Note: This was an assessment piece written in May 2018 for QUT unit KWB116.
Today was a standard food day: a bowl of porridge (377 calories), an iced black coffee (11 calories), a lunch-time banana and muesli bar combination (304 calories) and grilled salmon with vegetables for dinner (500 calories). I am neither a dietician or nutritionist — there isn’t a library of nutrition labels in my head. Yet I didn’t have to go far to find these figures. Just a few brief searches, and there they were — in an app designed to monitor daily calorie intake in order to reach a goal weight. Despite the fact Anorexia Nervosa has a higher mortality rate than any other psychiatric disease, it doesn’t surprise me that I’m able to find these numbers with minimal effort. It is, after all, an illness of contradictions — the overall purpose of which is to disappear in order to be seen. It doesn’t surprise me that while I’ve never made a conscious effort to memorise the figures — I’ve maybe even made a conscious effort to avoid them — my then 16-year-old, severely anorexic best friend once sat with a peach between her palms for three hours straight, thinking only of how what I now know was 59 calories would haunt her stomach. It doesn’t surprise me that, in our size-obsessed popular culture, she would’ve preferred kidney failure over taking a bite from a piece of fruit.
Despite the claim that “curves are back”, the scrutiny of shape has become more intense than ever. Our relationship with food is intrinsically tied to societal standards — standards which exist within a culture that glorifies an unhealthily thin body as the peak of feminine beauty and, by extension, feminine success. For women, especially young women, the pressure to be thin, and to be thin at any cost, is immense, and the false and often modified images found on social media feed the perpetually tumultuous relationship between self-esteem and teenage girls. No child has ever said, “When I grow up, I want to lie in a hospital bed for weeks on end being fed through a tube, stripped of my freedom on every possible level.” Yet anorexia is made desirable by spinning it into poetry, enhancing the sufferer’s aura and making them more glamorous. We fetishise every concave stomach and skinny thigh; spend time learning how to sharpen our hipbones and treat our bathroom floors like church pews. There’s an elegance and litheness associated with protruding collarbones and dainty wrists. Something delicate and incidental, effortlessly tiny.
Yet what I saw when, in our final years of high school, my best friend starved herself to the point of near death was not elegant, was not lithe; it was thin. It was emaciated. It was her sunken eyes, her head too big for her body. It was tendons so visible in her neck they moved like puppet strings whenever she turned her head. It was wrapping my arms around her and feeling like she might snap in two. It was bones and knobs. Every bump of her spine protruding. Her hips, poked out at angles. It was the sharpness of her shoulder blades rising out of her skin, like the wings of a dead baby bird: hairless, barely born, already broken. It was me, wondering how she could have hidden this for so long; wondering how she was alive when there was nothing left of her.
The “thinspiration” community manifesting on social media is, on the surface, a reflection of our age of kombucha, collagen powders and juice cleanses. Of our culture compelled by habits, often believing them to be the surest paths to perfection — the extremely intoxicating idea that one tiny change implemented correctly could bring us closer to our ideal. Like learning how to tie our shoes — slowly at first, giving so much thought to the action until we master it and never think about tying our shoes again — we come to think of certain foods as “good” and others as “bad”, until it becomes so engrained that we never give it a second thought. Until being concerned with the quality of food we put into our bodies, and refining our diets according to a personal understanding of which foods are truly “pure” goes from being a habit to becoming an addiction — choosing not to eat until you become addicted to not eating.
And in the underbelly of the almond milk endorsing #thinspo communities, there are those that encourage this addiction. That promote weight loss and maintenance through anorexic and bulimic behaviours, holding up self-starvation and purging as ways to become and stay beautiful, and to prove one’s self-discipline. That frame disordered behaviours as an admirable, healthy lifestyle, and not as the symptoms of a mental illness that takes it all — from the person suffering, from the family and friends who are watching their loved one suffer. It is not an honour to have gone through it. There is nothing heroic about a disorder that is an unquenchable thing masquerading as a lifestyle choice — greedy despite encouraging the sufferer to be anything but.
