When did you last eat? When did you last think about eating? When was the last time you felt hunger as uncomplicated urge; a pleasant and straightforward need to be satisfied?
Virtually all of the women I know, and some of the men, habitually grapple with all of the above before every meal; sometimes before every mouthful. I am unable to remember a time when food wasn’t a source of anxiety and lingering, aching ambivalence. Food intake and associated body shape catches so many of us in a Sisyphean cycle of desire, abstinence, indulgence and penitence. I have been ‘too big’. I have been ‘too small’. But the fatal imperfectability of the female body didn’t occur to me until I’d finally hit the medically ‘correct’ BMI.
I knew I was the wrong as a fat, lumbering moral defective, and differently wrong as a skinny, unwomanly gender traitor. However I had not anticipated that finally reaching the supposed ‘medical’ ideal would in itself undermine me; too small to define as ‘body positive’ and too large to serve as a credible eating disorder ‘survivor’. I will never be the ‘perfect’ size and neither will you. It does not exist. Yet, nearly all of us have our moral outlook saturated in the torrent of bullshit churned out by this culturally ingrained sub-clinical eating disorder.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m the first in line to get my boldly “well-informed” talons into tabloid hackery decrying “diets gone wrong” and think pieces conflating the existence of catwalk waifs with anorexia. I know that eating disorders (that is to say under eating, which is always what we mean) do not simply derive from such crude media messages and extreme imagery. I also know they’re not really about being thin, but don’t tell me they’re unconnected; it is not the thinness per se but the value society ascribes to the self-denial involved in being thin. Those whose illness derives from a desire to claw back some sense of autonomy understandably see food as the zenith of ‘control’. Starvation is the ultimate penance for those who, finding no other social conduit for feelings of anger, shame, or evisceration, internalise the guilt for the violence done to them. The high fashion ideal of women as gaunt, angular, androgyns does not drive young women to starve or purge themselves to death, but there are reasons why they converge.
I speak as someone who, for most of my adult life, was a diet devotee; I had never even questioned the received wisdom that weight loss would make me a better person. Then the adolescent urge to control the world around me manifested as obsessive compulsive calorie counting; in the way some people latch on to handwashing or rosary beads. Devotions to a protective power in a secular universe.
I was eminently aware of the religious overtones as I crouched there, declaring my penance starvation to appease and vengeful and jealous ‘God’. “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, there are 68 calories in a Curly Wurly”. I don’t mean to cloak the experience in the alluring language of myth and magic. I do so because the parallels are important, but do not be seduced; the actual experience is about as mystical as being tarred and feathered by a Millwall fan. I was clinging on to the remnants of the sacred in an age that hadn’t given me much to work with. Physically, of course, I was a fucking state; all unsteady limbs, snot, and mascara. It wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t pretty, but, as all the fitspo memes remind us, it’s not meant to be pretty, it’s just meant to really fucking hurt.
To cut a very long, very grim story very short, my body is healthy today; it does almost exactly what I ask of it. It can run fast and lift heavy stuff. I can gleefully sit on my well insulated arse for hours. And it keeps me warm (it never used to do that). It’s also a bit ‘fat’; not dangerously fat, just nudging the upper end of medically acceptable ‘fat’. Not ‘fat’ at all if you want my view. Still I’m sure it’s a size that’d have Heat columnists shrieking with horror and loosening their whale bones lest they do one of them big flouncy faints you see in period dramas. But what I think of my body shape is hardly the point: as flies to wanton boys are we to th’ heartless shits in fashion and marketing.
My body was a crock of shite when it was skinny; it hurt all the time; it was constantly bone chillingly cold. It couldn’t run. Sometimes it couldn’t stand up. It could barely even lie listlessly on a sofa without some bony protrusion leaving welts of purple bruising. Yet, for the first year of this systematic destruction of my body I had more compliments about it that any time before. The most unwell and the most utterly miserable I had ever been, hurtling rapidly towards very nearly dead and paradoxically hearing ‘wow, you look amazing!’ . My body had never got much flattery before that; when it used to run competitively, and rejoice in its ability to administer a crunching tackle, or lob a defender who’d assumed ‘the girl’d be shit’, or fearlessly shin all the way up a lamppost. For some perverse reason it is not the strong and capable body to which women are supposed to aspire.
Worst of all is the abivalence I still feel about my body shape. I’m not that dainty, effete architype of a woman in ‘recovery’, but I sort of feel like I’m meant to be. I’m a slightly roundy lass who considers a pie barmcake to be a thing of beauty . How is anyone supposed to respond to that? No one’s gonna gently squeeze my ample shoulder and earnestly say ‘well done, lard arse’. But maybe they should. I am proud that I found a way not to destroy myselft follows that I want to say I am proud of my body, and I want to mean it. I want to say that anyone who doesn’t like it can kiss my fat arse. I want to.
I usually talk very guardedly about my past eating nonsense. Maybe I’ve moved on. Maybe the thought that somebody might look at my body shape and think ‘maybe you took recovery a bit far, love’ really fucking stings. Maybe it’s those revealing comments you intermittently hear from friends or colleagues: ‘well, I certainly wouldn’t employ someone who was fat‘;’I don’t know what I want for the future … except I never want to be overweight’; ‘At least if you shag a fat girl she’s really grateful’. Food and calories and female body shape are so deeply and messily entwined with morality and self-control and what it means to be a morally upstanding person.
I don’t even believe the culturally engrained hype about perfection and self-control. I’ve never been of the belief that one should ‘fulfil their potential’. I’ve lost enough hours of my life pounding the pavement, mirthlessly trudging around the perimeter fence of my ‘potential’ and it was just bollocks. I don’t want to be ‘all I can be’. Being ‘the best’ is absolute shite. I’d settle of 3/5ths of all I can be with regular breaks for tea and biscuits.
There’re a litany of reasons why society equates ‘further, faster, harder’ with moral probity; the aggressively acquisitive drive of late capitalism; the ghosts of Christian martyrs; the dominance of “post-feminist” power relations, and the lycra clad wankers who turn up for work updating us on their min/mile status.
The ubiquitous images of so-called “womanhood”, photoshop falsified idols, symbols of ‘perfection’ concealing an internal logic that makes a nonsense of the concept. They are not the cause of under eating disorders, but they are threads in a complex web of factors that make self-denial and starvation a tacit virtue. It’s also of pretty good way of making women sit down and shut the hell up; whatever their body looks like it has the potential to undermine their credibility; to turn them into an unreliable witness. We claim to be liberated, but we still can’t say ‘it’s ok to be fat‘. We need to remember that our body shame is not our fault and body positivity is not mandatory; being press-ganged into hating yourself doesn’t make you complicit. It is enough to say “my body is here and it is as it is and I don’t wish to discuss it because shut up”.
Parts of this piece first appeared in Issue 1. of Broken Grey Wires – the Zine. Broken Grey Wires is a ground-breaking project exploring mental health in contemporary art. This exploration includes workshops, public debates, and live events exhibiting the work of major contemporary artists including Jeremy Deller, Stuart Semple, David Shrigley, Bobby Baker, and founder Lizz Brady.