In which I shrink unexpectedly and unintentionally, and find it quite weird and culturally rage-inducing (cn: numbers, but no absolute values. Feel free to skip to bold bit for rage.)

So, boy and I went on holiday a few weeks ago, and I came back with food poisoning. I’ve now had probably-bacterial-gastroenteritis-but-fortunately-without-actual-vomiting for getting on for three weeks now, and now some coldy thing has turned up as well to keep it company. After a week or so I’d noticed I was shrinking a bit (my boobs! What? Unfair!) and then I was alone in the boy’s house yesterday (mine does not contain scales – I haven’t been weighed except by doctors for years, it genuinely doesn’t bother me or enhance my life) and I’ve lost a good 10% – 15% of my normal bodyweight. I’m finding it a bit…psychologically weird. Some of it will probably be muscle tone, because I haven’t been able to swim, and stomach contents, because I am (obviously) eating a lot less, but still.

Why weird? Well, I had sort of got my head around liking being a smallish girl with actual tits and hips and stuff. A couple of years ago I hurt my knee (ah, post-ana joints!) and started swimming front crawl instead of breaststroke. It made a sufficiently noticeable (preferable, in my eyes) difference to my shape that I genuinely just…relaxed and let my body get on with it, which was…unprecedentedly nice. Anyone unfortunate enough to have read the more ED-focused bits of this blog will know that’s a hard-won victory. And now I’m suddenly shrinking with no conscious volition, and it’s…weird. I’m still 3 kilos or so above my decade+ old hospital discharge weight, but then my hospital discharge weight was a bmi of 16, and I’m not keen to be that thin again (see previous re. genuinely liking having boobs and stuff) and it’s frankly doing my nut when I think about it (which, to be honest, I try not to, but still).

I don’t think I’d realised the extent to which the bit of my head which assumed that I was a fairly healthy weight because while I’d rather be smaller I couldn’t be fucked to starve myself all the time had genuinely…become mistaken. Whilst I’m glad it has, i’m not sure what this means ‘going forward’. Hopefully I will just recover and eat normally and my body will sort itself out, but there’s a tiny minority of my head going ‘hang on. What’s happening here? Shouldn’t I want this? I don’t want my 23″ waist back? Am I sure?’

It’s a bit of a headfuck.

Anyway, leaving my personal ramblings mostly to one side for a bit, it makes me incandescently fucking angry that I am encouraged by our all-pervasive ‘weight loss is always healthy’ culture to have been really quite ill for three weeks now but still have considerable cultural space to go ‘but at least I’ve lost weight, that’s a good thing.’ Like there are actual real people, walking around in the world, who think that even weight loss achieved through, um, diorrhea, collapse and nausea is worth having, that random numbers on a scale and a variably slender silhouette are actually more important than things like health or, often, fitness. (This article by a friend of mine outlines the significant psychological and medical cost of such blinkered thinking.) 

We as a culture so often seem to care more about shape than we do about function, and it infuriates me beyond belief. For the vast majority of human history significant weight loss has – unsurprisingly – meant cause for concern, a sign of unhealth/illness, and now that seems to have been entirely erased in sociocultural consciousness. Even though unexplained weight loss is a warning sign for a whole bunch of medical problems, from diabetes to endochrine shit to cancer, you would be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at the number of people who say things like ‘you look amazing – have you lost weight?’ without for a single.tiny.second stopping to interrogate what that might mean to the [ex-ana?/seriously ill?/depressed?/grieving?/still recovering from recent illness?/in the early stages of cancer?/other serious illness and doesn’t want to talk about it yet?] person they’re talking to.

Even as someone who has in some sense struck the cultural jackpot in that I can eat ‘normally’ (like that’s even a concept that exists for members of my gender and generation in this day and age) and still look noticeably slender, this stuff is really fucking troubling. It was troubling as an anorexic when people dropped the ‘you look amazing'; it was troubling in recovery when people used words like ‘healthy’ and I worried whether they actually meant ‘fat and ugly'; admittedly it’s sometimes fun as a fully-recovered adult when people try and inflict diet talk on me unthinkingly and I roll out my troubled past or make up one of the previous scenarios depending on audience, but still. The world would be a MUCH BETTER PLACE if we could all just stop with the personal remarks about other people’s bodies/weight/shape/size, for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter whether you stop because you don’t want to upset an ED sufferer or you’re trying to avoid being a douche around a cancer patient – can we not talk about each other’s minds or work or creativity or talent or even (if you must give physical compliments) consciously chosen things like clothing instead?

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In which I am either crazy or normal, and unsure which is which

I’m an anxious person. I always have been. When I was a child I used to get panicky and upset if my mum was away for two long, which in restrospect must have been quite wearing. I was needy and insecure. In many ways I am much less of those things these days – I have an excellent support network, a loving partner, a basically good relationship with my family, a job I enjoy even if freelancing is stressful. But the inside of my head is still, a lot of the time and particularly at certain times of the month or life circumstances, pretty uncomfortable.

This neatly expresses my emotional (and occasionally physical) reaction to the emotions described herein

This neatly expresses my emotional (and occasionally physical) reaction to the emotions described herein

I am shattered by my own inadequacy the vast majority of the time. I am continually humiliated by the obviousness of my own failure. I worry hugely about almost every piece of work I produce for almost any audience. I spend time with friends I adore and worry afterwards that actually they find me offensive or trying too hard or dull or a social cripple and our relationships are gradually falling apart. (Dear close friends: yes, this includes you, and I’m sorry.) I angst at least temporarily over almost every communication that I send, be it text message, fbk message or (even worse) email. If there’s any professional aspect (academic, journalistic, copywriterly) or element of uncertainty involved – a friend I don’t know so well or haven’t spoken to for a while, any favours being offered or accepted, event planning – the angsting process extends indefinitely, or at least until my next communication with the person concerned, whereupon I start angsting about that one instead.

