From her first breath, Sonya and her body have been at odds. It began as a force of uncooperative chaos that required overcoming. Abundant resources were consumed keeping its compulsory expulsions contained in diapers and on napkins, hiding its nudity, appeasing its needs and soothing its discomforts. Even when Sonya claimed her presence within it, the body remained disobedient. It wet the bed and cried in spite of pride. Its hair stubbornly refused confinement within the careful weave of its mother’s tedious braiding.
The war has thus been lifelong, unremitting and ubiquitous. The demands of the body grew increasingly unreasonable and entirely contrary to Sonya’s desires. If the body had its way, it would sleep long into the afternoon; the skin on her face would erupt into pocketed clusters of acne; and worst of all, she would eat until her torso collapsed in on itself like an accordion; until rolls of flesh rippled from her bones in bulbous, meaty folds that spilled over her waistband and from the sleeves of her shirt. Sonya learned long ago that the body must therefore be subdued into civility and reason utterly alien to it. She has spent her whole life in that pursuit, though the body clenches and cramps in retaliation to her efforts. It whispers coercively: you can’t, you’re tired, once won’t hurt, have a little, give in, as if she were the obedient pet of her own flesh and blood. But Sonya remains relentlessly vigilant against its subtle manipulations.
Every morning on the way to class, she walks through the student center crowded with bodies and lined wall-to-wall with fast food. The scent of it rises so thickly that the vapor seems to coalesce on the back of her tongue as if she could taste it. Sonya hasn’t eaten in eighteen hours, but she weaves through the bodies with meaningful slowness, gloating over her triumph as she admires what she could have but willfully resists: fries slathered in gravy and spices; foot-long subs overflowing with cured meats and fried onions; burgers piled inches high, oozing mayonnaise and ketchup from their foil wrappers; pizza layered with cheese that pulls all the way from its cardboard container to one’s mouth, the pepperoni crisped into arches that fill with fingerprint-sized pools of salty grease; fettuccini doused in thick cream sauce and parmesan. The noises of crinkling foil and oil-stained paper, the squeak of Styrofoam, the audible crunch of teeth piercing the fried skin of a hot chicken drumstick – it reaches her ears like a siren’s song even over the bustle and chatter of the students.
Eat, insists the body.
No, says Sonya, victoriously.
She settles for black coffee.
This is how it began for Sonya: with the nail biting.
At ten-years-old, she sat in the living room watching Scooby and Shaggy run their fingertips between their teeth, scattering half-moon clippings in the dark mansion of a supposed ghost. Curious, she clamped her teeth through her fingernail and pulled, felt it rip in a smooth line all the way to the edge of her nail bed where she tugged it free of its feeble hinge of skin. The fragment sat, tasteless as plastic, on the tip of her tongue. She spat it onto the living room floor as if it were a watermelon seed.
The sensation wasn’t nearly as satisfying as it looked on television. She imagined it would be one of those uncivilized but unexpectedly pleasurable things, like flossing corn pulp out of her teeth or a particularly substantial sneeze, but instead it only created an unpleasantly vulnerable red strip of flesh where the nail had been. When she pressed her finger against the living room table, the skin pushed around the shortened edge and created an annoying discomfort.
Curiosity sated, Sonya felt certain that single instance would be the end of it. Her mother was less convinced. She noticed the aberrant fingernail as she rounded up Sonya and her four siblings at the kitchen sink to ensure they washed their hands before dinner.
“That’s a terrible habit,” her mother scolded, catching Sonya’s finger between her own to inspect it.
Sonya snatched her hand back. “It’s not a habit.”
“It’s unhygienic,” her mother replied, frowning.
“It’s just one nail.”
“It’d better stay that way.”
But Sonya liked to think that only she could give her body orders, not her mother. She bit down the rest of her nails to match the short one, and shorter and shorter still. She began to like the noisy snap it produced inside her mouth.
By the time her mother gave up on saucing her fingers with chili oil and painting her nails with an astringent mixture of polish and something very bitter, Sonya discovered she could no longer stop the habit of her own volition. Her sixth grade teacher snapped at her several times throughout the spring quarter to keep her hands out of her mouth, but thoughtlessly, they found their way past her lips once again.
“I can’t help it,” she admitted at last. Even as she spoke the words, however, they felt strange on her tongue, not unlike the lifeless, inorganic texture of her severed fingernails. It didn’t seem right to her that she could jump farther than any other girl in her class, summon tears on a whim, and bite a circle through the lip of a soda like a jagged can opener, but she failed to refrain from indulging this simple habit. She shoved her tooth under the lip of her nails, biting them ever closer to her cuticles.
