Even If It Kills Me, by Elisabeth Hanscombe

Art: Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

When I was nineteen I went through a phase where every night before bed I wrapped my thighs in Gladwrap.  I had heard that if you wrap your thighs in Gladwrap they sweat overnight and the sweating helps reduce their size.  Needless to say, the Gladwrap achieved nothing other than discomfort.  By morning it had shrivelled into strips of plastic around my ankles.  All these efforts to become like the models from the pages of Cleo, or like the other girls at my university who were svelte and lithe and lovely, came to nothing while my body had swelled to gargantuan proportions from a stint at boarding school.

*

If, as Adam Phillips writes, there are as many distortions of appetite as there are people, then we’re in this together, men and women, this battle with our desires, both to satisfy our hunger but also to control it. Yet for some reason, it seems worse for women.  Too many judgements get in the way.  The sorts of judgements that settle in the mind of a woman who tries hard to control her desires; the sorts of judgements that tell her time and again she must curb her appetite, keep her enthusiasm muted, and not want too much.  

Susie Orbach, who has written about both sides of the equation, about those who can’t stop eating and grow fat and those who starve themselves, reckons that the anorexic impulse to all but disappear goes back to the aftermath of the Second World War.  This was a time when women had to forego their newly discovered freedom as successful operatives in the war effort soon after their husbands, those who had not died in the war, came home.  The women then morphed back into helpful housewives, to fulfil the fantasy of the perfect wife and mother.  And such women in turn became adept at teaching their daughters to deny their own needs while attending to those of others.  For Western women at least, this pressure to conform to an impossible ideal seeps into our female identities.  Even if the events Orbach describes are its actual genesis – I fear they may go further back in time – the notion of the ideal woman in the twenty first century’s Western world has shifted, taken over by vested interests beyond the media and advertising, whereby body image and identity have fused into something far more complex.   

*

When I was at secondary school we sat on stools in the new science block alongside pinewood benches where the copper taps, shaped like swans’ necks, sloped into sinks below the bench line.

‘Take a glass, girls,’ Mrs Raj said. She had put out a line of tall glasses along each bench top, one per girl. Mrs Raj wore a red sari over her cropped bodice. I could see the line of dark flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wondered two things: Why wasn’t she cold and what did the nuns think?

‘I want you to spit into your glass,’ Mrs Raj said.

Murmurs bounced off the walls.

‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’

We looked at her face, the set of her jaw. I hesitated. My mouth was dry but I puckered up enough saliva to collect a series of tiny dams on the end of my tongue. I shot them out from behind my lips.

‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’

The puddle in the bottom of my glass was thick and sticky. My stomach roiled.

‘Now,’ Mrs Raj said. ‘I want you to drink it back again. Do as I say, girls. It won’t hurt.’  The saliva was cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than cough syrup but I got it down.

‘Now can you see the difference between your inside and your outside?’ Mrs Raj’s voice did not falter against our bemused stares. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you.’ The red henna spot on Mrs Raj’s forehead jogged up and down as she spoke. ‘Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was yours, a part of you.’

Mrs Raj beamed a smile that showed her straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge on her forehead matched the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.  

Mrs Raj was different from our other lay teachers.  Not just her nationality, but also her attitude.  She helped us to understand our bodies as physical entities and not just temples to be preserved for God or for our husbands when we finally married them.  For these were our two choices in the late sixties, the convent or marriage.  And we needed to prepare our bodies accordingly.  Being beautiful, which goes without saying included being thin, was necessary to attract a man, or else we had to be invisible to please God.

Mrs Raj invited a few of us into her flat one weekend to help with extra tutorials in biology before the exams.  Only a few of us showed up at her Richmond apartment near the school and the big Pelaco shirt sign, but her sitting room was crowded.  Mrs Raj offered to let us try on her saris.  I was embarrassed, too fat to let my pale skin show underneath the bodice.  I could not fit into the red and gold sari Mrs Raj had spread out on her bed, not without it bunching under my arms, as if my insides now showed on the outside.  

*

Forty years later I remember these days.  If, as Susie Orbach writes, women are brought up to defer to others, to service the needs of others, and to measure their self worth in relation to another, no wonder I had a hard time of it.  

