VALERIE MAUD GOLDMAN
by Valerie Angel
According to ANAD, an online resource agency for eating disorders, “At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the US.” At thirteen years old, I had no idea that I would become one of those thirty million people. But at twelve years old, I was not among them. What had changed in that one year? The answer to that question was my middle school English teacher, Ms. Summers.
At age twelve, I was enrolled in an all girls middle school, and no, it was not to punish me. It was not a school for misfits or lesbians or even juvenile delinquents. It was a place for young girls to express and become their true selves without fear of rejection. But what actually happened to me during my time there was ironic. I was supposed to grow as a person and find myself, but instead I became someone I was not. I became a underweight and sickly thirteen year old, weighing around eighty-nine pounds.
In my previous middle school, I was overlooked and was simply one out of a class numbering near one hundred students. When I got to the girls’ school, my life both academically and socially began to change, for the better. My grades improved, and I loved waking up every morning to go to school. After being at the school for several weeks, my focus soon turned from my school work to the fixation of my teacher, Ms. Summers. In some ways, she became my idol. I was so enthralled by the idea that she was perfection. Her life seemed flawless. She was everyone’s definition of beauty, and the life she lived appeared so glamorous. To all ten of us girls sitting and absorbing all the information she gave us, we saw no evil in who she was.
Ms. Summers was twenty-seven years old, an ideal age to be, with long blonde hair. Her green eyes seemed to pierce right through you, and her smile was absolutely contagious. She weighed no more than one hundred twenty pounds, which I now understand is way too skinny for her age and height. More so than just her figure, I was captivated with her passion for life. She saw the magic in all the world had to offer. Ms. Summers lived each day like an absolute adventure. And once I discovered how she lived her life, there was no turning back for me.
By the time I transitioned to seventh grade, everything was changing. For one, I had entered life as a teenager, which felt like I had to grow up as soon as possible. Overnight, it seemed like my body changed too. I was hormonal and I was growing out of clothes that once fit me. All my classmates were changing too, but the one person that stayed at a constant was Ms. Summers. When we came back from summer vacation, it seemed like she had reached an even higher level of perfection, while we came back altered. Ms. Summers was just as skinny, if not skinnier than before, while we struggled with hormonal weight gain and acne to top it all off. I did not understand how it was possible for her to look that amazing. Her body looked great and everything she wore clung to every bone on her body. I was jealous because my jeans fit baggy and my thighs touched.
That year, Ms. Summers was our seventh-grade homeroom teacher, so we saw her at least two times a day, if not more. I sat in the same spot every day, and from that spot I could see her every bone and tendon straining to move as she would grade our papers. I saw the way her spine protruded as she hunched over in her chair, and I saw her daintiness associated with her thinness. I wanted people to see my bones because now bones were beautiful in my eyes. I wanted my hands to appear as graceful as hers and my cheek bones to be more prominent.
My hands were where I saw my life change before my eyes. In a mere span of two weeks I noticed that my hands looked bony and full of tendons like hers. I did not realize how a pair of hands could impact me so greatly, but they did. My initial signs of an eating disorder were all subconscious. While I was in the midst of it, I did not realize that I was eating less. When I left school, I would run harder and faster at soccer practice, but still it did not occur to me that I was losing weight. My hands were constantly cold and they became dry and cracked, but my thought process was,“at least they look like hers, right?” I would hold the pen exactly like she would and imagine how wonderful her life was. I would sit in her class and daydream about all the boyfriends and admirers she must have because she was so skinny. And in my young mind, I assumed that once I looked like her my love life would soar.
In a vivid memory of Ms. Summers, she once announced to the class that shopped in the children’s section at Gap. The very next day, I begged my mom to take me to the mall so I could go to Gap. I craved Ms. Summers’s approval so badly, that I was willing to wear clothes that clearly did not fit me. All my denim jeans were now capris because I refused to wear jeans that were appropriate for my height. The most pathetic part of the situation was that I did get Ms. Summers’s approval. She said on several occasions that my shirt was “cute” or she had liked the color of my outfit. Well, of course she liked my style, I dressed identical to her.
The second novel we read in her class that year was a book titled, Allegra Maud Goldman. The name seemed silly to me. Why on earth would a mother name her child after an allergy medication? The novel I am sure was fairly interesting, but I do not think I paid much attention to the book until the protagonist threw up in a trash can. Allegra was nervous about going to the beach because she did not want people to see her body in a two-piece swimsuit. She threw up in her bedroom, and afterward she felt better, which resulted in her having a great time at the beach. I went over this scene a few times in my head because it raised a red flag to me. A few chapters later, it caught my eye again that Allegra threw up into a trash can, but this time she did it more than she previously had. When it happened a second time she seemed more confident in what she was doing. Then from there, her purging became a nightly occurrence because it was no longer in her control. In the novel, Allegra’s mom sees her apparent weight change and asks her what is wrong. In the most casual of tones, Allegra replies with, “‘Oh, I do it every night’… I was beginning to have an idea that there was one thing she could say that might save me.”
