What are the consequences of our societal preoccupation with food, the body and self-image?
The first time I went to Pellegrini’s, I was eleven or twelve. My aunt treated me to a gelato. Spooning it slowly from its silver stemmed container, I took in every detail of the cafe with its chequered lino floor, and mirrored walls, and bar stools, and waiters calling out coffee orders in Italian as they slapped down a line of saucers on the bar.
No one had ever called me bella before. I wanted to jump on the next plane to Italy. My aunt had done just that some years before, escaping her likely fate as an unmarried daughter of that era: living at home to care for a widowed mother.
Instead, she travelled and worked in London, Paris, Madrid and, later, in Papua New Guinea. A few years ago, cleaning out her flat after she died, I came across an envelope of her PNG photos. Dressed in a sleeveless cotton shift and sandals, with a sensible short haircut and no makeup, she’s standing in front of her shack. Popondetta was a long way from Europe, and a long way from Elwood and her mother.
Later − much later − I did get to Italy, but in the meantime, I had Pellegrini’s, an Antipodean version of Italian cafe culture. When I was a uni student, unravelling and adrift, Pellegrini’s was one of the few places where I felt comfortable, sitting alone over a coffee or granita. I didn’t order lasagne or cannelloni; back then, pasta, like many other foods, was taboo, off my menu. Those were my years of living dangerously.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ opens with the line: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master.’ The poet catalogues her losses: door keys, an hour badly spent, her mother’s watch, three houses, two rivers and two cities, a whole continent, and an unnamed lover.
Like Bishop, I also discovered that the art of losing isn’t hard to master. An eating disorder can progress in barely noticeable increments, like a train that starts off slowly and gradually gathers speed, building momentum until it becomes an unstoppable force.
Once mastered, the art of losing is hard to unlearn. Anorexia has its own logic; its rigid rules and obsessive rituals are difficult to renounce. Hunger is addictive.
The word ‘anorexia’ comes from the Greek an meaning ‘without’, and orexis meaning ‘appetite’, a puzzling etymology given the anorectic’s preoccupation with food and constant hunger, a hunger I refused to satisfy because of my fear of gaining weight.
I started counting calories, clinging to numbers as my flesh fell away. But I couldn’t add up the cost of the counting because what I saw in the mirror was a distorted reflection – a magnified version of my miniaturised body. High on the loss of a kilo, obsessing over a set of perfect numbers: I trashed my body, starved my brain. If we are what we eat, we are also defined by what we don’t eat. Reduced to her bodily essence, the anorectic is her body. Rather than a means of moving through the world and experiencing it with all the senses, the body becomes a constant preoccupation – an object to be manipulated, measured, controlled.
I started counting calories, clinging to numbers as my flesh fell away.
Reading Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published book Mortality, it occurs to me how much the anorectic body and the terminally ill body have in common. ‘Lost fourteen pounds without trying. Thin at last.’ Hitchens develops ‘chemo-brain’, is dull and stuporous. His body deserts him, turns from friend to foe. Here was a man of enormous appetites − for booze and cigarettes, conversation, long lunches and eight-hour dinners − reduced to tiny spoons of nourishment, large doses of ‘chemo-poison’, and finally, the horror of intubation.
Hitchens comes to a grim appreciation of the truth of the materialist proposition: like an anorectic, he didn’t have a body, he was a body. Like the intubated Hitchens, the anorectic’s body speaks for her when she has lost the ability to speak for herself. But unlike the person suffering from a terminal illness, the anorectic is unlikely to elicit much sympathy. After all, didn’t she decide to stop eating? And if she stopped eating, surely she can start again?
In a world in which millions of people are hungry due to poverty or war or corruption or the failure of crops, the seemingly willed starvation of the anorectic seems perverse, even obscene. And yet, given the rich world’s obsession with the body and self-image, and with food, it’s not surprising that our psychological problems are manifested in the body.
The body is a product of culture, not just of nature. Our identity is, in part, constructed through our body, a body shaped by cultural norms and social conventions, which apply more often to women than men. Female bodies should fit within certain ideal parameters. Old and overweight bodies should be disguised. Contained. Hidden from public view.
And along with our contemporary preoccupation with the body, constantly under renovation as it is nipped and tucked, plucked and botoxed, dyed and dieted, is the obsession with what it consumes: food − its nutritional value, sourcing, preparation and presentation. Food has colonised our culture: our screens, print media, bookshops, high street, and every other public space. And think of all those movies in which food has a starring role: from La Grande Bouffe, to Like Water for Chocolate (anyone for quails in rose petal sauce?), to Julie and Julia, and myriad others.
Coincidentally, as I was typing this essay, an email from the App Store popped up on my screen: ‘Food Apps You’ll Love’: Jamie, Nigella, Fit Men Cook, Cooking Mama, Green Kitchen. And whether you’re a fit man or a cooking mama, you’ll probably Instagram your culinary creation before eating it.
So, take a preoccupation with food and the body and self-image, and you have a perfect storm, an ideal breeding ground for psychological problems. The manipulation of food intake becomes the tool to deal with a troubled mind, the one thing that can be controlled in a world spinning out of control.
While people see the emaciated body − the exterior presentation of the disorder – they don’t see the origins of the illness: anxiety, lack of confidence, fear of rejection, acute self-consciousness, loneliness, depression. Estranged from the world, the anorectic makes herself into a miniature, a maquette, to appear less visible. At uni, I always chose a seat at the back of the lecture theatre where I wouldn’t be noticed. And I became obsessed with fashion. My size 6 hippy-chic clothes became my armour, a protective cover for my insecurity and self-consciousness.
