Erasing the outlines: A personal post on anorexia, feminism and gender

There are times in your life that you find yourself going back over, again and again. For me the years 1987 to 1996 have a particular resonance. Filed away somewhere is the sense that then, and only then, I was really me. I know it’s not true – I was a dull person, a thin shadow who thought only of food and cold – but I still feel that I came closest to owning myself. Never close enough, of course, but what more can a woman expect?

I’ve just finished reading Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady. It’s a brilliant book but one that I’ve found incredibly triggering (and “triggering” isn’t a word I often use). It has set off a lot of memories for me, and a lot of resentments that usually bubble under the surface of my fleshy, ageing exterior. It’s a book about women as people – real people with real inner lives – and it surprises me how rare that is. It’s about women trying to make themselves heard and then watching it veer off course, again and again. At the risk of sounding self-obsessed (and this is a self-obsessed post) I can identify with that. It reminds me of my own experiences as an anorexia patient and the scars that haven’t gone away.

Describing nineteenth-century treatments for hysteria, neurasthenia and anorexia, Showalter claims “the goal was to isolate the patient from her family support systems, unmask her deceitful stratagems, coerce her into surrendering her symptoms, and finally overcome her self-centredness.” Later she writes of early twentieth-century treatments in psychiatric hospitals where “female inmates are I instructed to regard themselves as ‘naughty girls’ who have broken a set of mysterious rules that have to do with feminine conduct.”  I was first hospitalised for anorexia in 1987, when I was twelve. The treatment – nasogastric force-feeding and punitive isolation over several months – does not seem to me that dissimilar to approaches adopted towards mentally ill women over the preceding century. The active hostility of medical staff (I was at first on a normal children’s ward, not a psychiatric one) is one I’ve always tried to put down to misunderstandings of anorexia. Even so, it has stayed with me and now, looking at the broader social context, I don’t think it was just that. It felt like a punishment for rebellion (against my maturing body, against my sex role) because that’s what it was. I don’t know what hurt most: the attitudes of staff who would not speak to me, or the violation of the feeding tube. No one treated me as though my body might happen to be mine, at a time when that mattered most.

For a year after the initial treatment I couldn’t raise my voice above a whisper. It felt as though a physical change had taken place; I genuinely tried but I simply couldn’t. I wondered if it was something the feeding tube had done as it slithered down the back of my throat. In the second hospital I was sent to one of the nurses didn’t believe me and told me I needed to “stop putting on that little girl voice”. This was a proper psychiatric hospital, where treatment was more “enlightened”. Instead of straight force-feeding and isolation, it was force-feeding and isolation with a contract to sign, listing “privileges” – going to the toilet alone, phone calls to my parents, receiving letters, having access to reading material – to be won on weight gain. I still have it somewhere, with my name spelled out carefully along the bottom (I hadn’t yet had any need to develop a signature). I hated the place but I now think of it with an odd affection because of the other teenage patients and the resentment and cigarette-flavoured kisses we used to share. I only know of what happened to two of them (one dead, the other a born-again Christian. It obviously depends on what you think of Christianity, but I tend to see myself as “the success story,” if there is success at all).

I have recovered resentfully and slowly, perhaps never wanting it to be complete. Summarising Jennifer Dawson’s 1961 novel The Ha-Ha, Showalter describes the heroine Josephine’s recovery from schizophrenia as follows:

Her sexuality is as much of a problem as her intelligence;  both must be managed according to the rules of the hospital, which are like the rules of middle-class society. In order to get out of the hospital, Josephine realises, she must learn “all the rules of what to do and what to say,” to have “the corners rubbed off.” This means joining in the sing-song around the ward piano, knitting sweaters in occupational therapy, playing cards with other women, keeping a bright smile for the superintendent, and growing fat and dull.

In many ways I feel this is what happened to me. In losing anorexia I lost my edges, all the things that made life unliveable but somehow bearable. I capitulated, for a long time, I felt, to food, but really to a social position I still haven’t worked out how to avoid. I still don’t know what to do. This is gender. This is what it does to the most privileged of women (those who are not cut or married off at 12 or denied an education or left to die at birth). Non-personhood, even the drip-drip, non-dramatic sort (the odd sexual assault here, odd exclusion there), still wears you down.

I do think, if you are someone who considers “the wrong pronoun” an act of violence, what would you make of medically sanctioned violation that imposes on you the body you do not wish to have? What would you make of the years, decades, centuries, millennia of female rebellion, all those bodies and souls whose suffering you now wave away with just one syllable: cis? Could you ever imagine how much pain lies beneath the skin of those you perceive as surface-only? Would it even matter? Probably not. The story of a woman’s body and mind is never hers to tell.

In writing on why feminism “needs to listen” to trans women, the academic Alison Phipps asks,

How can we appreciate the social construction of the gender binary without listening to people who live in the spaces in-between? And conversely, how can we fathom how deeply felt the binary can be without the help of those who know they have been assigned to the wrong side?

It’s ludicrous that she assumes this doesn’t describe women like me and 3.5 billion others. Feminism wouldn’t exist were it not for this widely shared sense of not-fitting, this in-between-ness, amongst females. But for some reason our narratives lack authenticity. Our blood and bones – even our deaths – do not convince. When females try to speak, we are ill, hence irrelevant; when males say the same things, they are prophets from on high. The trauma I experience due to gender makes my testimony unreliable; it’s not gender, it’s just you. And yet, this very easy dismissal, this false distinction between the hysterical female and the inspired male who inhabits the “spaces in-between”: that is gender. That is how it works.

My body matters to me, a lot, because it is me – but it does not feel like my own. It never has. The closest was when I had pared away all the excess – all the “woman” – in order to be blank, the default person, sexless, or really, male (for what is personhood if not that?). And this is what “sexual dimorphism is a construct” really means: the only genuine people have male bodies and gender is merely something the male-bodied get to choose. Females don’t exist, other than to define and reproduce other, more real humans, or to give them an abstract model for personhood they desire. To exist independently, in your own right, isn’t possible. I knew this at twelve years old. The only thing I didn’t know then was that resistance was futile.

In terms of treatment I like to think I caught the back end of a regime that was dying out but I am not sure. Attitudes towards anorexia are less recriminatory but attitudes towards women? I think they’re much the same. I think, moreover, that young women still want out, as I did, although starvation is by no means the only dead-end route they choose to take.

Feminism was one route of genuine rebellion but that, too, is now mediated by male voices ignoring the relevance of female bodies, experience and socialisation. We, meanwhile, seek to reject the womanhood with which we’re identified, if not through self-mutilation then manipulation of words, but it’s still no use. It would only be worth it if we were granted personhood in return. Instead I am scared of our voices being lost once more. Showalter ends her book by arguing that “until women break them for themselves, the chains that make madness a female malady […] will simply forge themselves anew”. Perhaps now we’re using different words for it, but the silencing continues.