An Orange A Day
The simple story about a complicated relationship with food.
“If you don’t start eating, we’re going to have to look at other options…”, my mother quietly yet sternly mentioned one morning as I stood at her dressing table adjusting my school uniform. My grey trousers hung loosely from my hips, and my belt required more tightening with each passing week – I was down to the second last hole. The red blazer, with the eagle stitched to the front pocket, drooped around my shoulders. Usually these observations caused me to feel a certain sense of accomplishment. But on this particular morning the combination of hunger, and the panic brought on by my mother’s unexpected intrusion made me stumble through a barely comprehensible lie – something I was doing rather frequently these days. Lying about breakfast, lying about lunch, lying about food in general.
It started in the winter of 2001, when oranges were in full supply. And if you know oranges, you know that one does not simply slice up an orange. Because when you take a knife to an orange you disrupt the natural formation of the fruit – creating incisions and separations where there should be none. Ideally, you should start the peeling process by inserting your thumb about half a centimetre into the navel located at the top of the orange – penetrating just enough to get a comfortable hold on the skin. You may want to wear sunglasses or other protective eye gear to prevent a nasty, zesty squirt to the eye. Still with your thumb placed within the newly formed hole, firmly grip the peel between your thumb and index finger. Start removing the peel in a spiral motion. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can attempt to get the entire peel off in one go. Trust me, a greater feeling of success is hard to come by.
Now that the peel has been removed, begin gently separating the segments from each other – one by one. Careful not to tear into the fruit, piercing the flesh like a savage. Neatly arrange the orange segments on a plate, wiping away any juice or rind or pith that might be messing with your presentation. Proceed to the dining room table, in your school socks – making sliding motions with your feet on the tiles, as if you were ice-skating. Sit down, place your beautifully arranged plate of orange segments squarely in front of you, with a huge glass of ice-cold water to your right. You may now start eating your orange – alternating orange bites with big gulps of water. Be sure to savour every single mouthful of your first, and last meal of the day.
I wonder if Amy Frasier ate oranges too: her red blazer, with the eagled stitched to the front pocket, drooped around her shoulders. Her waist became narrower – her tunic belt requiring tightening every few days. And her knees and shin bones became more visible as the school year progressed. We never spoke, but between periods, when we did pass each other in the hallway, we’d exchange a glance. She moved through the corridors of high school with caution and care: careful of raising her head too high, ensuring she didn’t attract any attention; also never looking down in an attempt to escape any unwarranted concern. She walked, gently measuring her surrounds, making sure nobody was watching . . . looking. In Amy’s surveying eyes I recognised a certain look. Was it a look of fear – or the confusion of trying to fill something by keeping it as empty as possible? Or could it be the blinding terror of believing that all your future goals, friendships, exam results, self-worth and confidence all relied on what you put in, and kept out of your mouth. I couldn’t say for certain what lay behind Amy’s eyes, but I found it familiar, almost relatable in its consistency. Every day the same.
And then suddenly I didn’t see Amy in the hallway anymore. The next day too. And the day after that. In fact I didn’t see Amy again until two months later. When she eventually returned to school she looked different. Her waist wasn’t that narrow, and her blazer didn’t droop as much anymore. Her body continued to change and her clothes began to fill out as time passed. Amy was white. She was a girl. And she and I had absolutely nothing in common. Only white teen girls got what Amy had. Not brown boys from the year 2001, raised in middle-class, Dutch reformed, church-going coloured families.
At about the same time that Amy lost weight and abruptly disappeared from school, SA’s favourite family magazine, the Huisgenoot / YOU, developed an obsession with girls like her. Each week featured a new picture of some thin white girl – feeding tubes attached, accompanied with the headline “DYING TO BE THIN”, or a variation of other Afrikaans equivalents. I would lie on my parents’ bedroom floor, in a t-shirt and underpants, reading their sad stories and quietly talking to them through the pages. “Bitch, you’re so thin already – why don’t you just start eating again?” I would say.
Meanwhile I was down 35 kg’s, and comfortably slipped into size 28 Levis. I was 1.8m tall and weighed 65 kg’s. There was still room for improvement though. Around the same time, I promptly finished university and moved to a new city. My new Cape Town friends accepted that this was the way I’d always looked. They had no reason to think otherwise. For the first time in years, there was nobody watching what I ate, commenting on my weight or sharing concerned glances with each other when they thought I wasn’t looking. To these people I was not newly thin. I was just thin – and it felt good.
Since the oranges, almost 17 years of weight fluctuations have passed – one year fat and the next two years thin – always going from one extreme to the next – never quite finding balance in the way I ate, or how much I weighed. But now, as of quite recently in fact, my life mainly consists of three healthy-ish meals a day (cheat days not included). And in the midst of me trying to be an adult, endeavouring to make healthy nutritional and general life choices, and attempting to shed childlike notions of food, weight and body image, the memories of those days still inconveniently come wafting back from time to time: I remember eating only when my stomach started burning, I recall my older brother mockingly noting how big my head had become for my body. I laugh when I think of how impossible it was to sleep on my side because of the annoying way the mattress would poke at my hip bones. And then, unexpectedly, I’m reluctantly moved to call it by its name.
“Holy shit, did I have an eating disorder . . . ?”
Writer’s Note: Dear readers, if ever you feel that you might have an eating issue, or you’re living through a weird emotional situation, perhaps you should think about talking to somebody. More and more, I’m starting to see the value in adding just one more voice to the conversation that eternally rages in my head.
And Amy Frasier isn’t her real name. Obviously.
Lyle Lackay is a writer. And an aspiring talk show host.