Perfection by Michelle Ciccarelli

Trigger Warning: Anorexia, Bulimia, Cutting


Shauna stuck her finger as far down her throat as she could and vomited in the porcelain toilet. She smiled and wiped her mouth. Her body felt light and clean. She hooked her fingers under her protruding ribs; there was still work to be done, but she knew she was getting back on track, as long as she kept purging right after the nurses passed through her hall.

A sharp knock on the bathroom door interrupted her thoughts. Shit — she hadn’t even heard anyone enter her dorm room. Shauna hated that those witches had all-access keys; it was a gross violation of their privacy.

“Can I finish peeing, please?” Shauna snapped.

The nurse outside sighed. “I know you’re not peeing, Shauna. I heard you as I passed your room for a double check. I was worried you might be doing this. I’m disappointed — I thought we were making good progress.”

Shauna flushed the toilet, popped a mint in her mouth, and ripped the door open. Nurse Helen stood outside, her wrinkled, bloated face scrunched into a frown.

“I wasn’t feeling well, okay? But of course, you’d assume the worst, wouldn’t you?” Shauna snapped.

“Shauna, if you want to recover and get to go back home, you need to be honest with us. I understand that this is difficult, but lying to me won’t help either of us, and I don’t want to have to violate your privacy like this.”

Shauna snorted. “It’s a bit late for that.”

Ever since she had arrived at the Planchard Institute, every inch of Shauna’s body, room, and possessions had been scrutinised. They took away her diet pills and laxatives, they checked her room for sharp objects (because you couldn’t be too careful with these types of patients), they poked and prodded her body with cold instruments, sighing in disappointment. They had no respect for the discipline it had taken her to get this far. Before the institute, Shauna had meticulously counted the calories in each teaspoon she allowed herself, carefully slicing olives and grapes to fit her strict requirements. She had learned how to take just enough laxatives to purge her system without giving herself the runs. She had been able to fast to the point that her fingers trembled violently and she passed out, waking up deliriously happy, feeling her bony fingers in glee.

But Nurse Helen didn’t give a damn — she just wanted to get paid so she could shove carbs in her disgusting face.

Nurse Helen shifted in her feet awkwardly.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Shauna. I wish you were comfortable in your stay here. We will try our best to make this feel like a home, but you need to earn our trust back first. Because you’re a minor, I’ll have to tell your parents about this. I’m sorry.”

Shauna groaned. She could picture her father’s sad, beady eyes poking out of his fleshy face, her mother’s pinched lips and aggressive cheekbones, accusing her. This is an embarrassment, Shauna, her mother would say. I can’t hide the fact that you’re at this place for much longer please pull yourself together. Our family doesn’t deserve this. Her father would hug her and slip her a candy bar, telling her it was okay to eat, that she was only a teenager and needed to get healthy again to live her life. Not everyone eats their feelings, Dad. But they didn’t have her resolve, her commitment, and she knew at the end of the day, nothing they could say would faze her.

They had visited her, once, shortly after she had arrived. Her father was humiliating, constantly trying to crack jokes with the tight lipped nurses, while her mother barely said a word to them, sniffing at the beautiful paintings and plush beds in Shauna’s room.

“God Shauna, this place is expensive,” her mother hissed once the nurse left them alone. “The least you can do is get better as fast as you can.”

“Please, Linda, it takes time to get better,” her dad said, rubbing Shauna’s back. Shauna resisted the urge to shove his hand away. “We will do whatever it takes to make sure our baby gets better.”

Linda rolled her eyes, picking invisible lint off of Shauna’s bedspread.

“You’re lucky that I’ve convinced our relatives that you’re away at boarding school,” her mother said. “But that won’t last for long. My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew her granddaughter was at an institution.”

“Then why don’t you take me out of here, Linda?” Shauna snapped.

Her mother narrowed her eyes.

“I will not have an emaciated daughter. You will gain weight as fast as you can, so help me God!”

