So I read You’re right, I didn’t eat that this morning, Alana Massey’s stark and utterly brilliant exploration of the psychosocial and cultural costs of staying thin. Unless you’re easily triggered by ED or body shaming stuff, go and read it, seriously. I’ll wait. It blew me away, partly for its sheer blistering honesty but also because the place she describes is very much where I used to live.
I’m not going to argue over whether the routine she describes is disordered or not. Obviously so, in that food and body size are clearly preoccupying an unhealthy proportion of her headspace, but I also think that in the context of normative c20th Western women’s food behaviour it’s an effectively meaningless question. Besides, there’s a slash in dis/order. By which I mean: Massey is artificially and problematically creating an order, but one that works for a whole bunch of cultural reasons, and arguing about its dysfunctionality or otherwise is to displace the serious biznes of arguing about demands and constructs imposed upon women and the extremely limited ways in which we’re allowed to inhabit bodies in culture. Why have we created a world in which ‘everything is handed to you on a silver platter’ if you’re (white, cis, able-bodied and) carefully, painfully thin? Why is it okay that women can even feel thus? In this environment, assuming the kind of objectivity to make that judgement – constructing Massey’s behaviour as disordered and thus dismissable – pretty much guarantees you’re being an asshole.
My therapist’s touchstone, and therefore my inheritance, is always ‘is it functional?’ and you know, for Massey, in some ways it seems to be. She has the work that she wants and apparently the relationships that she wants (maybe?) and definitely a body that she wants and feels confident with, so who are we to tell her she’s wrong? It’s culture that’s broken, not the accommodations she makes with it. She feels that ‘the world is handed to me on a silver platter’ precisely because of the thinness she works so hard for. She feels that making the world okay is within her control. That’s a good feeling. She gets to choose it.
Her experience is not my experience. At all. I’ve been that thin, much thinner in fact, and I certainly don’t feel the world was ‘handed to me on a silver platter’ more at a size 00 than I do now (at approximately a US4 or UK8). I might not be representative, because my eating-pretty-much-whatever-I-want-and-exercising-most-days-even-if-it’s-just-a-long-walk figure is still slim by most people’s standards, and I’m quite short as well, so all the ‘tiny’ and ‘small’ stuff she talks about still happens to me.* Maybe the addition of breasts compensates in cultural attention terms for no longer being the thinnest person in any given room? I don’t know.
Thing is, whilst I’m certainly no longer proper thin in the sense that Massey is, I’m notoriously unable to objectively assess my own body. There’s definite flesh on me now, and I quite like it. I feel…capable, and (on a good day) lithe. My partner is both appreciative and unfeasibly good at coming out unprompted with helpful and reassuring things at regular intervals, like ‘you somehow manage to be both tiny and curvy at the same time!’ or ‘you’re so hot.’ It helps. I feel like a ‘normal’ person, albeit a bit smaller in all directions. Would I feel the same about this body if I shrank again? Or if I put on a bunch of weight? I suspect not. So I might be (objectively? Is this a concept with any validity here?) wrong, but I can’t see myself as thin anymore. Small, maybe. While I still have a prominent clavicle, I also have 32E breasts and thighs that almost touch at the top. (Nb. It’s possible to configure large chunks of this blog as essentially attempts to realise or understand my actual body. I can only apologise, and point out that you don’t have to read it.)
It also matters that I am so much saner – by which I mean more relaxed, less uptight, less neurotic – than when I was balancing on the edge Massey describes. For years I was strung out, uptight and frantic about almost anything, much less inclined to proportion or reason. Living on the borderlands between function and desperation – carefully maintaining that with constant calculation and calibration as Massey evokes so powerfully – is not only exhausting, but takes its toll on your mental health, especially if you’re kinda anxious to start with. Everything assumes undue importance. Everything is a life-or-death decision, especially anything to do with food. I still get flashes of this when I’m really hungry and there’s no food available, and it’s not a fun place to be. I may sometimes miss the senses of exhilaration, or control, or power, but I don’t miss that sense of barely controlled panic at all.
Thing is, I got bored. I got bored, and I stopped needing thinness more than I needed love or hugs or friends or food or sleep. It started as a defence against the lack of those things, and then they showed up and the thinness effort got in the way. It took me literally years to let go, and it partly helped that I was recalibrating in the aftermath of huge loss so I didn’t feel – painful as it was – that I had anything left to lose except thinness itself, which turned out not be worth very much in the end. Not all on its own. Thinness is like money, it’s only useful for the things it can do, and it turned out that without other people and fulfilling work it couldn’t do very much at all. If it stops being the answer in your personal perspective, it’s not going to solve anything else that’s real.
That clearly isn’t Massey’s experience, and props to her. We all do what we have to to survive. Besides, I think she and I slightly different, because I don’t think it ever felt to me like I was making a choice to maintain that kind of thinness. I didn’t feel I was choosing to get up and run instead of staying in bed, or eating egg whites instead of eggs, or refusing carbs, or swimming two kilometres every day even when I was exhausted. It was just what I had to do. It’s who I was. It’s an astonishingly self-sufficient way of being in some ways, because you do these things and as long as you do them they give you reasons to be okay.
It turns out, though, that the things I really need to be okay are just as achievable with a BMI of 19 as they were at 14. I am in a really good relationship, and feel loved and supported. I have an amazing network of friends. I have at least 3 jobs I find interesting and fulfilling. And I also…relax and enjoy food. I sleep more. I stress less. I’m still me, so I’m never going to be Little Miss Zen on the Prairie, but I am more relaxed about things in general. I was discussing this with an awesome ex-ED friend of mine, who said, ‘It’s not the big stuff really, but the little things. When there’s cookies on the table at work, I take one.’ She was right, and I wouldn’t exchange the ability to just let go and eat things without worrying and let my body sort it out to have my smaller body – and the infinite terror that goes with it – back again.
I’m very lucky, though, in a contemporary cultural context. Possibly like Massey, definitely unlike many many people who are unhappy with their bodies, I seem for whatever genetic metabolic reason to stay reasonably – culturally prescriptively – slender. I’m well aware that for many women maintaining the size I apparently gravitate towards and settle at would involve Massey’s level of focus and obsession, and I feel quite guilty and very lucky about that. It’s a gift, having this body that I sometimes feel fine about, an odd and unaccustomed and priceless one. I am profoundly grateful for it. I just also want to change the world so it could be like this for everyone.