At nine, when my eating disorder started, I didn’t know what to call it. I knew the moment I’d stuck my fingers down my throat that I was doing something unnatural, and when the pizza that I’d eaten landed in the toilet, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take it back. But, I’d thought, if it didn’t really happen, then it wasn’t a big deal because it would be O.K.–as long as I didn’t tell anybody. I told myself that I would never, ever, do it again. I was wrong. I’d end up doing it as often as six or seven times a day.
At thirteen when I’d learned that the punishment I kept putting my body through had a name, I rejected it. Bulimia was an eating disorder, and all of the literature that I’d read about it told me that eating disorders were for young, White girls from affluent families. I was a young middle-class Black girl from South Carolina. We don’t get bulimia. Our family physician confirmed as much when my mother finally caught me in the act of unloading my dinner into the toilet. It was just a “phase,” he’d decided. My secret was safe.
I couldn’t bring my issues with food to my parents; with a marriage on the rocks, they had their own anxieties about our family and its future to deal with. When I’d expressed dissatisfaction with my body, I was told repeatedly that African American women were supposed to be curvy. No one addressed the underlying issues of anxiety and depression that made me hate myself.
My parents had always told me to do my best at everything I did so I spent time trying to be the person that they wanted me to be. With my father I raised hogs, smoked hams, learned how to fry chicken and how to preserve fruits and vegetables. With my mother I attended tea parties, learned to sew, ate salads and, on the weekends, bounced around the living room with her, trying to keep up with the latest jazzercise tape.
But I’d failed. Doing my best didn’t fix things between my parents. Unable to express the anger and disappointment that I felt, my brain went numb so that I could focus on my schoolwork, because I understood that getting an education would provide an escape from an unhappy life. For years I couldn’t smile. I never wanted to go out and play. But I got straight A’s.
And then I started binging. I would sneak food back to my room, forcefully cramming dinner leftovers, pizza, and ice cream down my throat until I was painfully full. With a bloated face and shaking hands I would drag myself to the bathroom to throw up. Eating this way made me gain weight, which lead to dieting, and then skipping meals, leaving me to find activities to fill the space where a sandwich and friends should have been. My bouts with bulimia became everyday occurrences, but I’d gotten into Dartmouth College. It was under control.
But it wasn’t shrinking me in the ways that I had hoped, and it wasn’t enough punishment for being a failure, so I began using a knife or razor blade to carve words like “fat” and “disgusting” into my skin. Cutting was reinforcement: physical proof that I was damaged, not worth saving.
Then my habits started jeopardizing my escape plan: my education. I had my head in the toilet when it should’ve been in my books. After a string of failing grades I knew I had to take a medical leave from Dartmouth, because I knew the next term was going to be just as bad and after that I would be expelled. In the early days of January 2005, my reality became too heavy. Shedding hair and rotting teeth, I felt there wasn’t much else to lose. So, I tried to set myself on fire in the snow on the banks of a frozen pond near my college. Thankfully, I failed at that too.
But the shame of it followed me all the way home when I could no longer function at school. My parents couldn’t be at home to watch me all the time, so eventually they checked me into an inpatient treatment facility to get me medically stable. It’s working.
Now my eating disorder and self-injurious habits are in remission. Still, my life isn’t always easy. I’ve just moved back to South Carolina to care for my terminally ill parent. But the time I spent in treatment followed by several years of therapy taught me how to cope. I now have the tools to successfully deal with crises that come my way.
When I have a hard time communicating my emotions, I go for a walk. When I’m frustrated, I no longer pick up a razor blade. Instead, I stop and think about my accomplishments: I graduated from Dartmouth and I just earned my MFA. This past Thanksgiving, I even ran a Turkey Trot, my first 5K. Even though I had put my body through years of torture, finishing the race proved to me that my body was still strong and capable. I’m still strong and capable.
Food will always be part of my heritage, as it is for many African American women, but now my participation and interactions in the Southern tradition are different. Instead of slaving over a stove every week to commit my great-grandmother’s recipes to memory, I collect oral histories from the elders and write down their stories, documenting the experiences of the community so that the knowledge won’t be lost.
As I work to remain in recovery, it’s also my mission to help other young women do the same. I travel the country talking to young women about self-esteem and rarely a week goes by when I don’t get a Facebook message from young women from all over who have heard my story and are worried about their own health or a friend’s. I tell them that there is help, that they too can get better with treatment, that they are not alone.
Eating disorders don’t belong to a specific face or race or shape. Any one of us can fall victim to this sickness. And with help, any of us can be survivors.
Latria Graham's essay on bulimia can be found in the anthology Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial and Overcoming Anorexia. Follow her on Twitter.
“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.
But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of , sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, , . Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the -ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.
Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?
Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.
Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.
“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”
She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.
Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.
“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.
He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult , with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”
“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.
THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.
“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”
Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.
In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.
The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in lay beyond them.Continue reading the main story