New Statesman: Anorexia, breast-binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

We need to call breast-binding what it really is

Yesterday I shared a post on the rise of breast binding among school-age females in the UK. I’m not supposed to call them young women. They’re non-binary individuals or trans men and that, we are supposed to think, is what makes the binding okay. Whatever the risks – “compressed or broken ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, back pain, compression of the spine, damaged breast tissue, damaged blood vessels, blood clots, inflamed ribs, and even heart attacks” – binding is justified because of the psychological benefits. There’s no other way, you see.

I look at arguments such as these and I literally want to scream.

I don’t disbelieve the accounts of pain and suffering. I don’t doubt the psychological distress of not wanting a breasts or a female body. I believe it all and empathise. Nonetheless, I find contemporary responses to this suffering unconscionable. Treating dysphoric young females as subjects in need of physical correction is both deeply regressive and misogynistic. We’re not giving these girls a chance. Continue reading

The Pool: Getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting wiser about body image

The last time I was ID’d when buying alcohol I was 32 years old. This may not sound too bad, except before I’d had the chance to respond, the cashier looked up and said “actually, it’s alright – I just hadn’t seen your face.”

I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, other than that I didn’t look under 18, which ought to have been fine, since I wasn’t. But of course I went home and scrutinised my obviously-not-underage face. “You ought to be pleased,” said my partner, “it must mean your body looks younger than your head.” I told him this wasn’t helping.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who worries about looking old, not least because that’s the kind of thing old people do. I’ve got enough to worry about, body-image wise – the tops of my thighs, my uneven smile, acne scars and a midriff I can’t even bear to touch. I had always assumed that by the time I was bothered about crow’s feet and a saggy neck, I’d have stopped noticing the rest.

I imagined there being a finite amount of body image worry a person could have. You were allocated it at birth and once it was used up, you were no longer capable of giving a toss. I even fantasised that having suffered from anorexia and bulimia throughout my teens and twenties, I’d have “used up” my worry faster than everyone else. Soon I’d be safely on the side of not caring. Now, at 41, I’m starting to fear this might never happen.

Read the full post at The Pool

The Pool: Instagram “fit moms” aren’t the problem – policing pregnant bodies is

Performing motherhood, you soon discover, involves positioning yourself at extremes. If you can’t be perfect, you must excel at ineptitude. Just bumbling along in the middle, being “good enough,” simply will not do.

Take our approach to health and beauty. At the time of writing this I am rocking a “full-on slummy mummy” vibe. I have one breast significantly larger than the other, thanks to my baby son’s insistence on feeding from one side only, and I’m housing a family of nits, kindly donated by my shaggy-haired seven-year old. I can’t remember the last time I exercised, beyond the odd, panicked pelvic floor clench. Some might call this slovenliness; I call it “taking an organic approach.”

At the other end of the spectrum we find the women currently being hailed as the “fit moms.” Like their predecessors, the MILFs, they don’t see making a real, live human being with one’s own body as any excuse to let oneself go. On the contrary, women such as Sia Cooper, owner of the Instagram account @diaryofafitmommyofficial, are to be found working out on the very day they give birth (apparently giving birth itself doesn’t count as a workout, at least if you’re not doing it in the downward facing dog).

Read the full post at The Pool

The right way for women to disappear

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that once you have anorexia, you never quite recover from it. It sounds too fatalistic, too hopeless and yet at the same time too self-indulgent.

I am 40 years old. It is nearly three decades since I was first diagnosed and I have been what is considered a healthy weight for most of the past two of them. While my eating habits are not necessarily normal, I would not describe myself as still suffering from anorexia itself. If anything, what I suffer from is not being anorexic any more.

