Some Form of Punishment

Diana Spechler


“I can’t eat,” I’ve been saying for months. “I’m too nervous,” I said at first. After the election, I switched excuses: “My stomach is in knots.”

Really, I can eat. I did it once, last Saturday – started and couldn’t stop. It was cheese. Smoked Manchego. Comfort food. Soft food. Given the chance to bite too hard, I suspected I’d grind my teeth to dust.

The next morning: black coffee and air.


“I think certain women are more beautiful than others, to be perfectly honest.”

“A young and beautiful piece of ass.”

“You’d fuck her, wouldn’t you? I’d fuck her.”

“There are basically three types of women.”

“They let you do it.”

“Miss Piggy.”

“There has to be some form of punishment.”


The last time I punished myself, the impetus was heartbreak. “Why don’t you want to work this out?” I asked. I needed to know everything. I needed access to the empty wells in his heart so I could refill them.

He said, “I just can’t.”

A lie, of course. But I understood – we lie to keep doing what we want to keep doing.

“Eat,” my friends probed.

But I couldn’t.


I’ve had enough therapy to name the source: When I was twelve, there was a boy who took off my clothes while I told him no. He kissed me in a way that made me gag. He broke the hook on my bra. He squeezed my breasts. I’d been the first to develop breasts. The boys were always discussing my breasts. He poked inside my vagina as if searching for a fork in a drain. We were watching Saint Elmo’s Fire. I have no idea what that movie is about.

When blood tests revealed mono, people laughed: “the kissing disease!”

I tried to tell. I’m sure I did. I’ve never been the quiet type. But I guess I told the wrong people because I can’t recall a response.

He told people, too: “I scored.”

For six weeks, I was too sick to eat. Too sick to move. In bed, my period came on like a scream. No maxi pad could absorb it. My mother kept changing the towels beneath me. The princess and the pea. The princess bleeding out like a soldier. I returned to the size I’d been prior to puberty, prior to the night a boy broke my bra, prior to owning a bra that a boy could pick like a locker-room lock.

“You have the best body now,” was one thing I heard.


There is a problem when millions grieve at once: Each individual grief goes untended. Who cares whether one woman eats when thousands of women are sick to their stomachs? A woman is in danger of becoming so thin, she slips through the cracks. A woman might become so thin, she’ll be pushed through the cracks. A woman might become thin enough to squeeze herself through the cracks.

Such a short road between diminished and gone.


A decade ago, an older male relative tried to fuck me. When I refused to return his calls, he left death threats on my voicemail: “If you don’t call me back, I’ll kill you,” he sang. Who knows why he was singing. I told my parents. They didn’t say much. I was well into my twenties; maybe they thought I should fend for myself. That winter, I nibbled high-fiber cereal that made me shit. Nothing for lunch. Wine for dinner.

When that relative got engaged the next year, my parents bought plane tickets to his wedding.

I was home for some holiday, screaming, “How could you?”

My mother showed me her palms as if I might shoot. My father, protecting my mother, I guess, told me to “chill out.”

I saw more wrinkles on his face than I’d ever seen, more exhaustion in his posture. The slang felt incongruous: chill out.


Maybe I’m trying to be thin so no one calls me Miss Piggy. Maybe I’m trying to hide. Maybe I’m flailing for some semblance of control. Maybe I don’t think I deserve the space that is clearly reserved for men. Maybe I’m regressing, reversing, returning to a time before my body was a woman’s. Maybe I’m punishing not just myself, but those who love me who voted for Trump. My parents voted for Trump.


Another fast: I was infatuated with a man who inserted sex toys into my asshole. When I told him how much I hated it, he told me I’d learn to love it.


I know. It’s just an eating disorder. Or “disordered eating,” as I’ve been taught to say. But when women can’t choose what to do with their bodies, they find a way to choose. In prison, the Suffragettes waged hunger strikes. (Then the men in charge force-fed them.)


“Rosie O’Donnell is disgusting.”

“Arianna Huffington is disgusting.”

“Unattractive both inside and out.”

“Highly neurotic.”

“The face of a dog.”

“Eating machine.”

“Unsexiest woman alive.”

“You have to treat ‘em like shit.”


I’ve gained weight in every relationship. It’s the middle chapter – long after the falling in love, but before the falling apart. I get comfortable. I feel safe. I see no reason to punish myself. But after the breakup, I cringe to think that anyone saw me naked like that. Now and then, I run into an ex and always want to apologize.


Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Paris Review Daily, Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, and elsewhere. She won the Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own Foundation. She tweets from @dianaspechler.