My body had become my enemy.  I tried for years to whip it into shape after the excesses of life at boarding school, where we ate three solid carbohydrate filled meals a day and I hid inside my uniform.

First there were white rolls at breakfast. They had started as stale left overs at the local bakery.  The baker brought them for free in his car at the end of each week and the nuns splashed the rolls with water and then tossed them into the oven. By the time they reached our tables they were crisp on the outside and fluffy inside.

I ate mine with melted butter and honey, washed down with sweet milky tea.  Instead of sandwiches for lunch like the daygirls, we boarders had a three course hot meal, dishes like steak and kidney pie, after soup, mostly pumpkin, tomato or vegetable and followed by some sweet concoction, sometimes inedible like sago or tapioca pudding.  Occasionally, the nuns served my favourite, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce or a runny custard pudding.  

At afternoon tea, the nuns prepared hot buttered fruit buns in the same way as our breakfast rolls but this time instead of tea we drank hot chocolate, steaming mugs of hot sweet chocolate milk to take the edge off any hunger till the last meal of the day, a lighter meal, more bread, in slices, and usually left stale with sardines or baked beans or cold corned beef.  

I ate it all.  I was hungry all the time and did not notice the impact of this food on my body, hidden under a thick navy tunic in winter or the musky pink-brown linen of my summer school dress.  

By the year’s end as I sat one day in the chapel, up early for Mass, I found myself the only boarder in the first three rows. Behind me sat the nuns, like a flock of black birds, heads bent in prayer. And so it fell to me to ring the bells for communion.  I had never done this before and I could not find my way into the order in which I should have rung them.  The Latin Mass offered few clues.  Before the sanctus, before the communion, three times, a fast jiggle of the bells, and if I got it wrong, would the priest stop hoisting the white host into the air and tell that girl in the front to get her bell ringing right?  I could feel the nuns’ eyes on my back.  

After Mass, Sister Dominic came to me.  ‘Your suspender belt is cutting into your skin,’ she said.  ‘You need to go up a size.’  

I nodded and took my leave.  Alone in the vacant block next to the school that would soon be worked over to become a tennis court I kicked at loose stones. The secret of my oversized body was out.  How could I ever face Sister Dominic again?  

*

There is a series of YouTube clips doing the rounds at the moment.  A young and beautiful actor dresses herself in a fat suit and is made to look at least fifty kilos heavier than her usual weight.  She makes contact with a number of men through one of the online dating sites and arranges to meet them, one after the other, in some pre-planned location.  The men presumably are drawn to this woman by her appearance in her photo on the dating site and presumably by the qualities of her personality and interests as she outlines them in her profile.   

The men arrive filled to the brim with their expectations, fantasies and desires. We cannot see the look on their faces – obscured on the screen – as they turn to greet the actor, but we see the discomfort in their postures.  They squirm into their seat and all of them remark on how different the woman looks from her picture.  

It was taken some time ago, she says, maybe as far back as six months.  Of the five men screened, three make excuses to leave within five minutes and one skulks off via the toilets; only one manages to stay and keep talking.  

When the YouTube makers reverse gender order and dress up an attractive male actor in a fat suit, the women who come to meet him are more gracious, however much they might seem surprised.  They, too, have come filled to the brim with their expectations and fantasies, but like most women, they are well versed in keeping their desires in check.

The women in the YouTube clip make an effort to relate to this ‘fat’ man.  No one seeks to escape.  At least for the duration of their visit, the women make the most of their time with this man.  In fact, a couple of the women agree to meet him for another date.  His body does not put them off.  

Are they lying?  Will they show up for the next visit or are they doing what women are trained to do?  Be ‘nice’.  Don’t get me wrong; women are not universally nice.  There are many among us who can be cruel, brutal, murderous, and all of us have our angry impulses, but I am talking trends and generalisations here.  

Susie Orbach suggests this deference to the needs of others has something to do with the roles prescribed to women and the societal pressure that seeps into our bones, given the degree to which our bodies have been commodified as sexual objects from earliest days.  When our bodies are used to sell cars, kitchen appliances, toilet paper and the like, it’s not hard to view them as sales merchandise and then to work hard at being wanted.  

