It’s my lunch break and I’m standing outside Victoria’s Secret, looking at the models in the posters, looking at the mannequins, when it finds me for the first time.
It comes up behind me. Sneaks up. Whispers right into my ear.
It whispers, you don’t look like them.
It whispers, you can’t wear those things.
Breath, tickling my ear, like something delicate burrowing inside my head.
I stare at the posters and mannequins. The lace and the straps. The pale, perfect, toned lean bodies. I stare at them for a little longer, my reflection half-there in the glass, people passing behind me.
And I whisper back—or maybe it’s just inside my head—I whisper, “I know.”
That afternoon, in the office. I’m on my phone, scrolling semi-aimlessly, reading about diets, reading about exercise programmes.
Dinner that night and I don’t even remember what happened, not really. I’m chopping lettuce and my boyfriend’s in the shower. He just got home from work. I’m chopping lettuce. Chopping cherry tomatoes. There’s this not-right feeling, and I keep thinking about the posters, the mannequins in the window. I keep thinking about long thin arms and legs and slender torsos, slightly concave stomachs.
This faint, weak voice in my head, more breath than anything, maybe just the wind getting through the gap at the edge of the window, maybe just me, maybe nothing.
This not-right feeling.
I chop cucumber.
My boyfriend comes into the kitchen, a towel wrapped around his waist. He stands next to me, smelling of mint shower gel, and he says, “Salad?”
I chop mushrooms into thin slices.
He’s having chicken, I tell him, but I’m fine with the just the salad.
This not-right feeling.
I chop spring onions.
Certain dieting brands, they refer to calories as sins.
Saturday morning and I’m rummaging through the wardrobe in the drawn-curtain dimness of our bedroom. My boyfriend’s still in bed, this lumpy shape beneath the duvet.
After a while he mumbles, “What’re you doing?”
I tell him I’m looking for my joggers.
He says they’re in a pile on the floor my side of the bed, where I dumped them last night, and I tell him no, not those. I need my presentable ones, the ones I could go outside in. Not the around-the-house ones, with their old paint flecks and torn left ankle.
“What do you want the good ones for?” he asks.
I say I’m going for a run.
Pause. Outside, a bird is singing.
I breathe in. There’s all this stuff I could say, but I can’t be bothered with the debate, so I just say it again: I’m going for a run.
Depending on your weight and how much effort you put in, the average person burns between three-hundred and five-hundred calories if they run for thirty minutes.
Running along the beach front, it’s hard not to feel conspicuous. Hard not to feel stupid, knowing how stupid you actually look. Red and puffing, face shining. No form, no elegance. It’s obvious you don’t do this often.
And then there’s those other people. The ones you just know are here every morning. The ones like gazelles. The ones who must’ve had springs discreetly grafted into their legs.
And here I am, wheezing and shuffling.
Here I am, thinking of each step as a fraction of a calorie.
Here I am, making a mental note to download a running app for my phone. To buy one of those straps so your phone’s attached to your arm. To buy a FitBit. To buy new trainers.
I stand breathing at the far end of the beach front. Doubled-over, hands on knees. Metallic taste of blood at the back of my throat. My lungs hurt. Cold sweat between my shoulder blades. I feel like I’m not sweating enough. I feel like I could’ve pushed harder. But at the same time I know I’ve got nothing left in me, that I’m on the verge of vomiting.
And a voice whispers: why don’t you?
It’s a tickling in my ear. A whisper that could have come from inside my own head, or out of my own mouth. A voice that’s mine and not mine, like someone doing an impression of me. Like when you hear a recording of yourself.
Why don’t you? it says again.
This is when it finds me for the second time.
It stands a few feet away, leaning against the railings. Naked. Skin white like death, bloodless-seeming. The word that comes to mind is withered, but then that word changes to a different one: skinny. It stares at me with sunken, reddish eyes. Hungry eyes. When it speaks, when it smiles, it has all these little teeth, the two front ones bigger than the rest, more pointed.
It drifts towards me, floating, toes brushing along the ground. There’s no one around now, and even if there was, I don’t think they’d see it. It’s here for me.
The breeze tastes of the ocean. The morning sun bounces off the water, trembling, blinding.
I should be afraid, but I’m not.
The pale thing takes me in its bony arms and puts its lips against my ear. It hushes. It soothes. It strokes my sweat-damp hair.
Imagine being hypnotised. Paper-dry lips brush against my ear.
It says it wants the best for me, wants me to be better than I am.
Tender kisses on my neck. Whispers about calorie deficits, fasting days.
And I realise I’m holding on to it, my hands around its tiny waist. I’m pulling its body closer to mine.
