Thoughts of a person, with breasts

Breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person.

The way in which they develop will influence the way in which the world receives you. Small-breasted women are bookish, intellectual, perhaps slightly repressed; large-breasted women are cheap, available, maybe a little dumb. Either way, growing breasts makes you fresh meat. It puts you on the market, regardless of whether that’s where you want to be.

I am a small-breasted virgin in the body of a large-breasted whore. A flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife. I have never quite been able to get the right personality in place to match my tits. God knows, I’ve tried.

For almost ten years I starved myself into almost-flatness, rolling back the first-girl-at-school-to-get-breasts humiliations of my final year at junior school. Then when I lost it – and lost it badly, so many cup sizes, almost running out of alphabet – I attempted to occupy my own space, sleeping around, taking sexist jokes on the chin, taking time to realise that one’s space is not a thing a woman gets to define for herself. Then there were the almost-breast reductions, two operation appointments turned down. I wasn’t sure what parts of me to keep, which to reject. I’m still not sure years later, stretched and tired by a third round of breastfeeding. My baby son sometimes moulds and plays with the flesh while he drinks, as though he’s handling plasticine. That’s what my breasts feel like to me: insensitive, roughly formed, shoved onto me while I wasn’t looking. A bad joke, a “kick me” sign pinned to my back. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

To the woman who sat next to me at the eating disorders clinic

Obviously I noticed your daughter before I noticed you. I expect you are used to that. Legs so thin, how could it be any other way? I tried not to stare but it’s so hard not to. People used to stare at me in much the same way, or so I’ve been told (I never noticed at the time). Once you’d both signed in, you came and sat next to me, with her on the other side of you. I noticed you then but only because I couldn’t see her any more.
Continue reading

Eating disorders: Some thoughts on being de-programmed

Yesterday I found myself in a room with a woman who was telling me that it was permissible to eat. She also told me that it was permissible to put on weight, and permissible to grow as you age, and permissible not to have rules about every single item of food that you buy. It was all very radical and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It felt a bit cultish, or rather un-cultish. It was as though I was being de-programmed, made to unlearn all that I’d come to believe. What she was saying made sense, yet it sounded so odd. I kept thinking “but that’s not what I’ve been told. How can you be right and everyone else be wrong?” Continue reading

The Observer and New Atkins: In case you don’t yet feel bad enough about eating …

Today’s Observer includes a piece entitled “Women own up to guilt over eating habits”. It’s an interesting choice of wording – are women “owning up” to the eating itself or is this some kind of meta-guilt relating to their response to food? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s both. These days, not only is eating too much and being a porker a Bad Thing, but so too is failing to be a Real Woman who celebrates her curves. Hence regardless of whether you’re literally stuffed, metaphorically you are.

According to the piece “millions of British women have eating binges, lie about how much they weigh and have a negative relationship with food”. All pretty remarkable, when you consider that only 2,000 British women were interviewed. It’s amazing what wilful extrapolation can do:

Three-quarters of UK women – 24 million – say they often feel guilty about how much they eat. Women typically think about food 12 times a day and those under 25 have it on their minds twice as much as those over 55, the poll found. Six out of 10 told researchers they had lied about how much food they ate, almost half (43.74%) said they snacked in secret and more than a quarter (27.68%) confessed to binge eating – this rises to more than a third (36.72%) of those under 25.

Whether or not this really does affect 24 million women, it’s sad that anyone has these feelings at all. Eating ought to be a pleasurable and sociable experience. Still, at least the dieting industry is doing its best to raise awareness of all the lives it fucks up, albeit while taking the opportunity to persuade a few more people to fuck up their lives just that little bit more. Continue reading

Feeding on eating disorder guilt

Tomorrow I must write down every single thing I eat and drink. Not just that, but also the time, place and how I feel about it. What’s more, all of it must be done as soon as possible after the eating and/or drinking event. To be frank, the whole thing is set to be a complete pain in the arse. All the same, I’ve got to do it. It’s the rules.

Next week I start my Last Ever Eating Disorder Treatment, in preparation for which I have to keep a food diary. My first treatment took place in 1987. Thus a whole quarter century later I’m still trying to rid myself of ideas that took hold when I was eleven years old. I can’t help thinking what a fucking idiot. How did I ever end up in such a position? I only started the sodding diet so I could end up perfect. Is that really so much to ask? Continue reading

Ladies: Accept your body, know your place

Equalities minister Jo Swinson, co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, has written an open letter to magazine editors, asking them all to avoid “the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight”. I’ll be honest – this really annoys me, and not simply because I’ve got billions of unhealthy solutions to losing weight to promote, just in time for the new year. I mean, if you’re interested, I’ll have you know that all of mine work. Indeed, on several occasions I lost so much weight I ended up being hospitalised. Plus I can always think up more (it’s just a matter of getting the right combination of not eating enough and brainwashing yourself into thinking that feeling cold, miserable and obsessed with food is acceptable as a constant state). Anyhow, that’s not the thing that’s annoying me the most. The truth is, I don’t want Jo Swinson, or anyone else in a position of authority, telling women how to feel about their bodies. It’s just none of their business. Continue reading

Anorexia and bulimia at Christmas: Finding ways to connect

In 1993, over the Christmas break, a woman faked her own abduction and then falsely claimed to have been raped. Her reason for doing so? Publicity, perhaps. A misguided need for attention. But also an attempt to get away from the holidays. The woman, a bulimia sufferer, simply could not face this time of year.