This is just normal for me. It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. In fact it’s been better over recent years, and being in an actual, functional grown-up relationship with someone who’s known me for two thirds of my life and really gets me helps a lot of my deep-seated psychological shit.  But that element of actually feeling loved and okay has actually served to highlight the extent to which I am mostly anxious about everything anyway.

Take parties. I love parties. I love my friends. I tend to like their friends. I like dancing and talking to people and generally having a good time. But still, actually going to a party necessitates hours of fretting to psych myself up. Once I’m there, I’m generally okay, if there’s people I like to talk to and nobody is deliberately rude or challenging or provocative, but on the way home I will inevitably beat myself up for my social incompetence and general inability to communicate with anyone. Sometimes this can continue for days, or even weeks.

I am panicked and insecure for no logical reason most of the time.

This owl clearly also thinks I'm failing.

This owl clearly also thinks I’m failing.

Much of my time and most of my headspace is devoted to the ways I’m failing. Current favourite topic is as a granddaughter – my beloved grandmother died last year, far away – or professionally, but there are an infinite variety of other flavours available. The crushing inadequacy isn’t exactly there all the time, though. It’s more like it comes and goes, fading in or out, from background hum to overwhelming din. There is an infinite downward spiral of inadequacy and torment I could fall into and I teeter on the edge, painfully. It’s often pretty grim. But at the same time, it’s also just…how my brain works. There are levels on which I hardly notice it anymore.

To some extent doing my PhD mitigated the constant sense of failure, because then my work was – as my lovely clinical psychologist put it – entirely congruent, an honest expression of myself and my talents largely filtered only through self-imposed standards. By definition, I knew more about what I was doing than anyone else, and all my supervisor cared about was that my research was original and significant, my expression clear and (by far the greatest challenge) my presentation appropriate, footnotes and bibliography kept properly. Whilst I managed *at one and the same time* to feel passionately that my work was important and understanding the centrality of cultural environment to eating disorders is fundamental to breaking them down, and like an academic failure unworthy of attention, publication, employment or anything else, the actual process of researching or writing was…okay. Often calming or exciting and sometimes both. Now, though, where I have to sell myself and then prove myself repeatedly with every new job, there’s none of that confidence in my own judgement, there’s just…getting it right or not. (In my head, always, inevitably the latter.)

(Sometimes it stops me doing things I feel I’ll be judged on and found wanting – like my book proposal – for months if not years, but anything with a deadline is usually okay, because I fear missing deadlines more than I fear imperfect things).

There is deep metaphorical significance to this uncomfortable kitten dressed as a mushroom that currently escapes me.

There is deep metaphorical significance to this uncomfortable kitten dressed as a mushroom that currently escapes me.

I’m not complaining, here, as much as explaining. Many people have it worse, including my OCD/bipolar boyfriend and friends. It’s been there for so long in some ways I hardly notice it any more – or rather, I am myself around it with (sometimes) barely a blink.

I have no particular agenda here. I’m not asking for reassurance or diagnosis or anything, although solidarity always welcome. I suppose I’m just interested to articulate it, because it’s so much the background of my inner life that it’s the filter through which I experience the world. And maybe everyone feels like this, too, on the inside?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Advice and survival: In which I don’t have all the answers but I care about the questions.

[Disclaimer: this post is pretty heavy, as they say, so I decided to illustrate it with cute pictures from my hard drives rather than pictures of ana me. If anyone thinks this is a bad call, or worse, that it detracts from the undoubtedly heartfelt message, please comment!]

As is probably obvious if you’ve ever met me or you read this blog, I am almost unilaterally pretty open about my ED experiences. For many reasons. I am almost pathologically honest by nature. I’m a bad liar. I’m not afraid of the consequences of disclosure – which is a privilege, I know, but it’s one I have, and I think being open about the scary shit makes the world better in some small way. I don’t see any point in not being. Partly because I am old now, and by this age most of the interesting people – all of the people I love – have some sort of history of trauma; but mostly because my being open about it helps other people be open about it and thus the load is infinitesimally lightened.

Anyway, an infinitely valuable consequence of this is that people talk to me about the bad shit. Sometimes people get other people to talk to me – my mother and my friends operate some kind of referral system – and very occasionally it all gets a bit much and I have to hide under a rock for a while.

And sometimes, people ask me for advice.

This extremely small rodent thinks dieting is silly when there are thumbs to cuddle.

This extremely small rodent thinks dieting is silly when there are thumbs to cuddle.

Which is tricky. In some sense, it seems misplaced. My decision to live rather than die was to some extent made subconsciously, although the ebbing from barely-there-but-surviving discharge state up to a healthy weight was…something different. After I dropped to an insanely, ridiculously low weight and ended up in hospital, somehow not dying, I spent two months (ish) in starvation psychosis, being fed by NG tube. When I came out of that (in between trying to relearn things like speech and co-ordination and how to walk that had been completely zoinked by the psychosis thing) I found that the decision had to a certain extent been made for me. I was alive, I’d pushed the not-eating thing as far as it could go and I was still alive, so I might as well…live. So I ate. Not what you’d call normally – I didn’t know how, and ate to a timetable for 9 months to reset my body’s signals and stuff, I was still really unhappy about eating carbs, and had essentially no idea what ‘normal people’[1] DID about food – but I ate.

I was lucky – my family are all pretty slender, so they let me out of hospital at a bmi of roughly 16 or 17, as that had been my last ‘normal’ bmi before anorexia kicked in. (They also let me out because there’s nothing that causes more havoc on an anorexia unit that a still-somewhat-psychotic person wandering around and eating, but again, I digress.)

This baby owl is quite shy.

This baby owl is quite shy.

