I have, fleetingly or doggedly, been many things. Smoker. Student. Gymnast. Covered in piercings. Depressive. Till bunny. Bedroom wall consuming Take That fan. Unremittingly unlucky. Most of these would gradually chip away, varnish-like, remaining only in the remember-when. Formative years are marked by these shifting tendencies, these in-hindsight-wincing proclivities, that ultimately serve no purpose but to remind you that youth is a funny thing, and isn’t it so much better now you have your head screwed on the right way round? Yet one seems to stick. Not the thing itself, probably not even its associated identity, but those connotations and signifiers that naturally attach themselves, generating unqualified heat and adding an unasked-for dimension to the choices I make.
I am referring to the fact I suffered, protractedly, with anorexia. For a while, I suppose, this filled enough of my waking thoughts and straddled a sufficient span of years to be considered the thing I was. Or was it the thing I had? I suppose in some ways anorexia collapses the distinction between sufferer and illness: you are so very definitely, so very visibly, that which you suffer. I always struggle with the phraseology, the verb choice, around eating disorders: one grammatical decision over another can cause connotations, or give that otherworldly, mythologising impression I want to very much veer away from. So I’ll put it succinctly. I’ll truncate it so it only sounds as it was. I starved myself and caused myself a lot of pain and damage. I made everyone angry and worried and lost a hell of a lot more than weight in the process. And now, now that I am OK and better and in a state of post eating disorder autonomy, that which I was still colours perception.
A few months back I had one of those mid-week, middle of the night pangs. The kind of pangs you, irritatingly, only have at 3AM when it would be impolite to wake anyone but you know you need to do that thing right now, set it all in motion and tell someone about it so that it becomes solid and real. This was, in reality, nothing more earth-shattering than a rock-bottom feeling that I needed to be kinder to myself; to take some exercise (we’re talking a nine year hiatus here); to stop tipsily dragging on swiftly-regretted cigarettes; to stop being so hard on myself. I have a limpet-like resolve, something I’m certain aided my ability to sustain an existence of starvation for so long. But it can be useful in more progressive ways too and it was just a few days before I was out puffing and wincing and trying to ‘get back into’ running. And it worked. I’m running ten, twelve miles at a go and am ineluctably – incredibly – changed for it. It feels vital and inspiring and I am just on the right side of smugly positive about it. All of this means I feel more than a little miffed when people who were there then try and snuff out my happy little flame with their expressions of concern. I can of course see the correlation. Running, training, pushing your body into places of hurt and endurance skirts dangerously close to the edges of a previous mindset. Exercise can be addictive, compulsive; as can starvation. And that’s before we even get onto the calorie burning.
I am constantly being asked if I’m sure I’m OK. Or, am I being careful? (which sounds wincingly close to tacit disapproval of a teenage relationship) and not to take it too far. I’m aware that for most recovered people beginning any kind of exercise regime brings with it the consideration that perhaps you are sticking your head into the bears mouth. The inevitable changes it brings might be hard to cope with, or resist. I know all of this and knowing is part of the reason I was able to leave it all behind in the first place. It’s perfectly understandable of course and is, in the minds of others, perhaps akin to a recovering alcoholic announcing she’s just going press her face up against the window of a pub for several hours five times a week. Because it’s OK, she’s not going in, so it’s not the same thing. I understand why this reaction occurs, as much as I understand the intended-to-be-subtle glances that are sometimes exchanged when I say that, honestly, I’m just not hungry. It’s logical. It makes sense. It comes from a good place.