When I was a child I noticed the bodies of naked women on calendars inside the butcher’s shop on the back wall just beyond the door that led through to the meat preparation area.  There among the hanging torsos of pigs and cows, were the bulging breasts of naked women.  I noticed the naked bodies on the calendars at the garage and other places where my parents shopped, too.  I saw these bodies and looked away.  I saw them and wondered why the women were naked.  I saw their bodies on the front pages of the Truth newspaper, as well, and one day I asked my mother, ‘Why don’t they wear any clothes?’

‘The human body is beautiful,’ my mother said.  ‘Men admire it.’  

I felt the first flickers of sexuality through these images, alongside the strange antics of my father whose sexual boundaries were disturbingly fluid.  Now I look back in light of Orbach’s observations and wonder why are these rules about the body on display so polarised and sexualised?  And with this polarity comes anorexia: the business of starving yourself, of convincing yourself that you don’t need any food; the business of getting control when you otherwise feel helpless; of gaining control of your body by keeping what goes into it under strict limits, preferably eating nothing at all – in order to be desired as a sexual object, or in the extreme, its opposite, to be undesirable once your body reverts to that of a child.  

I read about the treatment of anorexia these days.  The way they run behavioural programs pitched at encouraging the girls – they’re mostly girls and young women – to eat.  The therapists try to bring these girls back from the brink of death. These young women have become so terrified of eating and of getting fat that they will do anything to avoid it.  They lie, hide food in their pockets, and throw it on the floor and under tables.  

Some institutions organise group programs during which the women go out to restaurants and cafes where the staff urge them to eat the ‘forbidden’ foods, pizza, waffles, meat pies, all in a bid to get them to eat again.  Staff forbids the girls from toasting their bread because it feeds into the illusion that bread holds fewer calories when toasted. Tea and coffee cannot be drunk without milk and any drinks need to be had after the meal not during it, again to fight the fantasy that to drink while you eat is to fill up faster.   

To me this misses the point.  If anorexia is a way of getting control, if indeed it is a way of protecting yourself from being stuffed with unwanted nutrition, from a controlling mother perhaps or from an abusive parent, mother or father, or someone else, then force-feeding only makes things worse.  Besides, for women with anorexia eating is terrifying.  Desire is their mortal enemy.  It’s as if the anorexic woman believes she needs to wrest back control from what she sees as her inordinate neediness, even if it kills her.  And the media and advertising become equally intrusive with their emphasis on the perfect and impossible-to-achieve body.  They tell us how to be, but send mix messages.  Be thin and alive, give the appearance of eating, but do not eat.  If you eat, you will grow fat and be shunned.

Not that I considered any of these issues in my own adolescent struggle to get control over what I took in.  At first, I followed my mother’s example.  She was overweight – on account of all the babies she’d had – but she refused to diet. Instead she worried about her digestive system and took Nulax for her bowels.  She kept the Nulax on top of the fridge.  A rectangular lump of compacted dried fruit that tasted like jam, but was barely chewable.  

‘I cannot think you need to take it,’ my mother said to me.  ‘You’re young.  Your bowels are good.  Mine are stuck.’

Years later a kinesiologist looked into my eyes.  His bright light almost blinded me.  

‘You have an excellent immune system,’ he said, ‘ but your bowels are sluggish.’

My mother again.  She always managed to get in somehow, inside my system.  She slowed me down.  How could I purge myself of this woman of the slow bowels and the turgid constitution?

There was a time when I was about fourteen when I decided to join the ranks of all those women who sat around at morning tea and talked about what went into their bodies and what they might do about getting it out.

Something must have gotten inside my grandmother, too, something that she could never be rid of.  My grandmother died of stomach cancer in her mid sixties.  She was a staunch Catholic, a woman who suffered from scruples and could not bear, not only her own desires, but those of her children as well.  

All the Nulax in the world could not relieve my grandmother of her guilt.  Guilt sat in her gut like a dead fish.  It stank out her insides and eventually ate away at them until she died.  And then when I was fourteen I decided I needed to do something with my guilt too, the guilt of my greed, of growing fatter, and of not being able to assuage my hunger.  

Each day I chewed a wad from the Nulax pack.  The fig seeds stuck in my teeth.  The apricot pith coated my tongue.   I chewed to moisten it, but to swallow the stuff was like swallowing a cow.  

