On Appearance: Disordered eating and the body, Kelsey Osgood’s How to Disappear Completely, and how language makes illness appear to us.
TW: Discussion of eating disorders and self harm
One night, feeling horrible, dirty-guilt full and my hands smelling like Walkers roast chicken crisps, I imagine stepping into the sea and all I’ve eaten could dissolve. The salt that is guilt. Preserve my body like this, like a lemon in a jar, to come out darkened and wilted.
During a bad mental health episode, I cut my hair very short. My neck is exposed to the cold. I find the locks of it on the floor of my flat for weeks, in my bedsheets, single hairs on my laptop keyboard. After this, I can only think of women on TV or on Instagram in terms of whether their hair is longer or shorter than my hair.
This has always been a trick of my brain’s. I can look at somebody and, during the really bad times, the first thing I think of is whether they are heavier or lighter than me.
If they are heavier than me then that is good.
If they are lighter than me then I will observe the next thing they eat, and figure out if it contains more or less calories than what I eat.
If it is more then that is good.
If it is less then I will go running, hard until I sweat, push past points of endurance if I am doing well. It is always possible to push slightly further.
‘Why stop right now after forty days? He could have kept going for longer, for an unlimited length of time. Why stop now, when he was in his best form, indeed, not even in his best fasting form?’
Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist
At nine, my friend in primary school tells me she is going on a diet. I am already aware of eating disorders, at this point. I am an advanced reader and read a lot of teen fiction. In Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls Under Pressure, thirteen-year-old Ellie goes through body image issues and begins to excessively diet, but by the end of the novel, learns to love her body and herself. I know that to obsess over thinness is Bad, and that to love oneself is Good. Still, when my friend Samantha tells me she is going on a diet, I say I want to go on a diet too. If she is going to get very thin, I want to get thinner than her.
We see this relationship between mentally ill women and their mutual modelling of each other’s illness mirrored in fiction and in adult life. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, a young adult novel which I read and re-read during my disordered teen years, narrator Lia is haunted by the death of her best friend and fellow anorexia sufferer, Cassie. She recalls their toxic relationship;
‘I took the knife out of my pocket and cut my palm, just a little. “I swear to be the skinniest girl in school, skinnier than you.”
Cassie’s eyes got big as the blood pooled in my hand.
She grabbed the knife and slashed her palm. “I bet I’ll be skinnier than you.”
“No, don’t make it a bet. Let’s be skinniest together.”
“Ok, but I’ll be skinnier.”
We rubbed our hands and mingled our blood because it was forbidden and dangerous.’
In How to Disappear Completely, Kelsey Osgood’s 2013 research text-slash-memoir around anorexia, she argues radically that texts around anorexia can often be formative of the disease rather than an antidote. Osgood believes that she chose anorexia because, as someone who didn’t relate to having had a particularly traumatic childhood she ‘needed something to be’. Osgood argues that the canon of eating disorder memoirs and fictionalised accounts taught her rather than to avoid anorexia, how to become it.
‘I’d always noticed in myself and my peers, both eating disordered and not, a peculiar and disturbing trend; many of us would seek out materials aimed at eating disorder “awareness” and prevention and use them instead as instruction manuals, often bonding together to collaborate on our great demises.’
For Osgood, anorexia ‘is contagious’, it is ‘a behaviour that can be learned through stories.’.
Of course, it is real life stories and social dialogues around women’s bodies (although not ignoring, of course, that eating disorders affect men and people of other genders), which form the illness itself, and it is this social setting in which fear of eating and fear of gaining weight is produced. As a very young child, I was horrified by the character of Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, raising her voice and taking up space and demanding ‘I want.’. Children’s fiction like this taught me to be quiet, to consume as little as possible, and never to ask for things. Children’s fiction like this taught me to shrink.
In Anorexia, the Impossible Subject – Alice Gregory’s response to Osgood’s work, she considers the perception of starvation as human virtue.
‘The anorexic’s chronic renunciation – her “pure defiance” to quote Osgood – makes for a truly delusional, almost Dickensian world view, wherein people’s inner qualities correlate to their physical attributes. Unlike other kinds of addictions, anorexia disguises itself as a virtue.’
It is not only the desire to be thin but endlessly recurring depictions of eating as gluttony, as sinful. Narratives around starvation as virtue are age-old – moral tales, like Goldilocks vowing to be a ‘good child’ after stealing the three bears’ porridge (although in many versions of the tale she is eaten by the bears as penance for her crime).
For these reasons, I’m hesitant to criticise the well-meaning, anorexia themed YA novel as a cause of the complicated relationship I have had with food throughout stages of my life. The best way to describe their effect is as that of a pharmakon – simultaneously a cure, a poison, and a scapegoat. I don’t for one minute believe Wilson, or Halse Anderson, or other writers tackling eating disorders in teen fiction, had any intention other than to educate teenage audiences around the dangers of them. But Osgood is right. The fact is that these texts can be encouraging, or they can at least set a blueprint by which already mentally ill teenagers perform their despair in its formative stages.
