I frantically sketched the tilt of her shoulders and the contrary angle of her hips, charcoal dust settling on the toes of my sneakers. Lily stood there, unabashed, as twelve art students glanced back and forth between their easels and her naked body.

“Time’s up!” my professor chirped, and we all groaned. Five-minute drawings rarely turned out as we hoped. Lily, our nude model for the semester, relaxed out of her pose as we all stepped back to examine our papers. The tilt of her neck looked awkward, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to define her feet. My professor would have something to say about that—footless or mitten-handed figures were a pet peeve of hers. I tossed the sketch on top of the dozen other mishaps from today’s session and clipped up a fresh white sheet.

The white paper crinkled beneath my thigh as I shifted my weight to get a better angle. Careful not to tear the delicate paper, I added chunky petals to the naked flowers decorating my landscape scene. My medium of choice was a stubby pencil scavenged from the depths of my mother’s purse. Pens were off-limits, as I’d quickly discovered they bleed through to the examination table below. It took me a minute to realize my mom was calling my name.

“Yeah?” I glanced to the corner, where my parents sat huddled with the doctor. Even though they were talking about me, I was evidently too young to take part in these hushed conversations. Hence, the doodling.

The doctor took my fingers in his freezing hands, forcing me to put down the pencil. He prodded the swollen lumps that had overtaken my wrists and nodded back at my parents, spewing words I only semi-understood: biopsy, anesthetic, diagnostic test. What I did comprehend: days off from school. It was only when we were checking out that I realized my drawing sat unfinished, devoid of grass or clouds. The nurse would be in right now to crumple it up and lay out a sterile sheet for the next patient.

My cast ended up being a pretty good canvas. They had taken the tissue sample from my left wrist, so my dominant hand was free to smear glitter across the gritty surface. Besides the pain, the week after my procedure was great: I got to skip school, do arts and crafts, and my kindergarten class sent me a cookie bouquet. 

Piped cookie bears with pom-poms surrounded a sign cheerfully mandating that I “Get Well Soon!”. The well-intended senders, and my five-year-old self, didn’t quite understand my new diagnosis. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a chronic autoimmune disease. Whether or not the bears’ sugary grins demanded it, there would likely be no getting better ever, much less soon. Their jointless limbs tasted delicious.

Sugar promotes inflammation. In people predisposed to autoimmune reactions, so can gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and myriad other foods that I’d never thought twice about consuming. I was on medication; first an oral pill, then a weekly injection. But my knees and ankles were still grossly swollen and frequently achy. Desperate for a supplemental method to manage my symptoms, my parents and I started experimenting with my diet. 

In the early 2000s, scientific literature interrogating the relationship between food and autoimmune disease was sparse. Guided by a few books and anecdotal results, I became a clinical trial of one. I did an elimination diet, removing possible inflammation triggers from my meals for several weeks. Instead of half-thawed Uncrustables and baggies of Goldfish, I pulled carrot sticks and spongy homemade grain-free muffins out of my lunchbox. Whenever someone in my class had a birthday, I passed on the cupcakes. The latter part of the diet involved reintroducing each food, individually and in large quantities, to test my reaction. I chewed straight sugar cane and felt fatigued and stiff in the following days. There was an entire twenty-four hour period when I ate only bananas. I still can’t peel one without getting queasy.

Explaining chronic disease to five-year-olds (or eight-year-olds or fifteen-year-olds) proved to be a futile endeavor. My classmates knew in an abstract sense that I was different; there had to be some reason the PE teacher sometimes let me sit in the corner of the gym with a box of colored pencils. Kids whose most intense experience with pain was scraping their elbow at recess had trouble conceptualizing the sticky, hot ache that accompanied me throughout my days. I didn’t blame them for not understanding. But after several peers responded with, “Oh, my grandma has that,” (their grandmothers had osteoarthritis, which differs significantly from JIA) I stopped mentioning the word “arthritis.”

I started guarding my diagnosis like a secret. As the visible swelling in my joints subsided, I could pretend I was “normal.” People only know about your pain if you let them. It was much easier not to.

“You eating your birdseed again?” my high school art teacher teased, as he studied the drawing I was working on. Cheeks flushing as crimson as the Prismacolor in my hand, I paused with a fistful of almonds, sunflower seeds, and unsweetened dried fruit halfway to my mouth. Despite its propensity to get trapped in my braces, it was my go-to snack. I forced myself to laugh, just like I did every time he said that. To change the subject, I pointed to the paper in front of me. I wanted feedback on my shading, not my eating habits.