I could not get rid of my guilt.  The guilt of my ever-demanding body.  When I was little I had been able to disregard this body.  It was simply a suitcase, the thing I carried my insides in.  My insides: my mind and my soul. At that time it worried me how close my soul was to my bottom, how easily it could be stained by poo.

I preferred my mind to my soul.  It was higher in my body, perched atop, inside my head, behind my eyes. I could see out from my mind onto the world. I could hear from there, too, and taste and smell. All the good things happened at that level, but I could only feel things in the middle somewhere adjacent to my hands.  The nuns taught us to stay pure in body and mind.  It was then I decided they did not have bodies. Nuns were machines underneath. They did not eat, and because they did not eat, they never used a toilet. They gave off no signs of being human apart from their faces where their eyes, ears, noses and mouths suggested they could see, smell, hear, and speak. The fact of their legs and arms suggested they could walk and carry things, but their thoughts were circumscribed to quotes from the bible and injunctions about what to do and what not to do. They did not sleep. They only taught and prayed. These inhuman creatures were my teachers for the first eighteen years of my life. They terrified me. And taught me about the sanctity of my body as if it were preserved in aspic.

*

Our two greatest needs, based on hunger and sexual desire, begin at birth, in our cries for nourishment and our need to be held.  It takes an available person, usually our mother, to help us to deal with the intensity of our feelings, otherwise we can become overwhelmed and over time might try to develop unhelpful ways to deal with our lack of human connectedness, for instance through the taking in of too much or too little food.

We need help to regulate our emotions, our needs and desires. And for this we need parental involvement in order to learn to deal with them.  The psychoanalyst, Jean Petrucelli, writes about our need to self regulate as our ability to integrate pressures from inside and outside while simultaneously holding onto a feeling of safety, ‘self-continuity’ and desire.  The hunger for food and sexual desire are linked, but can all too easily get muddled up in childhood.  

*

The banister that led down the five or six steps onto the concrete path that took you to the change rooms of the swimming pool was made of steel, round and cold to touch. It bended to accommodate the slope of the ground as it moved down the hill beside the pool onto the entrance to the change rooms, which cave-like fitted underneath.  In the corners of the shower recess there were green slime marks from the constant dripping, which I imagined was the swimming pool leaking into the earth.  The change rooms also stank of chlorine.  Chlorine was the smell of summer.

The water at the swimming pool was the bluest of blues.  I did not realise until adulthood that its colour rose from the colour of the tiles that lined its surface.  I had thought it must have come from the stuff that was added to the water, the stuff that gave the water its peculiar stink, a stink that stayed on my skin long after I had returned home from the pool.   The stink of summer.

Summer was also the freedom of swimming, an escape from my father.  He did not swim.  He had diabetes and needed to take care of his feet.  He would not go to the beach for the same reason. There could have been strange things in the sand, broken bits of glass, the sharp edge of an abandoned tin can that could have cut his feet and if his feet got cut, he bled and if he bled from his feet something happened to his circulation and he could have wound up with gangrene and they might have to chop his feet off.  

How I wished they would chop off his feet, then he would not be able to walk.  In a wheelchair he could not have visited my sister and me in the night.  

At the swimming pool I used the silver steel of the banister as a monkey bar and hung upside down to see the earth underneath my head.  I did this repeatedly until my hand slipped and I was on the ground with a crash.  I felt it in my shoulder, the pain that signified a broken bone or some other internal damage but I did not tell the pool people.  Not until I reached home did I complain to my mother.  

This was a mistake.  My mother told my father.  My father went to examine me.  We did not use doctors in our house.  Our father saw himself as the medical expert.  The worst of it was when he bandaged my chest round and round like a mummy.  

I was ten years old without breasts to speak of but I knew that soon they would grow and my body felt taboo and yet, like a parcel handler, he bandaged me up, ready for postage.

*

At a conference in Melbourne early in 2014, Orbach asked the audience of mainly middle aged women how they had felt about themselves and their bodies ten, maybe twenty or even thirty years ago.  Did they remember thinking of themselves as fat and ugly then?  And now when they look back at photos of themselves in their teens, twenties and thirties, at the height of their worst self-recriminations, what did they think?  

‘Gosh I wasn’t so bad then?’  