For example, in Wintergirls, Lia repeats pro-ana affirmations, which read like this on the page:
It reminds me of pages of a notebook of mine from 2012, when I will have been sixteen, in which I have written out the phrase ‘I need to be thinner. I need to be thinner.’ over and over again, four sides, and a few days later, it is a new affirmation: ‘I need to be perfect. I need to be perfect’, eight sides. I found this a few years ago in my teenage bedroom, obviously felt very heartbroken for my teenage self. When I discover this page in Wintergirls, now, I am embarrassed. This must be where I had got it from. I was performing something I had already seen, my mental illness symptoms were not my own but fraudulent.
There is a term Osgood introduces as ‘wannarexia’, which she describes as –
‘a gateway drug `for teenagers, whose brains, numerous studies have concluded, are developmentally more inclined to make rash choices. For some, the first drink is just that; for others, it’s the ticket to board the train to full-blown alcohol addiction. The same is true of anorexia: a young girl goes online, she reads books in which dramatic things happen to the intelligent, wispy narrator, she tries out this aberrant behaviour that she knows is wrong, that communicates how little she cares, she takes a few laxatives and skips a few meals, and bam – she ends up with her legs dangling off your hospital cot during winter vacation, crying as she’s told at this point, she’s already considered “chronic”.’
Doctor Richard Kreipe makes the distinction that ‘anorexics set weight loss goals, but aren’t satisfied by the falling numbers on the scale. Wannarexics are more likely to derive pleasure from weight loss.’ I am both ashamed and comforted to perhaps identify my sixteen year old self as a ‘wannarexic’, but I have definitely never been anything the DSM would categorise as ‘anorexic’ (I have never been hospitalised, or severely underweight, only starving dangerously for short periods, and living with a not at all uncommon sense of shame around food.). The years between 2007 and 2013ish were a wild time in terms of representations of teenage female mental illness in popular culture. There was Cassie from Skins, going ‘Wow’, there were songs by white male indie bands about wanting to help damaged women who they loved to recover. There was Effy from Skins, going ‘Nobody breaks my heart, Freddie.’, there were emo bands, there was cutting your wrists and wearing a lot of things on your arm to cover up the cuts – the heavily clad wrist sometimes a social indicator of self harm, even though it wore bracelets that were symbols for things like kindness and acceptance and self-love.
The first time I ever tried to make myself sick was in about 2011, when my male friend talked about who he would have to kill/eat in a desert island plane crash situation, between me and another girl. He said it would have to be me, because there was not enough fat on her. I was already feeling very distant from my friends and unloved, I was already feeling like my body was difficult and massive, and that afternoon I pretended to be ill so that I could go home from school early and I tried very hard to throw up in the bathroom when I got home. Much like the decision Osgood admits to, that night I made a very conscious decision that I would restrict my eating, and that would punish them – I would be, as she says, ‘sick enough for someone to love me back to health’. If you had offered me the opportunity then not to have to go through any of it consciously, but would I like to wake up in a hospital having panicked all of my friends from school and my family, with a sudden dramatic loss of weight, I would have said, ‘Of course’.
I still find these vengeful thoughts coming back to me every so often. Fairly recently, a male friend is talking affectionately about his new girlfriend and a coat she does not fit into. ‘She’s so thin,’ he says, ‘there’s nothing of her.’ I try not to feel ugly or unloved. I know that these thoughts are incorrect and am also embarrassed that they are a cliché. It doesn’t stop them happening but I am trying to be better at holding them still for a while, before I let them go.
Osgood says that disordered eating is ‘communicable’, so I search through the texts where I first saw it.
Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls Under Pressure eventually encourages teenagers to love their bodies and themselves, but still draws on an association of fatness with sin and with dirt in what could be described as triggering language. After hearing someone call her ‘fat’ in a shopping centre, Ellie starts to feel shame around food and her body.
‘I think of greasy swamps of chip fat stagnating in the pan. I look at my body and see the lard beneath the skin. I start clawing at myself, as if I’m trying to rip the skin right off me.’
Maybe I’ll forgive Wilson this potentially triggering language for its fundamentally more overpowering message of self-love and acceptance. In Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson introduces what I, as a teenage reader, experienced as a more glamorous world of mental illness. The razors with which Lia cuts her wrists are ‘whisper sweet’, she lets her friend see her ‘skeleton shine’. Maybe quite dangerously, the novel also includes worryingly instructive portrayals of calorie counting, which as a teenager, only showed me how to calorie count.
