Girl in the gym
All the world round, anorexic girls in gyms look the same way. You can recognize them so quickly. They wear unusually large loose clothes. They are there when you arrive and there when you leave. They exercise with a concentration, a drive that is only matched by the professional athlete with something at stake.
I’ve seen them everywhere. They have different languages and nationalities, yet they are all bound together by a compulsion that other people cannot understand.
She was always at the gym that summer. Every day I went, morning or night, she was there. She had stringy, long blond hair, always worn in a high ponytail – not golden blond – but kind of a faded, whitish color. She wore baggy sweat pants and a big blue sweatshirt, but you could tell by her wrists that there was something wrong; they were just bones peaking out of the fabric connected to long fingers sheathed in dry, flaky skin and tipped in chipped nails.
When she took off her sweatshirt you saw that her ribs, plastered to her shirt, looked like bas-relief. Her sweat pants puddled around her thighs every time she sat down, giving away the outline they were meant to hide.
I always saw her struggling intently with arm machines, pushing methodically for at least half an hour. She lifted a good amount of weight but you could see no muscles. I secretly cringed each time she pushed at a weight, half expecting her bones to snap.
Maybe she could have been pretty, but it was hard to tell. Everything about her was stringy, toughened. She was probably under 20, in fact I think she was in high school, but her face was sunken in and yellowish. No matter how hard she worked out, she never flushed.
She seemed shy and usually kept to herself. But one day I overheard her talking to one of the other teenagers there who worked at reception. She said laughingly how people always ask her if she’s anorexic. I could tell from her smile she kind of liked knowing people wondered if she were anorexic…after all it meant she looked thin.
And she said with a bit of diffidence, “Some people just have thin frames. My bones are thinner than average. I mean I eat so much! I try to gain weight but I can’t.”
I remember making those same statements in high school. I remember sometimes making them preemptively even though no one had asked. Just so no one would worry. Just in case maybe they were worried.
Anorexic girls always claim they are just built like that, and it has nothing to do with how they eat. Anorexic girls claim to eat all the time and yet somehow you never see them doing it; at mealtimes they always say they’ll eat later or that they already ate earlier.
My sister and I would ask each other, once safely outside and out of hearing range, how it was that no one was helping this girl, stopping her, keeping her from herself. Where was her family, where were her friends? Why didn’t they do something? Why didn’t they notice she was ill, that she was exercising herself to death? But friends and family of anorexics often don’t see these girls like strangers can, they see them as the memory of someone healthy, a ghost of their past selves. They hear their comforting words “I’m just like that! Some people just have thin frames. I eat all the time” and believe them. They need to believe them somehow.
Or if the spell is broken and the person sees the bony body, the sunken eyes, the unhealthy skin and hair, the stark truth, they feel awkward, helpless, and a distance grows between them and their friend. The people that could help these girls the most often grow the furthest away.
The next summer I went back to Alaska and went back to my gym. I expected to see her there everyday as before. But I never saw her again.
New York, New York
At first you think it’s nice; your friend perhaps IS a little overweight, and DOES have horrible eating habits. It’s great that she is taking charge of her health, starting to exercise and deciding not to eat such unhealthy things. At first she really looks better. You can tell the exercise is making a difference. Every pound she loses, she looks happier.
But it all happens so fast. In just a few weeks she’s lost 20 pounds. A week later she’s lost more weight. Now when you run into her sweating at the gym you feel uncomfortable, even though you smile and you chat just like you used to. Something seems wrong.
She is smaller. And then smaller and smaller.
Her cheeks have turned to hollows, highlighting cheekbones you never knew she had. She has a new, haunted kind of look. Her once sizable breasts have shrunk down to small A’s that she clearly pads to make them stiff, unyielding B’s. Starvation chic.
She looks away disgustedly now when she sees pictures of herself from a few months earlier.
Everything about her is nervous. Like a little bird. When you see her sometimes you can see her carotid arteries pressing through the flesh, pulsing far too quickly.
When you suggest going out to dinner some night, you see her hesitate before agreeing. You go out as a group of friends and she orders pasta. That seems like a good sign – but you realize she keeps the same bite of food on her fork for many minutes at a time, pretending to bring it to her mouth anytime anyone is looking at her. She repeats the motion with the same bite of pasta over and over again until she’s eaten perhaps five or six real bites. Then she says she’s full and pushes the plate away. Although she is smiling, her eyes dart anxiously around the table to see how people react. Some don’t notice, and those that do pretend not to.
She is always at the gym when you go these days, but you avoid her now. All your friends avoid her now because the awkwardness of her recognition of the questions and concern in your eyes when you see her, and the pretense of normalcy, can be too much for either of you. Hugging her hurts you both.
Pau, Aquitaine, France
She is tall, slim. You can’t quite tell how thin because of her sweat pants. She is on a machine when you enter the room. She is sweating profusely. She is moving quickly in little fast steps on one of the most difficult aerobic machines in the gym – the higher the level, the faster you have to move to keep from touching the floor. She listens to fast-paced music on headphones, and moves her feet several times every second – back-forth-back-forth-back-forth. She doesn’t look towards you when you enter the room but dead ahead, concentrated on a spot on the wall.
You think, okay it’s healthy to move that fast for small stretches of time – interval training, right? Where one does short bursts of intense exercise followed by stretches of lighter exercise, a break. You are impressed by her strength and determination.
You get on your own machine and start working out – hard but not all that fast. The minutes pass. You start to sweat. She is next to you. You try not to look towards her, but she is still going at a frenetic speed. And she keeps going. You expect her to slow down at some point, but she goes on and on. She never slows down, not even one little bit when she bends over to wipe her face with her sweatshirt.
You see her out of the corner of your eye in little snatches. A glimpse of bony upper arm. Veins raised on her neck and forehead. The intent, unflagging, focused look in her eye.
Yes, anorexic girls look the same in every gym, in every country.
She finally finishes after 25 minutes of moving at an exhausting, frantic, fevered pace. You see her again a few minutes later on a different machine, this time running. Running so fast. Running from something. Never slowing.
She is on yet a different machine when you leave the gym, climbing and climbing like the world is on fire and she is trying to escape.