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Dispatches from Medical Leave

February 10, 2023

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

It was summer in New York City, and the heat was unwavering and oppressive. I stood in front of a mirror, my brow furrowed as I scrutinized my reflection. My feet touched, and I stood erect. I leaned back slightly; the gap between my thighs narrowed. I stood straight again. The gap returned. Satisfied, I continued my inspection of the naked woman in the glass. I interrogated her stomach and hips and waist and arms until there was nothing left to observe. It was the day before college started; I had never hated myself more.

I arrived at college with a clear mission. My relationship with my high school boyfriend had ended just two weeks prior. Our breakup was planned; he was starting college in Los Angeles and I in Maine, and we both agreed that it would be best to end things. It had been both of our first relationships, and he and I tenderly shared a litany of firsts. I still loved him, but I had a sense that our relationship had been markedly adolescent, and I now sought something adult. If my high school relationship had been characterized by the feeling that each first was a momentous occasion—each progression in our relationship intimate and deliberate—my college experiences were to be nonchalant and dispassionate. This, to me, was sexual liberation. And I was determined to find it.

My quest for liberation first came in the form of a short but well-built junior—let’s call him Brian. I had only been in college for a week, and despite my best efforts, I emanated the youthful eagerness that all first-year college students carry. I sensed that Brian found my greenness amusing, but I was unbothered. He was twenty, and I was nineteen, so in my view, his two years of college experience to my zero were immaterial. I wasn’t particularly attracted to Brian, and he wasn’t particularly kind. In the few minutes we spoke it became clear to me that we had little in common. He didn’t share my academic passions. We didn’t listen to the same music, and he didn’t care to ask about the music I did listen to. I made a passing joke about economics majors; it went unobserved.

Despite our differences, there he was: a man (no, boy) who promised that ever-elusive thing I had set out to find. And when the whole thing was over, I found myself unchanged. And though I had yearned to say no, I found myself silently acquiescing in each passing moment. “Is this okay?” I nodded. “Are you sure?” I didn’t respond. I surrendered myself to him and his desire and was left with the very woman in the mirror whom I despised. I gathered my things and left. Liberation remained as elusive as ever.

The walk from his dorm to my first-year brick was short—all walks here are—but felt unbearably long. I noticed for the first time since leaving New York how quiet Maine is, how empty this 20,000 person town feels. Had I ever experienced this kind of silence? Had I ever seen this many stars? My mind drifted to my ex-boyfriend. Was he having fun? It was 11:30 p.m. in California. Maybe he was getting ready for a party, or maybe he was having a relaxed night in with new friends. I yearned to know; I didn’t ask.

My solitary walk was interrupted by blinding headlights. I became suddenly aware of my scant clothing, of how stupid, how careless, I had been to walk in the dark alone at night in such a skimpy outfit. My mind raced through what seemed to me infinite possibilities of my impending doom. Gripped by the reflexive fear that comes from nineteen years of living as a woman in New York City, I continued forward with my jaw clenched and my head down. The car passed. I returned to my dorm no more than ten minutes after I had left.

The shame I felt from the night with Brian wasn’t immediate, but it seeped into my skin  until I felt its full force in my bones. Flashes of the encounter entered my mind as I walked across the quad or waited in the dining hall line. I forced my friends to take circuitous routes if I made out his figure from afar. The reason for my disgust eluded me, or perhaps I didn’t want to understand it. But this was supposed to be normal. This was college; this was liberation.

At the same time, the eating disorder I had developed toward the end of high school worsened. I became obsessed with every quantifiable metric at my disposal to measure my success in restriction: calories consumed daily, the rise and fall of the scale, the number of meal swipes left over at the end of the week. I desperately sought control, but even a single romantic rejection, a single extra pound, threatened to demolish the flimsy foundation upon which I had constructed my self-worth.

By late October, my health had deteriorated to a point where the only tenable option was to take a medical leave of absence. Just two months after I had eagerly started college, I found myself back home. I went on long, solitary walks, attempting to understand how I’d ended up where I was. How had it happened that I, who had prided myself on always being in control, who had such lofty ambitions for college, had ended up living with my parents again? I was dumbfounded.

It has been six months since I returned to Bowdoin from medical leave, and I’ve found that the hardest part of recovery is accepting that my body is beautiful (which probably sounds remarkably banal coming from someone in treatment for anorexia). But I’m not referring to beauty in the conventional sense; I have no interest in contrived body-positive platitudes or the kind of beauty that derives its value from the validation of a one night stand. I have surrendered too much of myself—of my interiority, my soul, my essence, not to mention my body and health—to the twisted and implacable logic of anorexia nervosa to concern myself with socially constructed conceptions of beauty. No, I’m referring to the beauty in a body that sustains you, that nourishes you, that allows you to care for other people and yourself.

Mina Zanganeh is a member of the Class of 2025.


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