Toward the end of the book Allegra is sent to the doctor and diagnosed bulimia. Being a newly thirteen year old, I had no idea what an eating disorder was. In all those thirteen years, I heard and knew that food was good for you, that if you did not eat you would get sick. But here I was reading that food was actually bad for you. My brain connected the idea that if a person was unhappy in their body or their life, all they had to do was throw up in a trash can and all their problems would be resolved.
I was confused, but most of all, I was bothered by the fact that we were reading a novel about a girl who struggled with such issues. The most bothersome part of this whole ordeal was that no one told us that it was a bad disorder to develop. Ms. Summers never said it was a negative aspect but more so promoted it. I wanted to hold on to my innocence and pretend that issues like this were not real. The term and idea of an eating disorder seemed like an adult issue, not something children had to deal with or even worry about. Despite feeling all grown up because of my recent introduction into my teenage years, I did not know how to deal with such an issue. My fellow classmates were bothered by this new realization as well. Of course, being curious teen girls, we had a million questions. We entrusted Ms. Summers with questions because she was our teacher, and after all, she was the one who wanted us to read the book.
Along with the subliminal eating disorder messages she was delivering to us during the school week, we also received those same messages on the weekends. Every Sunday afternoon starting at two, Ms. Summers would hold a free yoga class for her students. I now realize how inappropriate this was. At these yoga sessions she projected her lifestyle on to us and we absorbed every inch of it like sponges. When she did the poses, it seemed so effortless because she weighed so little. Her yoga clothes hugged her every move, and in those moments I wanted nothing more then to have a flat stomach and graceful limbs. In the first few sessions, I struggled with the strength aspect and I was incredibly clumsy, but it got easier and easier as I continued to go to her classes. Or at least that is what I kept telling myself it was easier because I was gaining strength. In reality, my successes in yoga were because I was no longer eating a healthy amount.
After three weeks of going to her class, my new black yoga pants began to fit looser. My mom stopped me at breakfast soon after, and asked why I looked so skinny. At that point, I truly had no idea that I was losing weight so drastically, but I shrugged and asked what she meant. She then pointed out my leggings and said they were getting baggy. I dismissed her concern because I thought I was eating. During this time, I was still eating three meals a day, but my portion sizes went down, and I was refusing snacks and sweets. As the saying goes, moms are magic, and mine actually was because she could see the destructive behavior developing in me before I even realized it was there.
In that same year I turned thirteen, my mom got a new job, which meant she could no longer pick us up from school or take my siblings and me to our activities. My mom had to break the news to us that my brother and I could not play sports anymore because she would not have the time to take us to practices.When I look back at my childhood, I remember my brother and I always being in some type of sport. We were very active kids and my parents sacrificed a lot to keep us healthy and entertained. I was heartbroken because I loved playing sports, but then I became more scared by the fact that I would gain weight if I was not active. The once-a-week yoga classes were not going to cut it anymore, so I decided to try skipping lunch as a substitute for not being able to work out.
My parents would help me pack lunches every day, and I felt no shame in the fact that all of it was going to end up at the bottom of the trash can once I got to school. I kept it hidden from my parents for a long time, or I guess I assumed they were too naive to figure it out. My “diet” was working so well that I began not to even want breakfast. My actions became calculated to the point where, when my dad would go back to his room to change in the morning, I would run outside to dump my breakfast over the backyard wall. I say my actions were calculated because I knew my parents checked the trash cans to make sure I was not throwing away the food, but I knew they would never check outside, especially behind the fence.
During lunch my friends would ask me where my lunch was. I used excuses like, “I accidentally left it at home” or “I’m just not feeling very hungry today,” but most often I would say “my stomach doesn’t feel good.” And most times my stomach actually did not feel good, because I was starving. But no matter how hungry I got, my body just would not accept the food.
I looked like Ms. Summers and I loved it. I felt that I had reached a level of perfection. I even received more attention from her, which made me fall in love with the idea being skinny all over again. Around spring time, my parents and teachers (except for Ms. Summers) confronted me about my apparent change in appearance. I denied their claims and looked to Ms. Summers for solace, because I knew she would understand. And it is exactly what she did, she made me feel better by encouraging me to not eat rather than helping a sickly child in need. She would make comments on how “strong my body was looking” and even that I generally looked “good.”
