Running On Empty (and Down the Rabbit Hole)

rabbit-hole1I 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.

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Running Scared?

Running.Scared

Some things remain. Some experiences, despite their brevity, have the ability to inform indefinitely that which follows.

Several years ago I walked a short distance to the house of a friend. The route, so numbingly familiar and so comfortably usual, lent itself to the illusion of safety. Yet I was followed, definitely followed; his speed oscillating perfectly with mine. I will never forget that great cavernous, yawning gap in possibility as I turned into an alley-ridden side street. The lack of options. That feeling of having nowhere to go; ‘this is it, this is it’ click-clacking with my feet in the rain. So when I saw a couple, each in rain macs, walking a soggy dog and looking wonderfully out-of-the-situation normal I practically knocked them sideways with the force of my relief. I asked them to talk to me for a minute until the stranger had passed, who at that point turned and ran back the other way. This was an act so stark in it’s display of intent that I was simultaneously relieved at having trusted my instincts and wretched at the thought of what might have happened if there weren’t dogs to walk. I never reported this, and my telling of the experience has been until now limited to a handful of close friends who greeted me at the other end that evening, and who muted my panic with warmth and guitars and tipsiness. Part of me winces as I recount this, sharp in the knowledge that silence allows continuity and that perhaps for the next woman that slightly baffled couple were absent. In reality, though, I would know little of the man’s appearance other than in blurred flashes as my head twanged and snapped from periphery to backward glance, desperately trying to determine proximity. So I could only deal in uncertainties, in vagueness. I would have been able to tell the police that a man I could not even loosely describe was probably following me a while ago. It felt insignificant when articulated and would more than likely have been ignored. But then, had women in this area been assaulted before, or reported suspicious behaviour? Had I suddenly become the broken link, my silence the perpetuator?

It’s amazing when you think on it: I was subjected that evening to a pretty frightening ordeal. For the time it lasted there was so much fear, so much desperation that I can feel my breath catching as I pull forward the memory to write this. Yet I did, and do, tie myself up with the knotty thoughts of what I should have done, of what I did wrong. Yep, what did wrong. This is of course a familiar and somewhat conditioned response. Women feel stupid for ‘letting’ it happen, for moving away from street lights, for going out alone, for taking up public space. Of course we all know that violence, harassment and rape are out there; out there lurking, scuffing their feet and sharing cigarettes until we forget the ‘rules’ and career blindly into their path. It is somehow perceived as a woman’s responsibility to deftly avoid sexual harassment or assault in public space. But there is also for many women a much deeper, less erroneous, sense of ambivalence towards the responsibility of speaking out: what will happen if you do or if you don’t, what it means to keep silent or to speak.

I know that I have probably until now given limited thought to how my willingness to move freely, to take up public space, has been hindered and hijacked by what has gone before. I do know that since that otherwise unremarkable autumn evening I avoid at all costs walking anywhere alone after dark: no distance is too short for my hanging-on-by-a-thread Fiesta to traverse. Yet unless I am, as now, giving credence to the potential limitations harassment places on women’s mobility, I rarely connect the two events. It wasn’t until I completed a survey on women’s safety in public spaces that I began to analyse where I go, how I act and how harassment can, in some senses, shape liberty. Coventry Women’s Voices are currently conducting this survey to gauge “the degree of concern women who live and work in Coventry have about their safety in public spaces”. The questions centre largely on harassment in public spaces, and if you live or work in Coventry I highly recommend that you take the time to fill this out. It really makes you step back and analyse those incidents which you possibly – probably – brushed off or sealed away as ‘one of those things’. Even if it made you angry. Even if it left you humiliated or questioning your validity. And you are not alone in this. The End Violence Against Women Coalition carried out a survey earlier this year, which revealed that 4 in 10 women in London have been sexually harassed in public spaces. International estimates put the figure at 80%. I would say anecdotally and logically this is closer to 100%.

As a society we do not tend to view as important the ubiquitous things, the acts that enmesh themselves with everyday life. Movements such as Hollaback! should be applauded for allowing women the space to share their experiences of street harassment and share in the collective thought that this is very much not OK. I do not think it is OK for a group of males to comment on my mother’s breasts whilst she waits for a bus. I do not think it is OK for a man to put his face so close to mine that I can feel the wetness of his spittle and then shout ‘you’re fucking gorgeous’ so aggressively that it completely nullifies any notion of a compliment. I’m also not a huge fan of being asked constantly, by men who clearly have a want of meaningful pursuits, what my name is. Like it matters. Audrey, Karen, Lisa. I’m Everywoman. There is a problem with how we view harassment in public spaces, in no small part due to the fact that many people struggle to see it as ‘harassment’ at all. It now seems to click so easily into the catch-all term ‘banter’ and so the challenging of it carries assumptions about the woman, rather than the perpetrator. You’re an uptight, histrionic, ‘women’s libber’ if you can’t absorb a few wolf whistles or kissing noises as you carry out the highly eroticised act of getting a pint of milk in your tracksuit bottoms. And this is entirely the point. The catcalling and wolf whistling, the jerky, spasmodic grabbing of sexual organs, the following, the sexual degradation, it all feels so indiscriminate, so done by rote. Such harassment is so pervasive, so entrenched, so normalised and routine that it seems completely devoid of the element it is ostensibly about: sex. Harassment of this kind does not correlate with what a woman is wearing, her age, her level of perceived attractiveness or the size of her breasts. It is not about sex, or sexiness, but it is about entitlement; about casually delivered discrimination and about how our culture carries the weight of the issue with impunity. You’re a ‘lad’, it’s a bit of harmless fun, it’s all so innocuous and trivial that we really should be turning our attention to something with infinitely more gravity.

