I never had an eating disorder, but I spent three years, on and off, working on a novel about them. About how it’s to do with your relationship with food and not your weight, about how there are better and worthier things to be than ‘skinny’, about how damaging and how serious they are. One of my favourite YA writers, Laurie Halse Anderson, reflected after writing the chilling Wintergirls that it had changed the way she looked at her own body, that she took pride in what it could do instead of how it looked. That the capacity to run was worth more than the size of her thighs.
I thought something similar would happen to me.
I never had an eating disorder. This is a sentence I am going to have to say a lot over the next while, to acknowledge that I must listen patiently to people on the internet who have experienced it and are going to tell me what’s wrong with my book without having read it. ‘I never had an eating disorder’ – I’ve a terrible poem that starts off like that from my teenage years, haunted by that sense that it’s somehow just a tiny bit exotic and glamorous to be anorexic (we gloss over the less attractive issues like bulimia and binge-eating and the fuzzier, not-otherwise-specified types).
Mental illnesses hold a certain kind of fascination for a certain kind of girl, and growing up I drank up my Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Wurtzel and Susanna Kaysen and thirsted for more. And anorexia, the most beautiful of all the mental illnesses – you got to be thin, too. Waifish. In my early twenties, one of my boyfriends presumed, maybe confusing me with someone else, that there was an eating disorder in my past; I looked him in the eye and said, with more than a little wistfulness, “I’m not disciplined enough to have an eating disorder.”
If anyone would like to travel back in my time and punch my younger self in the face, please go for it. Except there is still a tiny part of my soul, a devilish Horcrux, that still believes that: that somehow these illnesses are the provenance of people who are better than me, realer than me, somehow harder-core than me.
So I wrote about eating disorders and I knew they were bad but I also knew that it was easy, too easy, to step into the head of someone who hates fat and for whom thin is not just a body shape but a virtue. Maybe that’s too obvious a thing to say – don’t we all know this, if we’re women in today’s world? And then doesn’t that undermine the severity of eating disorders, if they’re simply diets gone too far, self-loathing gone to the extreme?
I never had an eating disorder. Sure, I can tell you what it’s like to be high from a day of not-eating, or the relief of throwing up a meal – but occasional incidents don’t add up to a pattern. Even so I feel the need to add these details – just so you know that I’m not a total pretender. As writers our number one job is to empathise, to imagine, but for certain issues, we need to prove that we have had some kind of experience that legitimates our imaginings, our attempts at empathy. So next I might add, I have never experienced eating disorders but I know what it is to be depressed, to see the world with more shadows than most people, to think thoughts that feel ‘crazy’ on the one hand and completely and utterly logical and right on the other.
So it is okay to have written about them, then? To have researched and read and searched but ultimately found that most of the emotional truths and horrors of self-loathing can be tapped into simply by looking into the mirror? Or do I need to hang my head in shame and apologise for talking over someone else, for speaking for a group that is not my own?
I never had an eating disorder, clinical diagnosis, but we live in a disordered-eating world. My Facebook feed: check-ins at the gym, details of a workout routine or miles run this morning, low-fat low-carb low-everything recipes with photos. A little part of me shakes and sobs. I deliberately ignore Instagram. And still. Still. When a dear friend of mine who I know has had an eating disorder in the past looks wonderfully slim and I tell her this, and she replies that it’s stress and she can’t eat, it takes too long for my sympathy to kick in. It takes too long to apologise.
I still think being thin, looking thin, is the solution to so many of life’s problems. It is emotional, not intellectual. I am smart and I have done my research, oh so much research, more than half a lifetime of reading, and still – still –
I never had an eating disorder, and I am not specially equipped on a personal level to write about the topic, except that it is too easy to crawl inside the head of someone whose world has shrunk to portion size and weight. It is too easy for that tiny sliver of your soul to stay there even after you’ve finished writing, revising, editing, proofreading when really you should be letting go and moving on.
It is too easy to stay stuck in a world that really does value you more for your body than your mind, that does link virtue and food in a worrying way, that does encourage obsessive counting and daily tracking of steps taken and calories consumed. It is too easy to slip into behaviours that left unchecked can become something much more serious and sinister. It is all too easy.
But I’m still not sure, in our quick-to-criticise, quick-to-be-outraged internet lives, if I’m allowed to write that. I am scared of being judged, of being told: you don’t really get it, you can’t possibly understand, you pretender, you phony, you fake. You ‘wannarexic’, as Kelsey Osgood puts it in her memoir, How To Disappear Completely. I am scared, I think, of feeling as though there is something mystical and exotic that I have missed out on, that I can’t possibly know about without having travelled down that path, that there really is something special about the eating-disordered. Better. Realer. More hard-core.
There are things you can’t write about without being somehow terrified that you, and your past, and not the words on the page, will be interrogated.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, creative writing teacher, and editor from Dublin. Her essay ‘The Feminist Goes To The Theatre’ was previously published at The Coven. Her new novel, Nothing Tastes As Good, is published by Hot Key Books. She tweets @clairehennessy.