Taking Up Space is an excerpt from Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir
It wasn’t difficult to be silent. My undergraduate college campus was dark when I woke, the stars disappearing one by one. I’d tiptoe to my dorm kitchen, pull a bowl from my designated shelf and carefully measure oatmeal before adding water and placing it in the microwave. I was an expert at holding still, hunched in front of the microwave, my face yellow with the glow as my meal jerked in pirouette. I held my breath during the countdown, and before zero beeped my consumption, I’d press the button releasing the pressure and my food. I smiled each time at my cleverness—my ability to avoid the signal.
I’d grab my bowl, cupping warmth between my hands like prayer, and scurry back to my room. Alone, I’d chew slowly, move the food around my mouth until the grains went soft with saliva. I’d swallow with intention. Sometimes I’d shake from the effort.
I followed the same routine every morning. Eating my half cup of plain oatmeal—no butter, no sugar, no milk—lasted half an hour. Even though I was hungry when I finished, I did not scrape the bowl. Sometimes I’d leave a bite or two in the bottom to prove I wasn’t greedy.
After eating, I’d move from class to class until midday, when I’d return home for lunch. My three roommates were up by then, women who complained about their bodies while praising my shrinking one. The sight of burgers, pizzas, and Frappuccinos made me sick with panic, so I’d retreat to my room, locking the door behind me, and wait to cook until they left the kitchen, the apartment. I’d eat—another half cup of oatmeal spread over many serious bites—until I had enough strength to walk down the hill from our dorm to my afternoon classes.
In the evenings I could barely return, trudging up the gradient into sunlight so bright I felt like I’d pass out. I’d sit in my room and listen to the clock’s metronome, counting down until it was acceptable to eat. If I ate too early, I got hungry again before bed and spent the night tossing, my hipbones and spine raw against the thin dorm mattress. If I waited too long, I got lightheaded and fuzzy, my body vibrating from inside.
When the time was right—6:00, a habit I still keep, others laughing at my childish dinnertime—I’d head down the echoing hall to the kitchen, where my roommates complained about their weight. I’d cook teriyaki noodles and steamed broccoli—my only lavish meal of the day, and later, alone in my room, I’d savor the large portion over an hour. For the first time all day I’d feel full.
The feeling didn’t last long, though, and when the rumble and anxiety returned, I’d shower to distract myself. I’d remove all of my clothes and urinate and breathe out for thirty seconds before stepping on the scale my roommates left in our bathroom as inspiration, along with images of women in bathing suits they taped on the mirrors and the fridge. This was the best part of my day—when I saw the results of my dedication—for the number was what mattered, not the way I shrank from size medium to extra small, or the way my period disappeared along with my thighs, my jeans slipping off when I walked. At five-foot-ten, I whittled myself from 131 pounds to 115, but the only number that mattered was 111. A symmetrical number, a good number. One was the number of winners.
Soon I dropped extra pounds like I left extra bites of oatmeal in my bowl—108, 106—to prove I wasn’t greedy.
It started my first year of college. I was taking a nutrition class and spent three afternoons a week packed into an auditorium of fifty women, their sorority names emblazoned on the seats of their yoga pants, most on their ways to exercise after class, and eventually to matching degrees in nutrition and the Mrs. degrees they wistfully joked about before the springtime proposals began, squeals of delight echoing every Monday.
We spent the semester talking about how the body metabolized food, the workings of the digestive system, and the absorption of nutrients. We discussed the caloric content of different foods, our teacher answering questions about carbohydrates and alcohol, even going so far as to discuss which cocktails had fewer calories. As the semester wore on, winter coats were replaced by short shorts, pizza and chips by carrot sticks and hummus. Collectively, we shrank.
(We shrank literally, too. For the first few weeks a young mother came to class with her infant. She took notes while using her foot to rock the baby’s car seat. The baby never cried. During class breaks, the mother breastfed, covering her baby and chest with a blanket before returning to her notes. The first time, the class was shocked, gathering in circles to cast disgusted looks. After a few weeks, some grew vocal, asking loudly, “Can’t she go somewhere else? Some of us are here to learn.” Apparently, breast was not best. Even in nutrition class, eating was suspect, hunger an inconvenience. One day, a few girls pulled the professor out into the hall to protest, their gesticulations visible through the glass door. The mother never returned.)
While the girls in my class knew about healthy food choices, I was alarmed, then ashamed when my textbook labeled the food I’d grown up eating deficient. I’d never considered that my body was somehow inferior, but while my classmates stocked their dorm pantries with organic food and shared advice on smoothie supplements, when I visited my parents, I opened the freezer to find TV dinners and fries, the cupboards full of off-brand Cheez Puffs and Honey O’s, processed foods my mother purchased in bulk from the dollar store. These were the same groceries she sent me back to school with each week, food my parents’ contribution to the university I attended on scholarships, paying for my tuition, books, and housing from funding I cobbled together from various community groups and tutoring. I often felt lost and amazed I could fool everyone into thinking I belonged, and the desire to adapt my diet proved no different.