Maybe like what you’re doing tonight, darlin’.

Equality

Acts should be judged by their effect on the recipient. If constant harassment, or fear of harassment, is limiting women’s freedom of movement, limiting their willingness and ability to direct the course of their lives as they wish, then this is a problem. I could cut vast swathes through the stomach-churningly obnoxious concept of a ‘lad culture’ but for now, suffice to say, if such virulent, hateful and vengeful language towards women is humourous and this is the kind of culture we are endorsing, or a least condoning, for young men then I don’t know what the heck is going on. Apparently these epithets, these demeaning comments, would never traverse the boundary from words to deeds. These are nice, healthy young men who are engaging in a bit of rape banter, a bit of collective gender discrimination, but it doesn’t actually mean anything because they’d never really knock their girlfriend out and then fuck her until she bled. They don’t really view women as only having as much validity as the time it takes to squeeze a breast. And they don’t actually think Chris Brown is a hero. (Please, God).

But it does mean something. It makes this kind of discourse acceptable and it perpetuates the normalisation of gender discrimination. It stretches further the myth that women are put on this planet only to have things done to them. They can be laughed at, they can be looked at, they can be shouted at, whistled at or grabbed. Women can be poked and pulled and twisted and their presence is required only to gratify. Of course I would never suggest that most men think this way; in fact I’d balk at the suggestion that all men are street harassers and devaluers of women. To suggest this is also to devalue men. Yet because a level of tolerance exists, because street harassment is rinsed in banter and laddishness and stripped of all importance it is granted continuation. People don’t consider what it actually feels like to be spoken to or touched in such an intimate way by a complete stranger; to be followed and to have your personal space and sense of safety encroached upon. People don’t consider the force and impact of these acts, made more forceful by being culturally intrinsic. For, you see, this is what men do, and this is what women receive. Few at all seem to consider how such acts, or fear of such acts, can impinge on a woman’s wellbeing. And this is why people in the street look away, or down, or at each other. Anywhere but at the problem.

I will not deny that the incident I recounted as I opened this piece arguably lies at the more sinister end of the harassment spectrum and if I had ‘merely’ been subjected to the odd unsolicited fondle or crude comment I may not so tightly adhere to the creed of never walking the streets alone after dark unless it is absolutely unavoidable. But I do still run on them. Running is my sanctuary, my little reclamation. I feel cocooned in the knowledge I am doing something positive and powerful and am breezing past so quickly that the comments barely have time to zing off my back. Of course I have had harassment: I have had people follow me on bikes and in cars, blocking my path or commenting on my arse. I have chosen to ignore them, because I am busy doing something I love. In a strange way my inclination to challenge street harassment is probably inversely proportionate to my awareness of gender inequality and women’s issues. In my teens and early twenties I would fire back. I was defiant and vociferous. As I have aged I have come to realise, and indeed witnessed, the harm that can come from answering back. I cannot predict the vagaries of street harassers and, if I am being candid, would never challenge harassment if I were walking along in the company of men. They probably don’t hit ladies, you see. And I’ve had enough of violence.

The survey asked what I thought could be done to make women safer. I blathered on a bit about some things that might make women feel safer, and give them a bit more light and company. But maybe these things are illusory. So afterwards, and over the next few days, as I thought more and spoke about this to the people I love and admire and respect, I realised that this feeds into other debates around awareness (re)education and responsibility. We need more awareness of the level of harassment women face on a daily basis; we need education in schools about respect, and gender equality and how what you say to a woman or girl can – out there in the world – mean a hell of a lot more than you meant it to. Teenagers and ‘lads’ need reminding that the world is not divided into two types of women: the nasty ones it is OK to denigrate and the nice ones you protect. Shifting attitudes can take time, but campaigns highlighting the issue and more people talking about what street harassment implies for our society can only be for the good. People should be encouraged to challenge the open and public discrimination of women. I have set out the reasons why many would not challenge directly the behaviour of a stranger, or group of strangers, and I do not think fear of violence should be shrugged off as an ‘excuse’ for remaining silent. But if we are talking about the issue more and challenging it through debate and discussion and just plain old visibility it will trickle in among the gaps within tight friendship and peer groups. Friends can remind each other that ‘bitch’ is not an acceptable epithet for a woman and ask each other if they’d be happy if a stranger grabbed their sister’s breasts whilst she was getting off the number 21 because that top she was wearing made her look like she was in the nasty half.

It will take time and many people will still suggest I have just created a linguistic mountain out of nothing. I would say to them that street harassment is one branch, one connection, of a sprawling problem. I am not being alarmist when I say you can connect the dots between objectification of women in our popular media, pornography, ‘lad’ culture, domestic violence, sexual violence and street harassment. I am not saying one leads to another or you can’t be involved in one without being involved in them all. I am saying that perhaps that gap between words and deeds is not immutable and we should not assume it is so. If we assume then we cease to notice. Cease to pay attention. And in the case of street harassment we need everybody looking.

*** I encourage any Coventry women to now fill out the Coventry Women’s Voices survey and help them with this important piece of research.***