Outlining my dietary restrictions required divulging my disease, and I refused to do that to anyone but my closest friends. I seldom ate in social situations, dismissing people’s inquiries with an “I’m not hungry,” hoping they couldn’t hear my stomach growling. I dated a boy for months without ever telling him there were foods I couldn’t eat.

I nibbled on iceberg lettuce at Olive Garden, made excuses to skip brownie baking nights, and waved off countless slices of pizza. People noticed, but besides the occasional “You’re so healthy!” or “You’re sure you don’t want to eat anything?” they rarely probed. I’m sure some of my friends wondered if I was struggling with an eating disorder. I was fine with them thinking that, as long as I didn’t have to explain the truth. All that mattered was that I knew I was eating for my health, to minimize inflammation and reduce pain, not out of obsession or disordered thought patterns. Until one day I wasn’t so sure anymore.

We hugged fiercely, arms pressing into each other’s rib cages. It had been several months since we’d been together, which is much too long for friends who had been inseparable since the fourth grade. She kicked her duffle bag aside and scanned the contents of my cramped freshman dorm room. Her gaze finally settled on me, eyebrows raising.

“You look…different,” she spoke slowly, as she does when she’s searching for the right words.

My belt was cinched so that it wrapped almost to my back. I’d never been one to wear belts, but now I reached for one daily. Otherwise, my pants would inch lower and lower as I walked to class. For the first time in my life, I could make out the indentations between my ribs. I hadn’t thought these changes were drastic enough to be noticed, but my friend was still staring at me like she’d never seen me before. I laughed it off and offered to show her around campus.

The weight loss wasn’t intentional. At least, that’s what I told myself. With stable symptoms and my doctor’s permission, I had weaned myself off my weekly injections before starting college. In turn, I was adhering strictly to a grain-free diet to avoid any flare ups. Which was quite the undertaking without a kitchen, eating only from the dining hall. Every meal was a variation of grilled meat and limp vegetables. If I was feeling fancy, I’d throw in some crunchy cantaloupe.

My stomach flattened out, my collarbones began to protrude the slightest bit. I stopped getting my period. I thought back to my childhood, watching my knees bulge, glutted with hot fluid. Wishing they would shrink, but only wishing, because my body didn’t obey me. Now, though, I had the power to whittle away the bulges and lumps I didn’t like. To make myself shrink. For over a decade, I had been on the losing side of a battle with my own body. It was my turn to seize control.

Every time I passed by a reflective surface, I had to pause and examine myself. It became a compulsion: in public bathrooms, in car windows, in the full-length mirror I hung inside my closet door. If no one was around, I lifted my shirt with one hand and pinched my stomach with the other. Turned to the side and sucked in. I later learned there’s a term for this: body checking. I’m still fighting the impulse.

These self-inspections overflowed with vitriol and judgment. But my observations in figure drawing class, my hours scrutinizing every miniscule detail of someone else’s body, were celebrations of the human form. If Lily’s body was my own, I would have bombarded it with a thousand little cruelties. Flabby, scarred, droopy, heavy. Maybe it was achy and stiff too. But the art studio forbade these words from emerging. An artist’s job is to render the beauty before her, not to contort or shape it to her liking. I never questioned if her body was good enough. I just focused on drawing it.

The ink dripped of its own accord, openly rebelling against the path I had set for it. I dipped my brush in water and pressed it to the paper in an attempt to dilute the black mark snaking down Lily’s shoulder. The spot barely lightened. I gritted my teeth.

Lily looked as serene as ever, leaning against the armrest of the studio’s green couch. I envied the ease with which she inhabited her body. She wasn’t fighting her physicality. Lily was Eve before forbidden foods entered the narrative: naked and unashamed.

Lily’s stomach sagged over her pelvis, pockmarked beneath her belly button from a C-section scar. Her pubic area and armpits grew scraggly brown hair. Her breasts drifted outwards, and an eye tattoo peeked out from the space between. The arch of her cupid’s bow made her look like royalty. She cut her hair choppy and short in the front but longer in the back, like a mullet. The curves of her hips demanded to be drawn. She was gorgeous, with her thick thighs and surgical scars, and she stood there as herself.

I dabbed my brush along my paper, outlining ten little toes. My bristles swept from her calf to her thigh, pausing to accentuate the bulge of her knee cap. A drop of ink, ever disobedient, splattered onto my wrist and settled into the crevice of my scar. The surgeon’s incision from fifteen years ago, usually undetectable, was made strangely beautiful by the dark pigment. I stared at my paint-stained hands, at my paper, at Lily. I was the artist, brush dancing along the page. Making art. But maybe I, with my dysfunctional joints and compulsions and tangled thoughts, was a masterpiece too.



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