Impressionistic painting of a figure at a table surrounded by stylized water

Henri-Edmond Cross, Venice: Night of the Festival of the Redeemer (1903) | Met Open Access

Content note: this piece contains extensive discussion of eating disorders.

The summer I got my period was the summer I stopped eating. 

During the decade that I battled anorexia, every morning would start the same way: still in bed and lying on my back, I would draw symmetrical circles with my fingers around my protruding hip bones, mentally measuring and rejoicing in just how concave the valley of my stomach was after a night’s sleep. I would wrap my right fingers around my left wrist: thumb and index finger connecting first, then thumb and middle finger, thumb and ring finger, thumb and little finger. My left fingers would follow suit, checking the circumference of my right wrist, the anxiety diminishing with each overlapping pair of fingers. I would bend my legs, my knees leaning into one another, as I placed two knuckles, side by side, between my thighs. Thank god, they still fit.

My fingertips would explore my body, pinching random spots to ensure that, well, there wasn’t anything to pinch: that there was no softness, no fleshy excess, no presence of skin, fat, or muscle there for any reason other than survival. Until I reached a point of assurance that my slumber had left my body unaltered (un-fattened), the examination would continue over my entire frame—always avoiding, however, inspecting my breasts. 

Their presence, and insistent development, was the embodiment of my biology doing what it was programmed to do, as it disobediently undid the ravenous labor I put into forcing it to do the opposite. They represented the adult, the womanly, the loss of a youth whose value I only truly comprehended once it was gone.

In her forthcoming book Dead Weight: Essays on Hunger and Harm (Knopf, 2024), Emmeline Clein candidly traces the story of her own illness. In writing that’s tirelessly scrupulous yet consistently honest and self-reflective, Clein balances curiosity with confrontation as she questions pernicious stereotypes, catch-22-esque diagnoses, and incessant, insidious narratives.

During my own battle with anorexia, my breasts came to symbolize the trepidation I felt about the slightest change in my body—a fact that makes complete sense to me now. As Clein writes: 

Anna Freud once called anorexia the “asceticism of puberty.” Adolescence can be a time when the body begins feeling like a cage, one you don’t have the key to… In a society that weight shames and slut shames, I get it, everyone’s obsession with your body can make you want to remind them you have a mind.

From around the age of 14, I delighted in my increasingly severe eating disorder and all-consuming exercise addiction, and revelled in the resultant halt in the development of boobs, hips, and ass. I figured that I had hacked the system: I’d understood that to be woman is to diet, to be woman is to hunger for girlhood’s youth, to be woman is to “disconnect mind from growling stomach,” as Clein puts it—and I’d discovered it early enough to manipulate my figure to remain that of the young girl while I still was one. “I watched my body shrink in the mirror,” Clein writes, “proud to discover how powerful my mind was.” I know the feeling. I had deciphered the terms of the society I was growing up in, and was almost smug with the knowledge that I had subverted the rulebook.

Throughout Dead Weight’s fiercely galvanizing essays, Clein repeatedly returns to writing that evokes religion, spirituality, and sainthood: “A ghostly Kate Moss whispering her shibboleth, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”; “I learned to find something sacred in skeletons and something profane in the way my skin folded”; “the anorexic is ecstatic, an almost-levitating saint—she might faint but she’s floating.” 

Much like Clein, my dogma of skinniness was driven by an essentially ascetic dream of shrinking myself to physical purity, less pious innocence and more untouched emptiness and utter lightness—the heavenly opposite of being at the mercy of nature’s sticky, heavy corporeality.

My emaciating discipline was so unflinchingly indestructible because I, like Clein, had mastered the art of the consciousness split: of existing both in the body and appraising it from the outside. Though I’ve ostensibly forgotten a lot from the worst, most hollow years, my friends from boarding school will tell me now that every evening, like clockwork, upon being offered dinner, I would shoo the plate away, stating that “my body might be hungry, but my mind isn’t.” Clein asserts that “many girls learn to dissociate early, usually in early adolescence but really whenever we first notice the way our outfits and makeup or lack thereof can provoke reactions.” Feeling like you have any power at all requires “stepping out of your body” and “a complete commitment to that bird’s-eye view of your life.”

I genuinely do not recall a time before I understood that meeting beauty standards necessitates a form of violence against the natural self—though I can now recognize that violence, it felt more like an invitingly provocative dare than a sad truth to my prepubescent self. It’s an odd experience to, in retrospect, realize how incessantly you’ve been working, both consciously and not. Every time I giggled girlishly to brush off a comment about my withering waist, I was working; every time I had sex, terrified of moving at the risk of revealing a dimple of cellulite or a wobble of fat, I was working; every time I separated my mind from my body and assessed myself from the outside, I was working. 

I have rarely read such intimate, revelatory, exhaustive, and sensitively strong writing as in Emmeline Clein’s essays. Her insight leaves me both close to tears and ready to revolt. “They’ve been telling us ‘you are what you eat’ since we were kids, and trust us, we know,” Clein insists. Ingesting the electric wisdom of Dead Weight revealed far more to me about my anorexia experience than I had ever expected and, perhaps, had hoped. I can’t imagine that I will be able to stop thinking about Clein’s words—nor, indeed, that I would want to.