Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of disordered eating.
My body does not belong only to me: my body is also the narratives projected onto it.
I understood this acutely as an overweight twelve-year-old, swarmed by a group of boys as they oinked and grunted. I understood this as an intrepid eighteen-year-old, leaving a nightclub as a bouncer screamed, ‘Where’s your burka, you dirty Arab slut?’ I understand this now whenever someone assumes that I can’t speak English, or I’m invisible, or that my work can’t be universal.
Over the years, the narratives around my body have shifted. I was fat, I starved myself, and then I was thin. This thinness felt like a renewal: a realisation of the grotesque weight-loss mantra that ‘every fat woman has a thin woman trapped inside her.’ The result was a cognitive dissonance: I knew I was the same person, but my thinness made it easier to move through the world.
The consequences of this transition were like a poison, seeping into the intervening years. My reward pathways were realigned, my self-worth deeply entwined with my appearance. I stared at my body in reflective surfaces, pinching at the rolls of errant fat. Eating felt like a furtive, intensely private act. I followed diet tips to the letter – intermittent fasting, eliminating white foods, ‘kickstarting my metabolism’ with lemon water. I compulsively read nutritional labels, luxuriating in a sense of righteousness when I ate under a thousand calories a day. My meals were bizarre concoctions: sugar-free Ribena paired with a single tomato, a clump of cottage cheese atop a slice of ham, a handful of raw spinach with English mustard. I kept shrinking, shivering, losing clumps of hair. My disorder felt simultaneously like an act of indulgence and of self-annihilation.
Too often, hunger (particularly women’s hunger) is imbued with a mythical, romantic significance. Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids engages in this kind of myth making, perpetuating the trope of the suffering, starving artist. Smith describes the gnawing hunger of her early years in New York as a kind of precondition for artistic authenticity: an unselfconscious, ascetic starvation. This is a seductive narrative – the belief that my writing is analogous to my hunger, oscillating between compression and maximalism.
Too often, hunger (particularly women’s hunger) is imbued with a mythical, romantic significance.
Literature makes a distinction between ‘hunger’ and ‘dieting’: dieting is the purview of superficial, frivolous women. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the ‘naturally thin’ protagonist Ester is unconcerned with such trivialities: ‘No matter how much I eat I never put on weight. With one exception I have been the same weight for ten years.’
In contrast, Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2016 novel Eileen is a savagely accurate portrait of feminine abjection. Eileen is mesmerised by the squalor of her body, its hidden rhythms and excretions. She mercilessly catalogues her physical flaws in a way I found unerringly familiar, describing how her self-perception is shaped by the male gaze: ‘At the time, I didn’t believe my body was really mine to navigate. I figured that was what men were for.’
Eileen hardly eats: instead she ranges, coyote-like, through her house, scavenging stale peanuts and vermouth. She conducts acts of self-mortification, undergoing laxative-induced purges as an act of spiritual cleansing, describing her defecation as: ‘torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out…Those were the good times.’
Eileen’s purging is an act of profound intimacy; her purges leave her euphoric, post-coital. Eileen is a rare work in that it never attempts to romanticise addiction: it presents disordered eating in all its visceral, banal, shitty glory.
It’s taken me years to unlearn my pathological food habits, and to eat with a sense of enjoyment and carelessness. I am no longer sick, but the path to recovery is non-linear and precarious.
During a period of ill-health in 2015, I was entirely immobile, advised to keep walking to the barest minimum. An unexpected side effect of this was a newfound obsession with Instagram wellness gurus. I spent hours trawling through Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar journey, Kayla Itsines’ BBG (‘Bikini Body Guide’) community, Deliciously Ella’s blog. I was caught in a vortex of recipes, positive affirmations, ‘before and after’ transformations.
There is a kind of demagoguery to the ‘wellness industry’, a cult of personality that exalts whiteness, youth and beauty. The Instagram gurus are uniformly glossy and attractive, whilst cultivating a folksy and relatable charm. Their messages range from benign (eat more vegetables!) to eccentric (give yourself an at-home colon cleanse!) to dangerous (cure your cancer with green juice!).
There is a kind of demagoguery to the ‘wellness industry’, a cult of personality that exalts whiteness, youth and beauty.
The language used by this movement has religious undertones, with food ascribed a moral value (the dichotomy of ‘clean’ versus ‘dirty’ food). Hedonism and transgression have their own specific descriptors: cheat days, being naughty, a cheeky beer. The language of ‘purity’ is insidious, and can easily be used to obscure compulsive behavior, to cull entire food groups undetected.
The Instagram industrial complex is rife with contradictions. Analogous to the ascent of the ‘wellness gurus’ is the phenomenon of the insatiable Instagram influencer. Extremely thin, conventionally attractive women like Negin Mirsalehi (four million followers) and Emily Ratajkowski (fifteen million followers), who profess their love for pasta, take artfully constructed shots of croissants, eat oversized scoops of ice cream. This is a deeply disingenuous double negative, as described by Roxane Gay in her recent memoir Hunger: ‘One of the cruelties of our cultural obsession with weight loss is that we are supposed to restrict our eating whilst indulging in the fantasy that we can indulge.’
With the advent of the wellness industry, a new vocabulary has entered the cultural lexicon: agave, quinoa, lucuma, maca, acai, maqui, chaga, teff, nut mylk. There is a ravenous rebranding of ‘exotic’ ingredients as fashionable: Nigella Lawson recently declared pandan leaves ‘the new matcha’: another aspirational, Instagrammable green ingredient. The world is a buffet of ‘superfoods’ for the discerning Western consumer.