It seduces. Runs long-fingered hands down my spine.
I’ll help you, it says.
And I whisper back, yes.
Breathing turns to soft moaning in my ear. Gently, it bites my shoulder.
Feed me, it sighs.
I’m raising my left arm.
Yes, it sighs, angling its sunken face until its teeth press the soft flesh between my elbow and my armpit. The skin that I hate. That I wish was toned. That I wish wasn’t there at all.
And then it’s kissing, and biting, and sucking.
When I get home, my boyfriend’s sprawled on the sofa playing a videogame. He asks about the run. I stand in the living room doorway and tell him it was fine. Then I correct myself and say, no, it was good. I feel better for it.
“That’s good,” he says.
I think I’ll make a habit of it. Start eating better, too.
“You don’t need to,” he says, eyes on the TV screen, the pretend things he’s trying to kill. “You’re perfect how you are.”
I slip off my trainers and go upstairs.
Strip off, t-shirt sticking to clammy skin. In the bathroom mirror I raise my arms in turn and pinch the loose flesh where the thing pressed its mouth and fed. There are no marks. There’s more to lose there. I need to tone up. I look closer and see the places my skin has stretched over time. Faint pearlescent lines, ghost-veins.
By the time I’m in the shower, my body has already begun to ache. It’s a good ache. Satisfying. It feels like a first step towards what I want.
I wipe steam from the glass of the shower cubicle.
It’s crouching on the toilet seat, watching me. A bathroom gargoyle. It smiles, pointed front teeth unsheathing like cat’s claws.
More, it says.
You can always do more.
A lot of people say: eat less, move more. This is because if you want to lose weight, you need a calorie deficit. You need to be using more than what you have. Simple maths. Eat less. Move more.
A week later I’m at my desk when one of my co-workers comes over with a box of Celebrations. It’s her last day before she goes on maternity leave. I’ve watched her stomach growing these last few months. Ever since she announced the pregnancy, she’s had this aura, this glow about her. Radiant, is the word for it.
She’s on the other side of the desk and she’s holding the box out towards me, and I’m thinking of how to say I don’t want one.
And this voice inside me says: forget pregnancy, she’s fat because of the chocolate.
It says, forget her stomach. Look at her arms. Her face. Look how her chin merges with her neck.
There it is. Under my desk. Curled around my feet, spindly fingers wrapped around my calves. Staring up at me with those hollowed-out eyes, its voice coming not from its mouth, but flourishing inside my head.
My voice and not my voice.
Say no, it whispers.
I look up and tell her I’m fine thanks, I had a big lunch.
This is a lie. I ate an apple and drank some fizzy water.
“Go on, just one,” she says, smiling, thrusting the box at me a little.
I tell her no again. I tell her I’m full. But the truth is, I’m the furthest thing from full. The truth is, I’m starting to see this whole situation as a test of my resolve.
“Are you sure?” she says. Already she’s bringing the box back towards her body. Already the box is drifting away from me.
I tell her I’m sure. I smile.
She moves away to another desk. I look at my computer screen and listen as she offers the chocolates to someone else.
Good, says the thing curled around my feet like a pale, hairless cat.
Blinking its drying-blood eyes, it whispers how good my willpower is. Then it sighs contentedly, and as its chest expands its ribs move beneath thin, fragile skin. Then, with its nails, it tears a little hole in my tights, my right calf, and now it’s lowering its head, pressing its mouth to the island of exposed flesh.
A slight pinch.
I stare at its ribs.
Some dieting brands have this thing called a cheat day. It’s when you’re allowed to relax the restrictions on what you eat. You’re allowed that bowl of pasta, that packet of crisps.
But cheating, by definition, is when you don’t do something the right way. Cheating is lying. It makes you a fraud. So maybe you don’t take that cheat day. Maybe you stick to the regime. And maybe this makes you feel like a winner. For sticking to the rules. For not being weak.
Monday through Friday, I go to the gym after work. I run on the treadmill. I cycle. I row.
After, I stand in the changing room, looking at myself in the mirror. My face shines with sweat. I turn left, turn right. Look at myself side-on. I’m less bloated. The effort is starting to pay off. But then I face forward again and I see how there’s no gap between my thighs. How my waist doesn’t taper in as much as it should. How my arms aren’t as skinny as they could be.
It steps around me, pointing at parts of me, pinching soft places, prodding. It says I need to lose some here, lose some there. Lose more all over.
It’s got taller. Bigger. A skeleton dancing around me, whispering the things I’ve read online, the things I’ve read in magazines.