“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” her father said, standing between them. “Let’s go get some lunch in the cafeteria, shall we?”

“Shauna? Are you listening?”

Shauna snapped back to reality. Nurse Helen scribbled something on her notepad, then turned to leave.

“The dinner cart will be here soon, and I expect to see a clean plate. The bathroom will be locked while you eat, and I’ll check the trash.”

“You can’t keep me from using the bathroom!” Shauna hissed, but she was already gone.

Shauna rolled onto her bed, trying to figure out how she would dispose of her next meal. The walls were painted maroon, with intricate gold details around the large windows, which looked out onto a sprawling lawn with fountains and a massive in ground pool. But she didn’t care. They couldn’t use luxurious things to make her gain weight — nothing could.

Shauna lifted her queen size mattress and took out the pile of pictures underneath it. They were all of the same person — French supermodel Suzanna Baudelaire. There were pictures of her on the runway, at New York Fashion Week, out and about with her millionaire boyfriend. Shauna’s favorite picture was the one of Suzanna on the cover of Vogue. Her teeth were impeccably white, her smile flawless. She was wearing a skintight black dress and had voluminous brown hair and large round eyes, much liked Shauna’s. Her twiggy legs extended for miles, and you could make out the outline of her ribs beneath her dress. She was perfect, the only perfect human Shauna had seen. Everyone else was fat and repulsive.

Once she got out of this place, Shauna would be right back on track to be a model like Suzanna. Doctor Brenda said she needed to gain at least ten pounds to leave Planchard, but to be like Suzanna, Shauna knew she needed to lose at least ten, if not more. Suzanna was everything and Shauna was nothing. Suzanna had left the modelling scene for a year to do some kind of activist work, and had not been in any magazines recently. At least, none that Shauna had access to during her six months so far at Planchard. But that was no matter. Shauna knew Suzanna would be back, and better than ever — she just couldn’t wait to be at the top, finally skinny and perfect too.

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Early the next morning, Shauna awoke to a knock on the door. Her stomach growled violently. She had thrown up last night’s dinner into the exotic potted plant in her room and carefully buried it under the dirt, spraying perfume to mask the smell. Perhaps the nurses would catch on, but by then she had already purged successfully. She looked at her arms — her elbows looked pointy, but her flabby arms disgusted her. They were nothing like Suzanna’s: white, thin, angelic.

Nurse Helen peeked her head in the door.

“Good morning, Shauna. Please get dressed quickly and come to the lounge — we have a special guest speaker who I think you’ll really like.” She shut the door quietly and left.

Shauna groaned. The speaker was probably some repulsive ex-patient who had gained back the weight, saying they were “happy and healthy”. They would babble on about the meaning of health and how to treat your body right. It was all bull. They weren’t even happy — they were sad, fat, and alone.

Shauna dressed quickly, alarmed to discover that her size 00 jeans did not fit any looser. The nurses were getting to her — they were crushing her dreams. She angrily kicked her dresser, cutting her ankle on the side. A small cut opened and blood began to trickle down her leg. Good. Maybe she would bleed the extra pounds out. Bleed and bleed and bleed until her flat body was glowing and perfect. She had begun to make cuts on her ankles a few weeks ago, making them small enough to pass as nicks from her razor but large enough that they would bleed. It was a small thrill of disobedience, the same kind she got each time she purged successfully. Maybe if she bled enough, she would lose extra weight.

Most of the other patients were already in the lounge by the time Shauna arrived. At the time, there were about twenty patients in the institute, but often there were less. They were male and female, and ranged from adolescents to middle aged adults, but all had some kind of problem with food. They chatted amongst themselves quietly. For her part, Shauna tried to avoid them. There was no need to make friends with these people. Everyone was fighting for themselves, and she had no interest in them or their problems.

