Around the Dinner Table by Arely Morales

“You’d be so much prettier if you were skinny,” my dad said. I was fourteen-years-old, and only two months and eight days away from my fifteenth birthday. Don’t get me wrong, I love my dad, but he always knew what to say to make me feel like I was less than what he wanted. Growing up to my mother’s cooking around the dinner table, her homemade enchiladas, tacos, rice and beans, was awesome. Christmas was a holiday I both loved and hated because my mom would cook just about everything. It was ashamed that she would wake up at six in the morning just to get the masa ready for the tamales.  She would take out the beautiful center piece she takes pride in, a big snow globe that plays “Jingle Bells,” she got the center piece on sale and saved thirty percent. She would also take out the holiday plates, white plates with a reindeer design on them; they went perfectly with the snow globe. Delicious food and beautiful decorations, and I had to stand there and act like I didn’t enjoy any of it. Yet, growing up, I’d constantly hear my mom analyze her body and how every day she felt like she needed to eat less and less. “Oh my god I’m so fat. I need to stop eating before I get bigger,” she would say. Hearing her, I focused on whether I was too fat or too skinny, but when my dad said those words, I needed to change.

I wanted to be my dad’s “little princess,” but I refused to be his fat princess; I didn’t want to disappoint him.  It was hard; I love my mother’s cooking, I can eat her food all day. Yet, for my own good, and to make my dad proud, I had to cut down on my intake.  Day by day, I left more and more on my plate. Whenever my parents asked me why I didn’t finish what was on my plate, I would simply tell them either “I am full,”  “I don’t feel well so I don’t have much of an appetite,” or the one that worked the best, “I had a heavy lunch at school.” Seeing my mother’s eyes when I denied her food was heartbreaking.  You never deny a Mexican mother who offers you food. They get insulted. Regardless, if I went to bed hungry, I knew I was doing something right.

***

Two months in and I was already fourteen pounds lighter. I was so happy when I saw the scale go down. I was so in control of what was going into my body. I became addicted, but I was so cautious to make sure my parents didn’t take notice. There was a particular pink flowy top I would wear to make me look like I haven’t changed. But my top could only do so much. There was a moment when I almost got caught. My parents started to take notice that my pants started to fit loose. I told them I was watching my weight by being aware of what I eat. They believed me.  At fourteen –years-old I was more focused on my body than I was on my homework. They never really seemed worried. If anything, they seemed proud that I was taking care of my body.

“Do you like this? How about this? I think this is cute.” My mom loved buying me clothes; she no longer had to deal with those awkward moments of trying to find something that would fit me or having to go to the women’s section to buy me clothes. “You are so skinny, sweetie. How are you doing it?” According to the Do Something website, approximately 24 million people in the U.S. struggle with an eating disorder, and almost 50% of the people will meet the criteria for depression. When I tried on a size four pair of pants, I started crying in the dressing room. I was so proud and disappointed. I kept staring at the extra skin that was hanging out. I hated that I still wasn’t where I wanted to be, my smile faded. I was getting frustrated. I still bought the pair of pants, my mom was so happy to actually buy me a pair of size four pants.

***

It was my fifteenth birthday, and I was twenty pounds lighter. I was making great progress. The dress I’d only dream of wearing, a beautiful hot pink dress with an opened back was the dress for my party. I was surprised my back fat didn’t stick out. Who knows how many pictures I took that day. “Arely, you look really good.” “What have you been doing, you look great.” “Damn Arely, you lost a shit ton of weight.” It felt good to hear my friends, but only I knew how I truly lost the weight. I didn’t disserve what they were saying. Whenever they asked me how I lost it, I told them I was dieting; they didn’t have to know the specifics.  I was okay to take pictures, but I made sure how I positioned myself, I was still self-conscious and didn’t want people touching me or looking at me for too long. I felt good enough, but was I satisfied with the way I looked? Absolutely not. I became so focused on analyzing every inch of my body. As I was getting ready that day I kept looking in the mirror and telling myself I could still lose more.

***

The summer going into my junior year, I lost another twenty pounds. How did I do it?  When I worked at Six Flags I barely saw my parents, so it was easy to get away with a special diet I saw online. It’s called the lemon and cayenne pepper diet.  Beyoncé dropped twenty pounds in two weeks for her role in Dreamgirls (2006) and rapper 50 Cent dropped around fifty pounds in about two months for a role he got as a cancer patient. The beginning of the school year was approaching and I was not happy with the way I looked. I wanted to be at least another five pounds lighter. In a panic, all I did was drink the mixture that consisted of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for the last three weeks.  No solids allowed. However, sometimes I would cheat and have either an apple, bowl of mixed fruit or yogurt along with the drink. I managed to drop twenty pounds in just three weeks.

