**Content Warning: Eating Disorders**

On Bathrooms

We called the pink-tiled powder room with the floral wallpaper “Mom’s bathroom.” There, she sat on a white cushioned stool to put on her make-up and style her hair. She lined her perfume, hair spray, and jewelry box along the counter. Inside the built-in drawers she stored brushes, spikey-edged hot rollers, lipstick, mascara, face creams, mud masks, and dozens of other tubes and pots filled with creams and potions. I watched her sigh at her reflection, heard her wishing for dewier skin, and felt the mist from dozens of spurts of hairspray that never quite did the trick of keeping her hair in place. So much of it seemed to make her so unhappy, yet I longed to get my hands on all of them, the tubes, the jars, the creams. But I had to be patient: in fifth grade I would be allowed to hot-roll my hair, and in high school I’d have permission to wear make up outside the house.

Mom’s bathroom smelled like the perfume she spritzed on her neck when she went out at night with Dad or to mass on Sunday morning. Ysatis by Givenchy. On the wall by the light fixture hung a wooden plaque with fancy scrawl:

May the road rise to meet you,

May the wind be ever at your back,

May the sun shine warmly on your face,

May the rains fall soft on your fields, and until we meet again,

May God keep you in the palm of his hand.

I loved to stare at the swirly M’s on each of the first lines. It was the first prayer I ever memorized. I understood—from the nuns at Catholic school, from my half-listening at mass—that God allowed only the most beloved and beautiful children to draw near to Him. Those children prayed often, always with their heads down and eyes closed; they welcomed suffering just as Christ did when he wore the crown of thorns; and they had soft, appealing features that filled others with wonder and awe. When I stared at my reflection in Mom’s mirror, I wondered how close I could get. How many creams, pots, tubes, brushes and sprays would it take?

When I saw the words of my bathroom prayer stenciled on the wall of a friend’s kitchen, it surprised me that those lines belonged to the world, not just to the pink tiled room where I tried to learn from my mother how to be a girl in the world.




When I was six or seven, we added onto our red brick ranch house in a quiet Dallas neighborhood. A crew arrived to build a hallway that led to two new bedrooms. “The addition,” we called it. The small one would be my little sister’s, and the bigger one with the attached bathroom would be my parents’. Mom carried all of her potions, perfumes, brushes, and make-up to her new bathroom before the paint was even dry. She tucked her old stool under the new counter. The yellow wallpaper shimmered with golden threads, and a linen closet held fresh towels, a sewing machine, the ironing board, bottles of Woolite, and a laundry bin. Because Mom and Dad professed the secret to a happy marriage was separate bathrooms, my mom shared the master bathroom with my little sister. Their floral-smelling shampoos stood along the rim of the tub like colorful twin soldiers, their towels hung on the white hooks behind the doors. We called that bathroom “the girls’ bathroom,” and I rarely went in there. As is the way of some families, we never discussed the arrangement. I assumed I hadn’t made the cut, that I was too far from beautiful to join them in the sparkly new bathroom. While no one ever told me to stay out, but I was never invited in, and I was someone who needed an invitation.

We called the full bath in the old part of the house “Dad’s bathroom,” because if you opened the medicine cabinet, you’d see his razor, Q-tips, Barbasol, and the Canoe cologne we bought at Eckerd’s every Father’s Day. In the closet, trifolded towels shared space with a slim stack of Dad’s recovery books and his little black comb. I showered in “Dad’s bathroom,” then retreated to the powder room, which no longer had a name now that I was the only one who used it. I don’t know what the pink bathroom smelled like when it was all mine. I guess it smelled like me. A girl coming of age down the hall from her mom and sister and next to her Dad and brother, filled with questions about where she belonged.



On Lenten Friday nights when I was in junior high, we’d order bean and cheese nachos from El Fenix. One of those Fridays, I baked a pan of brownies from a Duncan Hines box mix, adding an extra egg so they’d turn out “cake-like.” I kept returning to the kitchen to carve up another slice and then another. It scared me that I couldn’t stop. By the time the nachos arrived, my belly felt stretched, pained. Still, I filled my plate with tortilla chips loaded with mounds of refried beans covered with hardened cheese like greasy tarps. I imagined my stomach splitting open like the seam on a stuffed animal. I knew all those calories would lead me to a body that would invite ridicule from kids and pity from adults. I’d swallowed the toxic lesson that the worst thing to be was that girl, the one who had to special order clothes in extra-large sizes and buy a one-piece bathing suit in the plus-sized women’s section. By then, I prayed every night for God to remove my fleshy curves and to control my longings for more food, for a different body, for less darkness inside me. I prayed to be more like my tiny sister and my slender mother.

