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Trimming to Fit

Sarah Haight, a fashion writer, received a master's in social work from New York University in 2006.
Sarah Haight, a fashion writer, received a master's in social work from New York University in 2006. (Courtesy Author)

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By Sarah Haight
Sunday, August 24, 2008

MY FIRST JOB AFTER COLLEGE was an unlikely one, given my medical history: I landed at a major fashion magazine. I grew to love my work, but I often felt as if I were keeping a vicious secret. I told no one that I had once been hospitalized for anorexia.

In the elevator one afternoon, shortly after I started, I stood next to a few junior editors from the fashion department. They were my age, mid-20s, and their hands cupped yogurt parfaits and Diet Cokes. "I had half a bran muffin for breakfast, so I'm only going to have half of this," one said to another. "Just do one meal a day," said the third. The words were familiar, like old songs whose refrains you could belt out on cue.

Anorexia's roots are tangled, and their delicate unbinding can be done only once the patient truly agrees to get help. But every anorexic has a narrative of where things started to go awry. Mine starts in 1996, my senior year of high school, in the small rural town to which my family had moved two years before from a larger city. It was a place where the lacrosse team got its own parade and prom tradition held that at midnight boys removed their dates' garters to the music of "The Stripper." I coped by fantasizing about my imminent escape: I'd been accepted to an urban college, where I was sure my life would be full of vigorous political debate and good-looking boyfriends.

But a few months later, standing at the elevator to haul my wardrobe (pressed dresses from J. Crew) and CD collection (no Pixies, plenty of Sarah McLachlan) up to my dorm room, it dawned on me that I was out of my league. My new floormates' lives were far more glamorous than my own. One had a mullet and a banker boyfriend. Another's brother was in the band Blues Traveler. In particular, I envied the beautiful, thin, vaguely detached dancer across the hall, who one evening told me she'd been on a diet with her mother since age 11.

I am 5 feet 6 inches tall, and in adolescence I had always weighed about 125 pounds. I played sports and ate a lot: bacon, apples dipped in peanut butter. Although I admired reedy thinness (that flat belly, that slice of sunlight between the thighs), it was simply never an option. An athletic build was my draw. The beginning of my illness then (a ruling out of certain foods, the forgoing of dessert) was precipitated less by a desire to look a certain way than by a need to create a persona, to fit in with my edgier classmates.

During that first fall, I began rising earlier and earlier and chugging to the gym. I'd return in time to meet friends for breakfast, a meal that soon dwindled to a sliced Fuji apple and one dollop of cottage cheese. Lunch consisted of Diet Pepsi and a scooped-out pumpernickel bagel. In the evening, two steaming baked potatoes with ketchup. I ate half of what was on my plate.

By Christmas, I had lost 15 pounds. Home for break, I told my parents I was on a cleanse, or becoming a vegan, or cutting out wheat . . . all depending on what was being offered at the dinner table.

By February, I had lost six more pounds. Worried, my friends encouraged me to eat: One treated me to silver-dollar pancakes at Tom's Diner on a day when I lied and said that I had skipped the gym. Around Valentine's Day, they held an intervention.

"You look really sick," Kathleen said as we sat in the dorm room where they'd told me we were gathering to watch a movie.

I promised I'd schedule an appointment at the campus health center, then put it off until early April. By then, my heart had started stuttering and leaping in my chest. It scared me. And in spite of ramping up my exercise routine and eliminating the lunchtime bagel, I had stopped losing weight.

At the health center, a resident took my pulse and quickly called in the medical director, who brought an EKG machine.

"Your heart rate is 36," Dr. Wheat said.

"Is that bad?" I asked.

"You should be admitted to the hospital," she said. When my father arrived to collect me, he looked terrified.

I spent five nights at the hospital, where my heart rate was monitored twice daily; my food was measured by nurses. In group therapy sessions, I began unraveling the origins of my anorexia, a process that would continue for several years. I gained three pounds.

I did not get better right away. The summer after freshman year, I visited a therapist three times a week. I gained weight, then panicked and lost it. Eventually, I gained it back for good. I had a standing appointment with Dr. Wheat, who made me face the wall when she weighed me. I haven't known my weight in 10 years.

At the magazine, I observed its culture with a mix of feelings: relief that I was no longer so vulnerable to these pressures; moral superiority; a hint of nostalgia. I wondered if I still had the willpower to starve myself, but some part of my brain remembered that particular hell of being eating-disordered, and so when I eventually left the magazine to attend graduate school, I was the same dress size I'd been when I got there.

E-mail: xxfiles@washpost.com.

Adapted from Sarah Haight's "Little Fish in a Big Sea," which is excerpted from the forthcoming collection "Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial, and Overcoming Anorexia," edited by Kate Taylor. Copyright © 2008 by Kate Taylor. Reprinted with permission by Anchor Books. All rights reserved.


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