My Anorexic Clothing Doesn't Spark Joy

When I was 18, I sat in the tiny Michigan office of a psychiatrist who specialized in eating disorders, someone my mother was told was not easily manipulated, unlike every other doctor I’d seen. The doctor pulled out a brochure with some exotic locale on the front. It turns out it was just Florida. She handed it to my mother and said very bluntly, “your daughter is dying and she needs to go here.”

First of all, rude. I didn’t have time for rehab. I had a scholarship. I was going to New York City. I had very important things to do. It hadn’t fully hit me this was the end of the line so at first I was merely miffed. (Also, literally losing my mind.) It wasn’t until I asked about my clothes -- as one does -- that I became truly frightened. What would happen to them? Would I have to get rid of them?

Yes, she sternly responded. It was the first time she’d addressed me directly since sitting down, and though my mother may have been confused by the question, this woman seemed to expect it. They were sick clothes, she said. They would have to be thrown away immediately.

I’ve always had a fondness for clothing and I’ve always had an obsessive attention to the way it fit. Until I was 9, I refused to wear jeans because I hated how they bunched at my shoes or didn’t lay flush with my shirt. Everything needed to be smooth and flat, all clean lines and no rough edges or unsightly bunches. No excess.

Clothing has a very strange way of signifying to us what we are, what we can be, and what we are not. To that end, the clothes of an eating disordered person can play a large role in the perpetuation of -- and recovery from -- illness. Because when your clothing is really you, all the different pieces and versions of you, it needs to be kept safe. It can’t simply be discarded.

To get rid of my sick clothes would be the ultimate capitulation, a sure sign of defeat and acceptance that I wasn’t worthy of those teeny pieces and could never be the person for whom they were made. That is, someone who is fragile and small and ethereal and beyond body, really, just one large brain attached to a nimble skeleton that doesn’t so much move as float. In reality, those pieces were just made for 12 year-old girls.

But getting rid of them is also like getting rid of a lover -- something anorexia is consistently compared to. You’ve already broken up with them, but their presence is still palpable, be it mentally or tiny physical reminders in the closet, the kitchen, the mirror. It’s like they’ve moved out but haven’t moved out. That old sweater of theirs lingers.

I didn’t listen to the psychiatrist. I kept the clothing long after treatment (and relapse x2) and after I’d accepted the necessity of recovery. The clothes sat folded in a dresser or hung in the closet, serving as masochistic tools I occasionally pulled out to try on in a ritual of self-loathing to make myself feel and see the truth that I could no longer wear them comfortably and then, eventually, not at all.

Whenever I hear someone reference their proverbial skinny jeans, the ones that haven’t fit in two years but will just maybe fit again one day, I’m tempted to think that this hoarding of past selves is normal. Clothing is meant to be loved, yes. It’s also meant to be worn. So at what point does keeping clothing go beyond sentimental and become, well, disordered?

When I moved back to New York after a three-year stint in L.A, it required a purge (pun intended?) of clothing. This was mostly practical (hi, New York City closets!), but the process forced me to address items I have emotional attachments to, for disordered reasons or otherwise. There was nothing ceremonious about it. I approached it from an objective viewpoint: have I worn this in the last year? Using my black-and-white thinking was shockingly effective in this scenario. When it was done, I felt lighter, an irony I’ll never fail to grasp.

I don’t clean out my closet in large purges anymore. Instead, it happens piece by piece at random times. I’ll be looking for an outfit and feel overwhelmed by options, see something I don’t wear anymore and rip it from its hanger. It’s like pulling a Band-Aid; quick, efficient, without any time to reflect. Without any remorse. It feels oddly cathartic in its ruthlessness. Sometimes, that isn’t the case, and I go back and forth over something that no longer fits until hurriedly tossing it in a trash bag. Afterwards, I mourn. And I’m mourning the item and all the great outfits I created with it, but I’m also mourning the body that wore it and therefore who I was when I wore it.

“Letting go” and “letting yourself go” have very different meanings in our culture, but I’m starting to learn they’re actually the same. That letting myself go can mean I’m letting go of someone who was lost, ill, and completely terrified of life. That it means moving on to a me that I hope, and do think, will be better than before. Happier than before.

Plus, she’ll have some shopping to do.