‘I eat in my car: diet soda (0) + lettuce (15) + 8 tablespoons salsa (40) + hard boiled egg white (16) = lunch (71).’
Similarly tantalising language is employed in Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star, where celestial imagery is entangled with the idea of weight loss. The novel is constructed around the metaphor of the body as a dying star losing its mass. The unnamed narrator, an astrophysics student suffering from anorexia, dreams of being ‘perfectly clear and luminous’, imagines that her ‘body is crystallizing’. During sex, her boyfriend lays her on her side ‘like a pig prepared for roasting’.
Of course, the potentiality to maybe create or encourage ‘wannarexic’ ideals that these texts have doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t exist, or even that the texts themselves are the problem. It is impossible to write about disordered eating in the first person without embodying the voice of the illness itself, because it is an illness based on a false narrative around one’s body. None of the aforementioned novels are any kind of pro-ana propaganda, and they all fundamentally portray the illness as destructive and distinctly unglamorous in their endings. As much as Osgood condemns the ways in which some texts might communicate eating disorders in a way that means they are contagious, even How to Disappear Completely has the potential to act as an instruction manual, and she seems aware of this. Upon disclosing the story of a fellow patient in a recovery clinic shaking her leg constantly to lose calories, Osgood wonders ‘Will someone on a unit read this and start to shake his or her legs? I learned this trick from a book, though I no longer remember which one.’ Even the book’s title fails to escape glamorising the illness slightly (How to Disappear Completely!). Any time I’ve ever tried to write fiction or lyric about my own messy relationship with food, it is impossible to escape learning towards the romantic or the clichéd.
I am worried that the whiteness of the softgirl Instagram aesthetic is contributing to my desire for self-control. There are too many soft glows and beiges, too many delicate things, too many bodies to look at. It makes me feel tacky and gaudy, like I am too much clutter, like I take up too much space.
I am naturally impulsive and excessive. That spur-of-the-moment haircut. The way I drink fast. The way that when I tried to get into the habit of drinking more water, I used an app to log one pint of it per hour. Wanting to burn a vanilla candle not just for a bit, but for hours, so that it makes the whole flat smell sweet and thick and strong. Drinking one-point-five bottles of wine and messaging whoever is online for a DMC. The week long Radiohead binge, the day long Gossip Girl binge. Listening to the whole of Lorde’s Melodrama album over and over and over again. It is quite hard to accept that you are like this.
There are texts around food that have taught me to love it and to keep my fears at bay. I remind myself of Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!, a beautiful and brave manifesto which myth-busts diet culture and teaches us to listen to our bodies. I love all of the recipes in Anna Jones’ A Modern Cook’s Year, and looking at photos of restaurants on Sophie Mackintosh’s Gastro Del Solo, a Tinyletter about eating out alone. I love Rosianna Halse Rojas’ ‘Backburner’ series on Youtube, in which she cooks recipes from one cookbook in each installment, and talks about mental health. It must be said that these texts are all part of a culture around food focusing on thin, white women, and food writing often fails to include or amplify the voices of fat people and BAME communities.
Now, I use the bowl-of-noodles-emoji to categorise all of the photos of food I post to my Instagram stories. There is a bowl of sunshine coloured celeriac vegeree from a morning off work, a watermelon ice lolly I searched for an hour to eat for breakfast in Thessaloniki, the travelator of exciting coloured bowls at my friend’s Yo! Sushi birthday dinner, drunk pasta.
This stuff doesn’t entirely always help me to escape shame, but sometimes it does. I want to celebrate being around food, not be afraid of it. Diet culture and the mythology around bodies are inescapable. The rare best moments ever are completely forgetting I have a body, or at least that it might matter what it looks like. I am trying to look outward, rather than in.
Lizzie Hudson graduated from Goldsmiths University, and was one of the Northern Short Story Festival’s supported writers for 2019. Her stories and essays have appeared in publications such as Strix, Litro, Riggwelter and Newcon’s Best of British Fantasy anthology.
Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls (Marion Lloyd Books, 2011)
Valerie Bauman, ‘Wannarexic girls yearn for eating disorders’ (in USA Today, 2007)
Sarah Gerard, Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio, 2015)
Alice Gregory, Anorexia, the Impossible Subject (in The New Yorker, 2013)
Anna Jones, A Modern Cook’s Year (4th Estate, 2017)
Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist (IAP, 2010)
Rosianna Halse Rojas, Backburner (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAgSbzJ8gyA)
Sophie Mackintosh, Gastro Del Solo (https://tinyletter.com/gastrodelsolo)
Kelsey Osgood, How to Disappear Completely (Duckworth Overlook, 2014)
Ruby Tandoh, Eat Up! (Serpent’s Tail, 2018)
Jacqueline Wilson, Girls Under Pressure (Doubleday, 1998)