So the bit where you have to slowly and painfully force yourself back from actually-close-to-death to just-about-functioning didn’t happen consciously – my body sort of decided while I was mental (and starvation psychosis is hell, hands down the most traumatic single experience of my life, and I’ve been raped and attempted suicide) and my mind just…ran with it. I’ve always been pretty good at learning from my mistakes, and after the last terrifying few months pre-hospital – everything breaking, no muscles, unable to walk or ultimately stand, losing my hearing and my voice and my eyesight and my memory, the constant horror that everything was slipping beyond my grasp and the thing I’d always used to keep myself safe wasn’t working any more – I think I’d figured that wasn’t going to work, and so living was my only other option.

Please forgive the narrative – this is going to come to a point eventually, I promise.

I stayed at my discharge weight for…four or five years, I think. With a big dip in the middle when I went to Oxford and it almost broke me. I wasn’t what you’d call anorexic anymore, but I was still…weird around food. I still didn’t eat too much in case…well, in case. Then in mid-2009, I broke up with someone whom I’d genuinely thought I’d spend my life with – he was mad (bipolar/OCD) and monumentally fucked up, and everything just fell apart, including my relationship with food.[2] Initially, in the way you’d expect – as the relationship faltered and fell apart, I stopped eating. But when we broke up, and stayed broken up, and he started being actively cruel, that stopped working.[3] Not eating had always in one way or another been what kept me safe – but here I was and the worst had happened and stayed happening and there was nothing to be safe from, just this grey blanket of grief that leeched all meaning and pleasure out of my life and the blank bleak bewilderment of having nothing anymore.

kitty cuddles make everything a bit better

kitty cuddles make everything a bit better

I had what in retrospect was sort of a nervous breakdown – I started cutting, I took six months off from my PhD because I couldn’t work, I staggered around in a haze of dull agony. I have only a few, sharp image-memories of this time, snapshots of overwhelming, unlivable despair at how I was supposed to live, now. Anyway, somewhere in the middle of that, I stopped restricting my food. I started eating a lot of things I’d previously been frightened of, because why bother, even the momentary pleasure of tasting something new and interesting might distract me for a second, and it wasn’t like I had anything left to lose. More than that, I didn’t have the emotional energy to deny myself anything anymore – it took everything I had just to keep breathing. And so, at that point, I sort of roughly got to a healthyish weight? I don’t weigh myself anymore – haven’t, since around this time, then because I couldn’t bear to and now because I genuinely don’t care – and I know there’ve been fluctuations and a certain amount of shapeshifting, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve hovered around the low end of the healthy bmi scale since then – which given that my osteoporotic skeleton weighs almost nothing, is about as good as it’s going to get with my midget genes.

So.

Again, there was no struggle, per se. There was a whole bunch of self-loathing when I started eating more, and it was halting, rather staggering progress as I’d feel fractionally better/worse and eat more/less, but again, it felt like the decision had already been made, somewhere deep inside. Anorexia doesn’t work for me anymore, it stopped working then, because there are some things not eating can’t fix and only living through can save you from. (I still have a very powerful eating = coping mechanism in my head. I guess something in there learnt the hard way.) There was no lightbulb moment, there was just carrying on, and looking at the empty world around me, and dragging myself through the days, all the endless meaningless horrible days, until eventually (and we’re talking months and sometimes years) I started to have moments when I felt something again – a song I liked, or a person I kissed and actually felt connected to, and those things had meaning whatever I had or hadn’t eaten, and I clung to that, and gradually, gradually the colour leeched back into the world, and I had this body that I actually didn’t hate any worse than when I was two stone lighter and felt fat, and it still moved and danced and did things, and…here I am.

So, when I’m asked for advice, I find it very hard to know what to say. It’s different for us all. The trick is to keep breathing. But actually, that’s a fucking copout. There are things that I did or had or found that helped. This is an imperfect list, and I may well add to it in future posts, but insofar as I have advice, here it is:

  • Get therapy.
Mmm, topical

Mmm, topical

I was very lucky. My mother had met, some decade before my eventual collapse, an infinitely kind man who was a therapist specialising in eating disorders. As I neared breaking point (this was August, and by October I was in hospital) I went to see him, and between us we started the long and infinitely painful process of sorting out the mess that was my head. He was – and remains – amazing. I instinctively and instantly trusted him, and he came through a thousandfold, not only by doing his job (whatever sanity I have is substantially his influence) but also by dealing with hospital, advocating for me, sticking around, treating me for free when I couldn’t or forgot to pay him. Good therapists (and god knows there are a LOT of bad ones out there, especially around ED) if you can in any way afford to access one, are a godsend. There are affordable therapy schemes in a lot of big cities – I’ll dig out the London link when I’ve finished writing this, please comment if I forget – and if you don’t connect with and trust your therapist in a couple of sessions, try another one.

  • You’re going to need crutches, and that’s okay.

When I left hospital, I started swimming. Three times a week at first, then every day. I still do, most days, although I’m less fanatical about distance than I was (I also swim front crawl now rather than breaststroke, so it takes less time). This was the thing I needed to make eating okay. It still is to some extent the thing I need to make eating okay, although going to the gym or for a run or even a long walk will do at a pinch. Swimming was my crutch, the thing I lent on to get out. Yours may be something different – dancing, or sex, or days when you watch Netflix and don’t get out of bed, or long showers, or social eating/drinking – whatever it is, find it, let yourself have it, let yourself lean. If you are getting through the days AND eating enough, at least at first, that’s more than enough. It’s about more than calorie compensation, though. The point wasn’t I ate x calories and then burned them off, the point was that if I swam I stopped worrying about the calories, because I figured I was being active and (here my skinny privilege comes into play) I’d never been really big and everyone in my family was small so if I was getting exercise and not eating tooooo much (see previous for how my perceptions of ‘tooooo much’ shifted) then I’d be okay. And it worked. I was, in the end, okay. A lot of the time I still am. You can always tell now when I’m really falling apart though, because I can’t swim – I can’t bear to be alone in my own head under the water. If I’m really anxious or depressed, I’ll go to the gym, because reading.

