The Unlikely Story of the Body Who Loved the World

Speak, cuerpo

Illustration by Rachel Frankel

SSometimes, I say body and feel like a woman who is speaking at a women’s circle in Venice Beach, or a freshly divorced woman talking to her sex therapist. When I say it, there is a kind of histrionic, ironic distance, a nice buffer, a soft layer I enjoy, which is also the layer between me and English. A kind of blue goo, something soft that cushions the blow, the wound of language. My husband says I swear a lot in English. It’s true, I enjoy it. Apparently, I regularly pile swear words on top of each other to make new, ever more extreme configurations. “It’s as if you don’t quite feel the full blow of each word,” he says. To demonstrate this, he swears in Spanish and even with his gringo accent, it’s true, I can’t endure the hijeuputas for very long.

Between Spanish and me, there is no protective layer aside from a certain clumsy softness in the tongue like vodka if I haven’t spoken it in a few days. Between cuerpo and I, things get too intimate too fast. When I say cuerpo, it’s like a drink I forgot having suddenly kicks in. With cuerpo, I am sweating even when I am not and it’s disgusting. With cuerpo, the noon sun bakes my skin to a fleshy red a little extra. With cuerpo, I can feel the blades of grass like razors. With cuerpo, I feel faint. With cuerpo, I am exposing myself. With cuerpo, I am full of hesitation. With cuerpo, I feel like I am incriminating myself. With cuerpo, I feel excruciatingly shy and wordless. With cuerpo, I feel a little obscene. When I say cuerpo, its double meaning as corpse becomes more evident to me than in English, even though body has the identical double meaning.

These meanings, body, cuerpo, shift and change. But they remain distinct from each other. With body, I am talking about someone else. With cuerpo, I am thrown into the world. I am not quite an object; I am not quite the subject either. What I am becomes unclear. I have no protection.

It’s been hard, between cuerpo and I.

I don’t like to talk about my body and what I did to it. I don’t like to talk about it because I don’t want to be judged, and I doubt I can say what needs to be said about it. What needs to be said about me and cuerpo seems to recede evermore.

I doubt I can say what it was like to engage in chameleonic, harmful behaviors around food — disordered at best, diagnosable at worst — for almost two decades. I doubt I can say what it was like to move wildly back and forth along this spectrum for most of my life while thinking I was doing the right thing and appearing mostly functional.

I am afraid I will be perceived as juvenile by those who might view these issues as superficial and not worth investigating because it could only happen to a clueless person, a person who doesn’t read books.

I am afraid people will point out I was never sick enough just as I believed I never was because I was never stick thin. Because I never lost my ass.

Because, ironically, even when it comes to disordered eating diagnoses, you have to be stick thin to make it count, right?

Because nobody ever diagnosed me. Because I only got praise. Lots.

Even though I was freezing in Florida; even though my bare feet felt like ice under the scorching Kansas sun with a cold that seemed to come from my own body and couldn’t be warmed even by the sun himself; even though I lost all color and looked like a ghost for months in college, which I hilariously attributed to “being whitened” by the New York snow before I learned its cause was severe anemia; even though I was afraid of bananas; even though I ate sufficient calories for a two year old for long stretches of time; even though I read 76 diet books that I or my Amazon cart can remember; even though I grew faint in the shower; even though I worked out obsessively; even though my head looked too big for my body in some photos; even though tiny blood vessels burst in my face after I tried and failed to make myself throw up; even though I was told once by a doctor that if I kept doing what I was doing I would get brain damage, and I was put on a demanding refeeding plan that involved thick, chalky protein shakes with every meal, but received no diagnosis.

But most of all, I am afraid I will not be able to say, with precision, what it was really like.

II was not thin or fat as a child. I don’t have the genes for either. I was a round, sensitive child, who hated being tickled, loved ceviche, reading, tennis, Fun Dip, and was soft and quiet. My mother said that as a baby I sat for hours on the floor looking around the room without ever attempting to move. I watched things. And in Colombia in the nineties, American influence was everywhere. I grew up watching American movies on VHS without subtitles, which I learned by heart even though my English was not strong yet. I loved Matilda, the Olsen twins, and eventually Britney and Beverly Hills, 90210. While I don’t think this alone got me in trouble, I saw idealized Anglo-Saxon bodies on screen early and often, and grew to idolize them.

Colonial influence was never too far off either. For many Colombians, beauty involved the toxic, 80s Sin tetas no hay paraíso ideal — large breasts and butt — which they were willing to go under the knife for. Meanwhile, the more privileged classes clung to the usually predominant, European side of their heritage with ferocity, wielding it as a class marker, their Indigenous and Afrodescendiente heritage heavily and violently diluted centuries ago. For them, being beautiful meant looking European: thin, long limbed, and with lighter skin and features — to the frequent, outright exclusion of Indigenous people and Afrocolombians. Eventually, these two beauty ideals combined to create an even more exclusionary standard for women — extreme thinness and voluptuousness, with a modern obsession with fitness added in for good measure.