In the pink bathroom, the floor tiles cooled my knees as I stuck my finger down my throat for the very first time and reversed every bite. It was like rewinding a VCR tape—now everything that had gone into me came out. A glorious emptiness filled me up. I’d never felt more like the beloved girl I was supposed to be than when my stomach lay flat as a plank under my shirt. After, I looked hard at myself in the mirror over the sink. I saw a girl made good, a girl who could undo her appetite, erase her mistakes. May the road rise to meet her.




In my state university dorm room, the cinderblock wall in the bathroom of the private suite I shared with my roommate was the color of khaki pants during the day, but after dusk, it appeared grayish, like the camo American soldiers wore to storm the desert in the Middle East. At nineteen, I’d mastered the art of Looking Normal, with my perfect GPA and the sorority letters stitched across my t-shirts. I’d become the kind of girl that Texas celebrated: thin, smart, peppy, interested in boys who drank Lone Star beer. But the bulimia had gained speed as my sophomore year ticked by; the weekends became a haze of spiked punch and bingeing, the weekdays an endless hustle for perfect grades and long runs on the quad. The world frayed around me as I crossed lines I’d drawn in my head: No bingeing on weekdays became bingeing every other day. No stealing food from my roommate or the campus store became only swipe food if you won’t get caught. No eating other people’s discarded leftovers became scavenging half a pizza from the dorm trash bins to stuff into my face.

On a Sunday evening, too hungover from Goldschlӓger shots and Teddy Grahams to join my roommate at the library, I turned on the shower in my army-navy-surplus colored bathroom. I didn’t know how other girls managed drinking, eating, studying, kissing, surviving. Across campus, were there others hiding in the bathroom after maiming themselves too? As steam billowed around me, I sank to my knees and the world went slate gray, and then black. Before the darkness swallowed me, I realized: I will die like this, in some shit-hole institutional bathroom after a night of uncontrolled eating and drinking. Moments later, I blinked awake, slumped on the floor, wet and afraid. I had my first sane thought about food in years: I need help. In that nondescript four foot by four foot box of a bathroom, I decided to rise up. I wanted, more than anything, to become a girl who would live.



Everyone sipped red wine from clear plastic cups or held dark beer bottles with intricate, seasonal labels. A tower of cheese cubes loomed in the center of the table: cheddar, Gouda, Swiss. Oh how I wanted one of the Pete’s Wicked Ales. Wouldn’t that make it easier to be a graduate student in Humanities at a cocktail party in this gothic building on the south side of Chicago a million miles away from Texas? Wouldn’t it help me understand how to be a woman in this freezing cold place where everyone wore giant winter boots and bulky sweaters? Wouldn’t it help me untangle the knots that Texas had tied inside me: the big hair, tiny waist, full breasts, red lips, and easy laughter? But if I drank, I would end up bingeing and throwing up, I just knew it, and I hadn’t done that in five years. I didn’t want to fall back into all that mess, the terrible calculus of how much do I need to drink to be sure I can throw up 5,000 calories consumed from the garbage by the end of the night?

A Classics scholar from Annapolis cornered me into a conversation about the Chicago Bulls, which I knew less about than Classics, even though they’d won four championships by then. “I have to go,” I blurted out when she pressed her lips to her cup of wine for the third time. This conversation makes me want to drink, and I don’t want to die in the bathroom. I shoved my arms through my thin coat as I ran across the Midway to my one-room apartment. There, in the tiny white bathroom with the mildewed shower curtain and the window that sat unevenly in its warped frame, I called my sponsor back in Texas. “I don’t know if I can do Chicago,” I said. “Maybe I should come home.” She stayed on the phone with me as I balanced on a broken toilet lid with my coat still on. Help me help me help me. I didn’t believe I could survive outside the safety of that cramped, decrepit bathroom.

I did, though.

I eventually put myself to bed that night. The next day I went to a recovery meeting, and a few weeks later I attended another happy hour. I avoided the table loaded with alcohol and started up a conversation with a scholar from St. Louis, who had the smooth full cheeks of a baby. I could tell by the way he shifted his weight that he was as uncomfortable as I was. I promised myself that after twenty minutes, I could retreat to my bathroom where everything, though not in tip-top shape, was quiet and safe. My bathroom was my sanctuary, the only place in Chicago where I didn’t have to know anything special about French post-structuralism or hold forth on any big ideas. I simply had to sit still until the urge to harm myself passed.