I am not at home in the body I have. I’ve never got over the desire to tell people, the first time I meet them, that this isn’t the real me. The real me is thin, breastless, narrow-hipped. This version of me is a poor compromise, a pathetic accommodation. I look like a woman but actually I identify as a human being.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes the way in which refeeding programmes imposed on anorexia sufferers betray a desire to “normalise” women not just physically, but socially: “The general consensus is that the patient has recovered when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved.” Yet, she goes on to point out, “if the body protest statement could but be read – be it one of fatness or thinness – it would be seen to be one of the few ways that women can articulate their internal experience.” I look back on the force-feeding to which I was subjected and see in it a type of conversion therapy. Womanhood, I had decided, was not for me. I sought to roll back puberty and remain stuck in time. The medical profession said no, you must go forward. And so I did, but it hurt because the world I went into remained one in which femaleness and personhood are not always permitted to co-exist. Continue reading

The Pool: Joan Bakewell’s comments about anorexia were harmful, but not surprising

Sometimes I look back on my youth and wish I’d had more problems. Been raised in a war-torn country, sent scavenging for food on the streets. That way, whatever else I’d endured, at least I’d have avoided suffering an eating disorder. As it is, I’m stuck being the kind of narcissist who wastes decades of her life on anorexia and bulimia (still, unlike some I know, I’ve not yet been self-centred enough to starve to death).

At least, this is the impression of eating disorders given by Joan Bakewell in a recent interview, in which she suggested that anorexia among young people “arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin”. “No one,” she argued, “has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food. They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.” Thanks, Joan. Good to know we only put ourselves through it because we’re worth it.

Read the full post at The Pool

New Statesman: There’s more to supporting those with mental health problems than fighting stigma

According to a survey conducted by the BBC to coincide with its In The Mind series, the stigma associated with mental illness is subsiding. More people would be prepared to reveal a diagnosis to friends and employers. Ten years since the release of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry argues that things are changing for sufferers: “it’s more talked about […] It’s in the culture more and it’s understood more.”

This can only be a good thing. There’s no way of quantifying just how much the pain and isolation of suffering from a mental illness can be compounded by the fear of others finding out. Even now, I find it difficult to answer seemingly simple questions, just in case someone fails to understand or disapproves. What were your schooldays like? Why did it take you so long to finish your degree? What does your brother do? I am cagey, not least because when I do tell the truth, even the nicest of people are unsure what to say, leaving me to feel I should offer reassurance. Yeah, but I’m not mad now! Sure, he’s schizophrenic, but he won’t kill you or anything! Cue nervous laughter, and a relationship ever so slightly marred by the sense that I must now prove myself to be “normal”, an impossible task for any of us at the best of times.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Eloise Parry was not stupid

I am so sorry for being so stupid.“

Eloise Parry wrote these words in a text to her tutors, hours before she died of an overdose of the diet pill DNP, following an all-night binge-and-purge session.

Eloise Parry wasn’t stupid. She was bulimic and she was frightened. I can imagine doing what she did. I think a lot of women could.

Right now I could provide a very long list of the dangerous things I have done because of an eating disorder. I am, however, too embarrassed to do so. They are not dangerous in a way that lends itself easily to romanticisation. There is nothing poetic and edgy about them. They are, by and large, secretive, disgusting things. Continue reading

How sad is sad enough?

How sad is sad enough? How thin is thin enough? How lonely is lonely enough? These are apparently important questions if you want to have a voice.

Today I found myself reading the Daily Mail (I was visiting my parents, so please don’t judge me). Two articles caught my eye: one on a woman whose pregnancy had apparently cured her anorexia (“I knew for the sake of our little one I would have to finally put it all behind me”), another by a female journalist who describes herself as unable to stop starving (“however unbalanced my own diet may be, I can’t imagine ever not living as a functioning anorexic”). I haven’t linked to either of these, not least because they include calorie counts, lowest weights and photographs of emaciated states. If I were still struggling with an eating disorder, I’d find such details triggering. Even without a diagnosed ED I feel bad enough. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Why even wait? On John Lewis’s toddler bras

Update to this post – John Lewis have tweeted this:

So it looks like we may not be at that stage just yet …
***

2014-12-09 22_59_36-Buy John Lewis Girl Vintage Floral Bras, Pack of 2, Multi _ John Lewis

John Lewis are selling Vintage Floral bras at £8 for two. It sounds a total bargain, right? Unfortunately they don’t have any in my size. It’s not the usual hassle, where all the nice ranges stop at a C cup. In this case, the problem is age. I’m 39 and this particular range only goes from ages 2 to 5.