Even though I lost the weight just in time, I felt like complete shit by the end of those three weeks. I was barely able to focus.  I felt so fatigued. I remember almost fainting on my way home from school. My parents told me I was getting really thin, they got worried but I told them being on my feet during the long hours in the heat at Six Flags is how I lost the weight. They told me to not work at Six Flags anymore, I agreed, and that was the end of that conversation. I never wanted to feel like that again. So I knew that was the end of that diet.

I was actually able to maintain my weight loss for a while, but towards the end of my junior year I gained fifteen pounds back. Still, I refused to do the previous diet. So then it hit me. A night after eating around the dinner table, I grabbed my tooth brush and went to the basement bathroom. I stood there and looked down at the toilet. I heard my parents laughing upstairs and didn’t want them to hear, so I turned on the shower. I quickly shoved the toothbrush down my throat. It felt as if all the demons inside me were released into this bottomless pit, and when I flushed, those demons were gone for the night. I looked in the mirror; my eyes were so red from pressure I added. I somehow managed to keep my addiction a secret for some time. Soon enough, I lost the fifteen pounds that I have previously gained. I then managed to lose five more pounds after that. I would make sure to use the bathroom in the basement every time and turn the water on so no one would hear me. When they weren’t home I would make sure to take full advantage of throwing up.

***

It was winter break during my first year in college; I was in my room sleeping when my mom texted me, telling me to come upstairs. She was in the kitchen waiting for me. “Arely, I am going to ask you a question and I want you to tell me the truth.”  I knew what was going to come out of her mouth next. It was only a matter of time before she found out; I was just waiting for it. “Do you have an eating disorder?” Just hearing her say it made me want to hide behind my curtain of shame. I wanted to close my eyes so that when I opened them, she would ask me a different question. “Do you?” she didn’t give up.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” is all I could say. “Yes, you are. Your dad was cleaning the bathroom this morning and saw vomit under the rims of the toilet.” I was so stupid, how could I forget to clean after I was done. “How do you know it was me?” I tried to defend myself.  “I don’t know who in the hell gave you the idea, but you are beautiful, and you don’t need to torture yourself.” My mom started to cry. Seeing her cry made me cry. I didn’t want her to blame herself. I kept telling her it wasn’t her fault. She told me to go get my coat.

We went for a drive and talked for hours. I told her everything. How it all started when dad told me I would be so much prettier if I were skinny, and then I told her how hearing her complain about her body all of the time made me more concerned about mine. I just didn’t want to disappoint them. I was so scared. I didn’t know what they were going to do to me. At the same time, I’m glad they found out the way they did. I don’t think I could have ever told them to their face. I was finally able to breathe. I didn’t have to worry every single time I walked through the door if they were going to be suspicious or not. I didn’t have to pretend like everything was okay anymore. I needed help. I wanted help.

I was waiting for my dad to get home. Was my dad going to see me the same way, was I still going to be his princess? When my dad saw me after he came from work, he gave me a hug and didn’t let go. Our relationship was never the same. It became stronger. “You’re still my little girl, my princess; you’ll always be my princess no matter what, para siempre.” It was the only words I needed to hear.

When the three of us were around the dinner table, I told them how long I had been doing what I was doing. I was honest; I told him how his words made me feel like I was a failure. He listened. When he was little his father used to verbally abuse him by calling him fat every time he ate. He told him he had to do more work than the others because he needed it. He knew my pain, and I knew his.

***

According to the Do Something website a mere 10% of the people with eating disorders receive treatment, and of those people only 35% will seek treatment from a facility specializing in eating disorders.  Shortly after I got caught, I started seeing both a doctor and counselor.  It’s now been two years, nine months and four weeks since I have last put a toothbrush down my throat. I not only had an addiction, I had a disease; a psychological disease. Am I fully happy with my body? No, but it is a daily progress.  I still struggle with my weight, but now I do it by eating healthy, well at least I try to being a college student, and do my best to exercise daily. None of my friends know about my past eating disorder, but my parents and I deal with it. Now, when we sit around the dinner table, we can all genuinely enjoy our meal.

Arely Morales is currently a fourth year student at Eastern Illinois University working on a Communication Studies major with a focus on Popular Culture and Society as well as a minor in Creative Writing.