Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.

I never understood the old adage.

As a kid, I didn’t collapse in a puddle of tears when I stubbed a toe or scraped an elbow like my younger sister (which, to her credit, might have been attributed to her age), but words seemed always to have the power to reduce me to a weepy mess.

It didn’t matter if it was a motorist yelling at my serial jaywalking or a classmate criticizing my new haircut; others’ words have always been capable of making me feel like an insignificant speck of dirt.

Nowadays, stores burst with books describing the “Highly Sensitive Person,” a persona that may or may not describe me, but I cannot deny that I am easily hurt by “mere” words.

Having lived 22 years as Sensitive Sarah, there are a few exchanges that stand out to me more than others. One in particular happened just a few years ago, in my first year at Smith.

Two or three weeks into the semester, I was approached one day after Introductory Macroeconomics by a tall, slender girl who wanted to know where I had purchased my jeans. At the time I was eating no more than 600 calories a day, and was as a result quite skinny myself.

Come to think of it, I looked at the time a lot like this girl, whom I will refer to hereafter as G. We were both blonde sticks, only G had a good five inches on me. We were even mistaken on occasion for sisters. Having singled me out as a fellow Skin & Bones Club member, G wanted to know where to find jeans that fit tall and skinny bodies like ours’.

Over the coming weeks, G and I would become fast friends. We both spent our mornings on the elliptical trainers at the gym, and lived on Granny Smith apples and the occasional handful of All-Bran cereal.

Both G and I were committed to getting the best grades we could. Maybe A’s weren’t as easy to come by in college, but we would try our hardest. We brought notecards and textbooks to the gym, to the dining hall, to bed.

G and I spent our morning workouts discussing the kind of lives we envisioned for ourselves. G wanted to major in neuroscience or in economics; she wasn’t sure which. “Part of me just wants to wear the Power Suit, you know?” she told me one morning, her skinny arms pumping back and forth on the elliptical. I nodded.

I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. I did want to graduate fluent in French, which I imagined I would achieve while abroad in Paris or Geneva. But I couldn’t get much more specific than that. I had always been interested in psychology, and was taking a first-year seminar about social phobia, so maybe that was a start.

G and I soon began a tradition of weekend trips to the local Stop n’ Shop, a 20-minute walk from the Smith campus. There G would purchase her artificially-sweetened coffee (crème brulée was a favorite), and we would as a pair peruse the low-calorie snack options. It was during this time that G introduced me to Swiss Miss sugar-free, low-carb hot cocoa, an item she tried to ration as a “special treat.”

A packet of the aforementioned cost just 25 calories, although I’m sure Swiss Miss jacked up the product’s monetary price. No matter how much I might have saved on generic, sugary hot cocoa, I enjoyed my newfound ability to eat (or in this case, drink) sweet things and continue losing weight.

It was during one of these weekend walks that G and I first broached the topic of calories and diets. “I’ll never be able to buy something and not check the calorie count first,” I said somewhat gravely, disappointed that I could no longer pick a product off the supermarket shelf without first checking that its caloric value was permissible.

G nodded in agreement. She too could not resist turning over a packet of oatmeal, iced tea mix or a carton of non-fat yoghurt without first verifying that it wouldn’t do her diet in.

Still, neither G nor I referred to our way of eating and moving as “dieting,” or “restrictive.” We preferred (the giant misnomer of) “healthy” instead.

Back to words. The ones that always hurt me?

On what would be our last scheduled trip to Stop n’ Shop, I decided to share with G that the college physician was forcing me to gain weight. Not with a gun held to my head, mind you, but with the threat of expulsion from school, better known as involuntary medical leave.

“But you don’t need to gain weight,” G replied, gesturing at what she saw as an acceptably thin body. “You look great. You don’t need to gain a pound.”

In spite of my deluded thinking about food and weight, I had not yet lost all touch with reality. I knew G was wrong, and that she was, more importantly, more messed-up than I was about food and body. Why else would she tell a person who was more than 10 pounds below a minimally acceptable weight that weight gain wasn’t necessary? Why else would she tell a friend whose increasingly lengthy workouts and increasingly stringent diet had resulted as of late in fainting spells, that weight gain wasn’t absolutely, completely necessary?

Fast forward almost a year later, this time about five pounds below a healthy weight. G told me that she thought I looked great. Already experiencing the distraction and nagging hunger of too-thin territory, I knew that she was once again wrong. Intellectually, at least.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” G added, looking me in the eye, “but when you came back to school last spring, you looked a little heavy.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. At approximately 125 pounds when I returned to Smith after a forced medical leave, G thought me “a little heavy?”

“Not fat,” she clarified, tugging her blouse over her own protruding collarbones, “but heavy. Like you had a layer of marshmallow fluff.”

This should have been evidence enough to cut ties with G, to divorce myself from her obviously disturbed ideas of what a healthy body was. But I didn’t. Instead, some part of me internalized her criticism of what had been a perfectly healthy (and thin) body, a body that a physician, psychologist and nutritionist had all deemed healthy.

I spent the next year away from Smith, working six of the 12 months in Switzerland, where my contact with G became increasingly infrequent. G spent her junior year abroad, and by the time we found ourselves back together at Smith this past fall, it was clear neither or us was particularly interested in picking up the pieces of a superficial and unhealthy friendship.

Last I checked, G was still planning to go to medical school, where she hopes to specialize in neurology. I wonder if she will hold steady at her current low weight, or if she will decide once and for all to get help for her eating disorder.

I know now, though, that she will never be capable of forming deep and lasting relationships, romantic or otherwise, if she doesn’t give up her restrictive diet and exercise routine.

I hope that she never tells an eating disordered patient that gaining weight isn’t necessary, or comments on how “great” she thinks he or she looks 5-, 10- or 15- pounds underweight.

Those words will always hurt me.

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