  • Interrogate everything.
This tortoise wearing a shark fin is totally a metaphor for something.

This tortoise wearing a shark fin is totally a metaphor for something.

I’m an academic as well as a writer by trade and inclination, and my background’s in English lit. Which as a discipline, was a godsend in recovering from anorexia, because it’s all about pulling apart texts that make you feels things and analysing why, deconstructing their cultural and ideological assumptions, figuring out what gives them their power and (consequently) whether they have any power over you and whether they get to keep it. And really, to survive in this fucked-up, ideologically problematic, horrendous mess of a fatphobic agist racist rape-cultured diet-obsessed body-as-identity-as-product world, you need (or I needed) to do that a LOT. Who says thinner is better? Why should that be? Who’s saying it and why? What’s their agenda? What’s this trying to sell me? Why should women be this way or men that way? Why can’t we all just be people? What assumptions is this making? What assumptions am I making? What is with all this bullshit?

If this sounds exhausting, forget about it. Or rather, don’t forget about it, just don’t buy into the bullshit. Or question yourself when you do. The culturally determined rituals around food, like festive overindulgence followed by self-denial. The assumption that losing weight is a good thing and some kind of endgame. The idea that not eating much is somehow feminine. The idea that if you’re a girl you have some kind of responsibility to be pretty or nice or small or quiet or not angry or not needy or not taking up space. The idea that smaller is better. Fuck that shit, or at least take it apart, and figure out what it means to you and whether its influence over you is healthy. Let it go.[4]

  • Let people love you.
THIS HAPPY GOTH PIGLET LOVES YOU.

THIS HAPPY GOTH PIGLET LOVES YOU.

Not where ‘love’ is controlling or abusive – love does not food police you, or at least ought to be apologetic and non-pushy about doing it and let you raise an eyebrow – but where love is people being there, listening to you, letting you be yourself even when that self is fucked up. The people who give you moments of relief, of forgetting yourself, of feeling valuable, fleeting moments of fun and joy and feeling human. The people who don’t go away when you break. The people who don’t run away however thin or bleeding or weeping you are. The people who let you exist and be in pain even as they’re sorry you’re hurting.

I was, and am, immensely lucky to have a number of people who fit into this category. My boyfriend, when I collapsed, was there in hospital when I came round, and we stayed together for another year. Several friends came and visited me, bearing fruit and eyeliner and books and not minding when I dropped things all over the floor because I was slipping into psychosis and my brain couldn’t tell my body what to do anymore. My parents, who came and visited me twice a day and cooked me food and told me stories and fended off the gorier and more horrible suggested medical procedures and complained when they saw nurses hurting me and uncomplainingly took care of me when I was discharged until I was well enough to move in with my boyfriend. (I’ll admit that there was a whole bunch of other psychological crap going on with my parents at this point, and certainly there were and remain bits of me-being-in-pain they were profoundly uncomfortable with, but they were staunchly loyal and loving in this sense.)

I say ‘let people love you’ because a lot of us – by which I mean not only ED people but also the other variously mentally interesting gentlefolk who make up my loved ones – have huge and profound difficulty with letting themselves be loved. We don’t believe it, don’t feel we’re worth it, feel the need to prove to people we’re not worth it, believe we never will be loved, try to punish people for loving us, try to punish ourselves for wanting to be loved. And it’s bloody hard work learning to undo that, learning to untangle the mess of self-loathing that strangles us, learning to let people in, learning to look out rather than in, learning to let ourselves be, even just for moments.

Susie Orbach’s brilliant 2009 Bodies ends ‘We need bodies sufficiently stable to allow us moments of bliss and adventure when, sure that they exist, we can then take leave of them,’ and for me, it’s always been the moments, fragmentary as they often are, that become the points of light by which I can see my way out of the dark. And sometimes you can only see them in retrospect – sometimes it’s the very brief oblivion that’s the gift. I don’t know if that’s any help to anyone, anywhere – I spend enough time talking to people in pain and feeling helpless and useless that I doubt it very much. But it’s what I got.

[1] As if there’s even such a concept as ‘normal’ around women and food these days. Again, I am immensely lucky that my mother is naturally tiny and eats a lot, so a) I had a vaguely functional and healthy way of instinctive eating modelled for me and b) I could eat without being terrified I would entirely lose the smallness that correlated so fundamentally with my sense of self.

[2] We got back together at the end of 2012, and we’re now engaged. He’s made a monumental effort at dealing with his shit, and is much better in many ways now – so fingers crossed.

[3][3] This time is pretty horrendous for both of us to remember, but we do, and discuss it sometimes, because what else can you do.

[4] I hate Frozen, not least because it’s a nonsensical plotless two-hour music video for this admittedly brilliant song.

Posted in Culture, Hunger, Love, Psychobabble, Self-harm | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why I love my ridiculous leggings by Sasha age 33 ½

black-milk-corpse-bride-leggings-So, I’ve recently started wearing ridiculous, digital print leggings a lot. And when I say ridiculous, I do mean ridiculous: I have one pair printed like a peacock’s tail, one with the couple from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride glancing quizzically at one another across from one leg to the other, a pair with naked green absinthe fairies and giant skulls, and a pair with sleepy, moody owls in shades of blue and purple. (I have now sworn off the shop in Camden where I bought them, because my precarious finances can’t stand it. As it is, generous friends have enabled the last two.) Each pair is a thing of wonder, as tends to be pointed out to me by friends, acquaintances, colleagues, passers-by, and on a few memorable occasions people on the other side of the street or four floors up on a spiral staircase.

