Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are recurring themes in The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller. Please be aware if these are sensitive topics for you!
Congratulations! You have acquired one human body. This was a poor decision, but it is probably too late for you to do anything about it. Life, alas, has an extremely strict return policy.
Not that I’m some kind of expert or anything, but as an almost-seventeen-year veteran of having a body, I’ve learned a few basic rules that might save you some of my misery. So I’m writing this Rulebook as a public service. Please note, however, that there are a lot of rules, and some of them are very difficult to follow, and some of them sound crazy, and please don’t come crying to me if something terrible happens when you can only follow half of them.
Understand this: your body wants the worst for you. It is a complicated machine built up over billions of years, and it wants only two things—to stay alive and to make more of you. Your body thinks you’re still an animal in the jungle, and it wants you to eat ALL the food, and stick your DNA up in anything you can hold down. Lust and hunger will never leave you alone, because your body wants you grotesquely fat and covered in kids.
TOTAL CALORIES: 3600
When you say it like that it sounds soft and harmless, like laissez-faire or any of the other weird sets of meaningless words they make you memorize in school. The letter from the psychiatrist sounded so calm I had to read it a couple of times before I saw what she was trying to say. She didn’t quote me. She didn’t tell my mom I said, Sometimes I think if I killed myself everyone would be a lot better off or Five times a week I decide to steal the gun my mom thinks I don’t know about and bring it to school and murder tons of people and then myself.
Instead, the psychiatrist said a lot of scary things in very tame and pleasant language:
Recommend urgent action—
Happy to prescribe—
Facilitate inpatient treatment—
Poor thing. How could she know my mom hides from the mail, with its bills and Notes of Shutdown and FINAL WARNINGS? I didn’t want to go see the psychiatrist in the first place, but the school set it up for me because I am evidently an At-Risk Youth. At risk of what, I wondered, and then thought, oh right, everything. At risk of enough that one or all my teachers filed whatever due-diligence report they’re obligated to file on someone who is obviously headed for homicide or suicide, so his or her blood isn’t on their hands. And as soon as the psychiatrist’s report came, addressed to my mom, I plucked it from the mail pile.
I read it on my walk to school. My mom still thinks I take the bus, but I stopped around the six thousandth time someone called me a faggot and punched me as I walked through the aisle. That kind of thing can really start your day off on the wrong foot. Plus, walking to school makes it easier to get there late, so I’m spared the agony of playing Lord of the Flies while we all stand around outside waiting for the first bell to ring.
The branches were almost entirely bare overhead. Stark and black like skinny fingers clawing at the sky. One crooked tree still had half its leaves. Hunger rumbled in my belly, and I felt like if I reached out hard enough, I could stretch myself taller than any of the trees. Hunger is funny like that.
Anyway. I shredded the letter, let it fall behind me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Lesson learned: Don’t tell people you want to kill yourself. Although really I should have known that one already. If high school teaches you nothing else, know this: Never tell anyone anything important.
I slowed down. Savored my last few steps before the hill crested and brought me in sight of the school. Stared up at the trees, and down the garbage-strewn road. Stopped. Breathed. Wondered what would happen if I turned and walked into the woods and never came back. I thought about this a lot. I had plans. I’d hitchhike or ride the rails or follow the river.
Under my bed there was a bag, full of books and hoodies and diet soda from the vending machine behind the ShopRite, and one of these days I would be ready to sling it over my shoulder and run away for real.
But I wasn’t ready, not yet. As miserable as it made me, I had to go to school. Not because I cared about college or education or a career or any of that pig shit, because anyone who spent five minutes in a Hudson High School classroom would know there was no actual educating happening anywhere in sight. The reason I couldn’t kill myself, and I couldn’t stop coming to school, was because Maya beat me to it. Because five days ago, my older sister ran away from home. She called the next morning from somewhere on the freeway to assure us she wasn’t kidnapped, she was taking a week off (“or whatever”) to go to some studio near Providence to record her band’s first album, she’d catch up on school when she got back. We shouldn’t call the cops. Etc.
She says she’s fine. She says nothing happened. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think someone hurt her. And I know who. And I had to keep coming to school because I had to find out what happened, so I could hurt him back.
So I crested the hill and walked down to the squat sprawling one-story building, an ugly heap of aluminum and brick, cursing my abject failure at estimating travel time, for I had arrived too early, and they were there, my peers, my fellow primates, hooting and hollering, pounding chests and grooming each other.
My senses felt like they’d been turned up too high. Maybe it had something to do with skipping breakfast, with the churning engine of my empty stomach generating electricity that danced in my limbs, crackled in my head, but these people stunk. They spoke too loudly.
Their clothes and bags were head-achingly bright. It made every step toward them harder.
And there, at the door, arms folded like the bouncers outside a club in a cop show, they stood. Three of them: Bastien, Tariq, Ott. Hudson High’s soccer stars; the shrewd-eyed roosters at the top of our pecking order.
“Pretty,” Ott said as one girl approached.
“Not pretty,” to the next. Grinning hyena-style at how her face crumpled.