I find the whole thing incredibly depressing, and not just due to the obviously creepy aspect of it (who buys a bra for their toddler? And why?). I’m saddened because it cuts into that brief time when girls have bodies that are just bodies and starts to tell them, ever so subtly, what their true value will be. To be treated like a person with breasts is bad enough; to be treated as such long before you’ve even got there is worse.

Feminists have long identified the onset of puberty (the time when you’d usually get your first bra) as a particular flashpoint for girls. Suddenly you’re no longer “a child” – a mini human – but someone whose humanity will always be in question. This shift from unisex person to female object can happen quickly, and cause a great deal of distress (even for girls for whom the onset of menstruation doesn’t mean forced marriage and/or withdrawal from formal education). Growing breasts means becoming fair game, someone who is believed to have put herself on the market simply by existing. You might have no choice in the matter, but still you will be held accountable for the responses your body provokes. Continue reading

Almost Famous, real women and the normalisation of self-hate

I wish I wasn’t pear-shaped.

My nose is too fat.

Laxatives are definitely the answer.

Why can’t I be thinner?

Does all this sound familiar? If you’re a woman, it should. While these statements were taken from the walls of the ladies’ loos in a burger bar, they’re meant to represent what all of us are really thinking. Go on, admit it. We hate ourselves. We’re women; it’s what women do.  If you’re not drowning in self-loathing, you’re not in the club.

Staff at Almost Famous, Leeds, have now painted over their fresco of female insecurity, in response to a blog by food writer Helen Graves. The wall was a shitty idea, poorly executed. Nonetheless, you can’t blame the owners for trying. Why not cast an ironic eye on female self-hatred?  It’s what all the cool kids are doing. Twenty-five years after the publication of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth – bright, fiery and full of anger – women’s hatred of their bodies is seen not as a scandal but an inevitability. We no longer deny that women hate themselves but write it off as part of what women are. Continue reading

What shouldn’t women be seeing? On pro-ana, censorship and hunger

When I first became anorexic, way back in the 1980s, we had to make our own thinspiration. Pro-ana websites and online communities didn’t exist. The best you could hope for was the odd Woman’s Own article on Lena Zavaroni or an ITV special on The Carpenters. Most of the time it was reading the same old recipe books and collecting newspaper cuttings of Nancy Reagan. Truly, today’s eating disorder sufferers don’t know they’re born.

By contrast, these days we cater to the needs of the most discerning anorexics, with starve-friendly websites packed with bonetastic images.  Nonetheless, there are concerns that it has gone too far. According to an article in The Daily Beast (helpfully illustrated by a photograph of an emaciated body – get a load of that, thinspo-lovers!), “Italy’s Parliament recently proposed a bill that would criminalize pro-anorexia site authors with a $67,000 fine and up to a year in jail”. Disaster! What if all such sites were banned? Where would your average “friend of Ana” have to go for her next fix? Well, I guess there’s always Closer, or Heat, or Now, or the Sidebar of Shame, or a million other media outlets that regularly concern troll women who are clearly desperately ill (body shock! Starve wars! Size zero hell!). But still, at least you wouldn’t have those sneaky anorexics going off and doing it behind people’s backs, denying the poor publishers some much-needed revenue. Continue reading