We could do this every ten years, Orbach suggests, we women, and think back on ourselves as looking better then than we believed at the time.  We are never satisfied with ourselves because we have this impossible standard to live up to, the Vogue model, the impossibly thin Barbie body of the magazine pages.  Men, too, are faced with the pressure of needing to be seen to be perfect in their bodies in order to feel valued, but the pressure is not quite so dramatic.  Though these days it seems to get worse for men, too.  For all of us, the pressure to be perfect.

*

In the late 1970s, along with the upsurge of feminism, a new style of cooking, Cuisine Minceur, slimming cooking, came into prominence. It took forty years after the Second World War to arrive.  Immediately after the war, the last thing anyone wanted was a new way of starving themselves.  People were fed up with the coupons and rationing.  People wanted sugar, butter and eggs.  But as the years marched on and the Cold War subsided, life became more abundant, and a new brand of austerity settled in, at least in so-called Western societies, a new form of helping people, women primarily, to control their appetites amidst abundance.  

Cuisine minceur added glamour to the idea that three prawns on a plate could constitute a meal fit for a king, could constitute enough food for an empty stomach, and people made much of the combination of ingredients, the herbs and spices, the sauces and additives that went into the preparing of such foods, in order to create the illusion that they were well fed, and pleased with the outcome.  

The idea is that you feed yourself an illusion, rather like a baby who can stick her thumb into her mouth when she begins to feel the first pangs of hunger.  The sucking on her finger sets her digestive system going and for a while it is almost as if a baby can hallucinate the presence of a mother’s breast or bottle, the source of the milk that will banish her hunger.   Sucking on a thumb becomes a temporary solution to waiting for a mother who is not able to get there when the baby needs her, but it lasts only so long before the hunger breaks through and the baby bursts forth with fresh bouts of sobbing until her real needs are met.  

We women who diet, we have developed ways of convincing ourselves that we do not need the food, or at least not much of it, in order to survive.  We find ways of finding a thumb on which to suck, ways of making do with very little in order to keep those desires at bay, and not simply the desire for food.

There were two things that struck my childhood mind from the films on display during the nineteen sixties, the homely family films my parents allowed us to watch: the extent to which we never saw people use the toilet, nor did they eat meals with any enthusiasm. There were mealtime scenes aplenty but invariably the food was secondary to the conversation or whatever else was going on to move the story along.  

*

People die from anorexia.  They starve themselves to the point where, at less than thirty per cent of their ideal body weight, massive changes begin to take place.  They stop menstruating and a fine down sprouts all over their bodies.  They give off a chemical smell of ketones and they look skeletal.  

The road to anorexia is a long one and most women fortunately do not get there, but still somewhere along this continuum from strict dietary control to absolute abstinence, there is an insistence on deprivation that almost all women in Western society know well.

*

In my first student job at the Royal Melbourne hospital, I started my day in the basement toilets.  Each night before I went to sleep I filled up on Coloxyl – Coloxyl came in tablet form and was easier to swallow than Nulax – in a bid to clear out my body of all that I had eaten the day before.  

Since I had left home I could get away without eating breakfast, which was just as well.  By the time I had reached railway station my stomach was churning and fit to explode.  I had to concentrate hard on keeping it together in the tram trip up Swanston Street.  In the basement toilets I made a fearful smell when I could finally let go of all the shit that had collected inside.  I chose the basement toilets to keep the smell and the noise to myself.  

I was leading a double life, sweet and gentle student by day, purger and shitter by night.  By the time I reached my desk in the students’ quarters I was empty and could look forward to my lunch, an apple, sometimes a tub of strawberry yoghurt from the hospital canteen, black coffee sweetened with saccharin.  I had given up milk and bread and butter, all things sweet.  For dinner, I allowed myself a boiled egg.  It amazed me how easy it was to lose weight.

My mother’s face crumpled whenever I went back home.

‘You look like a Biafran.’

My mother’s concern pleased me, not because I suddenly imagined she cared about me, more because I felt a sense of triumph, as if I had finally got her where I wanted her.  I wanted her to see me and to suffer.  I wanted her to offer me food, all of which I knocked back.  I wanted her to see that this daughter of hers, whom she once could not get to stop eating, now had perfect control over her eating and was above the desire for all things edible.  I wanted her to hurt.