Why is my questionable taste blogworthy, I hear you ask? Well. Partly because of the reason I bought them. There was an absurd but insidiously annoying article about things women shouldn’t wear over the age of 30 that I now hilariously can’t find, but here are a few examples of the genre. Let’s take a moment to appreciate a) the extent of the lists and b) the fact that I also possess (and frequently wear) short dresses, hotpants, printed tights, heart-shaped sunglasses, knockoff handbags, clothes without bras, and items from the children’s department, to name but a few.

(Some of those are purely practical decisions. I’ve been either a student or a freelancer pretty much my whole life, and the idea of spending literally hundreds of pounds on a non-knockoff handbag that will be subject to battery, bikes, buses etc is about as appealing as wasting a huge amount of money and being unable to pay the rent. Oh no, wait. Clothes without bras: I suddenly acquired DD/E cup breasts after finally wrestling the last of anorexia to the ground a few years ago, and so they’re still new and bouncy enough I don’t NEED a bra unless I’m likely to be running, and imle most bras are uncomfortable, or at least more uncomfortable than not wearing one. (Yes, I’ve been measured, I’m wearing the right size, I just don’t really like tight straps or bands of any description, and if I get them loose enough to be comfortable, they don’t fit and ride up.) And children’s clothes: it turns out I’m approximately the same dress size as an 11-year-old girl, aforementioned boobs notwithstanding, and I consequently have several cardigans from Tescos’ amazing Back-to-School range – they’re hardwearing and washable and cute and they fit! Fuck this ageist nonsense. I don’t have any hats with ears, but I DO have Hello Kitty headphones with ears on, which is arguably even more childish.  I think hats are next. I can only conclude I am not very good at adulting, and move right along.)

Anyway, so on one of these charming lists somebody linked me to as a joke, there were ‘Midnight-Owl-Leggings-Fashion-Galaxy-digital-print-Pants-free-shippingbrightly patterned leggings’. And I thought, fuck this shit. I admit that I have a bunch of privilege here, because I’m a size UK8 and I’ve been a Londoner and a student or a hipster copywriter most of my life and everyone assumes I’m 26, so I can get away with looking weird probably more than most people, but STILL. The very idea that there is some sort of arbitrary cutoff point for self-expression makes me ragingly, incandescently angry. The idea of ‘putting away childish things’ where childish things include the expression of humour, individuality, popcult or subculture references in your daily life – little things that bring joy and harm nobody – is the kind of poisonous bullshit I could quite cheerfully set fire to. Sure, context is important and I probably wouldn’t wear my ridiculous leggings to a job interview, unless it was for a public-facing job in a place that trades on ‘quirky’, but there’s a difference between ‘be aware of context and professionalism’ and EVERYONE YOU PASS ON THE STREET HAS THE RIGHT TO JUDGE YOUR PATTERNED TIGHTS, YOU AGEING LADY FAILURE.

So obviously, I went out and bought the ludicrous peacock leggings. And then the absinthe fairies. And then Corpse Bride and the owls in a moment of weakness I still can’t bring myself to regret. (Fortunately the vast majority of my tops are black and go with pretty much anything). I wore them to work and to my boyfriend’s and to collect his daughter (who approved wholeheartedly) and to the library and to parties. And it was ACE. Not just because I got a whole load of validation and reinforcement from people who thought they were awesome, but also because the kind of comments I usually get when I wear leggings without a shrouding top or long jumper – comments on my arse/thighs/legs – were conspicuous by their absence. Random blokes didn’t tell me I had a nice arse, they commented on the leggings. Encounters shifted from vaguely threatening to vaguely friendly. I felt much more able both to engage (‘thank you! I like them too!’) and to walk away. People who otherwise probably wouldn’t’ve talked to me came up and commented on the leggings. Colleagues who I don’t know that well started conversations. Strangers on trains started conversations, which I could then end naturally after the leggings had been covered.

RIDICULOUS LEGGINGS ARE THE SOCIAL LUBE OF EVERYDAY LIFE. They are a handy weapon against overtly sexual hassle! They open up topics like society’s ridiculous expectations of women with people who don’t consider themselves feminists, or even think about such things that much! They make you smile whenever you look at your legs! They are a handy fuck-you to social concepts of feminine aging and social appropriateness or taking up space! They look ace and enable you to make references to cool stuff and talk to other people about it! They annoy people who have ideas about convention and Good Taste involving beige and cream! Seriously, what’s not to like? (Unless you’re really not into leggings, in which case, fair enough.)

RIDICULOUS LEGGINGS FOR PRIME MINISTER. They’d do a much better job than David Cameron.

Posted in Culture, frivolous wittering, People being dicks, Psychobabble | Tagged , | 9 Comments

on failing at being a writer

That’s the nightmare of my life: I hate writing, but I can’t help myself. It’s just what I do; it is what I love to do. If that makes any sense. – Elizabeth Wurtzel

Mrs Winterson was having none of it. She knew full well that writers were sex-crazed bohemians who broke the rules and didn’t go out to work.  – Jeanette Winterson

This is a post about failure and acceptance and Make Good Art and who I am in the world. I’m writing it tired and ill, coming off the back of three or four weeks of solid writing-to-deadlines-and-mostly-making them. I’m noticeably a bit crazy, because ironically enough for a freelancer, I really don’t deal too well emotionally with multiple deadlines piling up because I can only work on one thing at once – it breeds the mindset this is going to turn into. I’m writing it because I know this stuff is there in my head and I hope if I write it it’ll make it real enough for me to begin to tackle it somehow.

So, yes. Bearing all that in mind –

I feel like I’m failing. I feel like I’m failing because I’m not doing enough creative writing or even interesting journalistic writing or bloggery. I feel – and have always on some level felt – that I am failing as a writer because I don’t write fiction (much, exactly) although I ALSO feel like I traded fiction in for academia a long time ago and now I’ve lost academia too.

