An anonymous writer offers us this honest and insightful look into what it means to have one of the most poorly represented strands of mental illness.
When I go see a counsellor, she asks me why it is that I hate being full. Why do I need to vomit when I eat too much; what is it that appeals to me so much about the hollow pit of a stomach.
I say it’s because I feel like I take up too much space. She doesn’t quite understand; she wants me to elaborate, so I try, though it makes me cringe and clasp my sweaty hands ever-tighter.
It’s that I feel obstructive, I say. Always. It’s the “childbearing” hips about which I joke, frequently, but which seem to accumulate shame like a weight. They’re wide, pendulous, and traditionally womanly; always seeming to knock over desks when I stand or to brush people’s chairs when I pass. They make me feel cartoonish.
It’s my stomach, bloated and round no matter how little I eat or how much I exercise. I explain that I can’t sit down without pressing something into my belly – this is why I always sit with a cushion or a bag wedged punitively in my lap. It is why I cannot sleep without honouring the ritual of lying flat on my back and feeling feverishly, worriedly, to check that my hip bones still jut and my ribs are still detectable beneath my flesh.
It feels demanding, all the space I take up in the world. The sheer fact of my body feels greedy. I want to be small and slight and feminine, and instead I am wide-hipped and big-breasted. Voluptuous and irreducible, like a reluctant Betty Boop.
I think about how I have never heard anyone describe a man as a piece of fruit.
As far as I’m aware, there are as many diverse shapes of men on earth as women. Tall men, short men, slim men, corpulent men, men like my old school art teacher, whose curiously broad shoulders and comically slender torso made him resemble an upside-down isosceles triangle.
I can’t remember what it felt like to not think of my body as an inconvenience. More than an inconvenience. An enemy.
I don’t know what piece of fruit would best fit my body.
* * *
Growing up, I knew I was smart. I also knew that this wasn’t necessarily a good thing, based on the reactions I received to anything I did to demonstrate my intelligence. When I spoke in a way that was collected and self-assured, I was labelled bossy. When I proved to be self-possessed, I was deemed arrogant. When I was passionate, I was told I was hysterical. I was a girl, and instead of being retiring and self-effacing, as is expected of femininity, I was “intimidating”. I think those first, gendered reactions to my strong will in the classroom and in the playground were some of my first experiences of feeling too much.
When I think about where my issues with my appearance began, I think about that feeling of always being comically excessive. I felt too loud and too domineering as a personality, and I think that desire to be less obvious – to quash my natural character slightly – manifested itself as the desire to restrict myself physically. Sometimes I think about it as being the penance I have to pay for daring to be both intelligent and a woman. I can be smart – but in return I have to strive tirelessly, relentlessly to be pretty, too.
I remember getting into an argument during a game when I was about eight. We were acting out an episode of “Scooby Doo”, and a female friend and I were bickering over who got to be Daphne, the conventionally-attractive female member of the crime-solving gang. The threat of being Velma – her smarter but chubbier, bespectacled, less beautiful friend – felt like an insult.
* * *
Chances are if you have a Netflix subscription, you’ll have seen an advertisement for the recently-released Sundance Film Festival contender To the Bone, starring Lily Collins. The streaming service released the film globally on 14th July and it quickly began to garner attention – and criticism. The film, according to its critics, had numerous faults, from presenting a how-to of eating disorder behaviours that could potentially aggravate the very problems it sought to address, to once again ignoring the manifold habits and identities of eating disorders and those they affect in order to focus on the anorexia of a white and classically-beautiful young woman. I’ll be upfront: I haven’t seen the film. I’ve been consciously avoiding it, for fear of how it might make me feel. But I’ve been intrigued nonetheless, especially as someone with an eating disorder – and with one that isn’t immediately apparent.
Like Lily Collins and her character, I am a young white woman, and I benefit from the requisite privilege of that identity. I am not, however, painfully thin by any means; I do not “look” like I struggle with disordered eating and I do not fit the mould of the glamorous, ascetic anorexic. Despite what I believe about myself, I know rationally that most people would not consider me fat, but rather healthy-looking – average. Nonetheless, my eating disorder exists and it isn’t pretty. It isn’t the clean, sanitized, martyred existence of a girl on film. It’s messy and ugly and complicated.