I became fixated on healthy eating, my dedication to nutrition fueled by the food diary I had to keep for class. On campus I avoided junk food and the freshman fifteen, and at home I skipped meals altogether to avoid my professor’s red pen in the margins—“Frozen food is full of sodium. Review your notes.” I thought about food constantly, like the women I’d grown up with, women who talked about losing weight while sipping extra-large Diet Cokes, while the men smoked and drank and ate red meat, battled high blood pressure and cancers. When the spring semester ended and I moved home for the summer, I kept up a mental food diary.
I was dating my first serious boyfriend at the time, a shy, funny boy with a big heart and body. Our first year of dating he lost fifty pounds, gaining more confidence in the process until he ditched his glasses for contacts, and began shaving his chest and dreaming of moving to Hollywood to become an actor. He ran three miles a day. He only drank water and Gatorade. He did not eat condiments except for mustard because it was low in calories. He covered everything in pepper because it sped up digestion. He expected me to do the same, not because I was fat, but because, he explained, he needed my support. If we cooked together, we avoided butter and cheese and bread. If we went out to eat, he reminded me that we were eating healthy before we parked the car, sometimes before we got in the car at all. I’d been a vegetarian for years, but he liked to remind me how important protein was for building muscles, like the six-pack he’d begun to develop and tan each afternoon. Once a week he would have what he called a “cheat day,” where he could eat whatever he wanted and so could I. We ate plates of greasy fries and vats of guacamole and the pizzas his parents ordered every Friday night, boxes piled high on the kitchen counter and left out until the last slice was gone. The bloated pain that followed was a reminder of what happened with overindulgence.
The following fall semester, my roommates, put a scale in our bathroom and began marking their weight together on a chart on the fridge, weighing-in a weekly event leading up to spring break, I, too, began weighing myself each week, then each night. Soon I was stepping on the scale many times throughout the day.
By Valentine’s Day, I was skipping meals and I slid the half-eaten heart-shaped cake my boyfriend brought me—“Tonight can be cheat day,” he whispered—into the dorm trash after he went home.
Fifteen years later, my students are hungry. Students in creative writing and gender studies classes write about their experiences with anorexia, with bulimia, with weight gain, with body dysmorphia. They write about depression, anxiety, and OCD. A student writes about the eating disorder she developed while studying abroad. Her classmate writes about the reappearance of the high school bulimia she thought was gone. Another writes about the weight she gained after her rape. Several write about suicide attempts.
We work hard to cultivate a space where the personal is political, where taking up space with our stories is an act of resistance. I make this space for myself as much as for them. My students’ openness is a vulnerability and strength I’ve only recently discovered, my disordered eating continuing through my undergraduate work and part of graduate school, though I mostly keep this to myself.
One semester I have to travel in and out of state for several weeks. I arrange online activities and substitutes and when the travel is done, I bring pizza and soda to my classes to say thank you for their patience while I was away. The students in one class are primarily women. They take one slice and one soda and one napkin, and they eat delicately, pausing to raise their hands and participate in the class discussion. The class is held in the late afternoon, but more than one woman remarks this is the first thing she’s eaten all day. More than one woman says it is the only thing she will eat all day.
The male students stand together at the end of the line, thanking me and remarking on their hunger. They pile their plates with two slices, three slices, four. They make two trips for sodas. One later stands in the middle of the discussion to saunter up for another soda, commenting on our reading for the day while doing so, the crack of the soda can a humorous addition. The last man in line finishes off the pizza even though several women stand behind him. “We weren’t hungry anyway,” they say, shuffling back to their seats without taking a soda. They watch their classmates eat. I watch too. I’m relieved there’s no pizza left for me.
After class I ask students to take a soda or two for the road. “I don’t need all this soda,” I laugh, hoping I’m not left with all those full cans and empty calories.
“Are you sure?” they ask. A few male students take sodas for the road. “I should only have one,” female students say. “I’m watching my weight.”
One student, a shy girl who talks to me, but rarely to her classmates, asks if I’m sure about the extra sodas. “Of course,” I say, turning to erase the board. When I turn back around, she’s gone. So is the twelve-pack, a bit of sweetness to savor later.