(Sanity notes:

The feeling I’m failing at academia is semi-justifiable. The amount and timing of paid writing work I’ve had has given me the perfect excuse in terms of lack of time and energy to not work on the book proposal/book Routledge have nominally agreed to publish, and I really need to do something about that YESTERDAY because someone else will get there first and it’s already more than a year since I got my PhD. This is a big fucking deal. Yes, Kings are sponsoring me for a Wellcome fellowship and I’m through the first round, but I delayed my full application, again because of the amount of paid work I had to do, and I need in the next few months to pull an application about something I’ve actually never really studied before together, which is going to take serious work, and I’m daunted. How I’m ever going to do that with paid work and with a partner in another city I have no idea, which doesn’t help with this whole ‘failing’ mindset.)

Even though I somehow, improbably, seem to be making a living(ish) at writing – it’s what I do every day, which does by my rather shaky internal definition give me the right to call myself a writer – it doesn’t really feel like it counts. Writing this post does, ironically enough, because writing for me is truth telling, or at least emotional truth telling, and I’m old enough and ugly enough to know that a lot of the time the only way to reliably tell a number of people an emotional truth is fiction. I’ve spent a long time pretending to myself – well, not exactly, but it’s the closest I’ve got for now – that I don’t care really about not writing fiction. And yet when I have a chance (excuse!) to write creatively for someone else, I leap at it – the stories I wrote for OCL’s Betrayers’ Banquet and Cryptofloricon (and, y’know, Cryptofloricon itself) were a huge amount of fun and I loved them and am proud of them and yet even then couldn’t quite bring myself to make time and energy to finish them all. (Crypto I was being paid, so that I was ALLOWED to put effort into.) There was a twine game I really enjoyed doing and got really into (I can’t work out how to link) and never properly finished. There’s still half a long story starring a bunch of my friends as negotiating pirates/highwaymen/eighteenth-century vagabonds which I wrote c.6000 words of and then stopped because I didn’t have time and life got in the way and I didn’t have the fucking application or dedication to say this, making time for this and to finish this matters to me and I am damn well going to find an excuse to do it, this difficult vulnerable easy exhilarating thing, instead of talking to people and hanging out and having sex and all the other myriad forms of human intimacy I use to gain understanding and access human emotional truths that…aren’t writing and are somehow so much easier and yet…not writing.

So I feel like I’m failing, as a writer and as a human being, but for me those two have always been entwined. I suppose, most of all, I feel like I’m failing at being Sasha, and I don’t really want to ignore that any more.

Why is all this? I suppose, way back when when I was slightly (much) less emotionally shameless, fiction told awkward personal truths about how unlovable I was while academia made lots of people praise me and say I was clever – balm to my rather damaged soul. (And yet, in the throes of anorexia and crazy in my second year of uni, I wrote some stories, some of which I still really like. When I had ME, I wrote and never finished half a novel. It’s like a candle that sputters and won’t quite blow out, me and the impulse/application to write fiction.)

It’s not like I don’t get the impulse to write creatively, and sometimes act on it. I have loads of ideas, which sometimes stick around even if I shine the laser glare of actual attention on them and try to write them down (my ideas are shy and shadowy things, and sometimes freeze in direct sunlight.) I write poetry, which I like but which I worry is all beginning to sound the same, and there are at least three novels I’ve sort-of planned in my head and/or in notes and notebooks and hidden tucked-away files – there’s a mid-Victorian queer detective story with bodies outside the Opera House and a lady of the night called Fliss and her languid genderqueer aristocratic companion Val (I’ve written, what, a chapter, plus notes?) – there’s Arbella Stuart solving mysteries at the court of James I, with all the political machinations and emotional complications that ensue (just notes, and a few abortive experiments) – there’s a book sort-of using my beloved grandmother’s life as a springing-off point (entirely notes, but this one isn’t exactly sorted in my head yet, and there’s another post coming about grief for my grandmother and how that feeds into a lot of things that I’ve been mulling for a while, partly because every time I try to write it I start to cry). It’s that I somehow can’t bring myself to take the leap, to make the decision that it’s worth it, that I’m allowed, to sit there and say ‘yes, I want to tell this truth and I won’t necessarily get it right first time but the fact that I want to is enough to make it okay and important for me to do so’ and I won’t turn away to people the way I’ve always tended to up till now.

For me, writing fiction is like having my skin ripped off, slowly – and yet, like that weirdly intimate and slightly crazy scene in Voyage of the Dawn Treader I’ve only just remembered where Eustace (I think) turns into a dragon and Aslan rips all the scaly skin off until only Eustace is left – it feels exhilarating and relieving and utterly, inexpressibly human all at once. Which is impossibly pretentious, but then, Make Good Art is what I *have*. I’ve let a whole bunch of opportunities for being a proper grownup with a stable 9-5 and a decent income pass me by without a scintilla of regret because writing and thinking, I love writing and thinking, I want to do writing and thinking, and yet here I am failing at it. Failing – because I don’t want to try and fail? Or because if I’m just doing it for myself as opposed to any monolithic institutional Other it’s not worth trying for?

Make Good Art.

I don’t write badly, when I write fiction, although never as well as I want. It’s like an old achy muscle I don’t use enough and I know will get stronger and better with time.

Fiction and academia – the two things I’ve always used to define myself – I’m failing at them both. No wonder I feel so fucked up.

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On Pride, pride, identity and personal stuff

Boy and I saw Pride a week or so ago. (In case you live under a rock, it’s a genuinely heartwarming comedy about the alliance between the queer community and the striking miners in the 1980s, which isn’t a bad trick to pull off, what with the general shittiness of the miners’ circumstances, the rise of AIDS, etc. With the exception of a really nasty scene where a feminist lesbian’s assertion of the validity of ‘women’s issues’ is thoroughly squashed, it’s a joy, and I would recommend everyone see it.) We both loved the film in a teary sort of way, but it set off a fairly complex train of thought, and because I *am* the kind of girl who likes to tell the world about the way she feels about herself[i], here goes.