What an eating disorder is is a set of complex rules and qualifications which seem entirely logically coherent when stored safely in the privacy of one’s mind and yet, when expressed aloud, assume a new and absurd identity altogether. How do I explain to someone that I am allowed to eat up to three apples during the day but nothing else? How do I explain that I am allowed to end that day with one meal, a dinner, and that privately I may sometimes find myself bingeing at that one meal because I am so hungry, so tired from another rigidly regulated day, but that that’s okay so long as I make myself throw up after the acrid failure and walk at least eight kilometres the following day? How do I explain that when I don’t binge I manage to subsist on fewer than one thousand calories a day, even though I know rationally, scientifically, that that diet is totally unsustainable for any and every other human being? How do I explain the acute, bewildering jealousy I feel watching other people eat and snack and delight in food without any visible flinch of fear? How do I explain that all of my adolescent life has been apportioned and dictated and defined by my obsession with weight, food, and two warring and equally enticing sensations: the first of being full, and the second of feeling victoriously, intoxicatingly, perfectly empty? How do I explain that, to me, it all makes some kind of baffling sense?
* * *
When I confide in people about how I feel about myself, it feels familiar because it feels like purging. It tends to be when I’m on the wrong side of tipsy, slipping sloppily into the overly-emotional territory of drunk. It’ll be on a night-out with friends, and I’ll have tried so hard to look nice – to allow myself to feel pretty. I’ll want so much not to implicate my friends in my own anxieties or to contaminate them with my disease. But inevitably the words will pour out of me, thick and raw in their desperation, and I’ll hear myself asking, like always: “Do you think I’m fat? Do I look fat in this? Does my dress make me look fat? I just think I look fat. It’s my stomach, isn’t it; my stomach’s too big. Do you think I’m too big?”
No matter what they say to reassure me, I never feel comforted for long. I convince myself that they hesitated before they replied, or that they’re saying what I want to hear to appease me. I am implacable, so I don’t know why I still ask. But I do. My eating disorder began with wanting to take up less space, but now I am thinking about how much space my eating disorder demands. My eating disorder feels heavy, pressing down on my soul. It takes up such a large compartment in my mind, and it eats up such huge portions of my life with its voracious appetite.
I am writing about it now to shame it. I am writing about it because it has been an accepted and indivisible part of me for so long that I need to do this now, to separate it from myself. I am splicing it into sentences and holding it to account. I am looking at it in the light of day and recognizing that it is ugly. I am hearing its voice anew and hearing how it screeches like a grasping, howling banshee.
* * *
I am bad at looking after myself. I smoke and I don’t really have any intention right now of stopping; I sometimes drink too much on nights out and end up embarrassing myself (and everyone around me); I stress and I worry and I think that I will never be able to fix my relationship with food or to quell the constant anxiety I feel about my body.
I am also trying to celebrate small victories. I am trying to be kinder, because I don’t want to be a selfish person. I am trying to remember that being a kind person is far more important and spiritually-enriching than being a beautiful one. (I am trying to remember that kindness is beautiful, in and of itself.) I am remembering that life’s small pleasures are what constitute, in their accumulation, a patchwork quilt of eventual happiness. Being thin does not guarantee a lifetime’s supply of unending and unquestioned joy. Spontaneity gives rise to happiness, not rigid, unbending control. I like sitting and drinking a glass of white wine outside in the sunshine and laughing with my friends, and I do that in defiance of what my eating disorder would rather have me do. I like smiling at people I walk past in cities, and remembering that everyone has an inner and outer life as rich and interesting as my own. I like seeing other people smile, seeing how it spreads messily across their faces, and allowing myself to believe that beauty is found in the uncontrived bursts of joy spelt on people’s faces. I like listening to “River” by Joni Mitchell when I’m sad, and hearing that one perfect lyric that feels like the precise summation of all of my fear: “I’m so hard to handle, and I’m selfish, and I’m sad”. But I also like listening to “Kiss” by Prince and remembering that I am allowed to feel strong and sexy and capable of looking after myself.
In recent years, mental health advocates have done great and vital work to stress the importance of treating mental and physical health with parity. But they don’t just deserve equal treatment, they deserve to be understood as mutually dependent. The mental and physical aspects of ourselves are indivisible. My eating disorder is a powerful and insidious voice in my head that has ramifications for how I treat and view my physical self. But I am trying very hard to remember that I won’t always be this way. I am nineteen and I am not broken. In fact, I’ve barely begun.