For the first time in her memory, she felt the webbed fissures of a profound division, the distinction between the body and Sonya. This disparity did not sit well with her. It seemed a simple and obvious thing to regain control over one’s own flesh and blood. But she couldn’t simply stop, either, and she surmised that if her failures were not indicative of the difficulty of the task, then they must reflect her own inadequacy, a fundamental absence of will or strength or whatever force her track coach urged her to summon in crucial moments. She resolved to change that. Her body would have to learn its place.
Sonya followed her mother’s example. She left soap on her fingertips to dissuade her habit, but it eroded in her saliva and left a waxy residue on her pens. She tried sitting on her hands but found that effort futile in the face of frequent note taking. Finally, she stowed gloves in her backpack that she wore all throughout the school day, but she refused to expose her intent to her mother at home, whose discipline she adamantly rebuffed for so long. The remembrance of her own misplaced stubbornness embarrassed her – her inability to rectify the issue and regain control on her own, more so. Without the gloves, her mouth and fingers found each other, the shame of her failure exacerbated by the vocal disapproval of her mother.
At last, after nearly a year, Sonya resolved the problem by chewing gum. The few times her fingernails wound up in her mouth, the fragments quickly enmeshed in the sticky latex and created an abhorrent texture that even her body found intolerable. When the urges ceased and her nails passed the edges of her fingertips once again, Sonya thought exultantly, I win.
Her victory proved short-lived, however, as the nail biting seemed to open a door of sorts – or perhaps it was her eyes. Previously innocuous struggles now resonated in a new way, the issues increasing in volume and magnitude as she aged. Every morning, she battled her hair with brushes and ribbons. She obscured dark circles under her eyes with foundation and eye shadow. She lanced pimples in her mirror as meticulously as if she were diffusing landmines, contained her menstrual blood with tampons, neutralized cramps with a regimen of ibuprofen, shaved the dark hairs from her legs and underarms, confined her breasts in two layers of support during track. People painted puberty as a difficult but self-resolving event, but Sonya found it wasn’t so simple. It felt to her that her body had wrestled itself from her control. Often, it found new ways to sabotage her modest desire to carry out her day without risk of embarrassment or discomfort, requiring new and more elaborate methods to keep it subdued in that interest.
Most disconcertingly, her hundred-meter-dash now lagged behind that of her peers. Her fastest mile in the spring season of tenth grade reached just under eight minutes – unbearably slow compared to the six-minute sprints of only a few short years ago. She took this apparent degradation to heart as her accomplishments and the largest point of her pride slipped from her grasp. But it wasn’t just the times, or the trophies, or the loss of rank; it was the failure that unsettled her. Her coach demanded one-hundred-and-ten percent, to push her limitations, and Sonya practiced and strained and pounded her feet against the polyurethane as if she could force the soles of her sneakers straight through those boundaries, her heart echoing the effort as it galloped within her chest like a fear-stricken horse only to stutter to a frustrating halt as her muscles numbed with fatigue.
No matter how Sonya strove and struggled, her body failed to meet her demands. It was her body that couldn’t reach the heights of her ambition. It was her body, weighed down by hips and breasts and the formation of trembling fat on her inner thighs that now constrained her efforts. Precious seconds had been converted into pounds and inches. She found it ironic that her body had become the envy of others. If she could have traded it for the thin, densely muscled form of a professional runner, she would have done it in an instant. Even the lanky prepubescent bodies of some of her late-blooming peers would have yielded more potential. She easily discerned what needed to be done.
Once again, she found herself battling her body.
Before anything else, Sonya needed a goal. Something measurable and definitive, like “stop biting my nails,” but in this case, her desire encompassed many things that seemed to branch into many more: she wanted to be a better runner, which meant losing fat and gaining muscle, which meant diet and exercise. She wanted to stop feeling like her body had run away with her with its steady weight gain and inconvenient shape. Simply put, she wanted, in the end, to look how Sonya wanted to look and do what Sonya wanted to do. To take her body back from itself.
So she imagined her ideal self and posted pictures of that woman – other women – on her bedroom wall.
Now, she needed a strategy. The most effective methods to reach her goals were many and often antithetical according to her research, and advice like “eat healthy and exercise” proved too ambiguous in the face of such broad definitions. In the end, Sonya simplified everything as best she could by streamlining the process into a series of numbers. Numbers were easy. They provided a definitive way to measure her progress, and her control.
