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From One Altar to Another: A Story of Worship, From Orthodoxy to Anorexia

I spent my teenage years in rebellious pursuit of an unattainable body. It almost cost me everything.

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I gave myself the deadline of my 16th birthday, a milestone that appeared to hold magical properties in the secular world that inspired lavish parties, tender reminiscing, and an entire serial of Sweet Valley High books featuring peskily perfect twins who stayed eternally 16, no matter how many times they had summer vacation or danced at their junior prom. I cut down from a sleeve of Oreos to only five or six at a time and switched to diet soda—but these half-hearted efforts bought half-hearted results, and when I did not awaken on the designated day to find that I had miraculously blossomed into a six-foot Amazon with legs like a gazelle as I had fully expected, I was devastated. Concentrated studying didn’t bring me to the top of my class, and I lacked any significant talent that I could see. Was there nothing at all I could complete to perfection?

Just weeks after my birthday came Passover, a holiday during which religious Jews do not consume any leavened bread products. Already feeling bereft without pizza and bagels, I determined to use this time to further restrict my diet and ate only meats, fruits, and vegetables. Eight days later, I was four pounds thinner, and I discovered that diets really worked, as long as you actually followed them.

Buoyed by this discovery, I extended the initial challenge into a game of numbers. If x grams are divided by y servings, the number of calories equals z. If I lose 4 percent of my body weight in three weeks, I can reach my goal weight of x pounds by September, and so on. It would have come in handy when I took the SATs, but unfortunately, this remains the only time in my life that I showed a true propensity for mathematics. With each pound lost came a surge of intoxication, much like the highs that I imagine addicts chase to the exclusion of anything else in life, and I, too, began seeking this euphoric state whenever I could. My days became filled with ambitious baking sprees where I plied others with cakes and cookies but refused any for myself, and frequent trips to the supermarket where I’d stare longingly at cartons of ice cream behind frosted doors before summoning the will to leave empty-handed. I spent hours obsessively planning my meager meals while luxuriating in my virtuousness for abstaining from the elaborate feasts I envisioned in my head.

People’s initially admiring looks and praise took on undertones of concern and wariness as I persisted, but perhaps more than the praise, their obvious distress emboldened me further. I delighted in my father’s furrowed brow, my Bubbe’s insistence that I eat what she put before me, and my friends’ raised eyebrows at the shul kiddush when I declined the proffered stale cookie or greasy portion of cholent. Having felt like a problem child for so long in a family where terms of endearment were not freely circulated—perhaps one of the reasons I had once confused food with love?—and like a social barnacle tacked on to existing cliques of more extraordinary girls, to receive obvious and discernible validation of my worth and significance was exhilarating.

My downward spiral continued. The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I was sent home early from summer camp where, overwhelmed without my typical menu, I found it easier to subsist on apples and the warm cans of Diet Pepsi I stored under my bed. Back at home, with my friends away, I spent long and lonely evenings visually absorbing Joy of Cooking and other mammoth recipe tomes. I fingered the luscious photos of every decadent dish as I curled up in the fetal position to quiet the hunger pangs that gnawed at my empty stomach, stabbing me with their incessant demands.

Feed me, they said. Go away, I said.

I shivered in 80 degree weather. My face turned gray and pinched. By the time summer ended and my friends had returned, I had retreated further into a solitary world and noted their invitations to various social engagements with passive disinterest. I found it more romantic to waste away like some Victorian-era waif under an oversized blanket on the couch, comforted by the slow and steady hiss of the radiator and the warmth emanating to the cushions on which I lay. Every now and then, I’d glance at my skeletal fingers attached to bluish nail pads, or the prominent knob of my wrist, and sigh contentedly.

I wasn’t very good at being a compliant Orthodox girl, but I excelled in my newfound religion, the elements of which shared many similarities with traditional observance: elaborate dietary laws and fasting, lofty ideals about sin and salvation, and an emphasis on both externals and rituals. My new god demanded perfection and was difficult to appease, much like the angry being I had feared my entire childhood and who I was certain would assign me a horrible, fiery death if I didn’t manage to shed some tears during Yom Kippur davening. But the payoff of this new religion—an enviably slender body and some semblance of self-authority—seemed more immediately valuable to me than a secure place in the world to come. Perhaps most important, to risk my health seemed infinitely preferable than to risk further disappointing my parents or neighbors or whoever it was, exactly, that was holding me and every other religious youth to certain standards of behavior. I had already spouted enough liberal politics at the Shabbos table and waged an all-out war to attend a more moderate religious high school, and it was exhausting to feel like a black sheep when you were only trying to be authentic to yourself.

Medical terms racked up: Bradycardia. Osteopenia. When my period ceased to make its monthly appearance, I felt relieved. The whole thing had seemed like an embarrassingly messy affair anyway, and its absence relieved some of my increasing disgust with any signs of normal bodily functions. But my doctor’s worried tone, and the name she gave it—amenorrhea—piqued a voice of reason that was struggling mightily to make itself heard amid the din of my anorexic brain. It was the same voice that gave me a moment’s pause when I studied pictures of gaunt concentration camp victims for thinspiration, or when I ate an extra egg white and would not leave my house for the next two days until I starved sufficiently in mortified penance.

This faint intonation of logic, usually so swiftly overpowered by my sickness, had a rare moment to shine. I wanted to have children one day, and not merely because it was one of the things expected of me, either. Logically, I knew I’d have to eat to restore any hope of fertility. But I found that I couldn’t bring myself to abdicate control. I felt helpless at the thought of losing what had become my singular, all-consuming focus in life; if I let it go, I would have to face all the fears that had led me straight to it in the first place and confront them head on. It was easier to continue starving. And having failed to achieve impeccable adherence and happiness in the Orthodox faith modeled for me, I found I still needed to cling desperately to a set of exacting rules, for without a carefully outlined path to anchor me, I felt simply unmoored.

I wanted to be a mother in the future, but I needed my anorexia now.

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From One Altar to Another: A Story of Worship, From Orthodoxy to Anorexia

I spent my teenage years in rebellious pursuit of an unattainable body. It almost cost me everything.