In gender studies courses, we examine the history of the undergarment, from the Victorian corset to the waist trainer students see in their Instagram feeds, and students identify a preoccupation with the failure of the female body. If there is an aspect of womanhood that unites women across time, across race, sexuality, gender identity, ability, class, and age, it is the belief, or the pressure to believe, that the female body is faulty. It must be controlled by dedication to diet and exercise, by the rituals of skin and hair care, by the offerings in glossy pages of magazines and in malls across America where mannequins grow ever smaller, my own tiny hand capable of encircling a plastic woman’s calf like a shackle.
In the classroom space I share with my students I invite them to confront, resist, and embody the world in ways they see fit. I believe my lectures.
I did not believe I had an eating disorder until years into therapy, and even then, I kept the revelation to myself. I was eating more than oatmeal by then, and my anxiety, OCD, and PTSD seemed more pressing. I’d sensed I was on the edge of something painful in college, but it was not until therapy that I recognized the severity. Still, all the women I knew had had an unhealthy relationship to food and it seemed to have passed, so I swallowed it down.
After acknowledging the role hunger occupied in my life, I began to eat in graduate school. My weight climbed to 125 pounds, which in my late twenties still seemed slight compared to many of my friends. My favorite weight was 121, a symmetrical palindrome high enough to avoid scrutiny, but low enough that I could slip into the teens again if I ever felt panic.
Yet as it always had, accomplishment came back to the body. Even in academia, female success seemed to be measured by weight, a strange measure for graduate students eager to write and publish, or professors and authors with enviable academic accomplishments. In graduate school, students learned that one of the feminist scholars had written about her experience with disordered eating. Students spoke of her with admiration and lusted over her curriculum vitae, but it was inevitable they would eventually blurt out, “Did you know she had an eating disorder?” as if it were a tawdry secret and not the basis for her feminist work. The gossip was vicious, most often proffered by female students who seemed to find their own strength by her perceived weakness.
Since finishing graduate school, my weight has settled back to where it was when I was in high school. I weigh the same—131—though the number is not by palindromic by design. I am fortunate that eating has mostly become a pleasure rather than a fear. I avoid the mirror when I can, and am weighed only by the doctor. Still, there are times the familiar dread creeps up my spine and clamps its jaw at the base of my neck and I know nothing is in my control. When I received a prestigious award for distinguished doctoral dissertation, I could not eat at the banquet. The same held true for the meals I ate while on campus interviews during my job search. It is hard for me to eat loud foods, messy foods, smelly foods. I do not want people to see me eat. When my younger self surfaces, I am reminded that the way I experience myself physically in the world is fraught with issues of power and agency.
My students know culture is responsible for how we perceive our bodies, and they point to the magazines and television shows that make them feel inferior. This is not new. A thin body, nineteenth-century literature taught us, today’s standards echo, is a lovely body, often, too, a wealthy body, a white body, a (mostly) able body. To be delicate to the point of frailty was—still is—considered beautiful, desirable. To be thin is to be in need of protection, something I hear my husband Brady say when he wraps his large hands around my ribcage and whispers, “I love that I can wrap my hands around your ribcage.” And while I know that he means that this complements his 250-pound frame and seems a counterpart to his own insecurities about weight, I can’t help but focus on the word “cage.” Something catches in my throat and I gasp for air, worried that one day I might not be so easily encircled, that my ankle has never been small enough to shackle.
What I know of the female body, its strain and size and stature, I’ve learned from the women in my family. My father’s side is all boys, his five-foot-one mother a tiny, tender thing whose sharp tongue and sass make her legend by way of contrast with her size. On my mother’s side the legacy of the female body is one of transformation, each woman a slim beauty until marriage and children hang unhappiness around their hips. Each woman, family myth goes, gains a hundred pounds from the time she was last happy. I admire these complex, beautiful women, rulers of their sprawling working-class families. I do not believe the myth is true. Still, I can’t recall when I first started scanning my own photos for signs of desperation and extra pounds.
I learned early on that for women in my family, eating is sometimes a comfort and always a curse. Food punctuates the run-on of their lives—a rare steak the exclamation mark of success, a trip through the drive-thru a period at the end of a tough day. My memories of these women involve baking or preparing meals, and eventually, when the family scattered apart, infrequent visits marked by loud conversations afterward about “how fat” everyone had grown. Criticizing a woman’s weight was a family event. Family whispers about weight are a refrain as much as “I love you.”
The men in my family escape scrutiny by occupation as much as by gender, for they are each construction men, building fences and airplanes, laying cement and constructing cabinets while their wives pulse out children and scrap together working-wage suppers.
My husband is a large man, raised by a woman who spent much of her time away, leaving him frozen dinners and money for pizza. He grew up associating binge eating with independence, the feeling of fullness an antidote to loneliness. We make a strange pair—his desire for the heaviness of a full stomach, the ache of overeating, my desire for the lightness of an empty one, the ache of hollowness.