So before I sound too self-pitying I will move on to the true source of my ire: the other reaction. The reaction that shouldn’t be and isn’t logical but, depressingly, makes some kind of cultural sense. The reaction from those who weren’t there then and base their reaction on what they think – or are culturally and socially, conditioned to think – is the right reaction. I perceptibly cringe and don’t know where to put my eyes – or my frustration – when it comes. ‘But you don’t need to loose weight / you’re lucky you’re naturally thin / but you’re obviously naturally athletic anyway’. The latter a paradox; usually delivered in a way that suggests the negation of any necessity to do the thing you supposedly look so naturally able to do. The former are statements indicative of the primary function of exercise in many women’s lives: weightloss. The idea that there is no need to exercise if you don’t need to lose weight is a frustrating one, as is the attachment of exercise to a regime of restriction: enslavement almost. I actually like exercise. It makes me feel a bit more comfortable in my head; makes a bit more room up there. When you and your body have lived in a virtually constant state of mutual antagonism, doing something good for it, something that feels pure and right and as far removed from smoking and starving as you can at this point conceive, feels benedictory. It is not at all about weight and diet, words which to me are and always will be synonymous with a death rattle. We get too caught up with the weight and the aesthetics and the corporeal expectations that we are told matter; that should preoccupy us and validate us and reconcile the space we (don’t want to) take up. This shouldn’t be the normal and natural way we view ourselves and each other. And ‘body consciousness’? Please. I detest that term, created by the putrid stable of glossy magazines as another way to excoriate women, diminish their self-perception and bulldoze their self esteem. Of course we are conscious of our bodies. We carry them around every fucking day, don’t we? What they mean is conscious of the fact our bodies somehow aren’t good enough: we should be striving to train and mould them into what we have been culturally indoctrinated to see as achievable and desirable. We should be conscious of the fact that not being good enough is reversible, escapable. We can change things if we just get a little bit more masochistic with ourselves. Then it will all be OK. Reading these magazines is the intellectual equivalent of grabbing soft mounds of your own flesh and repeatedly slapping them. Of course I don’t heap all blame at the door of womens’ magazines. Probably just halfway up their path. There’s culpability there, certainly. Magazines for women propound the idea of consistently striving for more, for better – that sense of never-enoughness – in all spheres of life and it is so draining and defeating. They make women feel itchy and uncomfortable and left longing for an impossible conformity. We exercise to sculpt our abs or tighten our bingo wings; we diet to look a little less bulgy in organ-rearrangingly tight dresses. Somehow we never seem to be coaxed into doing these things out of a sheer want to be kinder to ourselves, to feel better and to live better.
And of course the Olympics were supposed to ride in on a white charger. They were going to shift our perception of what it healthy and attainable. Oh! let the (bathroom) scales fall from our eyes and enable us to see sport and exercise through the prism of fulfilment and admiration rather than self-scrutiny and diminishment. I think the whole thing succeeded only in fetishising Jessica Ennis’ abs and paying thin, pursed lip service to a bit of women’s football. For about a week.
The common misconceptions are that eating disorders are a phase; something teenage girls dabble with in a desperate bid for attention or an obsequious pursuit of vanity. At 15-20%, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and women over 50 make up 78% of anorexia-related deaths. Only 30-40% of sufferers ever fully recover and that ‘pursuit of vanity’ is the thing that finally strips you of all vanity. I don’t think anyone who has seen a severely eating disordered woman would think that it was ever any more about the way she looks. By the time your teeth are visible thorough your cheeks you’ve kind of stopped pouting in the mirror. And this is why I draw back from suggesting magazines and media influences cause eating disorders. It oversimplifies the problem. But then again maybe I eschew models of thought that suggest eating disorders develop as a response to a bombardment of images of impossibly thin women women because a tiny portion of me clings to a self-aggrandizing notion. A notion that eating disorders are somehow above this. Oh yep, sure, it’s of far greater import and holds far more gravitas than that empty, aesthetic want of thinness as a route to identikit beauty. I don’t think a cultural obsession with absence (be it flesh, wrinkles or clothes) helps and with anorexia I do think that something has to be there within your brain already, some kind of psycho-social tendency to excess, to take things far, far further than is practicable or comfortable. Or some form of deeply-rooted pain, or fear, or suppressed history. But these factors can conspire to make one woman tilt and bend under a bombardment of cultural or social influences whilst the other shrugs and carries on unhindered. It’s the drip, drip effect; the pernicious effect of reading that starvation is an accepted form of dieting (cf the 5:2 diet) and that Cheryl Cole has skinny little cylinders for legs but also has plates and plates of Walker’s crisps delivered to her dressing room. If you feel like shit already and are damaged, stressed, traumatised or abused in some way these messages are like loaded rifles. Indeed some of the crazy diets I have seen recently almost fetishise the idea of starvation; giving credence to the lie that it is both achievable and a logical response to a dissatisfaction with yourself or your current dress size. But then my response to any form of diet that advocates almost complete abstinence of food twice a week (5:2, there you are again) will be the response of a former anorexic, the response of a mind that still bears the tracks and rivets of a disordered, masochistic relationship with intake, flesh and corporeality. A couple of days of starvation a week would see me careering headlong into weird, obsessional behaviour again. So maybe I’m not the best judge of the potential effects of diet fads but I can say that for those who are struggling, or teetering on the edge of something awful, normalising hunger and starvation is disastrous.
