[CW: eating disorders]
Breathe in. Let your eyes close. Let your mind wander.
Think back to a time when you were happy as a child. There must have been times when you were happy.
Notice any tension in your forehead. Relax the muscles between your eyebrows.
The time when you were three and your parents took you to a water park. You were scared of the tallest slides, but you felt safe in Daddy’s arms. You loved the bright pink flowers on your black swimsuit, the neon green ruffles around your waist. The river stone pathways bisecting the park, shaded by the arching branches of longleaf pines. Chlorine burned at the back of your nose. Water beaded on your skin and dripped from the pointed curls at the ends of your pigtails, chilling your shoulders where the drops made contact. But Daddy’s skin was warm and the wiry hair of his chest tickled your face where you leaned against him.
Let your jaw go slack. Loosen your tongue inside your mouth.
The time when you were eight and your parents took you and your sister to Pizza Hut. You loved Pizza Hut, back when it was a destination, a sit-down restaurant where the waitresses smiled at you and gave you extra peppermints. It was your favorite place, the distinctive sloped roof and red sign inciting an almost pavlovian response each time your parents’ car turned into the crumbling asphalt parking lot. Your mouth would begin to water and your stomach would grumble in anticipation of the soft crust, tangy sauce and chewy mozzarella that awaited you. This time, you were seated at the best table in the restaurant, the one right in the middle of the room, equidistant from the buffet on one side and the fountain drink machines on the other. Positioned so you could see each new pie exiting the kitchen on its way to the buffet, could be the first to grab a slice of every pizza that called to you.
Release any tension in your shoulders. Feel your belly expand as the air fills your lungs.
The time when you were ten and your mother took you shopping at the department store on the military base. It was the mid-nineties and long floral skirts were everything. You tried one on, lavender with white flowers. Beautiful. You turned left and right, admiring your reflection in the narrow dressing room mirror as Mariah Carey’s latest single warbled softly through the speakers in the ceiling. You felt elegant, like a princess. You couldn’t wait to open the chipped white door and show your mother.
Bring your awareness to your lower back. Feel your sits bones pressing into the floor.
Your teenage years, spending every weekend at the gym with your dad. Muscles burning as he pushed you harder on the bench press, corrected your form on your bicep curls. He only took you to the gym, not your mother or your sister, because you were Daddy’s Girl. Your friends were all jealous of how close you were with your dad; the other men at the gym hid their smiles as they complimented your form and remarked on how they could never get their own daughters to spend so much time with them. Your dad was clearly doing something right.
Now hold the breath. Notice the sensation of your lungs filled with air.
Your high school graduation. You were valedictorian, so proud that all of your hard work had paid off. You picked your way up the steps on the side of the stage, careful not to trip in the high heels your mother had bought you for the ceremony. You approached the podium to make your speech, somber, dignified, in your black robe and mortarboard hat. Your shoulders were draped with a shining gold stole which matched the tassel hanging from the edge of your cap. You took a deep breath, brushed the dangling tassel away from your face. A camera flashed, the room went blurry. You smiled.
Slowly - slowly - begin to breathe out. Let the air slide from your lips.
Let it go, along with the memory of Daddy setting you down on the river rock path at the water park. He'd leaned over your shoulder, reaching one long arm out to point straight ahead. Look at Mommy. She was strolling away from you further up the path, dimpled thighs brushing together below a flowery blue swimsuit. You smiled, were about to call out to her, when Daddy spoke again. That’s disgusting. Look at how terrible she looks. You were confused, sad - how could Mommy be disgusting? Look at her legs. So fat. They’re not supposed to look like that.
Feel the pressure in your belly release as the breath flows out.
Your abdomen was the first place your mother’s eyes always went when she took you shopping. You remember opening the dressing room door to show her that beautiful lavender skirt. She looked straight at your midsection, eyes drawn like magnets to the curve of your lower belly. Her nose scrunched and her lip curled, as though the sight of you smelled terrible. You need to start doing sit-ups. She didn’t buy you the skirt.
Let your shoulders drop as you continue to exhale.
Your shoulders had been hunched around your ears until you left the Pizza Hut, mortified, wishing you could disappear. You and your sister had been arguing about who would get the last slice of the cinnamon-drizzled dessert pizza, when your father reached his left hand back and swung it out across the table. Neither one of you needs the calories! He slapped you both across the face and the entire restaurant went silent. I got them both on the same swing, two for the price of one! He told that story for years afterward.
Empty the lungs completely. Let go of any lingering tension.
The tension you felt, all the times you didn’t want to be in the gym with your father. You wanted to be at home, watching TV with your sister, who never had to go to the gym with your dad, because she was thin. But you weren’t, and your dad couldn’t let you be disgusting. He’d make you stand behind the machines while he exercised, weighted plates sliding up on the pulleys and clattering back down, swapping out with you between sets. Remember - or rather, try not to remember - the time you interrupted one of his sets to ask if you could go home. His arm shot out, his fist wrapping around your jaw, cracking your head back against the whitewashed cinder block wall. His fingers, so strong from lifting weights every day, squeezing your face so hard you thought your teeth might break. The other men in the gym looked away, embarrassed, and continued their reps. You’ll go home when we’re done! But you’d never be done, because you could never be as thin as your sister. It felt like a betrayal when you found out about her eating disorder. She’d discovered the secret to avoiding your father’s wrath, and she hadn’t shared it with you.
Now, bring your awareness back to your fingers and toes.
It was the camera flash that made your vision blur at graduation. It was the giddiness of being up on a stage, about to speak in front of so many people, that made you dizzy. It wasn’t the hunger gnawing away at you, the residual blood rush behind your eyes from the ten minutes you’d just spent in the ladies’ room ridding yourself of the celebratory breakfast you’d gulped down with your family before the ceremony. When was the last time you’d eaten before that? Two days ago? Three? It didn’t matter, because your stomach, underneath your billowing robe, was finally flat. Your hard work had paid off; your father could finally be proud of you. He posed for pictures with you after the ceremony, one arm around your shoulders, and suggested you keep the hat on but lose the robe. It’s not flattering on you.
Well, you were almost happy.
When you’re ready, open your eyes.