And if you were a girl, appearing beautiful was really important in Colombia, the country of beloved beauty pageants, many an excruciating bikini wax, and the revered and scantily clad Chicas Aguila, predictably holding sweaty bottles of Cerveza Aguila to their shiny bodies on a beach since 1995. With its lucrative and homogenizing beauty culture, adoration of female beauty, and dash — or shall I say buckets? — of machismo, Colombia has comparable rates of eating disorders to the United States and other Western countries. A study in 2003 singled out Medellin — the capital of Latin American fashion — as the city with the highest rate of eating disorders worldwide, with a staggering 17.7 percent of the population of adolescent girls displaying eating disorder behaviors.

When I moved to America on a scholarship, I brought my obsessions — good and bad — with me. America gave me a new vocabulary for my fixation with thinness, one that could make it look ok, both to myself and others: health. I wanted to be thin, but this time I wanted to do it “the right way.” I wanted to be beyond reproach. I wanted to rise above this world like the beautiful Remedios, ascending to the sky at four pm while folding laundry in One Hundred Years of Solitude. So I followed “wellness” gurus. Their movements centered white, thin bodies, which is to say European bodies, bodies different than mine. This worsened my body image.

Newly laced with health talk, the particular flavor and fanaticism of diet culture in America added new anxieties to my repertoire, or how to avoid dying by eliminating foods. There is a word for when you do this too much: orthorexia. NEDA defines orthorexia as an obsession with proper or “healthful” eating that damages your well-being. I ate goji berries and kale and then five snickers bars. I ate like a bird and then I didn’t. I thought I was improving, but I wasn’t. I was still cold all the time. I still cared most about thinness. I still thought my body was a science project, a problem to be solved.

It was unlikely for my body to go through all that when eating is supposed to be easy, but it did.

Starving myself ended, not in reality — it took almost a year — but spiritually, the day I stumbled upon the dark roots of my disordered behaviors by accident. I had weighed myself, which never ended well. I said to my husband in a moment of thoughtless frustration that, perhaps, Latin American people couldn’t eat carbs, not even fruit. “Maybe our bodies can’t handle them,” I said. The moment I heard — really heard — what I said, I began crying uncontrollably. It was one thing to believe I had to restrict; it was something else entirely to claim this about all people who looked like me. That moment made me want to recover.

Starving myself was a way to soothe myself, to calm my nerves as I was moving to a new country on my own when I was seventeen.

Starving myself was what I did when I was confused about what I was supposed to look like, and the limits of my body, of my choices.

Instead of my body being real and distinct to me with its own physical properties and limitations, it became an imaginary thing I could always reshape. Something blank. A locus of projection. A theoretical tabula rasa.

Sometimes restricting felt like taking a shower and scrubbing myself raw off every uncomfortable moment, every anxiety, every lonely feeling wedged between my ribs. A way to exorcise my humanity out of myself, when everyday it filled me to the brim and started leaking, embarrassing me.

A cleansing act. A way to put my affairs in order. A way to make myself less weak, less human.

Starving myself was an attempt to transcend the world, transcend the body’s humanity, transcend the way my body was in and of the world, inextricably fastened to time, always already in relationship to death and to beings that die, the human lifespan infinitesimal, likened by Nabokov to “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

When I say I wanted my body to transcend its humanity, I mean that I didn’t want to allow the body to be what it was.

What the body was, was not welcome.

What the body was, with its aches, easy enthusiasm, stupor, candor, bewilderment, hormonal swings, and genetic inheritance dating back to La Conquista, was not welcome.

The body had to be made blank so I could be okay, or so I thought, and to be blank meant without history, deprived of individuality, detached from the world, expressionless, neutral, Switzerland, the so-called default, transcendent, not of this world, beyond this world of death and fucking and aches and belly rolls sweating in the summer and thighs touching, but what it really, really meant to have a blank body if you dug a bit deeper, meant European and European meant thin.

Reader: it did not work

NNothing was cleansed. Life came hurtling at me regardless. The body fought back. It wanted to retain its centuries-old history, even as it moved forward relentlessly in time. It wanted to carry its homeland, even as it traveled through space, across continents. It wanted to live with its curves, which it found essential, to have its opinions and extra ass fat for whatever it decided it needed it for. It wanted to be a part of this world as it was, and as nothing else. It wanted to be what it was: the body of a Colombian child and then the body of a Colombian woman.

My body always wanted to be a part of the world. Its love for the world, a simple love. If you asked my body if it wanted to be a star in outer space, it would say yes. My body is not afraid of the world. If my body were a star in space, it would not even be afraid of black holes. Besides the obvious, my body fears nothing except one thing: me.

These days, I find myself breathless sometimes for no reason, and I have to slow down or lie on the couch. I try to tell my body to calm down. That everything is fine now. Sometimes, I try to tell my body about the two eternities of darkness.

El cuerpo says: “I am of the light.”

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

María José Candela

Written by

writer // escritora, colombiana, traveler currently living in Germany, etc etc.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

María José Candela

Written by

writer // escritora, colombiana, traveler currently living in Germany, etc etc.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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