Don’t reduce carbs, it says. Stop them entirely. What’s the harm?
No more sugar.
Always eat something green over something of a different colour.
We’re just cutting down, that’s all.
Trying to be healthy. Trying to look better.
To be a better person.
You’ll use up the fat, that way.
It stands beside me. Both our reflections in the mirror, side by side. I envy its figure.
I’ll use up the fat, it says, putting an arm around my shoulders.
This is how you do it, it says.
It smiles. Piranha mouth.
Don’t eat dinner tonight, it says.
When I get home, my boyfriend tells me to get changed because he’s booked us a table somewhere.
I ask why he booked a table.
“Why not?” he says. “Go and get changed.”
I go upstairs and shower. The pale thing stands in the cubicle with me, body pressed up against mine as it talks into my ear. There’s this feeling, like breath caressing the soft folds of my brain. Like I can feel its words spreading across the inside of my skull like graffiti.
In the bedroom, I take a long time to get ready, to get changed. Nothing looks good on me. Nothing.
More work to do, it says over my shoulder.
We drive into town. The restaurant is a five-minute walk from the car park and as my boyfriend asks about my day, tells me about his, I count every step and try to work out how many calories I’m burning.
The restaurant is a new one. It hasn’t been open long. Metal air ducts like ribcages against the ceiling. Exposed brickwork. Polished concrete floor. Everything stripped-back, lean.
We’re shown to our table. Menus printed on card, dishes and their descriptions printed in blocky, stamp-like text. You just know the owner has a beard or an OTT moustache, faux-sailor tattoos on his forearms, dark skinny jeans.
I’m scanning the menu for something small. Some kind of salad.
And already the waiter’s here and my boyfriend’s ordering a steak with fries, a lager to go with it. And now they’re looking at me, waiting. And for some reason I can’t just tell them to wait, I haven’t decided yet.
I panic and order a chicken Caesar salad. A glass of water.
The waiter drifts away.
Across the table, my boyfriend looks at me quizzically. “Salad?”
For the first time, I want to tell him what’s been going on. For the first time, I feel like maybe I’m not in control.
I had a big lunch, I tell him.
I tell my boyfriend I need to use the bathroom.
And then I’m in a cubicle, and I’m standing bent over the toilet, my arms stretched out to the walls, palms against cold tiles, and it feeds.
It comes up behind me like a lover. It kisses my neck, traces my jawline with one sharp finger.
Worth it, it sighs.
Pale lips brushing the curves and ridges of my ear.
I close my eyes as it sinks to its knees. As it pulls up my dress to expose my midriff. It kisses my stomach. A sharp pinch. A sensation like sucking, like being given a lovebite.
You can almost feel yourself getting thinner.
After, I’m standing at one of the sinks, looking in the mirror. The overhead lights make me pale, make me look dead. Eyes red and bleary with tears. My face is blotchy.
I lean forward and swill my mouth out. Spit into the sink.
The door opens and a woman comes in. She glances my way, smiles politely, goes into a cubicle.
I swill out my mouth again and wait for the blotchiness to fade.
From inside the occupied cubicle, there are noises.
The woman, she couldn’t wait any longer.
It couldn’t wait any longer.
There are more of us than you might think. It’s not just me it follows, not just me it haunts. And it’s not always obvious. A lot of the time, you’d never know.
We don’t all look like skeletons.
I check myself in the mirror a final time, and go back out to the table.
When I sit down, my boyfriend says he ordered us dessert. I go along with it. Chocolate fudge brownie with ice cream.
After, when we’re getting ready to leave, I tell him I need to use the bathroom again.
There’s this saying, I read it somewhere: nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
You get hooked. That’s half its power. It wraps itself around you, snaring you in its long, bony arms, digging its nails into the space between your shoulder blades. Gripping you tighter and tighter until you can’t breathe. Until it breathes for you, in between all the biting and suckling. In between its gradual draining of you.
And the days, they tick by. Become weeks.
Become years, maybe.
Until one day your boyfriend, or your husband or your wife, your girlfriend, your mother, your father, whoever. Until one day they sit you down. Until one day they’re pleading with you.
I’m late home because I stayed longer at the gym tonight, and we’re sitting in the living room and my boyfriend is saying I need to eat something. Eat something, eat something, eat something. Like if he says it enough, he might be able to brainwash me. Or reverse-brainwash me.
He’s taking my hands, holding them gently, and he’s on the verge of tears when he says, “Please, just eat. You’re wasting away, you’re too thin, you look like shit.”
He means well, but this doesn’t help.