Though doctors tell Brady he needs to lose at least fifty pounds, he rarely feels shame about his body. He is strong and sturdy, his barrel chest and big thighs outsizing those of most men. His size is physically intimidating, overtly masculine, and he balances his physical stature with the humor society insists must accompany men whose bellies roll over their waistbands. When Brady sits, he spreads his legs wide, and he stretches his arms along the back of seats as though he is claiming the world. He walks in easy, sprawling steps, eyes focused on his destination, unaware when others—often women—scurry from his path.
Writing this now, I am shocked by how devoted I was—perhaps remain—to my desire to be small. I have not been as devoted to any other dream as I have been to disappearing. I do not know why I believe(d) becoming invisible would allow me to be seen. I was a girl so desperately hungry that comfort was running my hands across the lengths of my bones, the sharpness a reminder of my task. And I am woman who sometimes still feels this way and cannot understand why and so grows sad, angry, and confused, all those things along with “fat” magazines and mothers tell us are not ladylike.
My college roommates banished food to the garbage to prevent themselves from eating. One set an early morning alarm she hoped would wake her into becoming a runner—it announced her “failure” in ten-minute intervals for hours each morning as she hit the snooze button. Eventually, she’d pull herself from bed and use lipstick to scrawl slogans on the bathroom mirror: “Sore or sorry. You pick.”
When I look up these women after many years of silence, I find professional clues they are aerospace engineers and computer programmers like they’d hoped to become when they were still the only young women in classrooms full of men. But their personal social media tells a different story—the women are absent altogether, replaced by photos of food and diet tip aphorisms. “Learn to work through the pain. Then push harder.” “Nothing tastes as good as being fit feels.” “Don’t listen to your inner fatty. She’s a bitch. She misses bread.” “Once you see results, it becomes an addiction.”
The women in my family also grow absent. They rarely talk about themselves beyond their children; they will not take up space even with their stories. I’d like to ask my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers what nourishes them. I’d like to ask what satiates. It’s as if any dream disappeared as they sipped Diet Coke after Diet Coke, their only bit of sweetness, afternoons stretching long and silent into the evening’s darkness.
I write the stories of my body to prevent my erasure. I want my words to take up the space I’ve denied my body, the space my body has been denied. Here is one of those stories: Once I did not eat for two weeks because a boy left me. My first boyfriend left me one August for another girl, a tiny thing who sang in the church choir and blew him afterwards and wanted to be a movie star too. I’d been giving up pounds since February, reached 111, the number of winners, but I lost. And because he did not want my body anymore, neither did I.
I stopped eating altogether. I subsisted on the tea my mother left by my bedside because I was too sad and weak to walk. The tea was thick with sugar and honey because my mother was afraid and it was the only comfort she could pass along to me. I shrank to 100 pounds and I stank of rot because my body feasted on itself. I didn’t leave my bed, woke each morning sobbing because I’d been abandoned, pushed aside for someone newer, someone better, someone smaller.
I’d practiced disappearing for years, but this is the story of when I learned disappearing was an act of devotion—to the boy who left me for another girl, a tiny five-foot thing whose body was so small he could wrap a hand around her ankle.
Not all my stories of hunger are tied to romance. Sometimes I wanted to be small because I longed for my mother, whose many children took her away from me. Other times because the world seemed to be moving too fast. Then I hungered for the control starvation afforded, the way my body became a landscape I could rule. Injury reminded me of my power.
When I tell these stories, listeners furrow their brows. They laugh nervously or change the subject. Even when I’m fighting to be seen, disappearing seems the only option. A preferable story about consumption and the body? My husband’s tale of the time he ate a dozen chocolate pudding cups in under two minutes, the middle school gymnasium chanting his name. Listeners laugh and laugh at the precocious boy eating with abandon, all the world his to taste.
I wonder what it feels like to occupy space without shame. We tell women they cannot take up space to such an extent that women, en masse, feel they don’t deserve certain spaces, or space at all.
Inhabiting space via the body, women are told, is our failure. Craving smallness is our repentance. We store our shame in the very vessel from which it is provided. I’ve spent so much of my life concerned with how much space I occupy—not only physical space, but emotional and mental space—that disappearance seems reward. I’ve tried to become as diminutive as I feel and now my shoulders curve in on themselves until my neck and back are stiff with knots. I look like one part of a parenthesis, hunched over onto myself—now I understand that the stooped backs of old women are not the result of age, but rather a lifetime of feeling small. The body eventually follows suit.
I am forever being told to stand up straight—this comes as frequently as I’m told to smile—and how I wish I would. I hurt from hunching. Erasure is not easy.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.