biographies of fasting girls, starving saints.
But it was Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted that resonated with me most fully. The book’s soft white cover centered a black-and-white figure of a sad-looking girl in nineties denim. A neon green strip raced down the side of the paperback’s binding. Written at the age of twenty-three, Hornbacher’s memoir details a chaotic adolescence vacillating from bulimia to anorexia and back again. Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, it was one of the key texts that characterized the 90s memoir boom.
Hornbacher was the epitome of the trainwreck girl. To a casual observer, I—with my quiet disposition and long denim skirts—was the opposite of her. Still, I was enthralled by her self-deprecating humor and manic prose. I was interested in the gruesome details of her disorder, how very ugly it was, and of course, I was drawn to the specific and shocking lists of numbers.
Most significantly, though, I was entranced by her unflinching takedown of the patriarchal institutions that seek to police and control women’s bodies. I had never considered that the desire to micromanage my body may have been due to living in an environment where female bodies were so closely patrolled. Hornbacher’s words sparked a revelation in me: perhaps I was drawn to disappearance because it was precisely what I had been told I, as a woman, needed to do.
After checking out Wasted from the library a half dozen times, I found a way to secretly order a copy of my own. The book arrived in a box with two other books–for school, I told my mother with put-on nonchalance as I rushed with the package to my bedroom. I kept Hornbacher’s memoir hidden under my bed, beneath a stack of Christian living books and my Bible. For most of my life, my media had undergone explicit scrutiny. My parents utilized a resource put out by the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family called Plugged In that provided comprehensive moral reviews of popular music, television, movies, and books. I knew that Hornbacher’s memoir would certainly be cited as contraband.
Throughout high school I read Wasted before bed each night. It was part of my nighttime ritual. After the journaling of calories and the completion of several hundred sit-ups, the chewing and spitting donuts, the leg lifts, the Bible reading–after all of this, I would retrieve Wasted from its hidden spot beneath my bed to indulge in just a few pages. This was my devotion.
“When I was nine, and indisputably a virgin,” Hornbacher recounts, “I stood in front of the mirror sticking my little belly out, wondering in panic if I might have gotten pregnant from playing doctor with a little boy when I was five, and if I was still pregnant, how would I explain it to my parents? What would they say?”
Hornbacher was not pregnant at the age of nine. She was, however, by the age of fourteen. Without any sort of formal sex education, Hornbacher learned about sex by simply doing it.
Hornbacher asks her friends, hypothetically, what would you do if you found out you were pregnant? Would you consider an abortion? “I casually fished for opinions,” she recounts, “a unanimous no, ringing with the righteous certainty of Catholic girls who’ve never had sex. Abortion is Wrong, we all agreed.”
One paragraph later, though, nature made the choice for Hornbacher. It happened during dinner one evening, as she played games with the food on her plate. A snap, small, like the snip of a thread. She excused herself to the bathroom where she found herself doubled over, pale, and shaking. Then, the sharp stabbing.
“Well. That was easy,” she says. “I remember standing up on the toilet when it was over, lifting my skirt up, and looking at the blood coating the inside of my thighs. And then I remember getting distracted. I turned to one side and scrutinized my butt. Fat ass, I thought. Pig.”
I read this scene over and over. I understood, deeply, the fear of pregnancy. And I identified intimately with her own distraction, the myopic obsession with one’s own flesh in the midst of (in this case, another) life falling apart.
And though I could not imagine myself in Hornbacher’s predicament–so terrified was I of sex, of men, of desire–I empathized with her fear. The fear of your body betraying you, of judgment, of growing large against your will.
I thought, this is what I would do, too. If I had a miscarriage today, I would look away from the blood, and think about the size of my butt, instead.
And then, a snap occurred in my own brain. In the same way no one could force me to stop the calorie counting, the meal skipping, or the relentless exercise, I realized that restricting a person will never actually make them do what you want them to do. Often, it results in the opposite. When you reduce someone’s agency, a person often acts against themselves. You can’t force somebody to carry a pregnancy against her will.
And that’s when the conversion happened: that’s when I became pro-choice.
I did not publicly identify with this label–not at first. Once, I broached it with my mother: I think I believe in a woman’s right to choose, I said one day. She tried to reason with me, Bible verses, biology–maybe she even attempted to meet me halfway, showing sympathy toward women who might want to make that choice, specifically if they were victims of harsh life circumstances. But there was no rationale that could overcome my lived experience, that deep knowing that there is no freedom without choice, that we will all make the decisions we are bent to make, regardless of an outsider’s opinion about our situation.
When I was a girl, our home number was associated with the pregnancy center where my mother volunteered. Occasionally, I answered the cordless in the kitchen to hear the voice of a fearful woman asking for assistance in crisis. Sometimes, I imagined the face of the woman on the other end of the line. I saw her as Other, as someone that I, in some sort of birthright, could never actually become. But if my adolescent eating disorder gave me a gift, it was this: it gave me the eyes to see my own frailty. It made me realize the impossibility of perfection, the necessity of grace, and the humanity in having a net waiting after we all inevitably fall.