Food preoccupied me all day long and an invitation for dinner became a problem: how to go, if I must go, and how not draw attention to the fact that I did not eat?  How to take a biscuit offered and if I must, nibble at its edges but then get rid of it as soon as possible?  How to slip it into my pocket without being seen?

I had taken to counting every item I ate each day on one hand only.  If I exceeded the number five in any one day then I purged myself even more by taking more Coloxyl.  I increased the number of laxatives by the number I had exceeded in my eating tally.  It was an effective way of keeping the numbers down to five.  For this reason I would not eat anything that came in tiny portions, like nuts or grapes or sultanas.  Even though they were healthy food, they were wasted food, too small, too rich in calories and it was too easy to exceed my quota on them.

At the greengrocer’s I selected the largest apple in the tray, large green granny smiths or a huge red delicious.  I took time selecting my apple, which I ate in its entirety, core and all.  Sometimes I imagined a tree growing inside of me, where one of the many apple pips I had swallowed would take root.  Most of the time though I realised the seeds from my apples never stayed inside me long enough to sprout.

‘You’re face is too gaunt,’ my mother said, the next time I visited.  ‘It doesn’t suit you.’  I was nonchalant.  Impassive, a brick wall.  I did not want to give a thing away.  I did not want her to know that I was starving.  I preferred her to think I had a cancer that ate away at me, and against which I was helpless.

Wherever I went, I took with me a white container of Sugarine, an artificial sweetener, to cheer up my tea and coffee.  I tucked the dispenser into the side pocket of my handbag and kept it there for whenever I needed sweetening.  

Not such an odd thing to do, you might think.  I have seen others, notably women do just this.  Someone serves up a cup of tea and out from their handbags they take the little white pill packet and drop in one or two drops of artificial sweetness.  Some say it’s about not putting on weight, others say to protect them from rotting teeth.  Still others warn them off,

‘This one’ll give you cancer.  You should try another brand, one that’s organic.’

 ‘Who needs sugar in their tea?  You’re sweet enough anyhow.’  

‘You should try doing without.’

*

My father used saccharine in his tea.  I can see him now, a tall thin man who sat low down in his chair so low that his legs hit the ground too soon and he had to cross them over and twist one leg behind the other to make himself more compact.

My father slid his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out the silver pill container in which he kept his saccharin.  One tiny pill dropped into his hand and then into his tea.  It left a frothing wake behind, as if the tea had curdled.  My father stirred with a spoon to even up the surface.  

My father’s diabetes was his excuse for his saccharin addiction.  He could not take sugar, at least not when refined, and not in its natural form in fruits and vegetables and the like.  I felt sorry for him when we had visitors and my sisters and I walked around the room to offer each person a sweet biscuit with their tea, a Dutch Speculaar, a Nice biscuit or a piece of sponge cake, one my sister had baked especially that morning.  

We needed to bypass my father on our walk around the room.  Each visitor put out a hand to take what was on offer but not my father.  He did not complain but my mother told me it made him sad, not to be able to eat sweet things.  He had always had a sweet tooth when they were young before he took to working two jobs over fifty kilometres apart, one to run the kiosk in his café in Healesville, the other as an accountant in the city.  He drove for over an hour and a half twice a day and needed to drink two or three litres of water all the way there and back.  A sure sign of diabetes, the doctor had said and my father took to a restricted diet of carefully measured portions.  He tested his blood when he could be bothered and injected himself with insulin.  To me then it seemed a miserable life, one he sweetened with saccharin and alcohol.

Then in my turn I did something similar.  Not as much alcohol as my father but easily as much saccharin.  Perhaps this was why I felt the need to hide it.  I did not want others to know about my forbidden addiction to sweetness.  When I met the man who was to become my husband I tried to hide the pills from him, too.  I kept a few in my pockets and when it came time for tea or coffee I slipped one out while no one was looking.  I had supplies in every outfit that possessed a pocket.  The pills fell out from time to time and I found them later on the floor, under the bed, behind the couch, in the corners of the kitchen.

Only recently, the man who became my husband has told me he knew about my saccharin habits from the start.  He could not understand why I had tried to hide them but he did not want to distress me by revealing this knowledge, so he kept it to himself.

I can wonder here why I have felt this need to conceal my saccharin use, as if I am an alcoholic hiding her supplies or a drug addicted heroin user who goes off to the toilets to shoot up?