It was easy to tell which people were the newest — they had a frightened, defensive look about them, and they were often the thinnest. They were not yet used to Planchard’s day-to-day schedule: therapy/motivational speakers, school if you were a teenager, then exercise and nutrition in the afternoon, and some free time here and there. Free time was limited, though; you never knew what patients could be doing in their free time.

The room had high ceilings and was brightly lit, with a massive chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There was a beautiful grand piano in the far corner, rumored to be the present from a grateful ex-patient. It was meant to be extravagant, to give the patients a luxury experience to inspire them to “get better”, but Shauna found it exaggerated and ridiculous.

Shauna sat in a leather chair in the back of the room by herself. The nurses then served breakfast: eggs over easy, wheat toast, garnished fruit, and yogurt. She hated that they hovered over her, leering to find any sign that she was refusing to eat. She stealthily shoved some small pieces of bread in her long sleeves, but she knew she would simply have to purge the rest later.

Nurse Amelia approached the podium. She was the head nurse, and by far the oldest. Her gray hair was stretched thin across her tanned scalp, and the bulbous glasses she always wore magnified her already large eyes. Shauna figured she would croak any day now.

“Thank you all for joining us this morning,” Nurse Amelia rasped.

“The speaker we have for you this morning is someone many of you may recognize. She was admitted to the Planchard Institute in the fall of 2008, and, upon recovering, pursued a very successful professional career. She has had one or two relapses, but she has now decided to change her career in favor of bringing support and help to teens like yourselves at institutes around the world. We at the Planchard Institute are very proud to present Ms. Suzanna Baudelaire.”

Shauna’s head shot up. Suzanna?? Her breathing quickened as the door to the lounge began to open. Shauna smoothed her hair, cursing herself for not dressing better. She couldn’t believe today would be the day she would finally meet Suzanna, her role model, her idol. If Suzanna had gotten out of here unscathed, who was to say Shauna couldn’t? She began to grin foolishly, playing with her bony knuckles.

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The door opened and Suzanna strode in, teeth gleaming as white as in Shauna’s pictures. Her hair was shiny and fell in perfect waves, framing her lovely oval face and glimmering brown eyes. She was wearing a tight pastel sweater and skinny black jeans with heels. Shauna looked eagerly to see if Suzanna’s ribs were visible underneath her sweater, but instead was alarmed to see a small roll of fat nestled at Suzanna’s hips. Her legs strained against the denim, threatening to rip open and reveal what Shauna imagined to be fatty, cellulite-ridden thighs. Even her arms seemed flabby. For the first time since entering the Planchard Institute, Shauna didn’t have to force the feeling of nausea to rise in her throat. This was not the Suzanna in the pictures, not even close.

Suzanna reached the podium and shook Nurse Amelia’s hand, smiling serenely. She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes and faced the audience.

“Good morning, Planchard Institute. It is so wonderful to be here,” Suzanna said in her soft French accent.

“A little over six years ago, I was admitted as a patient to the Planchard Institute. I was seventeen, and I had been modelling in the United States for some time. However, my mother, who had come to the United States with me, had become very concerned for my health, so she insisted that I attend the Planchard Institute until I was at a healthy weight to model again.” Suzanna paused, shifting her feet.

“When I first arrived here, I felt exactly the same way many of you may feel now: I was angry, and frustrated — I didn’t need help, and I felt that the people here were blocking me from achieving my dreams to become a model. I thought I was at a healthy weight, and I resisted the institute to the best of my ability. But I came to realize that I was wrong. Anorexia is a disease, and it twisted my thoughts, made me think I was fat and ugly when, in reality, I was almost fifteen pounds underweight. Planchard helped me see through new eyes, to see what I was doing to my body because of this disease.”

Shauna shook her head. It was a trap — it had to be. The witches here must have secretly pleaded with Suzanna to gain weight and come talk to the patients. This was not the Suzanna Shauna knew, the one with thin arms and flawless legs that needed custom jeans to fit their small frame. Shauna knew she had to get Suzanna away from the nurses so she could ask her about the real story.