Part of the reason I loved the London gay characters so much was they reminded me of my friends. Not just because they were queer, although a substantial number if not the majority of my friends are, but in their ideological activism and their lefty compassion and their concern for equality. And also in that big-city-sense of having left somewhere limited and limiting for a big city where they could make their own accommodation with the world, be accepted on their own terms, and find friendships and relationships and chosen families without the burden of being expected to fit others’ definitions of ‘normal’. So far, so lovely: this is very much stuff I respect and am actively choosing to involve/identify myself with.

(Side note, also part of this thought process: my friends are almost unilaterally really fucking clever, and mostly appear somewhere on the overlapping Venn diagrams of intelligent/queer/experience of mental health trauma/TCK or at least multinational. Clearly I’m drawn to people who have experience of outsider-ness in some sense, and also people who have spent lots of time questioning, considering and communicating their values and beliefs and their selfhood to an often hostile environment. This doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.)

But this is on some level an area of tension between boy and me. Although we have very similar values (and experience of self-loathing), we sort of went different ways: I moved to Big Infinitely Various Capital City and surrounded myself with creative and academics and queers and goths and geeks and weirdos and activists, he moved to a northern city and mostly became a hermit, in an environment that’s much more white and heteronormative than London, and where people police each other’s interactions in public to the extent that we’ve been interrupted crying in the supermarket by a passing lady who didn’t like our language. (You can see how Pride, with its contrasts between London queers and Welsh mining communities, might resonate, right?) He can get on with pretty much everyone, it’s his main survival skill, but for him acceptance translates as ‘turning himself into something acceptable’ or ‘projecting only acceptable facets of himself’, not ‘being accepted for who he is.’

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, were it not for the fact that being three hours away from one another is starting to get really frustrating. We love each other and are very functional, and have every intention of staying together indefinitely; we’ve had the marriage conversation, several times. But he hates London, it makes him feel shut in, and I appreciate that. I would love for us to be able to live together – or if not together, at least within fifteen minutes or so of one another. But I cannot and will not and don’t want to give up either my chosen family of reprobates or the ideological environment and practical activism that’s very much part of London for me, along with queer/goth/activist/academic communities that are big enough you don’t necessarily know everyone already, and access to a whole bunch of interesting cultural stuff and congenial environments that aren’t necessarily the only ones of their kind. (And practical stuff like public transport for which you can pay with card, but don’t even get me started on that.) And I don’t know how we’ll ever square that circle, because he’s the stable grownup with a house and job and car, and I’m the freelancing creative living in a tiny studio flat, and I suppose on some level I assume that I will eventually give up this creative academic nonsense and go live oop norf, but that feels very much like giving up myself.

And so we’re long distance, and I spend too much time and energy and money on trains, and it still seems to be the best solution, right now. Because to get back to Pride, although the London queers were sometimes dickish and the Welsh mining community were eventually kind and lovely and accepting, the London queers were still my people.

[i] Bonus points if you get the reference, which just happens to be in my head atm.

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On dieting culture, social media, thin privilege and trying not to be a dick

Last week was a bad week for sanity on Facebook. Several people took it upon themselves to inform us of their diet plans or shifting measurements. This was my response:

Hello everybody. This is a PSA about dieting culture and talking about it on here.

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Several people have started diet plan threads on here recently. It’s absolutely none of my business what other people choose to eat and/or do with their lives. I find the concept of trigger warnings fairly problematic – you can’t trigger warn for life, and we live in a world where dieting culture is shoved down our throats as if attempting to manipulate details of our physicality is a replacement for having actual political agency or personal autonomy (which of course to some extent it is). So I’m not suggesting it’s inherently wrong to discuss your calorie restriction plans on here in case you trigger someone (although you might like to bear it in mind if you’re planning to talk numbers). But still, if you are planning to do some kind of fad diet, I’d like to tactfully suggest you make an opt-in filter to discuss it in detail. Some of those with a current eating disorder, some whose EDs are largely in abeyance but triggerable, and some like me who turned a history of ED into an academic preoccupation and know an uncomfortable amount about dieting in culture, the physiological effects of self-starvation of short or long duration and have Opinions about the prevelance of diet talk and its functions in culture and psychology would probably all thank you. As, I would imagine, would people who don’t have a history of ED but find it all a bit depressing. I am all for people discussing and analysing aspects of dieting and food in culture – this is not a request for all mentions of food, dieting, eating to be hidden – just that if you need to log your calorie intake, food plans or weight loss you might want to make sure those reading it are of like mind. Thank you and goodnight.

fuck diet culture 1Why the rage, which I’m sure is apparent even beneath the hopefully measured tones? As suggested, we live in a world where the supposed necessity of weight loss is shoved in our faces many times on a daily basis. There used to be godawful signs outside Boots proclaiming ‘be you…only better!’ as if weight loss was some sort of universal good to which we should all be aspiring (and as if calorie restriction doesn’t have a bunch of negative side effects – check out the Minnesota Experiment.) I regard myself as basically untriggerable, although I sometimes find teenage girls and/or practising anorexics in the potentially final stages troubling, and I have this half-compassion-half-horror-half-saviour-YOU-ARE-MY-PEOPLE impulse which I expect is probably just a magnified version of how many people feel about the obviously anorexic combined with a passionate identification I really ought to keep an eye on. The prevalence of dieting culture as some sort of culturally coded universal female bonding activity is enraging and political, but it’s not triggering as such; its cultural prevalence and systematic endorsement is infuriating, but it’s infuriating on the kind of background level that everyday sexism is, the kind you need to block out to survive.