Beauty and the cis

Most women hate their bodies. This is one of those boring facts that everyone knows and no one bothers to change. We half-heartedly order women to “love themselves” and “embrace their curves.” We encourage them to watch Dove adverts so that they may campaign for Real Beauty (while also worrying about ugly underarms). We eventually tell them fuck it, beauty is empowerment, why not embrace your self-hatred? Whatever we do, it’s not all that important since at the end of the day it’s all vanity. Hate away.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t hated my body. Really, truly hated it, albeit in a way that I don’t tend to think of as hate (I think of it as “having a shit body” or “being a fat, ugly bitch” or in countless other ways which problematize not my hatred, but my body itself as an offensive object). At times my hatred of my flesh has almost killed me, leading to hospitalisations and force-feedings. I still wish there was less of me. Whatever my size I will always wish to be less. Continue reading

How the Daily Mail forgives women for existing

A famous young woman has died and the Daily Mail launches straight into hand-wringing mode: “Like Paula, she longed to be loved, a perfect mother … and thin” wails the cover. Poor Peaches Geldof. Poor Paula Yates. It’s almost as though some women are cursed.

I see headlines like this and I think one thing: Fuck you, Daily Mail.

I don’t know how Peaches Geldof died. What’s more, it’s none of my business. As a former anorexic, I am of course tempted go all out hunting for ED innuendo, poring over photos of stick-thin arms and corrugated breastbones. I am curious, I admit, in a leering, self-centred way. I almost want certain things to be true and not others, purely in order to prove a point. But this has nothing to do with me. Furthermore, I’m not convinced the current coverage has anything to do with Peaches Geldof either.

Of the cultural forces out there wanting women to be thin, eternally young, perfect mothers, it’s safe to say the Daily Mail is right at the forefront. Projection, much? It’s not so long ago that the same publication was expressing dismay at Geldof’s inability to “learn” how to display her “curvy” body:

Just one day after she appeared to have redeemed herself by showing off her curves in a pretty floral bikini, Peaches Geldof has made yet another fashion blunder.

[…] Peaches, who is dating film director Eli Roth, seemed completely unaware of her faux pas as she enjoyed her leisurely meal – but the outfit drew attention to her for all the wrong reasons. However, despite receiving cruel internet comments about her weight, Peaches has allegedly told friends she is happy with her size.

Allegedly told friends she is happy? Yeah, right. You can’t be happy like that.

Since you can’t know the inside of someone else’s mind, it seems inappropriate to go too far in defining the social context of their suffering. Yet that’s what the Mail likes to do, all the time, only on its own warped terms. We’re meant to shift seamlessly from the usual disapproval of women – for being too fat, too thin, bad mothers, bad daughters, too old, too sexy, too loud – to pretending they inhabit a cultural vacuum, particularly when things go wrong. Nothing influences them at all, save the bad blood that’s already coursing through their veins. They’re not meant to hear the constant yelling from outside. They’re not meant to be bothered that they are, for want of a better word, hated by people they don’t know and who don’t know them.

And then there are the stories of redemption (precarious ones, all the same). Redemption is the only option you have since by being noticed at all you’ve already sinned. You lose weight. You become a domestic goddess. You lose even more weight. Ideally, you comes as close as you possibly can to disappearing without actually doing so. The Daily Mail likes women when there are less of them, both to mock and to ignore. Even if you’re “painfully thin” or “shockingly skinny” you know it’s a damn sight better than being seen to “love your curves.”

Finally we end up with the mawkish tale of a girl who redeemed herself through weight loss and self-abnegating motherhood, a doubling up of feminine virtues. Quite what this fictional girl had done wrong to begin with isn’t very clear. Yet what the Mail and other papers seem to be saying is “we forgive you. Now that you’re dead, we forgive. We’ll make up a story about cursed families, untouched by the outside world, and then we’ll seal off all the rest.” This seems to be the measure of what’s required of famous women, who aren’t permitted any privacy or reality of their own. They are never, ever real, even if they are redeemed.

The Daily Mail has no right to offer forgiveness or pity, or to speculate on the neuroses it ordinarily hopes to inspire in others. To feel an imperfect mother and to long to be thin is everyday life for millions of women. If the Mail really cared about that, it would do the decent thing and fade away rather than asking womankind to do so instead.