“I have had some relapses over the years, I am sad to say,” Suzanna continued. “Looking at some of my magazine covers and photo shoots, I am ashamed of how I treated my body.” She paused.

“But with the help of my friends and family and places like Planchard, I was able to get healthy again. Although I loved modelling with all my heart, I came to the realisation last year that what I really wanted to do was to help girls who were like me and struggling with this disease. So I got myself to a healthy weight and began speaking at institutes across the country for people who needed mentors. Planchard is so dear to my heart, though, and I know that they will work their hardest to make sure that each of you becomes healthy.”

Suzanna beamed at the patients, who clapped politely. Nurse Amelia stepped up to the podium.

“We will now have a Q&A session with Suzanna. You may ask anything you wish.”

Shauna fidgeted through the Q&A session, eager to talk to Suzanna alone. Suzanna’s answers were all the same, lies about learning not to purge her meals and adopt a healthy lifestyle. Shauna pictured the Suzanna from the poster, knowing that she was the true Suzanna. It was horrifying what Planchard could do to people. Shauna would have to try extra hard to not let them get to her. She thought of Suzanna’s chubby thighs and shuddered — she would never let that happen to herself, no matter what any institution bribed her with.

Finally, the Q&A finished. The other patients began heading to their next sessions. Suzanna and Nurse Amelia stood chatting at the podium.

“We have arranged a special meeting for you with Suzanna, if you’d like to ask her any questions,” Nurse Helen said. “We know how much you admire her from what you’ve said during our sessions.”

“Really?” Shauna’s heart quickened. If she could be with Suzanna alone, she could hear the real story, what the real Suzanna thought.

“Once we are done here, we have arranged for you to speak with her for half an hour one-on-one, if you would like.”

“Yes, yes definitely.” Shauna nodded vigorously.

“Alright then, follow me.”

Shauna followed Nurse Helen out of the room and down the hallway into a small, well-lit conference room that was usually used for group therapy. The room was on the fourth floor and overlooked the sprawling garden below, with a massive full-length window in the center of the room. Shauna sat down in one of the chairs.

Shauna heard the clacking of heels coming down the hallway, and her heartbeat quickened.

Suzanna entered the room smoothly, shaking hands with Nurse Helen. Shauna stood up, smoothing her top so her ribs would show through.

“Suzanna, this is Shauna, one of our patients,” Nurse Helen said.

Suzanna extended her delicate hand for Shauna to shake. Her hand was cold, her fingers bony despite the extra weight on her body. Shauna shivered, her excitement growing.

“Nice to meet you, Shauna,” Suzanna said softly, smiling at her.

“Nice to meet you as well. I’m a big fan,” Shauna said, trying to speak confidently.

“I’ll leave you two alone to chat,” Nurse Helen said. “I’ll be right down the hallway if you should need anything.”

“Thank you,” Suzanna said, beaming.

Nurse Helen closed the door and left. Suzanna sat down across from Shauna.

“So, Shauna, is there anything you would like to ask me?” Suzanna said.

“I did have a question or two,” Shauna said.

“Go ahead then.”

“How much did they pay you?” Shauna asked.

Suzanna laughed.

“What do you mean?”

“The Planchard Institute, I mean. I know they paid you to come make the speech and to help all of us out. Did they pay you to gain the weight, too? It must have been a lot for you to give up your perfect figure. When are you going back to modelling, though? I want to be a model too.”

Suzanna shook her head, her eyes darkening.

“No one paid me to come here. I came because I wanted to, this is what I want to do with my life now. I gained weight because I was too thin, it was unhealthy.”

She looked at Shauna’s emaciated frame.

“I see that you are struggling with your weight.”

“No, I’m not, you’re just fat!” Shauna snapped.

Suzanna narrowed her eyes.

“This is a healthy weight, Shauna. One day you will understand that.”