In her cookbook Simplicious, Sarah Wilson of the I Quit Sugar empire shares her ‘pimped out’ paneer and dosa recipes, and her love for ‘vata balancing’ golden milk. Wilson is a proponent of Ayurveda, a system of traditional Indian medicine and nutrition.
These ‘ethnic’ foods are a source of shame for many immigrants in Western countries, evidence of our inability to ‘integrate.’ My integration was through the food of Middle Australia; bland and packaged, gleaming in supermarket pyramids. Sausage rolls, potato cakes, Big Ms, Roll Ups: the food of ad jingles, endorsed by Olympic swimmers and AFL stars. I was ashamed of Indian food, the conspicuous otherness of it.
But these ‘ethnic’ foods gain cultural cache when they are decontextualised and repackaged by white wellness gurus and ‘gourmands’. This phenomenon provokes complex questions of ownership and intent: at what point does appreciation become exploitation?
‘Ethnic’ foods gain cultural cache when they are decontextualised and repackaged by white wellness gurus and ‘gourmands’.
The global gentrification of ‘barbecue culture’ and Southern ‘soul food’ encapsulates this conflict. ‘Southern barbecue’ is rooted in the trauma of American slavery: it originated as feast food on plantations. In the Antebellum South, being a ‘Pit Master’ was the only avenue of mastery afforded to African-American men. This food has a specific, intergenerational legacy, predicated on an accumulation of knowledge and skills by enslaved people and their descendants. And yet, African-Americans aren’t the beneficiaries of the worldwide barbecue boom: in 2015, the BBC reported how the contemporary face of barbecue culture is white, male, bearded: a prototypic Guy Fieri, or a tattooed Brooklyn gentrifier.
This is symptomatic of a broader shift in Western food culture: a renewed focus on craftsmanship and reviving techniques from the past. ‘Craft culture’ fetishises authenticity and tradition. Recent food trend such as vegetarianism, waste minimisation, artisanal/small batch production, fermentation and subsistence farming all emulate techniques practiced by the Global South out of necessity.
Inversely, in developing countries like India, the ability to afford mass produced, processed food (like McDonalds) is a marker of status. Western fast food has a sheen of glamour: for the growing middle class, these foods are symbolic of cosmopolitanism and wealth.
In the Global South, attitudes towards weight are sharply stratified by social class. For poorer sections of the population, food is simply a means for survival, with weight gain viewed as a side effect of the transition from scarcity to joyful consumption. But for the ‘Westernised’ and affluent, food presents an dizzying array of possibilities, more fraught with meaning and anxiety. And yet, these dynamics exist within the parameters of patriarchy, which present a potent and ‘globalised’ notion of feminine beauty.
In an Indian context, for example, if Bollywood or television is taken as a barometer for beauty, it demonstrates how proximity to whiteness and thinness are the prized ideal. But because of the collective awareness of scarcity and hunger, this is overlaid with a broader societal invalidation of eating disorders, a belief that these are a Western construct: symptomatic of surfeit and indulgence.
In a 2012 ad for US burger chain Carl’s Jr, a pair of models are perched over a flaming grill, dressed in American flag bikinis and booty shorts. They rotate the meat on the grill, licking their fingers. Sweat drips from their breasts, basting the squelching meat. The models begin to play wrestle, straddling each other on a bale of hay. They erotically feed each other, with gratuitous, slow motion shots of their oozing burgers, set against the meat of their bodies. Two men stand on the edge of the frame, slackjawed, filming the women on their phones. Their implied arousal is a testament to the omniscience of the male gaze.
Culturally, the consumption of meat has long been synonymous with virility and sexual prowess. In Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, the protagonist Yeong Hye renounces meat after a gruesome nightmare, filled with blood and entrails.
Kang explores how the cultural act of meat eating is viewed as a means for women to channel their ‘visceral’ appetites into a socially acceptable outlet. As such, Yeong Hye’s renunciation of meat (and her attendant refusal to cook meat for her husband) is presented as a failure of her domestic duty and an upending of ‘the natural order’. Her vegetarianism is viewed by her family as a precursor to her ‘descent into madness.’
There is a patriarchal assumption that women are the preparers of food, paired with an expectation that women curb their appetites and cultivate ‘smallness’ – constraining their bodies, curtailing their ambition, circumscribing their worldview. Yet, there is a limit to this smallness: shrinking bodies can cross a ‘threshold’ of acceptability.
There is a patriarchal expectation that women curb their appetites and cultivate ‘smallness’ – constraining their bodies, curtailing their ambition, circumscribing their worldview.
Yeong Hye’s husband complains of her increasingly gaunt body: ‘At first, she slimmed down to the clean, sharp lines of a dancer’s physique, and I’d hoped things might stop there, but by now her body resembled nothing so much as the skeletal frame of an invalid.’ The Vegetarian takes the notion of female invisibility within patriarchy to a literal, physical extreme, with Yeong-Hye’s receding body serving as an externalisation of her inner life.
Anorectic bodies are seen as deviant because they imply a rejection of sexual desirability. Roxane Gay’s Hunger explores a different kind of deviance: Gay’s desire to design her body like a fortress, to take up space as a defence mechanism against violence. Gay describes how her deviance renders her hyper-visible, subject to commentary and scrutiny: ‘When I am walking down the street, men lean out from their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, how they see it, and how it upsets them that I am not catering to their gaze and their preferences and desires.’ Deviant bodies are presented as antithetical to sexual desire; and if they are presented as sexual, this is through the prism of a ‘fetish.’
Our bodies are sites of trauma and violation, and how we feed it is a fraught political and economic decision. My body has been a place of mortification and humiliation, of ecstasy and triumph, and the process of reclaiming my body has been one of transcending the narratives imposed upon it.
I am slowly learning to live with voracious abandon.