Bikini bridges and thigh gaps: On eating disorder concern trolling

This evening I found out what a bikini bridge is. I wasn’t seeking out this knowledge; I was reading the news and it popped out at me, unbidden. The trouble is, now I can’t ever un-know it (to give you a chance, I’m not linking to the piece in question). Bikini bridges will henceforth be stored in my brain alongside thigh gaps, muffin tops, bingo wings, cankles and a million other terms which exist solely to make women hate their bodies a great deal and their minds even more.

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Never the right body: On Okay magazine, words and pictures

Does this blog make me look fat? I only ask because, in a recent flurry of hostile comments from men’s rights activists, I’ve found several telling me I’m “fat and ugly” or “fat and bitter” or  – well, lots of things, but it’s always “fat and [something]”. So go on, give it to me straight — do these posts look plump to you? Are these the kind of opinions which might be caught celebrating their curves? Go on, I can take it.

It’s strange that, of all the things that could be used as an insult, “fat” comes up so often. Hell, I can think of a million things that are wrong with stuff I’ve written, but none of them have anything to do with the size of my thighs. When it comes to attacking women whose views you don’t like, “you’re fat” remains the weapon of choice. To be fair, I’m not surprised. It has two advantages: it doesn’t demand any intellectual effort yet it manages to convey female inferiority without even seeming to do so (yes, you can say “you’re fat” to a man but it won’t mean the same thing. Indeed, chances are he might actually be fat, which wouldn’t make you any less of a judgmental fuckwit, but a different kind thereof).
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On Liz Jones, Suzanne Moore and misrepresentations of anorexia

Tonight I am writing about someone else who is writing about someone else who is writing about herself. So forgive me for going a bit meta. It probably makes more sense once you know that the second someone else – the one who’s being written about and who’s also writing about herself – is Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones. Right now, with the publication of Jones’s Girl Least Likely To memoir, everyone wants to write about Liz Jones, although it’s usually to say that the one person who shouldn’t be allowed to write about Liz Jones is Liz Jones herself (still, the fact that Jones is still writing about Jones gives the rest of us something to write about).

I, however, am going to write about Suzanne Moore, or rather Moore’s review of Girl Least Likely To. While I can’t work out whether Moore hates or loves to hate the book, it’s clear to me that Moore doesn’t like Jones. That seems fair enough. I don’t think I’m fond of her, either. Nevertheless, Moore’s attitude towards Jones’s anorexia shocks me far more than Jones’s own brand of deliberate, desperate provocation. Continue reading

On Amy Winehouse, bulimia and me

I’m pleased – well, not exactly pleased – that the death of Amy Winehouse has finally been linked to her suffering from an eating disorder. I’d always suspected that about her but then, having suffered from an eating disorder myself, I never trust my own opinions. I’ve been through phases of thinking that everyone in the entire world has an eating disorder, while at other times I’ve thought no one has, with all the super-skinny people just being bizarrely self-controlled. It’s hard to make sense of it all when the prevailing ideal for body shapes is always marginally underweight.

Between the releases of Frank and Back To Black, Winehouse clearly lost a dramatic amount of weight but the eating disorder rumours were quite never as newsworthy as those relating to booze and drugs. After all, having anorexia or bulimia is, on a day to day basis, decidedly lacking in drama. It’s far easier to tell someone’s off their face than it is to witness their miserable, brain-numbing hunger. Still, at least in the months before her death the Daily Mail pronounced her “healthy” enough to deserve mockery for having the dreaded “muffin top”. Continue reading

A feminist’s fear of the Family Meal

As a child I always hated The Family Meal. Too many arbitrary rules and too much meat. I’d throw pieces of food under the table, thinking no one noticed, then watch as my brother got pudding while mine was withheld due to the scraps discovered around my chair.

Years later, anorexic, I avoided family meals altogether. I’d hide away with my homework while others ate, finally defrosting Lean Cuisine in the microwave at 10pm. It would take me an hour to eat the half-portion I dished out, then I’d retire to bed, barely having spoken to anyone. Continue reading