A few years ago, while helping my mother move, I found myself face-to-face with my childhood-friend-turned-enemy, Barbie. I didn’t find one sitting on a shelf in my former bedroom or a couple packed in a cardboard box in our attic. Instead I found 47 (forty-freakin’-seven) incarnations of her stuffed inside a plastic blue box beneath my bed. Their legs were spread at odd angles, their hair was tangled, and they were all naked—their cinched waists, nipple-less breasts and nonexistent naughty bits were exposed.
I still don’t quite know why, but I spent the remainder of that cold January day sorting through the entire container. My obsession with Barbie started well before I acquired one. I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, but I knew Barbie was the doll I needed in my collection. So when I got my first, for my birthday, I was ecstatic. But one wasn’t enough. One led to two, and two led to 47, an obsession.
By the time I was 12—armed with a training bra and preteen mentality—I was exploring bodies, Barbie’s and my own. I would lay on the carpet beside my bed so my stomach would flatten like hers and then play “Naked Barbies Around the World,” a game in which I would place one of my naked Barbies down on a spinning globe to decide where she and Ken would rub their plastic pelvises together. I didn’t understand what I was doing as I held her thin waist between my thumb and forefinger and spread her legs as far apart as they would allow, but—looking back—I know I was examining myself through her.
As Barbie shed her clothes, I piled more on. I wore oversized shirts and baggy jeans and began to spend more and more time reading about food, diets and the various ways one could lose weight. I began skipping school lunches to “save money.” I starting carrying food everywhere, not to eat but to store and hoard—in my backpack and locker, my desk and dresser drawers. I learned how to say I wasn’t hungry even when I was. I began eating alone.
By the time I started counting calories, I was already bony-knee deep in what doctors would later call EDNOS (an eating disorder, not otherwise specified) and the yet-to-be-named-or-defined body dysmorphic disorder.
It should be said that it wasn’t that I didn’t like food. I loved food. In fact, some of my earliest memories transpired in a ’70s style kitchen, the ones with dizzying linoleum floors. I would play on the tan and taupe vinyl with Barbie, my blonde hair combed and curled just like hers, and we would watch while my mother prepared breakfast and packed my lunch full of foods other children seemed to envy (Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Campbell’s soup or chicken salad in a faded Wizard of Oz Thermos). We sat there while she made dinner, and once, we even watched as she baked a strawberry-frosted Barbie cake for my 5th birthday.
But I also used to sneak food in that kitchen. I would eat dry Stove Top Stuffing straight from its canister. I would conceal myself in the darkness of our pantry, crouch on the floor, and shovel handfuls of dry cereal into my mouth. I would pour packet after packet of instant oatmeal down my throat (fruit varieties were my favorite, though in a pinch, maple and brown sugar would do).
I loved food, but looking back, this wasn’t right. Something wasn’t right.
By the age of 15, I had stopped eating, realizing that food was a frivolous, extraneous indulgence with unwanted side effects—my butt, my stomach, my hips and my thighs, everything was increasing in size. With my height at 5’1″ and my weight fluctuating between 100 and 120 pounds, I was “healthy and normal” by all medical standards, but I was anything but. I didn’t feel normal. I didn’t see normal, and I was far from healthy.
It’s hard to explain what it feels like when your body feeds on itself. Everything aches: your body, your head, your muscles, your bones. Your stomach grumbles, rumbles, and talks to you, your friends and your neighbors—anyone who will listen. You become angry at those who do eat, resentful that they have the audacity to do it in front of you, and disgusted but turned-on by the smells of fryer grease, McDonald’s and baking bread. Food becomes your obsession, as do numbers: weight, calories in, calories out, measurements, minutes exercising, minutes before, during and after meals—waiting for meals. Soon everything is reduced to segments, numbers, formats and formulas. How many calories are in an apple, a teaspoon of sugar or a splash of fat-free milk? How many steps do you need to take, miles do you need to walk, to burn them off? How many hours do you need to run?
At my lowest point, I was eating jars of Gerber baby food and drinking nothing but water and black coffee.
It would be wrong to blame Barbie for my body image issues, and I feel that is an awful lot of weight to put on her frail shoulders. But I do know that the moment I got my first Barbie, I was captivated; she was my world. When I got ready to go out, Barbie got ready. We did everything in tandem, and since her actions were the result of my not-too-vivid imagination, my mind and hers became one. Her Dream House, her Dream Car, her dreamed life were mine. But she had something I never would, never could: a seamless body—a perfect body—and maybe that is why I buried her that cold January day. Maybe I needed to bury the myth, bury the dreams, and bury the pursuit (my pursuit) of perfect. And so I gathered the severed heads, limbs, ball gowns, bathing suits, and Barbies in their birthday suits and stacked them, one at a time, silently in a black bag—giving them the prettiest funeral a Hefty Ultra Flex could provide.