I am 16 years old and tucked safely away in the Berkshires of Connecticut. It's summer of 2002.
Summer is my most sacred time of year. The promise of summer, gorgeous, carefree summer, sustains me throughout the long, dismal school year. Not because I'm lost in a daydream of the warm weather and string bikinis and sunny East Coast beaches, but because I get to go to camp.
This liberal, ethereal, nurturing arts camp is my safe haven. It's my special place, a place I've grown attached to with the fierce relentlessness of a first love.
It's the one place where I'm authentic, wide-eyed with wonder, running around happy and carefree. It's my creative sanctuary, all gold and green and innocent and pure and creative. I'm accepted at camp, understood and liberated from the stifling shackles of public school.
Except this summer just isn't the same.
The summer of my fifteenth year, I was a fearlessly outspoken beanpole of a girl, skipping through the damp grass shoeless, as I kissed every cute punk boy beneath the sprawling, star-scattered New England sky without a semblance of regret.
But an entire lifetime happened between the precarious ages of 15 and 16. Now, at 16, my friends and I have reemerged as vastly different creatures than we were just shy of a year ago.
We've tried drugs. Some of us have even tried cocaine. Most of us have had sex (at least oral sex). We're teeming with hormones and angst and trauma. We've collectively discovered that life isn't fair. That karma isn't real. That the universe won't f*cking protect you. That we're nothing but tiny, irrelevant specks of dust in the grand scheme of things.
For me, a sadness has set in. A sadness that cuts so deep that a little piece of my heart is pierced by its razor sharpness every time I exhale.
And I'm no longer shoeless. I keep big black boots strapped to my feet even in the dead heat of summer.
Sophomore year has been a loaded school year, pregnant with palpable angst and new experiences (read: traumas). I am no longer the clueless freshman sifting through the haunted school hallways like an invisible ghost, but I'm still not the experienced senior girl, confidently smoking cigarettes as I ponder the life beyond high school. I'm just 16 and in the thick of being a teenager.
It's been a year of toxic romance, the unpleasant loss of virginity, substance experimentation and unshakeable pressure to live up to the impossible media interpretation of what a 16-year-old girl is supposed to look like.
I hate the way I look. Seemingly overnight, my body has metamorphosed from being a string bean kid to a woman with hips and curves and breasts.
I don't like it.
My body feels too sophisticated for my brain. I feel like it’s putting me in situations I'm not ready for: unwelcome lingering eyes grazing my breasts from men old enough to be my father; catcalls in the parking lot of CVS from bearded boys smoking cigarettes out the windows of diesel trucks; subtle yet uncomfortably seductive glances from my sister's boyfriend the moment she leaves the room.
I feel homesick. But not homesick for a place. Homesick for the girl I used to be. Homesick for the body I used to have. All I want to do is shed the skin I'm in and break free from this jarringly unfamiliar body.
So I decide to take a stab at being vegan.
Why the f*ck not, right? It would give me something to focus on, as theatre and art just aren't filling the blank spaces the way they used to.
There is nothing vegan about a Jewish arts camp in the Berkshires. Camp is about grilled cheese sandwiches soaked in butter, cookouts with juicy burgers and perfectly melted s'mores and dunking Oreo cookies in scalding hot chocolate. A salad bar stands alone in the corner of the dining hall, static and stale.
But I fill my lunch plate with nothing but wilted lettuce leaves.
"Wow, Zara, that's all you're eating?" my friend Lena* says at mealtime, visibly impressed. She has returned to camp this summer 10 pounds thinner, and her features look massive juxtaposed against her slight frame. She looks like a Japanese cartoon character, all eyes and lashes and lips. And she's never been more popular.
A rare moment of enthusiasm penetrates throughout my body. “That’s all your eating?" is a f*cking compliment. And I'm hungry (ravenous) for compliments.
"Yeah, I'm going vegan,” I say.
I become obsessed with being "vegan." Maybe it's because I have a naturally obsessive personality. Maybe it's because I am desperately seeking distraction. Maybe it's because I'm lost and looking for an identity, so a vegan is a badge that is cohesive to my style (there were lots of vegan punks at that time).
Regardless of the reason, unacknowledged obsession always escalates. What starts out as a tiny fascination quickly metamorphoses into something much, much bigger.
My obsession with NOT consuming dairy and meat is turning into an obsession with only eating dark, leafy greens. Which is turning into an obsession with only eating a handful of dark leafy greens. Which is turning into an obsession with eating as little as possible, while still staying alive.
Sometimes, I have nightmares that I accidentally eat a bagel. I wake up in a proverbial pool of shame, cloaked in fear that I f*cked up. My self-esteem becomes temporarily shattered at the prospect of losing control and eating.
If I do take a bite of anything more caloric than a dark leafy green, I beat myself up. Literally. I punch my hipbones with my scrawny fists. I don't even realize I'm doing it, but others do. I have little black and blue circles beneath my jeans.
Soon, I've completely forgotten about being vegan.
I still dutifully use it as my excuse to get out of consuming meals, and I'm good at it (Some people are good at sports, some people are effervescent social butterflies, and I'm good at dieting. That's my skill, my talent. Everybody has something, right?).
But going vegan was an experiment that has catapulted into something entirely different. It has catapulted into me starving myself.
I'm addicted to starving myself. It gives me quick, visible results. Every time someone expresses concern for my well-being, I regard it as the highest of compliments. It means I'm doing something right. Feeling dizzy means I'm doing it right. No longer getting my period means I'm doing it right.
Camp ends, and I don’t stop. I go to a new school in a new state and am known as the skinny girl. I look as vacant, fragile and frail as I feel on the inside.
And all of this started from a brief, bored stab at being vegan. An experiment.
But this experiment just brought to the surface what had been lurking beneath the surface of my bones: anorexia.
And only when I decided to confront the pain, to look the demon in the eye and get help, did I begin to heal.
We currently live in an age when juice cleanses and clean eating are one of the "trendiest" things a girl can do. But sometimes I wonder if that girl at work or the pretty young girl in the gym who is perpetually on a "cleanse" knows she's playing with fire.
It's all fine and dandy to want to eat clean and be healthy. But when does it become a disorder? When does an obsession with health become unhealthy? Can a fad diet be the gateway drug to a full-blast eating disorder?
The lines are so blurred.
I don't think every girl who goes on a cleanse or is a vegan has an eating disorder. Some girls genuinely want to better themselves and are authentic in their morals.
But there are too many of us who are one "cleanse" away from death.
If you have an underlying issue, a pressing pain deep within you, an unresolved trauma, you can't cleanse away the hurt. A diet can be a dangerous distraction that you will fixate on as way to avoid what's really going on.
Eating disorders come in many shapes and sizes. No two stories are the same. For me, I decided to control what I was eating because I felt out of control in myself. I felt disconnected from my body, and feeling the pain of starvation brought me back into myself.
I look back on that time with a deep sadness. Sadness for the secrets I was harboring. Sadness for the emptiness that swallowed me whole. Sadness for the irreparable damage I did to my body.
The part that makes me the saddest is that 16-year-old girl still lives within me. She's still there, making me feel bad every time I eat or trying to convince me to hyper-control my diet when I can't control my life.
But the beautiful part is this: Now, I'm stronger than that girl. I'm more powerful than she is. I can tell her shut the f*ck up.
Girls and boys who are struggling: you're not alone. Don't shame yourself into silence. Get help. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can start living your life again, free from the tethers of something that imprisons you: