I spent an inordinate amount of time in college devoted to the maintenance of continually ripe bananas, which, unfortunately, is not a metaphor for something more interesting.
My first experience with therapy had been mercifully simple and relatively painless. As an over-achiever determined to avoid the “freshman 15,” I quite predictably developed an eating disorder. Never quite losing enough to be considered anorexic, I was a determined dieter – counting calories, weighing myself, climbing the stairmaster. I never could make myself throw up. That would have been easier, but I wasn’t sure how to calculate calories in and calories out once the vomit variable was introduced. That would have required a lot of research on time of digestion, volume of stomach fluids, etc. It was neater, on several fronts, not to be purging. I always did like my teeth. So I stuck to the math I knew – calories in (based upon my nutrition handbook) and calories out (calculated by the convenient digital readouts on the fieldhouse gym equipment).
Every morning, regardless of the weather, I was the first one up and at the gym. I set my alarm, even on the weekends. I had a yellow Sony “sports” walkman and would trudge to the fitness center through snow storms. On spring break, I would run twice a day just because I had the time. There was no runner’s high, no endorphins. No enjoyment. It was purely mathematical.
Calories in, calories out.
After a roommate intervention sophomore year, I promised to consult the school’s counseling center. The eating disorder specialist was a red-haired woman who was very reaffirming. I couldn’t tell whether she had bangs or not. She wore very flowy, hippie dresses.
“Well. You have the look,” she told me at the end of our first session.
“The look?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Pale, almost gray complexion, limp hair, slender.”
All I heard was “slender.”
But I must have also said all the right things. That I ate fat free saltines. That I worried about my weight in equal measure to my GPA. That I was concerned the dining hall did not list the caloric values of the tofu at the salad bar. Was it silken or firm? There’s a difference, I explained with exasperation, earning a pass to speak with her for an hour a week. She was a copious note taker, just as I was when a professor discussed the feminist aspects of Jane Austen or the neurological effects of a closed head injury.
I don’t recall where I discovered the dietary prescription that I ultimately treated as a religion, probably a magazine in the health center waiting room. It was: eight servings of fruits/vegetables, five of protein, five of carbohydrates, three of dairy and three of fats. The counselor bought into this 8-5-3-3 plan and it became my dietary dogma. But I had to promise not to exercise multiple times a day.
It was easy to achieve compliance while I had a full meal plan and multiple campus exercise centers. There was fruit salad every morning, steamed vegetables every night and a salad bar the width of the dining hall. There were dozens of treadmills available at all hours.
Senior year, while living in off-campus housing, I was closer to my favorite recumbent bike in the field house, but only had a partial meal plan. It was a struggle to reach my eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I quickly determined that bananas were the best option to keep around. They really have no season, so they’re always decent, unlike peaches or citrus. Bananas also have a variety of applications. They are suitable on cereal for breakfast (one carb, one dairy, one fruit). Or they’re good with peanut butter for a late-night snack (which counted as one fruit, one fat and one protein). But each bunch of bananas had a very small window of ripeness for my taste. There could be no green at all, so the fruit wasn’t waxy, and the peel wasn’t fibrous. But there could also be no spots. A few tiny freckles were acceptable, but anything past that quickly became too sweet and granular. Plus, my roommates would frequently eat them, depleting my supply. I found myself at the local supermarket several times a week, sometimes in the middle of the night, to ensure enough ripening bananas to achieve eight fruits/vegetables a day.
Following the same routine into law school, I exercised every day at the student field house and ate my 8-5-5-3-3 diet in an off-campus apartment. The law school was on the same satellite campus as the freshman undergrads. It was an odd union of students in the cafeteria, on the pathways, on the shuttle. The satellite gym where the exercise equipment was located was staffed by first-year, work-study students and populated by stressed out 1Ls and hungover 19-year-old jocks.
I was only a few years older, but I felt like their mother.
Working out was easy, but taking the T to the supermarket to buy bananas, lugging the bags home – that couldn’t happen more than once a week, making it even harder to get to eight servings of fruit and vegetables. Bananas became impossible to maintain and, instead, I switched to carrots. They didn’t have the flexibility of bananas in their meal and snack applications, but they kept a lot longer, were cheaper and ultimately got me to my goal.
I still fit into all the same jeans I had in high school, the same shorts I wore to freshman orientation. I was resigned to this course of action and accepted it as a life-long responsibility.
Then, while watching mindless daytime television during a school break, I discovered a little-known British makeover show. In each episode the two hosts, feisty women who had no problem pointing out a shaky bum or a cankle, would follow their guest home to cull her wardrobe. The next day, through dozens of dressing rooms and curated outfits, they would rebuild their pupil, showing her the difference between an apple and a pear shape, how the cut of a neckline can create the illusion of height. They didn’t encourage the women to lose weight or change their bodies in any way. The raw material was accepted, and assets and detriments were catalogued for practical application.
Wide shoulders? Wear v-neck tops.
Short legs? Long pants and heels were the answer.
Thick upper arms? No cap sleeves.
Then the protégé would get new hair and makeup to go along with her evolved wardrobe and, in the final scene, her new self would be revealed to grateful husbands, catty girlfriends and shy children.
I sat up on the edge of the Ikea couch, speechless.
Dressing had rules! If you select the right clothes, you could camouflage almost any imperfection.
Holy crap! This was an epiphany.
There was a reason that some people were better dressers and it wasn’t because they had better bodies: they simply knew the rules. I now studied fashion with as much attention as I previously devoted to my meal planning and the rules of civil procedure. The optical illusion of dark wash jeans, the usefulness of a blazer to create definition, how the shape of a shoe can lighten the leg. No more aimlessly wandering the mall or internet buying whatever was on sale, regardless of cut or color. I now had lists, direction and purpose.
Plus, a new hobby for my brain.