There is nothing heroic about being 16, and being told by your best friend on a daily basis that she will kill herself if she is forced to get treatment. And as a result, she did not get the care that she needed, because her parents were terrified that if they sent her away, she would never come home. I became angry — furious that not enough was being done. Whether that was to save her — or me — I’m not sure. It felt like I had been left to carry the load of her mental baggage — the load of this disease she wielded like a sword whenever she became too fearful. It wasn’t my job, yet it was one I was given. I kept being told to do more, to be more understanding, but I was at the end of my rope, and she didn’t want my help. There was nothing more I could do. And it took its toll on my friendship with her until there wasn’t one anymore.
It’s a funny thing to have one of the people you are closest to in the world become completely unrecognisable. But it is an ugly thing when you realise that maybe they aren’t the only person who has changed. While she got physically — and I’d like to hope, mentally — better in the 12 months that followed, I couldn’t move past what had happened, because all I could remember was her when she was sick. I became fixated, consumed by the illness deteriorating the mind and body of this brilliant human being, whom I adored. Whose friendship, four years on, I still miss like a limb. I am aware when somebody eats a meal and does not clean the plate. My mind immediately jumps to the prospect of them being in the same headspace she was — it doesn’t occur to me that they might just not be hungry. Because I remember how she was unable to sit still when food was placed in front of her, twitching nervously, crossing and uncrossing her legs, the stress coming off her palpable. When I see a girl who is frail and gaunt, I feel something twist in my stomach. There comes to be a distinct sensation at the top of my throat, something I can’t quite swallow.
Yet in spite of this, there was a point last year when one day, I woke up and just decided I wasn’t hungry anymore. And for someone who had seen firsthand the impact of an eating disorder — on three separate occasions — and could never picture being on the other side of the coin: I finally did. I finally understood the satisfaction of maintaining that level of control over yourself, until a meal is placed in front of you and it’s as if a stronger force is restraining you from taking a bite — a hand closing over your throat, your body rejecting the possible intake of food. I finally understood the satisfaction that comes from not cleaning off your plate. That comes from saying, “No thank you, I’m not hungry” even though I would sometimes dry retch because my stomach was so empty. Those three words — “I’m not hungry” — were a perverse declaration of power. Every time I went to breakfast with friends, I’d sit back in my seat and watch everyone else dive into their meals, content in the knowledge — maybe even smug — that I couldn’t eat, so I wouldn’t. Even if all I thought about was food — even if I was ravenous, and self-loathing, I just had to keep going. Because if I just kept going, if I just kept saying no to the things in life that had once been a source of joy, I would whittle my body down.
A desire for control, eventually, can become an excess of restraint. For me, it became isolation. It kept my heart hostage, it threatened my relationships. And so I made a choice. Just like waking up and deciding I wasn’t hungry anymore, I woke up and decided that I didn’t want to stand in the grocery store — with only a handful of almonds in my stomach — and want to cry. Because there is nothing controlled about anorexia. It’s an addiction, though possibly the only one where a person is dependent on the absence of something. No ‘recovery’ is clean cut like we might wish it to be, and mine was no different. The grimiest parts of me thrill at the prospect of being cold in a warm room. There is not a day that passes when I don’t think about food — when I am not proud of myself for only eating two meals instead of three. When I am focusing on a task, or lying in bed at night, I’ll often put my right hand around my left wrist and touch the bones there, and my mind will wander to how I would feel if they were more defined — and what I would have to deny myself of in order for them to become that way. I will forever be running and jumping and spinning and twirling away from the clutches of a disease that once tried to dig its tentacles into my flesh and melt my tissue away.
I often wonder about what I want more: to love my body, or to stop thinking about it so much. I often wonder about a future in which our looks are considered just another quality, like ambition, or, say, the ability to tie our shoes. It’s fun to envision a future where my mind never wonders about those figures, and how I could use them to whittle myself down to some minute sum if I were dedicated enough to memorise them. I will never operate within either framework. And while I might not always be proud of the reflection staring back at me when I look in the mirror, for now I can say I am proud when I look at a peach and see only a peach.