A few weeks later, I took after Allegra Maud Goldman, and I threw up my breakfast in the school bathroom. I tried to do it as quietly as I possibly could, the first time, because I was ashamed of what I was doing. Then as it became a daily occurence, I tried to be louder when I threw up. I hoped that someone would walk in or a teacher would walk by and hear me throwing up and ask me what was wrong. I played a scenario over and over in my head that one of my friends or teachers would sit there on the bathroom floor, and I would confess about all the harm I had been doing to my body. But it never happened like that, no one came to rescue me, and I just sat there with my whole body heaved over the toilet, with a cold sweat and chills running over me.
It was not until the summer of my soon-to-be eighth grade year that Ms. Summers fell from grace. I was on a school-sanctioned camping trip, and per usual I was not eating. The counselors were concerned, and I refused to talk to anyone but Ms. Summers. During the trip, I started my period and to say the least I was mortified. In all my planning and packing, I managed to forget to pack feminine care products. I assume that I could have confided in my peers and other camp leaders, but instead I took my problem to Ms. Summers. I timidly knocked on her door, and she invited me in. She was fresh out of the shower, and I felt uncomfortable to see a teacher who was mostly naked. Her brown towel was hanging limply from her shallow figure as she searched for a sanitary napkin.
I sat there on her bed, and became increasingly more embarrassed that I was in such an intimate moment with a teacher. In all my years, I had never seen an adult body outside of my immediate family and it felt weird. I giggled to myself at how small she was, like I could give out a puff of air and she would float away. Ms. Summers handed me the pads, and I tried to be on my way as quickly as possible. Before I had completely made it out the door, she pulled me into an awkward hug. Her dripping hair spilled over on my shoulders, and being pressed against a teacher like that left a sour pit in my stomach. The most profound realization from that moment was that her body was not actually beautiful, it more scared me than anything else. After I took the pads, I tried to distance myself from her as much as possible the rest of the trip.
Well, the separation did not work as well as I hoped because the camp counselor decided that Ms. Summers should be the one to confront me about my lack of interest in food. She led me out from the main house area and we took a walk around the lake. Ms. Summers settled into a patch of grass where the dock met the water, and she placed her bony arms around my bony body. As we sat there, I tried to sit perfectly still so my torso had less contact with hers. I felt awkward and disgusted. I had finally become her and it did not feel rewarding as I thought it would. Ms. Summers asked why I was not eating, but I could not admit to her face that it was because of her. I think deep down she knew exactly why I was doing it, but she wanted the satisfaction of hearing me say it.
I kept my mouth shut and my eyes down at the lake, while she looked up at the sunset. Ms. Summers told me that her sister had an eating disorder when they were growing up. She disclosed to me that her sister was even on her death bed at one point, and had to stay at a hospital where her and the family had assigned times for visitation. Ms. Summers’s story made me feel sorry for her sister, but I realized she was lying to me. The eating disorder did not happen to her sister, it actually happened to her. In that moment, I recalled seeing a picture of her sister, who was healthy, lively, and had the body of a mother who had children. Then I looked back at Ms. Summers and saw her for who she truly was, a sad woman who did not eat. We walked back to the cabin, and she held my hand to comfort me, but all I wanted was to get away. When we finally reached the cabin I gave a sigh of relief because I knew what I was doing to myself was foolish. I went inside, served myself dinner and ate the most delicious meal I had eaten in a long time. Maybe in all reality the food was not actually that good, but what made it so special to me was that when I ate it, I felt no guilt.
The rest of the summer passed, and I hardly had any eating issues. Even better than that was the fact that Ms. Summers not once crossed my mind. At this point I thought that I was truly past this manipulation. Eighth grade came around the corner, and I was secretly glad that Ms. Summers would no longer be my homeroom teacher. I would only have to see her, at most, once a day, which in my opinion was one time too many. When I walked back into her classroom, she immediately tried to pick up with our friendship, if that is what it can even be called. But this time, I wanted no part in it. I realized that even seeing Ms. Summers again brought back unwanted psychological problems that made me not hungry or not able to stomach food. It felt as though all the hard work and progress I had made during the summer was suddenly flushed down the toilet, literally.
It was early winter and Ms. Summers was handing back one of our graded English essays. When I was handed back my essay, I immediately flipped to the back page, and my eyes fell on a red “C-” on the bottom corner. I felt completely crushed at the sight of the grade. In my opinion, I believed my essay was worth more, especially since we spent class time working on it, with peer editing, and Ms. Summers had even skimmed over it a few times. I figured if my essay had been that bad, she would have mentioned it to me before I submitted the final draft. Now that I replay that memory of my graded essay, I can assume that she gave that grade to spite me. Ms. Summers was mad that I had pulled away from her influence, and I was less sick, whereas she had appeared to be getting worse.