Desire comes to mind, hidden desire, secret desires for things I cannot have.  I cannot walk in my father’s shoes and yet I emulate him.  I cannot have what he has had and yet I try to kill pain in the same way he used.  

*

In my student group house, the one I shared with my sister two years younger than me and a friend from school, the three of us competed for who could eat the least.  At dinner times we argued over who might have the smallest serve.  My sister and I were the worst.  We were the most determined.  And our friend grew fatter as my sister and I grew thin.  I wondered even then about this strange process whereby one of us might take on weight for the others.  

Our friend had joined us after she finished school when she was beanpole thin.  Food was not an issue for her until she moved in with my sister and me when, as if by osmosis, she too became preoccupied with food.  She bought biscuits on the sly and consumed the lot.  She had to buy things on the sly, as my sister and I refused to allow food into the house other than the safe stuff that could not tempt us.  The fridge was bare.  She became the fat one, while my sister and I argued over who could have the smallest serve.

*

Summertime and the heat rubbed against me the moment I walked out from the hospital’s air-conditioned cold.  I wore a cardigan at all times. People were not to notice my arms.  My arms looked fine, still a little too much meat on them, but lately people had been looking at me as if they did not like to see me without my clothes covering every part of my body.  

They did not understand how terrible it was to be fat.  To be fat was the worst thing in the world.  To my twenty two year old self, to be fat was to be unloved, to be a shameful thing with a body no man would ever want to touch.

‘I liked you the way you were when I met you,’ my boyfriend said, and I did not like him anymore.  He, too, had told me I should eat more.  He pushed food onto my plate, food I would not, could not eat.  He only wanted me to be fat so that he could be the boss of me.

On weekends, I stayed in the backyard of my flat and sat in the sun all day long.  My skin was brown.  I aimed to look like a model from the magazines.  When I sat in the sun I cleaned and manicured my nails, I plucked the pubic hairs from between my legs, careful not to pull at my skin.  I drank water and diet coke with ice. One large bottle of diet coke lasted me the whole day and I did not need to eat.  I did not need to take laxatives anymore because there was nothing now to flush away.  I could live on liquid, which was better than stomach cramps.

I wanted to defer my university course and sleep all day, most days. I did not accept invitations to go out anymore.  It had become too difficult to sit around when other people were talking and eating.  I could do neither.  I wanted only to stay under my warm blankets and slip away.  

The sun outside beamed through the curtains.  I wanted to shut it out.  It was an effort to bring on the darkness.  I did not need the toilet much anymore because there was almost nothing more to come out of me.  I was a small speck on white sheets under a thick grey blanket and soon I would disappear altogether.

*

I stopped being anorexic when food ceased to be a daily preoccupation, but the aftertaste lingers.  And now I see it elsewhere, in my daughters and in other people’s children. It is time, as Susie Orbach reckons, to become ‘refusniks’, to say no, but not to food.  Instead, we must say no to this over powering belief that we must control our needs and desires almost to the point of extinction.  

*

I slide away from this writing and start to read another presentation from Susie Orbach about there being no such thing as a body.  She begins by asking her readership questions about the clothes we put on that morning.   Did we dress carefully, thoughtfully? Were we out to make an impression perhaps, or did we grab any old thing, or like me, did we put our clothes out the night before so we would not have to think about what to wear in our half awake, befuddled early morning state?  

*

And how do we, Orbach’s audience, find her clothes, her style?  Too full on, too little, too inconsequential?  Does it make us think about our own bodies?  Does it make us think about our own clothes?  

There is no such thing as a body alone, there is only body and mind, body and mind connected to other bodies and minds, selves in context, the context of other selves and environments, the landscape, the human constructions within the landscape designed to protect us from others, parts of our context in the form of weather, the elements, the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, the soil, the presence or absence of water, the food supply, the space we occupy and how much space there is between us.  And desire is tucked into this space between, coloured by our past experiences, our inner worlds and how the external impacts upon them.  It’s no surprise then that some of us still don’t know what to do with our desires even when they start to kill us.


Elisabeth Hanscombe PhD is a psychologist and writer who has published a number of short stories and essays in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative non-fiction. She is an adjunct research associate at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research and blogs at http://sixthinline.com.

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