“He’s got Brad Pitt’s lips, but he’s Jeff Goldblum tall, and he adores his mother and swims a mile every morning!” I shouted into the phone over the music piped into the bathroom of an Irish pub. I’d excused myself mid-way through my first date with Alex, a lawyer with fawn-colored hair who lived in my building, so I could call a friend to give her a report. This phone call wasn’t my idea; it was my therapist’s. He suggested that I let my “support network” help me establish a sane dating process, which I translated to “phone a friend from the bathroom in the middle of every date.” I’d done it before: I snuck away at the Creperie to tell a friend that the guy I’d met on eHarmony didn’t know how to use a knife; I ducked out of an Italian meal to tell a different friend that my date drank a whole bottle of wine in 20 minutes; from a docked boat’s tiny head I reported that my date was openly flirting with the first captain. These stall conversations were proof that I was willing to let my friends help me, to take the suggestions of my therapist, to get better. By this time, I’d made room in the definition of woman to include myself with each of my curves, all of my flesh. But I didn’t know the secret of letting men love me or how to stop falling for the ones who couldn’t.

The guy in the Irish pub with movie star lips and abiding mother-love won me over that night, only to crush my heart five months later with the simple phrase: I know you’re not the one. I kept up the bathroom calls, though, diligently reaching out to a friend during each date, letting their voices cheer me on and guide me to some middle ground between, “I hate him for putting his elbows on the table,” and “I’m monogramming towels with our initials.” The bathroom, no longer an accomplice to my self-destructive purging, became my time-out zone, the middle space between being on a date and out of my mind; the place I could be held with all my frenzied want and subconscious terror. I’d seen the palm of God’s hand, and it was any public restroom in Chicago with working stall doors and cell phone reception.



The bright lights of the cream-colored bathroom bathed me in golden heat. On the counter, my upcapped toothpaste rested next to a small bottle of Jo Malone perfume and a round hairbrush. In the shower, two bottles of shampoo shared the shelf—mine and my fiance’s—and in a nook cut into the wall, my razor balanced on a bar of soap. I set the test on the edge of the travertine tile and waited for it to confirm that no, of course I was not so lucky to be pregnant after one try. Of course, my future would consist of shots of this drug and rounds of that one, dispiriting visits to the IVF clinic. I braced for the shiver of disappointment, and the pep talks—“You can try again next month!” “You’re so young!” I leaned against the glass shower door and closed my eyes, visualizing a seed of a baby growing plump in my belly. I wrapped my arms around my body and thought of all I’d forced it to endure. I wanted so much from it; now I wanted more. Motherhood. Impossible without my body’s total cooperation. Had I earned it? Did I deserve it? How could the answer be yes?

I’d bought the test at Walgreen’s and when I told my fiancé about it, he laughed. Hard. “No way are you pregnant,” he said over salad at Cafe Bacci. I could be, I insisted, though doubted it myself. But what about that Sunday morning when I knew I was ovulating because of the dull pain on my right side? After we’d had sex, I put my feet up in the air for ten minutes, and then dashed off to the spin class because I’d bought a strapless ecru wedding dress I wanted to look svelte in.

Was the pregnancy test a reality check or a flight of fancy? I didn’t know, but I decided to pee on it at 3:30 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep.

Please please please, I whispered into my hands now folded into prayer position and resting on my chest. Without checking the stick, I crawled back into bed and covered my body with a soft down comforter. I sent my fiancé into the bathroom to inspect the results and break the news to me gently. Except he stood in the doorway, backlit by the overhead light in the bathroom, and said, “I think we’re having a baby.” I ran to him, throwing my arms around his chest and dancing in the glowy overhead lights. “We’re going to have a baby!” He held me tight. We danced as a family in the space between the sink and the shower.

This is what I will teach my baby, I think. How to be loved in all spaces. How to bask in light and warmth, and spice and flowers. How to wrap her arms around herself—her gorgeous flesh and her Godly curves, her strong back and her beating heart. How to seek and find people she loves who also love her back. How she, along with her beloveds, can shine the light on each other and build their own wide road. How to become a person who can dance in the bathroom in the middle of the night, knowing love’s full embrace and the promise of a future that welcomes her and her body with an open palm.

About the Author

Christie Tate’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Carve Magazine, and elsewhere. Her debut memoir Group was a New York Times best seller and a Reese’s Book Club pick. Their second memoir, B.F.F., was published in February 2023.