Ms. Summers knew that getting a bad grade would hurt my feelings because I had always prided myself on getting good grades. After the period was over, I ran to the bathroom and cried, sitting on the floor. I also knew that after every class period she went into that same restroom, so I picked myself off the floor and positioned myself over the toilet. With the same hand I had used to wipe my tears, I placed my two fingers to the back of my throat and forced myself to throw up. I wanted Ms. Summers to see all the pain she had caused me, I wanted her to feel bad, but most of all I wanted her to take the blame for what she had caused. I know she heard me throwing up, but instead of trying to help me or ask what was wrong, I heard her flush the toilet, wash her hands, and walk out the door. I sat there in utter shock, looking down at the mess I had made, not knowing what to think. It was clear now that Ms. Summers had no regard for anyone but herself. This realization made me furious that I had let it go that far. I cleaned myself off and never looked back. It is extremely ironic that Ms. Summers was able, so easily, to dismiss the clear signs of eating disorders because within the span of those two years, all ten of us girls developed some type of eating disorder.
The news of the eighth-grade class not eating spread like wildfire. The upper administration tried to tackle it as quickly as possible so the younger girls did not find out because we were their role models. One teacher in particular, Ms. Welin, stepped in, which may have saved a lot of us from permanent damage. Ms. Welin made the decision that it would be best if Ms. Summers were to resign. I remember the day clearly that Ms. Summers announced to us that she would be leaving in a few weeks to go back to her home in New York. I sat there in pure shock. How could she actually be leaving us? Even though, at this point, I was over her anyway, I was still saddened that she was leaving. I raised my hand several times to ask her why she was leaving, but every time I did so, she avoided it or looked past me.
Not until a few years ago did I learn that Ms. Summers was not allowed to interact with me anymore. The administrators had met and found that my relationship with Ms. Summers, through no fault of my own, appeared romantically inappropriate. They searched her phone and found text messages, phone calls, and Ms. Summers even admitted to writing me letters throughout the summer. But of course, I did not realize that these were bad. I was excited that my teacher thought I was cool enough to talk to outside of school.
On Ms. Summers’s last day teaching, we had a tea party. She announced to us that at the end of the party she had gifts for all of us. Through the whole tea party we were at the edges of our seats with excitement, wondering what she had bought us. In fact, she did not buy anything for us at all, she was just giving us her old clothes. She spread out the extra small clothes on the desks and let us take what we wanted. Ms. Summers claimed that she was trying to limit the stuff she had to move back, but in reality, she was disposing of her “binge” or her “fat” clothes. We, of course, saw no harm in this. We were simply thrilled to have a piece of her still with us. Most of the parents were furious at her actions, as if it was to stab all of us in the back that she had been fired. My mom never voiced her opinion to me directly until recently, but I realized that after several months had passed since Ms. Summers leaving, I started to notice some of the clothes I had picked were missing.
The day Ms. Summers moved away, I sobbed uncontrollably. At the going away party, I made sure I was the last person to hug her. As we said our goodbyes, I tried to soak up every second of our hug. Ms. Summers hugged me tight and held my head close to her chest. Just as I was about to let go, she kissed the top of my head and whispered something in my ear. I am sure that fourteen-year-old Valerie replayed what she said countless times over in her head, but sitting here writing this at twenty years old, I cannot, for the life of me, remember what she said to me that day. I guess that just goes to show how time goes on and we are able to move on from our pain.
I continued to cry for several days after she left, but I vividly remember waking up one day and no longer feeling sad. I realized it was foolish for me to be sad because she was a toxic person to be around. I then began to feel relieved because she no longer had any control over my life. I was finally free from her influence. It felt like the first time since I had started the girls’ school was I able to fully breathe again.
I am grateful that Ms. Summers lied to me, because if she had not, I might not be here today writing this. I was sick, very sick, all because I wanted the approval from a person who may not live past her forties. It was a dark time in my past, and for a very long time I was resentful at the fact that I had to go through all the pain, like she had made me go through that pain right alongside her. But I have come to realize that no matter how badly I wanted to look like her, my genetics and my life had a different plan for me. If I had not gone through the pain of an eating disorder, I would not have found one of my passions, which is running. Even though back in middle school, I was running to lose weight, along the way I found my love and talent for the sport. I would not have achieved my high school track and cross country successes had it not been for that time in my life. I am happy with who I am, and I am proud to have rescued myself because that is one of the bravest actions a person can do.
About the Author:
Valerie Angel is from Santa Fe, New Mexico home to the unique climate of a desert located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. She is a current sophomore at New Mexico Highlands University, majoring in Social Work. Valerie began her writing career from a young age, and continues to write in creative nonfiction and poetry.