Estranged from the world, the anorectic makes herself into a miniature, a maquette, to appear less visible.
Fiona Wright’s book Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger, contains ten linked essays. While the essays traverse the writer’s own experience of anorexia, Wright uses her illness as a platform for broader reflections on the embodied experience of hunger, and its relationship to writing and literature. One of the essays, ‘In Miniature’, explores the anorectic’s drive to smallness, to become a tiny version of herself:
I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible. It is a drive to disappear that can only ever succeed in making us more prominent, more visible because it makes us as different and offensive on the outside as we so often feel we are at heart.
In its attempt to disappear, the fragile childlike body is conspicuous because of its difference. Its fragility lends it an appearance of vulnerability; perhaps that was the reason I attracted more unwanted attention from men than my female friends.
In a legal variant of the Humbertian obsession, a young woman wearing children’s-size clothing seemed to be a turn-on for men, particularly older men. I remember standing in crowded buses with men pressing their groins into my buttocks; and men sitting next to me, pressing their thighs against mine. I used to fantasise about stabbing them with the pointy end of my umbrella. But I never said or did anything. Unwelcome attention from men was just a fact of life.
One evening, I stepped off a tram on my way home from uni, feeling light-headed and a little dizzy. Hunger does that to you. Lunch – if I’d eaten anything − would have been half a banana and a Salada biscuit spread with Vegemite.
As I was waiting on the median strip to cross the busy road, someone approached me from behind. A man, taller, bigger and stronger than me. Without any warning, he grabbed me, trapping me in a tight grip. I reacted instinctively, hitting out wildly, belting him with my only weapon − a flimsy cloth bag that held my lecture notes. Somehow – I have no idea how − I managed to break away and ran off down the street. I don’t remember if he followed me, but I managed to get home safely. I never told anyone about the incident.
It was a difficult world to navigate for a fucked-up young woman who was an expert at masking her moods and hiding her sadness, who never asked for help.
As Wright observes, the starving brain turns inward to survive; ‘hunger happens in secret, and thrives on deception, and it cuts us off from the social world.’ An anorectic’s shrinking body is the material evidence of her psychological retreat. An observer rather than a participant, she lives in a private realm. She is her own secret society.
One of Fiona Wright’s essays ‘In Increments’ describes how her illness crept up on her, developing in such small increments that it was almost imperceptible. Her recovery was also gradual. And so it was for me. In retrospect, it’s hard to remember how long it took, but after several years spent obsessively thinking about food and body weight, I began to focus on other things.
It was a difficult world to navigate for a fucked-up young woman who was an expert at masking her moods and hiding her sadness.
When I travelled overseas for the first time, I started to eat normally, to enjoy food again. I put on weight. Instead of feeling that I was on the outside looking in, I became more comfortable in the world, developing confidence with a new job and friends. With my life back in control, I no longer needed to obsessively control my weight − or rather, have that totalitarian ruler, anorexia, control it for me.
Wright suggests that the body never forgets starvation. I still have a finely tuned radar for detecting an anorectic body: the jogger wearing multiple layers of clothing, running on a day of extreme heat; the stick-thin adolescent sitting opposite me on the train with hollowed-out eyes and a mat of fine lanugo hair on her arms signifying her illness; at the pool, the girl with a cage of ribs and coat-hanger hips, her shoulder blades bony outcrops like two little wings.
And I’ll never forget those bodies in extremis in the locked psychiatric wards of hospitals. Many years after my own flirtation with starvation, I used to visit these wards when I was working in the public health sector. Occasionally, I saw patients with an eating disorder.
One woman in particular is stamped on my memory. Admitted to hospital weighing 27 kilos, she had severe osteoporosis, acute renal failure, cardiac failure, and fluid on her lungs. Confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk, hooked up to a nasogastric tube, she was literally starving herself to death. A woman on death row, yet she told me it was hard for her to eat anything because she was uncomfortable with gaining weigh
Decades after my first visit to Pellegrini’s, I keep going back to sip a coffee and snack on an apple strudel. Year after year, sitting on a bar stool, watching my reflection age. The waiters stopped calling me bella a long time ago; these days, I’m signora.
In her essay ‘The Insults of Age’, which appears in Helen Garner’s recent collection Everywhere I Look, the writer rages about the treatment she receives as a woman in her seventies. She chronicles the patronising comments, the stereotyping, the insults. Her blood gets up, she gets stroppy, decides to take a stand.
One Friday afternoon, Garner and a friend – whose silver hair advertises their low status − enter a city bar. Directing the women away from comfortable seating in the centre of the room to a tiny cafe table with hard, upright chairs in a dingy back corner, the young waiter explains it’s the bar’s policy to seat pairs at tables for two. Bullshit, thinks Garner. She confronts the waiter: ‘There’s hardly anyone here. We’d like to sit on one of those nice couches.’
Perhaps when I’m Garner’s age, I’ll want a seat in the centre of the room. But for now, I prefer the back stalls. Invisibility has its advantages. The back stalls are an ideal vantage point from which to observe the world without being observed − a glorious freedom after those years of being acutely self-conscious in public.
Familiar places carry traces of our past, preserve memories of our former selves. Perched on a bar stool in Pellegrini’s, the too-thin young woman wearing a baby-blue velvet jacket, matching culottes and over-the-knee black leather boots, has long gone. But I still hold that younger self in my memory.