When the news of the fake abduction broke, I remember most people, my family included, being scathing. What a waste of police time and money. What a great deal of worry caused to family and friends. As if an eating disorder can be an excuse! And yet, while I couldn’t exactly understand the woman’s actions – and still can’t – a bit of me wanted to try. As a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I recognised the panic that Christmas can cause and I recognised, too, the lack of comprehension that sufferers face. Continue reading

Closer magazine: The world’s worst post-ED clinic “treat” ever

So yesterday, 18 months after I decided to go for treatment, I finally attended my first “proper” session at the eating disorders clinic. It went well and I feel positive about it. Therefore, once it was over, I decided I ought to treat myself. Hell, I deserved it. Because obviously, walking into a health centre, sitting down with a black coffee and spending 90 minutes moaning about your messed-up life requires huge amounts of courage (although thankfully not too much in the way of stiff upper lip).

You may be wondering, as was I, what constitutes a suitable post-ED clinic attendance treat. Not food, obviously, because Food Is Not A Reward. But then what? Fags? Booze? Porn? No, because all that would lead to potential cross-addiction (or whatever being into everything bad is called these days). How about a nice, good book? No, because I’ve still not finished my current non-fiction (Delusions of Gender) nor my fiction (The Stranger’s Child) and besides, when I’m allowed something new, it’ll probably have to be something boring like How Not To Have A Totally Ridiculous Attitude Towards Food. Continue reading

Sometimes women need feeding, too

In my household I am outnumbered. On the pink side there’s only me while on the blue there’s my male partner and our two sons. Obviously this causes no end of troubles when it comes to purchasing food, but thankfully our kitchen has plenty of cupboards. Once the weekly shop is done we tend to use our space wisely to maintain an appropriate level of gender-based food segregation.

In my cupboard (painted pink) we have: Galaxy bars (for when I’m sad / wistful), Maltesers (for when I’m up for Loose-Women-style japes), Ryvita (for miserable lunches with unfunny friends) and the full range of Special K products (for when I fundamentally hate myself). Meanwhile, in the men’s cupboard (blue), we have: Yorkies and Snickers bars (the only chocolate straight men are permitted to eat), extra thick-cut crisps (since Skips are way too effete) and various Big Soups (since, unlike women, men are presumed to eat because they’re hungry – and to want to consume something genuinely substantial, as opposed to some deceitful “fuller for longer” salad nonsense). We used to have a shared cupboard for things we were both allowed to consume (it was painted yellow, obviously). Alas, it mainly contained carbs, which are now men-only and thus belong in the blue cupboard (although I’m considering creating a neutral shelf in the fridge for cheese and bacon – except I think the new rule is that women can only have these if they have nothing but these. And I’m not giving up my Galaxy – I might get all weepy and need it). Continue reading

Anorexia: Crap illness, great metaphor

As a teenager, the actress Celia Imrie suffered from anorexia. Years later, in an interview with the Telegraph, she expresses regret at what she put her mother through:

I’m so angry with myself for putting her through that. Because it was my own fault. I had made myself ill […] I get very angry now – and quite unsympathetic – because it’s such a terrible waste of time and energy.

Part of me feels sorry for Imrie; it’s sad that she bears this burden of guilt. All the same, another part of me wishes she’d keep her feelings to herself. These might be her personal sentiments, and as such they’re valid, but they also happen to chime in with a broader undercurrent of opinion about anorexia, and it’s one that causes real harm. Continue reading

Weird tips for achieving a tiny belly (honest!)

Here are some weird tips for achieving a tiny belly:

  • eat less food than you need in order to function as a healthy human being
  • think about all the food you’re not eating all the sodding time
  • feel cold, exhausted and miserable every minute of the day (and night, since hunger is giving you insomnia and when you do finally sleep, you dream of food you didn’t even like until all this started)

Eventually you will get a tiny belly, albeit one still covered in excess skin and stretch marks. By the time you get to this point, you won’t be able to stop shrinking, but you will no longer care. The person who would have had the capacity to enjoy being thin – or indeed being anything – will no longer exist. Continue reading