“You were so perfect,” Shauna said, shaking her head in disdain. “And you gave it all away to be “healthy”, even though we both know you’d rather look like you did on the September 2012 cover of Vogue. Or on the red carpet in the red Valentino dress, which was custom made for how thin you were. Or with your boyfriend, on vacation in the Bahamas, although I’m sure things with him must be rocky now with how much weight you’ve gained— “

“That’s enough,” Suzanna stood up. “I will not be insulted by some ignorant teenager.”

“You’re just jealous,” Shauna said, smirking. “You wish your ribs still showed and your elbows were sharp. You wish you could purge as many times a day as you needed, you wish your body could tremble with hunger. But instead, you’re stuck with chubby, cellulite ridden thighs, a muffin top, and flab everywhere else.”

“Listen, Shauna,” Suzanna said coldly, her voice rising. “I don’t know what anorexia has done to you, but I will not accept such language from a little nobody like you. You want to know the truth about me? The truth is, designers don’t like to accept underweight models anymore. With all the backlash they’ve gotten from the press, it’s making them look bad. I didn’t want to gain weight; I had to. And when I couldn’t stand looking like a whale in my photo shoots anymore, I stopped. By some rare twist of fate, these institutions seemed inspired by my weight gain, and asked me to come speak to you sad people.”

Suzanna stepped closer to Shauna, her brown eyes boring into Shauna’s.

“So you may as well stop trying, because guess what? Modelling agencies will take one look at you and say no. And then if you gain weight, you’ll hate yourself. I know I do. So good luck to you — you’ll either end up starving and alone or fat and hideous like me. There’s no way to win.”

Suzanna turned and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind her. Shauna sat staring angrily at the door. A numbness started rising through her body. Suzanna’s words echoed over and over through her mind. There’s no way to win, there’s no way to win, there’s no way to win. She could hear the muffled voices of Suzanna and Nurse Helen in the hallway, Suzanna’s voice high and angry while Nurse Helen repeatedly apologised.

Shauna walked to a trashcan in the corner of the room. She stuck her finger down her throat and vomited the breakfast she had been forced to eat. Shauna was alarmed to find that it somehow wasn’t even satisfying.

Nurse Helen ripped open the door a few seconds later, sighing angrily when she saw that Shauna had purged.

“First you disrespect our guest, and then this? Back to your room. Utterly disgraceful, Shauna.”

Nurse Helen grabbed Shauna tightly by the wrist and led her out of the room, shaking her head. “I can’t believe you. You go on and on in our sessions about how perfect Suzanna is, and then this is how you treat her?”

“She’s not perfect,” Shauna hissed, trying to pull her wrist away as Nurse Helen led her down the hallway. I’ll be perfect. I’ll never be like her. But even in her own mind, the thought sounded hollow.

Nurse Helen led Shauna into her room, slamming the door behind her. Shauna sat on her bed, trying to forget the pictures of Suzanna piled beneath her mattress. She opened the drawer on her bedside table and took out a candy bar her father had left her from his last visit. She angrily threw it on the bed, then picked it up again. She slowly peeled away the wrapper to reveal the revolting brown lump underneath. There’s no way to win, there’s no way to win, there’s no way to win.

Shauna tore off a piece and put it in her mouth, then another, then another.

A Perfect Treat! the wrapper boasted.

It tasted like nothing.

Michelle Ciccarelli

Michelle Ciccarelli

Michelle Ciccarelli is a writer from Ashland, Massachusetts. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing in December, and currently works for the state as a writer and social media specialist. Her nonfiction work has been published in magazines such as Winds of Change and Destinations magazine. She is excited to have her creative writing published for the first time.
Michelle Ciccarelli

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  • Jocelyn Williams

    Wow, what a great story. Dark, thought provoking and a bit of dark humor thrown in.
    Well done, Michelle!
    Love you, Jocelyn

    • Michelle Ciccarelli

      Thanks so much Jocelyn! I love you too.