“Thinks she’s pretty.”
At this, they cackled. Everyone but Tariq. Tariq, with his perfect stomach and impressive chest and a beard thicker than any high school senior’s ever, Tariq of the dimples and broad nose, Tariq who could have stepped out of my computer screen, because he’d fit right in on the sites I spent all night searching when my mom was asleep. Pages packed with boys, beautiful ones—a secret nation to which I would never belong. Tariq, who somehow made me feel fat and scrawny all at once.
Tariq, who saw me and looked away as fast as he could but not fast enough to hide the guilt that soured his face.
We had both been crushed out on Tariq, my big sister and me. He wasn’t like the other boys on the soccer team, even if he did spend an awful lot of time with them. He wasn’t a bully. He was handsome and smart, and even nice, sometimes.
That’s what made him so dangerous. Everybody knows to steer clear of a bully. Maya would never have gone to meet up with Tariq in secret if he had already showed us all he was a brutal thug.
But he seemed . . . human. So she did.
He didn’t know that I knew. And, admittedly, I didn’t know much. Just that they met up that night. So maybe nothing happened. Maybe he just gave her a ride to Providence, to this recording studio I don’t really believe exists, or to where one of her bandmates lived. The fact that he gave her a ride that night wasn’t what made me suspicious. What made me suspicious was this: something shifted, in Tariq’s body language, after that night. He doesn’t look me in the eye anymore. He turns his shoulders away from wherever I am standing.
Like right then, as I approached the front door, where he stood with his best friends, staring at the ground with his perfect lips pressed tight together.
I gnawed my fingernails furiously.
My mom tells me it is a disgusting habit. She tells me to stop. I can’t stop.
It hurt, how much I wanted to smash my face against those perfect lips. I wanted it even though I felt pretty sure Tariq did something terrible to my sister. And the wanting got rolled up with the shame and filled me with a sputtering, stupid animal rage. How could it be, that in spite of everything, I still felt lust when I looked at him? Lust, and hate, in equal measure.
That’s why I’m writing this Rulebook.
Your body is a treacherous savage thing and it is trying to kill you. I am here to help you win. Together, we are both going to win.
Ott saw me stop and stare daggers at Tariq.
“You want something, Matt?”
That’s my name: Matt. I didn’t want to tell you, because I hate it.
A matt is something people step on. A matt is full of filth.
I debated lying. Making up something badass or manly, Damien or Colby or Barrett or Bo, something gay-porn-star-y. But honesty is important. I want you to trust me. Because pretty soon I’ll be telling you some things you’re going to have a very hard time believing.
So, Ott called my name. My whole body twitched with fight-or-flight triggers, but I knew either choice would be disastrous. If I fought, I’d get my ass beat, and if I ran, my limited ability to make Tariq feel uncomfortable, to apply pressure, would evaporate.
People were watching. If Tariq hadn’t been standing there, I’d have gone about my business, but he was my real audience. Ott didn’t matter.
I winced, tasting blood where I bit down too hard on the cuticle of my ring finger.
In movies and books, all you need to do to stop a bully is to punch them back. Bullies are cowards, the story goes; they can dish out violence, but they can’t take it.
This, you should know, if you haven’t already found it out the hard way, is bullshit. I tried it, in middle school, and it made things worse. Maybe it’ll work for you, if you’re stronger than me, or a faster runner, but it earned me a lovely session of puking up blood.
I knew that hitting Ott wouldn’t get me anywhere. But I did see something flicker in his eyes, something like fear but not exactly that, something bigger, messier: hate and fear all at once. I took a step closer. I took a deep breath. I smelled him.
And don’t ask me how, but I knew. I knew from the smell: I made him nervous. I terrified him. My existence, my gayness, threatened his whole way of understanding the world, what it meant to be the male of the species.
I’d never understood the word homophobia before— people who are homophobic are not afraid of gay people, they just hate them! But in that moment it all made sense. Straight men will insult and assault and beat and kill gay men because they are terrified. Because masculinity is the foundation they built their whole worldview on, the set of lies that lets them believe they are inherently better than women, and gay people expose how flimsy and arbitrary the whole thing is.
I turned to him and said, “No, Ott, I don’t want anything. I was just wondering. What about me?”
His mouth curled into a snarl. “What about you?”
“Which one am I?”
He unfolded his arms with a slowness that revealed his uncertainty. “Which . . . one?”
“Yeah. Am I pretty? Not pretty? I definitely think I’m pretty.”
A girl giggled. Even Tariq cracked a grin, though he turned his head to hide it from me.
I took another step forward. Ott’s lips parted slightly, and I saw muscles tighten in his arms. He was confused and getting angry: he sensed I was humiliating him, but not in any way he could reasonably understand. He was desperate for me to touch him, or explicitly insult him, so he could hurt me. I had planned to tap his chest with one finger when I delivered the finishing line, but that would have made Ott feel justified in a physical response. So why bother.
Seconds ticked away—
“You are Not Pretty,” I told Ott an instant before the first bell rang.
Then I slipped by him and walked inside.