So, Sonya counted:
Inches off her waist
Body composition by percent
Miles run (at least two, but preferably four)
Minutes of each mile
Crunches, lunges, squats
Seconds between sets (no more than sixty)
Glasses of water (at least ten)
Calories in a day (no more than 1400)
Calories in a meal (no more than 400)
Time off her hundred-meter-dash
Time until she could eat again (at least four hours between meals, six if she had a snack)
Almonds in a serving (about 23)
Hours slept (at least seven)
Serving sizes in: cups, ounces, grams, tablespoons
As with the nail biting and the acne and all the other things that required conquering, she felt there could be no other way. Regaining complete control of the body required painstaking vigilance. Sonya and the body necessarily cohabitated the same space and time; every decision and every action of Sonya’s affected her body, and vice versa. She could hardly take a break from being herself.
Unfortunately, she thought. Before she developed the fortitude needed to combat such temptations, walking through the cafeteria at lunch and sitting down to dinner with her family felt nothing short of heroism. Her mouth watered. Her stomach cramped. Her body urged, you’re hungry, eat. But Sonya resolutely pinched her flabby thighs, thought of the woman she wanted to be – thin, muscled, legs smooth and toned as a ballerina’s but strong as a horse’s – and managed to refuse.
If her resolve faltered, she reminded herself of these things. When her stomach growled while she did her homework, she raised her eyes to the pictures taped to her walls. When her hand drifted an hour early to the plastic bag of grapes in her backpack, she took that hand and reached just under the hem of her shirt to grip the soft roll of her belly. If her body screamed at her to rest on her fourth or fifth or sixth mile, Sonya turned up her music, lowered her head, and charged onward as if the fruit of her efforts hung low on a tree branch just around the bend.
Her obstinacy yielded results, but Sonya failed and succeeded in turns. The push-pull shouldn’t have been surprising considering the vastness of her goals, but that didn’t lessen her disappointment. She lost weight, shaved seconds off her track times, dropped two sizes by the time summer rolled around. Compliments from friends and family came in abundance. Her mother often congratulated her on her newfound discipline, how her face thinned and the small ledge of stomach over the waistband of her pants disappeared.
But the reality of achieving her end result felt as elusive as ever.
She knew that she would never look exactly like the women in her pictures – photo editing and bone structure and the shape of her facial features assured that. Not even those women all looked alike. The problem, however, was that she didn’t feel like them. She still struggled. Her body still writhed and incessantly floated tempting thoughts to the forefront of her mind. Sonya spent all hours of her waking day flailing against the counter efforts of her body – hunger, fatigue, joint pain – but these women were masters of their form. They’d turned their bodies into an art, and then they’d turned that art into a career, and meanwhile, Sonya grappled merely to keep her compulsions in check.
And that couldn’t be right. The thought of maintaining this level of constant exertion for the rest of her life seemed utterly inhuman. Surely no one spent every day combating their body in endless skirmishes; surely, the war must be won at some point. A time would come when she’d feel reassured in her mastery over her form, when she could treat her body with distant professionalism rather than as a mentally exhaustive entanglement. When she might learn to enjoy her body instead of suffer through it. But until then, she thought, when was her last meal? How much more could she eat for dinner? What assortment of foods could she pack into her final two hundred calories? When could she eat again?
When could she eat again?
When could she eat again?
Senior year of high school arrived, Christmas passed, then New Year’s, then spring and summer again. Sonya spared brief thoughts to the movement of time, but only indirectly. She regretfully readjusted her schedule to meet the demands of school. Holidays amounted to dreaded family feasts where refusing to eat would be considered impolite. She worried endlessly over these times and the food she hadn’t made, food whose caloric content she couldn’t exactly decipher. Spring and summer were bathing suit season – another thing to worry over. As she increasingly tussled with her body to keep it in check, it struggled back in equal measure. The hunger of 1400 calories and the fatigue of two miles did not compare to the nauseating, unremitting ache of 1000 calories, or the dizzying and mind-boggling exhaustion of six miles and two hours at the gym.
But her body refused to surrender. Her progress stalled as if her body had gone on strike while Sonya did more with ever decreasing resources. She edged precariously on a breaking point of some kind, felt it in the way the blunt edges of her resolve ground into her body through the pavement beneath her feet or sat unmoved in the acid of her stomach, and she thought, almost there. Something had to give.