I do, clearly, take eating disorders very seriously and am simultaneously protective and vituperative towards them. Yet I view some of the terminology – the anorexic lexicon, as it were – that has grown up around popular evocations of the illness as limiting and damaging. The illusions to the anorexic ‘voice’ as separate from the sufferer for one. The excruciating truncation of anorexia to ‘ana’ (the friendly psychiatric illness) for another. And probably the worst offender of all: the anorexic body as mouthing the words it’s sufferer cannot speak, articulating the pain she is culturally conditioned to suppress. The emaciated body as emblematic of the female struggle is an idea I find both horribly outdated and hugely misrepresentative. Of course I am not suggesting anorexia cannot be a manifestation of suppressed abuse, a turning inward of a situation too horrific to bear. It can be and often is. I am talking about the view of the anorexic body as speaking for a woman by virtue of the fact that she is a woman and so cannot speak for herself. Anorexia is not a conscious statement. It is a mental illness.
I have always been perfectly capable of articulating my anger and pain in a way my body could never do. My words are rarely open to interpretation. My body probably is. For you may once have been able to play xylophone on my ribcage but my body doesn’t speak.
And what of all those extended metaphors suggestive of anorexia as a grandiose, artistic endeavour that elevates the sufferer above the mortal? I’m looking particularly at you, Marya Hornbacher, with your baffling Alice in Wonderland tropes and exquisitely written musings that make it all seem very alluring or, as you say, very sturm und drang (It’s entirely possible you have never heard of Hornbacher, unless you suffered from an eating disorder in the late ’90s, in which case it will have been the most well-thumbed thing you owned. She’s an exceptional writer. It’s just hard to separate this fact from the incredibly triggering way she writes about her problems). Of course I’m a sucker for beautiful writing. I absolutely am. In fact I’m far less of a polemicist than I am a linguist. I just find the deification of the anorexic ‘struggle’ hard to swallow because, when it comes down to it, anorexia is boring, suffocating and hugely limiting.
I always remember the group sessions I went to, probably my third or fourth round of half-attended treatments; the group sessions I eventually elected to leave because my weight was just high enough for me to be able to do that. Getting better wasn’t at that point mandatory. These sessions were just as boring and uninventive as being shut in the house all day listening to my stomach eat itself. They seemed to have us pegged completely wrong, as if all we needed was a good dose of sense and we’d see ourselves right. They tried the scare tactics. They listed all of the professions we would struggle to be employed in with the spectre of a psychiatric illness blotting our copy books. Considering most of us could barely see a future for ourselves, or at least one beyond the next nominal morsel of food, the whole exercise seemed futile. They tried the coaxing, the ‘don’t be afraid of your body it’s actually a completely benign entity’ tack. A well-meaning psychiatrist drew a wildly off-scale diagram to illustrate how much of the human body is made up of lovely, asinine, non-damaging or neurosis-fueling water. Not fat, no not fat. You’re all aqua not lard, see? You got it wrong girls! None of it worked, or meant anything to any of us and anyway the chain smoking nurse who kept me in Marlborough Lights for the duration told me I looked nice and naturally really skinny anyway so it was probably all OK.
I can’t honestly say why I chose to get better – and it was a choice – apart from the fact it somehow ceased to matter and I wanted a better life for myself. And probably in part because I learned to filter out the cultural noise and the, real or imagined, pressure to be less. It wasn’t because I stopped reading Glamour magazine or wistfully caressing the size four jeans in Topshop. It wasn’t because a therapist helped me with a surface to air transition of all the gnarled and knotted forgotten things. It wasn’t because of – or in spite of – a man, or because of culture or books (although of those there were many). As unexciting as it sounds it became singularly boring and I was tired of feeling choked and in pain all of the time.
Eating disorders are reaching epidemic proportions. Women will soon be photoshopped out of existence. Diets are ubiquitous. Visible signifiers of age are somehow a sign of weakness. There comes an acceptance that I will probably spend most of the rest of my life in the counterculture, drowning out the noise.