I’ve struggled with body issues for longer now than I haven’t. I remember there being a time – around 8 or so – where I still scampered about in the blissful ignorance of the here and now, a roly poly butterball in hairy legs and lycra bike shorts. At 8, I didn’t yet realize that my body ‘belonged’ to society.
At 12, I was still covered in puppy fat but I had already begun to understand this meant I wasn’t as worthwhile as all the naturally thin, athletic girls around me. How could I ask anyone to love me when I was so repulsively unattractive? I put myself on a punishing diet; everything became about the limited calories I allowed myself to eat, and the rigorous order in which I could eat them.
A 100 calorie yoghurt for breakfast at 8am. Walk the 30 minutes to school. Diet coke for lunch, and nothing else. Walk the 30 minutes home. Force myself to do 30 minutes of exercises before allowing myself ‘lunch’ at 5pm, which was 4 ryvita crackers with a scrap of jam on them. Dinner at 8pm, eat half of it. Lie in bed at night with my hand on my stomach, enjoying the feeling of hip bones growing more prominent daily.
Praise! Praise! Praise! Girl, you look so wonderful! Girl, you’ve done so well! Girl, we’re so proud of you! Beaming. I am worth something now. Never, ever let your guard down again.
My monstrous body is eating itself. I am starving it, defeating it. I close my mouth to stop it from making a sound. My silent victory speaks for me now. The boys’ appreciative glances at the park, offering me cigarettes and booze, they speak words more powerful than I’ll ever say.
Girl, that’s enough now. Girl, we’re worried about you. Girl, you need to eat something.
They’re all jealous. How can I be too thin when I’m still too fat? Stand in front of the mirror, poking and prodding. Measure myself obsessively. Gain half an inch overnight? No breakfast. Lose half an inch? No breakfast, just to be safe. Start throwing up dinner just to make sure. I’ve come so far. I’ll never go back again. Write endless pages in my diary about how fat I am, how disgusting, how no one will ever want me. Draw pictures of my misshapen duck’s body, no tits, massive arse, ham legs. Ask for carrots at birthday parties. Sneer at other girls, too weak to avoid the crisps. Period stops for a year, budding breasts wither away but still too fat.
I am 13.
Eventually grow exhausted with dieting. Exhausted with punishing myself. Start eating a bit more, here and there. A little bit can’t hurt. Put on a little weight. Period returns, and I’m glad because I know somehow this is a good thing. Relax into my teenage body. Put on a few kilos.
Girl, you look much healthier now! Girl, stay just like this! Girl, do you think you need that second helping? Girl, you need to start watching what you eat again. Girl, you made me promise I would tell you if you ever started getting fat again and I’m just keeping my promise. Girl, don’t blame me – I’m just trying to help.
Hit my heaviest at uni. Don’t even realise. Not a virgin anymore, having fun. Discovering politics, thought, action, passion, reason. Feel happy. Feel alive. Feel unconstrained. Weigh myself.
Shock. Disgust. How could I let myself go like this? My body moves starkly into view, becomes monstrous once more, unwieldy, repulsive.
Diet again. Walk everywhere. Start healthy, slowly cut out more and more. Talk obsessively about points and calories and self discipline.
Ten years of practice has me perfect the art of vomiting through stomach muscles alone, and quietly. Reason that if I only throw up half the meal, it’s not exactly like starving myself. Careful not to spend too long in the bathroom after a meal. Secretive. Boisterous. The life of the party, high on a steady diet of cigarettes and wine.
Girl, you look amazing! Girl, well done! Girl, have some cake! Yell. Are you mad, you know I can’t have cake! Sullen. I spoil the evening. Sometimes when I think of my mother, now dead, I remember this night. I think of the nights I can never have with her again, and I wish I’d eaten the goddamn cake.
My body has endured 18 years of punishing self hatred. I have been imbued with such an abhorrent self obsession that, at my lowest points, I assume everyone is staring at me when I walk down the street, whispering to each other, laughing. Ooh! they must be thinking. I wouldn’t wear those shorts if I were her. I assume quite willingly that I must be offensive to people; that every failed relationship is intrinsically linked to my looming, garish size and the sheer embarrassment of people being seen by the world to love something so hideous. Society drowns women in an ocean of narcissistic self-loathing, until eventually the only thing they can see is themselves and how incomplete they are, and they’re oblivious to the thousands of other bodies being sucked under the waves around them.
I can objectively look at my body and understand that this is nothing more than dysmorphia. I know I’m not ‘fat’. I also deeply believe there’s nothing wrong with fatness. I know women bigger than me who I find stunning, bodacious, sexy and delicious. I know it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that a healthy number of men and women would view me in the same light. Perhaps incongruously, I have cultivated over the years a number of superficial interactions with men that involve, among other things, me sending them photographs of myself in various erotic poses. When I see myself through their starving eyes, I see a woman who’s beautiful, dangerous and intoxicating.
But the currency of women’s bodies has nothing to do with attractiveness. It’s useless trying to reassure women that there’s nothing wrong with them because ‘men like women with meat on their bones’. My happiness isn’t and cannot be linked to another person’s urges. My internalized hatred has nothing to do with a man’s desire to have sex with me, but it is so deep and so pervasive that I can’t see any way of setting it free. Worse, it has existed with me for so long that it doesn’t even screech with rage anymore. I’ve come to view it with a kind of banal acceptance; like a persistent chin whisker, or a creaking knee. It is there, and I tolerate it.
The worst part is knowing that my story is familiar to so many – fat women, thin women, short women, tall women, dark women, light women, women with disabilities. No woman escapes society’s cycle of abuse unscathed; the insistence that there is only one way for women to be and all others are faulty somehow, worthless, their attempts to be granted respect ridiculous at best and obnoxious at worst. For a group that mostly fails to live up to the stringent standards set for us, our attempts so far to talk about it always seem to result in more in-fighting and competitive one-upmanship – another victory for a manipulative society that teaches women to view each other as competition, not comrades.
We are ALL real women. And the saddest, most heartbreaking thing that unifies every one of us is that at some point we have looked at our bodies and felt the whole sum of our worth and value amounts to how much our thighs touch in the middle.
What does it matter who’s entitled to complain the loudest when every day still begins and ends with us standing in front of the mirror, poking, prodding, judging?
The other night, I met a little girl at a book launch. She was 12 and, exactly like I had been, wrapped in the warm blanket of puppy fat. In her childish innocence, she was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. How odd, to look at our past and see all the wasted energy trying to change something that was never wrong in the first place. How terribly sad to know that we, such precious things, moved seamlessly from lycra shorts and fuzzy legs into pinching an inch and gazing at the mirror in despair.
If only every 12 year old could see themselves through the eyes of their 30 year old self. They would see something wild, free and wholly precious. But childhood isn’t immune from the machinations of society, and we’re all given the tools to construct cages for ourselves. As women, we don’t go into them willingly so much as we are given no other options.
I wish there had been someone there to tell me that my worth did not go up and down with the numbers on the scales and the waistband on my jeans. To tell me that *I* was wild and wholly precious, and not to shut myself up in that cage because they wanted something better for me – they wanted me to be free.
What’s your body story? Do you identify with Clem’s story?
Clementine Ford is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker living in Melbourne. She blogs at www.clementineford.com.au. and you can follow her on twitter on @clementine_ford.
Clementine recently discussed body image and feminism on Catherine Deveny’s podcast Stay On Ya Flower. You can find the recording here.