And the truth is, part of me knows he’s right. Part of me knows this has gone on too long, that it can’t go on forever. That it’s not sustainable. But then what happens is the thing that feeds off me, it says everything’s fine. And it grips my head in its clawed hands and turns me, makes me catch my reflection in the dead TV screen across the room. It makes me look while it whispers how there’s still work to be done. My cheekbones. My legs. Me. It tells me I’m still in control. That I’ll know when it’s time to stop.
So that’s what you end up saying. To your boyfriend. Your husband, your wife. Your whoever.
I pull my hands away, and, irritated, I tell him I’m absolutely fine.
You can’t open a tabloid or scroll through one of their websites without seeing an article about how some has-been celebrity let herself go. Long-lens shots of her getting in a car or walking a dog. Close-up of a stomach roll, a double chin.
The next article tells you how to get that summer body. How to get the bum, lose the cellulite, the bingo-wings, how to shrink your thighs. Because these are all things you need to do.
And the next article leaps to the defence of an Instagram influencer who got trolled for being a size twelve. And the next article talks about the benefits of fasting one day a week. And the next article celebrates Kim’s curves. And the next one has a headline which simply says STUNNING and it’s about this girl who dropped from a size sixteen to a size eight in just five months with one simple trick. She stands posing in activewear, thin in all the right places.
And now you’re lying on the floor in work, because you fainted.
And now you’re leaning over the toilet bowl, looking into it, and there are strands of blood in the water like thin red worms. The thing, its sucking on your thigh, yellow-white fat dribbling from the corners of its mouth, and you’re trying to convince yourself that the blood in the bowl, it’s okay.
Your hands tremble all the time.
You worry about your teeth.
Your boyfriend sits you down again. You argue.
You sleep a lot. Shut the curtains. Weak eyes, migraines.
A mouthful of food and your body wants to reject it, muscle-memory.
And for the first time you see it for what it is. One day, when you’re sitting halfway up the stairs because you’ve got no energy. Like peering behind a curtain and glimpsing a secret.
It’s feeding off you. It’s draining you.
It’s a cuckoo working a starling to death.
It’s a tapeworm making you sick.
It’s a tick gorging on your blood.
And now you’re lying on the floor in work, because you fainted.
And now you’re in bed, and your boyfriend and your mother and your father all take turns to hover their faces over you. Then it takes its turn, later, that evening. Gunshot-wound eyes gazing down at you. Lipid-laced saliva dribbling out of its mouth. You ate a little, earlier. Three crackers. And now it wants to feed, its teeth unsheathing from its gums, its pale-spider hands pulling back the sheets and reaching for your stomach.
And you whisper.
What they say at the meetings is, you have to take it a day at a time.
That’s what they say when we sit in a group, a loose circle, and talk. All of us different shapes, different sizes, ages, genders. All of us with a similar problem.
How we get here is different for everyone. Some are referred. Others find it themselves, or their families do.
Another thing they say at the group is that it’s possible to come out the other side. You can be okay again, or mostly okay. Good days and bad days.
There’s a new attendee tonight. A boy in his late teens. Loose-fitting clothes to make himself shapeless, like he wants to hide himself.
Sometimes it’s like looking in a mirror.
Something slinks in with him. It’s pale and skinny and it follows him like a shadow. Dark, watery eyes and a mouth like a twitching wound. Dribbles of blood and fat around its lips, running down its chin. It tries whispering in his ear. It tries to make him turn and walk out.
It falls back a little, the nearer he gets to us.
The group leader says, “Everyone, this is Jacob.”
We all say hi.
The group leader, she smiles and tells him to take the empty seat next to mine. He sits, then looks at the floor just beyond his feet.
The thing that followed him in, it goes and lingers in the corner.
The group starts talking, easing in with small talk. How our week has been. The latest episode of the show we’re all into.
I want to lean over to Jacob and tell him it’s weird at first, talking about it, when you’ve spent so long thinking it was just you. That he can just listen, if he wants.
I glance at the thing again. It waits in the corner. Pale thin limbs. Jutting bone. It’s restless, can’t keep still, twitching and fluttering like an insect trapped in a jar. Pale parasite. It’s strange to see it like this, to see it doubtful.
I’m going to talk to Jacob.
I’m going to lean over and tell him there’s more to it than just talking. It’s work.
I’m going to lean over and whisper to him how the thing that follows, it might never be gone, not fully—but he can keep it at bay.
I’ll tell him that he can be un-hypnotised. That you can learn to ignore the lies it whispers.
I’m going to lean in and keep whispering until all he can feel is my breath tickling his ear.
Until I drown out the other thing, if only for a while.