So what is it that gets me? Partly, I am largely (if not entirely, hence status) lucky enough to move in circles of politically minded, enlightened, empathetic, *thoughtful* people who rightly regard the whole thing as culturally problematic bullshit and might even (were they academic types and thus inclined) go all Foucault and Discipline and Punish on yo’ass. (Yes, I’m quite aware of the undertones there, thank you). If people talk about dieting culture and related matters on social media around me, it’s often in interrogated terms (albeit often alongside tormented, because awareness doesn’t necessarily negate impact). This week’s posts got me simply because of how…normalised it was. Like bonding over ways to fuck your body up was okay, and expected, and right. Like sharing weight loss stories and inch measurements wasn’t questionable in terms of taste or tact or triggers or functionality, but standard. Like it’s okay that those of all genders, but especially women, are expected to take the necessity of this shit for granted. Which, to be honest, in the wider world we ARE, but I tend to look to my friends and my social media circles as being somewhat more culturally aware than that.

(Don’t even get me started on the shortness of the shrift I give people who persistently attempt to bond with me over body hatred, even if framed in ‘you’re so lovely and slim, however do you do it?’ terms. You get one shot and one polite rebuff, and then it’s straight into ‘I was anorexic for a decade and cannibalised my own liver. I’ve weighed 19kg. Please don’t let’s pretend you know more about weight loss than I do,’ territory.

It infuriates me. Can you tell?

However. A lot of the time, in public or less-well-known company at least, I let this stuff slide. Not because I don’t think it’s damaging and toxic and really deserves to have a fucking spoke jammed so hard into its wheels it disintegrates all over the road made slippery with vomit and tears, but because I’m well aware that I have, well, all the thin privilege. I’m very definitely not anorexic any more, and still noticeably small. In UK sizing, I’m mostly an 8, or at least a 6 on the bottom because tiny hips and sometimes 10 on the top because I unexpectedly have tits these days. The swimming every day and walking or cycling everywhere helps, of course, and are probably the source of whatever visible musculature I have, but it’s mostly a metabolic thing. My family are all petite, with the exception of my tall thin brother; I eat probably over 2000k a day (although I don’t count anymore, so don’t hold me to it) including all sorts of sugar and fat based items, and I seem to just…stay quite small on the scale of people. I’m not particularly thin, I’m just built little. I have absolutely no objective perspective on my body, of which more later, but I say that because I’ve *been* thin, and you can’t see my ribs anymore unless I’m stretching, and I have thighs that don’t quite touch in the middle but are mostly wider than my knees. (Don’t laugh, this is significant.) I’ve gone up a size over the last few years, perhaps, as I’ve got progressively more relaxed about eating, but if I’m honest it’s mostly meant that now I have cleavage, which I’m totally down with.

And I feel terrible, because I know that I’m therefore insulated from roughly 80% of what some of the people posting about fad diets and so on are subject to. People yelling things at me on the street are usually supposedly flattering rather than insulting. Doctors tell me to gain weight rather than losing it (although I tend to raise pitying eyebrows at them when they do). Medical problems aren’t – mostly – blamed on my weight (why bother when you have a decade of eating problems to blame instead?). I can buy clothes easily; bikini-clad women in posters are within spitting distance of my shape, if somewhat less padded; I eat pretty much what I feel like; it’s easy and comfortable for me to exercise and I enjoy doing it; I’m not subject to the continuous drip-feed of fat-shaming in the media. I can go out wearing little but body paint without worrying people are going to yell insults at me on the street.

This isn’t to say that I always feel 100% happy with my body. As aforementioned, I just have no objective perspective on it whatsoever. I basically outsource my self-image these days – I know that whenever I look at myself in the mirror I am going to see a swollen, misshapen, grotesque thing, and it’s finally been drilled into me by friends and lovers and partners and strangers that that’s probably a minority viewpoint, so my emotional reaction is mostly to shrug my shoulders and get on with it. Like…I can’t be fucked to worry about looking hideous, rather than feeling I don’t look hideous. And y’know, a lot of me really isn’t perfect by anyone’s criteria – I have scholiosis and laudosis (sp??) so my spine is weirdly curved and my hips are uneven and my tummy sticks out and my shoulders are rounded down. My partners and close friends are sometimes subject to wails and flailing, but they’re lovely, and mostly used to it by now.

The point is, all this shit is internal – it happens in my head. Only very rarely – because I don’t spend a huge amount of time around ballet dancers or teenage girls or anorexic inpatients – am I significantly larger than those around me. Most of the time, I’m noticeably smaller. Which comes with its own issues, in terms of being treated with respect and as an equal, but they’re not the point here. I was once, two years ago, asked by some teenage girls in the swimming pool shower why I was so fat. It disturbed me, but not just because it was voicing my own insecurities; also because it was so unusual. What had I done that day? Was everyone suddenly seeing me how I saw myself? HAD I BEEN MAGICALLY HIDING MY TRUE SELF UP TO THAT POINT? It was…odd. How I would cope if my physical self-hatred was being continually culturally reinforced I don’t know, but the answer is probably ‘less well than I do now.’

So, who am I to condemn people who perceive themselves subject to relentless body shaming for reaching for any means of proffered redemption? I am hardly subject to the same pressures, after all, and so much of the time I keep my mouth shut.

But. I am *also* a veteran of a decade’s disordered eating, and specialise academically on its cultural construction. I am in a fairly good place to point out how traumatic and potentially damaging unthinking reiteration of the cultural messages fat is bad, weight loss is good, these are universal and unquestionable values, you are not good enough, manipulating your food intake is fine and potentially successful. (It’s not like the vast majority of all dieters regain their lost weight within 5 years or anything.) And just sometimes, the balance tips, and fighting wins out over tolerance. I don’t always get it right, but I’m not always sorry, either.

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