Being a good girl can kill you.
Content warning: This post deals with suicide and eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.
Seventeen and curled like a comma under that hospital bed, like an unfinished sentence, stuttering. The freakish hall light that never gets turned off casts a cage-shadow on the snot-coloured carpet. I shake. I am coming off everything. I still refuse to eat, but my resistance is wearing away.
I am coming down from the precipice where it was all clear and and lined with the promise of death like the school blazer hanging off my skeleton. This morning I told a doctor trying to force me to gulp down a disgusting protein drink that I didn’t want it, and she asked me, what do you want? The answer snags in my teeth like a sob – I don’t want anything. I don’t want anything. I don’t want food water air attention a new world order. I don’t want fifty years of never being enough, doing enough, working enough. I don’t even want you to leave me alone to die. Stay there and watch if you fucking want, I don’t care. I don’t want anything.
I whisper it into my hands, and then louder, over and over, for hours, until the long-suffering night-nurse, who is used to this sort of crazy shit, finally comes in and tells me to shut up and go to sleep. She appreciates that I don’t want anything, but she wants a quiet night, please.
I am something of an anomaly on the ward. I arrived with close-cropped hair, soaked in hair dye and Riot Grrl Rock, dressed as a boy, obviously queer. It’s only later that I will learn that between a quarter and a half of young people hospitalised with eating disorders are gay or genderqueer. The young women who meet me here look like broken dress-up dolls, all of us poured from the same weird, emaciated mould, barely able to stand upright, the same violent cut marks scored like barcodes in the secret places on our skin. There’s Ballerina Barbie, starved too small for adult leotards, huddling in the corner; there’s Babydoll Barbie and Hip-Hop Barbie and Cheerleader Barbie and even Devout Muslim Barbie, who turns up a week after I do in full hijab, which she throws off as soon as her parents leave to spend the rest of her inpatient stay chain-smoking on the front steps in a hot-pink tracksuit.
Me, I suppose I’d be Punk-Dyke Barbie, 2004’s least popular Barbie, and my MO is mistrust. The other girls on the ward look like every kind of girl I’d grown up afraid of. I expect every one of them to pour orange juice in my backpack when I’m not looking. It’s bad enough being on a locked ward, but now I have to be locked up with a bunch of frivolous fashion kids? Clearly, these girls have starved themselves to the point of collapse simply because they want to look pretty; I, meanwhile, have perfectly rational, intellectual reasons for doing exactly the same. We will never be friends. We have nothing in common.
This point of view lasts almost exactly eighteen hours, until the first scheduled late-night feeding time, when we all huddle together on cheap hospital sofas trying to push two puny biscuits into our faces, feeling boiled in our skin. I stare at the television and will myself not to cry. And Cheerleader Barbie, who is ten years older than me and has her own story, shunts close and puts a bony arm around my shoulders. ‘It’s all right,’ she tells me. ‘You can do it.’ I allow myself to be held. I pick up the biscuit. And something changes.
Over the weeks and months of confinement, these girls will become my greatest friends. I will learn at seventeen what it takes some people decades to accept: that pretty girls who play to patriarchy and ugly girls who never got asked to a school dance suffer just the same. That the same trick is being played on all of us. There’s no way to play the perfect-girl game and win. I know that. We all know that. And with that knowledge comes anger. Anger that we tried to starve down and burn off and bleed out.
Cindy cuts like any girl who has been hurt by the people who were supposed to love her. Because she acts out, because she slashes her arms in the corridor and screams, because she steals make-up and jewellery from the shops and vomits after mealtimes, the nurses and doctors don’t quite believe her when she tells us that her dad molested her. That she doesn’t want to be left alone with him if he comes to visit. That her mother and teachers knew it was going on and did nothing. She is an angry Asian girl with an accent: she ought to respect her parents, she’s clearly crazy and shouldn’t be taken seriously. Drugs and therapy might help her; nobody talks about justice. Cutting calms Cindy down and upsets everyone else, which to my mind is an improvement on silently suffocating in her pain and rage, although I’d rather she didn’t break my CDs to do it. I’d rather she didn’t do it at all. I’d rather she didn’t need to. I’d rather take Cindy in my arms and rock her until she forgets every bad thing that has ever been done to her.
Half the girls in the ward are cutters, which is why sharp cutlery and smashable crockery are kept out of reach. The body must be punished, and locked up indoors, this is the last, best way to do so. There are words that can’t be spoken, and get scored into the skin. You think I’m all right, but I’m not. When you grow up to find yourself trapped in a body that seems to invite violence, a body that seems to be all you’re good for, a body that is suddenly and forever the most important thing about you, there is a grim logic to the attempt to cut your way out of it. To discipline it and bring it under your control. The body that hurts, and hungers, and ceaselessly wants things. The body that betrays you. Being a good girl can kill you.
In her ‘Letters to L’, M. Sandovsky writes that ‘The problem for women is not just uncovering what is political in the personal and personal in the political. It is finding a way to live inside of a contradiction.’ We grew up being told that the world was ours for the taking as long as we worked hard, flashed a bit of tit and kept smiling. We realised we were being lied to only just in time for some of us to catch ourselves before we slipped away. You reach a point where you have to decide what you will sacrifice to survive. It was years ago now, and enough has happened to me since that I’ve forgotten when it was that I decided to give living a shot, just as an experiment, to see if I could. Maybe it was after the long, howling night of not wanting everything, levering myself out from under the bed, blinking in the hall lights, shuffling to the small medical kitchen to eat toast for the first time without fighting. I just remember the crisp, buttery bread, and the fear that if I let my hunger loose I’d never stop eating, I’d eat and eat until I was the size of a monster truck and keep eating until I’d swallowed the world. A young girl’s hunger is a fearful thing.
Or maybe it was months later, leaving hospital for the first time in a new dress and lipstick I’d put on to convince the ward nurse that I was finally a healthy girl, ready to live a healthy life, painting on an expression the way women learn to do when we have to convince the world we’re happy. Waving bye-bye to the friends I’d made there from the window of a taxi taking me hell-knows-where, though unspeakable things home. I knew only that I would not be going home ever again. I was going to get out of this place and continue my education, I would travel the world and get drunk in strange bars and fuck a lot of boys and kiss a lot of girls, I would live in Berlin and New York and cross oceans at night with only a satchel, a passport and a laptop. I would dance all night in bare feet and read a lot of books, and some day I’d write books, too. Being a good girl, a perfect girl, can kill you fast, or it can kill you slow, flattening everything precious inside you, the best dreams of your one life, into drab homogeneity.
At seventeen I decided to make a stab at a different kind of life, and it was scary, and too much, and it still is, but so is staying at home with a painted-on smile. I see women making that choice every day, in their teens and twenties and sixties and seventies, and in this brave new world where empowerment means expensive shoes and the choice to bend over for your boss, it’s the only choice that really matters.
Those who make it get called selfish bitches, freaks and sluts and cunts and whores, and sometimes we get called rebels and degenerates and troublemakers, and sometimes we are known to the police. We’re the ones who laugh too loud and talk too much and reach too high and work for ourselves and see a new world just out of reach, at the edge of language, struggling to be spoken. And sometimes, in the narrow hours of the night, we call ourselves feminists.
This is an extract from Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny, published in Australia by Bloomsbury. Laurie will be a guest at the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ festivals and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.