She’s not sure what did, in the end. Was it some finely webbed crack in Sonya’s determination that blackened the edges of the world in a disquieting vignette? Or was it her body’s final kamikaze maneuver that locked her quadriceps and sent her tripping, her knee twisting as she collided into the bar rather than over it during track her freshman year of college? A desperate, last-ditch attempt – if you won’t quit, I’ll make you?
Sonya wasn’t sure. With a torn ACL and banned from most physical activity for nearly a year during pre- and post-op rehabilitation, she had plenty of time to think about it. She had all the hours in the world, now, to observe the hard-earned packs of muscle deteriorate, to watch her skin puff up with the poisonously slow reclamation of its subcutaneous fat, and to feel, helplessly, as her body imposed new limitations upon her, reinforced by sharp pains, the electrified stabs that resonated from her knee and pin-balled up and down her nerves from brain to foot.
All her efforts, she despaired, were nullified. Each of her achievements vanished – no more track, no more weight lifting, no more miles to log. She suffered her relatively sedentary state with all the grace of an angry hornet trapped beneath a glass jar. Her body, that sculpture she chiseled with obsessive dedication for nearly a quarter of her short life, melted before her eyes as if she’d carved it from ice. Because of a single ligament.
Sonya panicked. At first, she blamed herself. She should’ve eaten more before practice that day instead of saving her calories for dinner. She shouldn’t have run an extra mile that morning. If she’d changed her routine, she might not have lost her focus in that crucial moment. She wouldn’t have tripped.
But as she limped between classes, lay fitfully in bed while her friends ran laps, and stared disdainfully at the meager meals that seemed to stick to her bones in layers of pillowy fat without her efforts to whittle it away, Sonya replayed that pivotal minute of her life. She imagined it perfectly. She recalled the arch of her foot as she prepared to leap over the bar; the flex of her powerful quadriceps; the sweat dripping from her hairline as she measured the requisite power and momentum she needed to gain, as familiar as the pair of worn sneakers on her feet, and her failure to achieve it. Her muscles had seized. The tip of her foot dragged against the ground. Her ankle held firm as her body had twisted, sending all that energy into the sideways torque of her knee.
Even through the pain, however, Sonya’s first thought as she’d hit the ground had been, what happened? Her concentration hadn’t broken for a single instant. She’d been prepared to make that jump and would have, by all counts, if only her body had cooperated.
But it hadn’t.
It resisted her just as it had with the nail biting, with its constant hunger, with its chronic lassitude, and now as it compacted layer upon layer of yellow flab beneath her skin. The body imprisoned her with inactivity as it at last stripped her of control, and Sonya raged at the thought. She scrutinized her softening shape in the full-length mirror on her closet. The rigid lines of muscles in her legs and torso had tempered into a gentler curvature from her sedentary state, and she imagined what gelatinous creature she might resemble by the time she recovered enough to resume her regular routine. If she ever could. The shame of her failure and the helplessness of her condition only made her angrier.
She’d won nearly every battle and still, somehow, lost the war.
As she struggled through the monotony of physical therapy, the fracture between herself and her body widened. Tasks that would have seemed childish before her injury now taxed her mind with the body’s constant discomfort. Sonya limped, stretched, ached, split under the knife of a surgeon and rested, all for the body. And why, she wondered furiously. Why bother? Her whole life had been altered for this useless, defiant sack of meat. The divisive groove deepened, filled with resentment and loathing as she laboriously strove to heal the very cause of her torment. She gave into the body’s every demand. Her ambitions were squandered under its subjugation. Sonya lived a life of moderation, caution and idleness that battered her from the inside out, that branded her so deeply she could not soothe the wound, and she hated it.
She looked at her body, every eyelash and toenail and convex arch of flesh, and she hated it.
And Sonya thought, this isn’t over. It was the dieter’s mantra she’d heard so often, the most common form of rebuke: if she wanted it badly enough, she’d have it. And Sonya determined she would. Even if she had to wrestle it from the snaking cords of her own innards, seize it from the flawless women still pasted to her bedroom walls, claw and bleed and rupture it from the innermost depths of her senseless, dumb tissue like Prometheus and the eagle that daily razed his flesh, but both at once. Consistency and dedication had failed her; now, real strength meant doing whatever it took.
She stood in the bathroom of her childhood home and catalogued her stomach’s contents: one cup of rice, one serving of curry, two glasses of water, a banana. She thought to her body, you want this? And then, as she bent over the toilet and pushed two fingers into her mouth up to the last knuckles, too bad.
© Serena Johe
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Serena’s interview]