Her mother eyed her up and down when she was eleven, her breasts tiny little buds and her body preparing itself to transition by adding an extra layer of flesh to protect her through her passage into womanhood… “I hope you don’t develop a big ass like your father’s mother, ” pointing out that her shorts made her bottom look too big. She stopped licking her Popsicle and in that second, the lightness of innocence darkened. She got up from the front steps and threw her Popsicle into the hedge. She would wear bigger shorts from then on in case her little bottom grew beyond her mother’s required standards. She watched as her mother walked back into the house, her bony body barely creating a shadow on the sunny living room floor. She looked back and said, “And…your belly is sticking out.” She felt she should just disappear. And when she was sixteen, some guy in the grocery store told her she would look cuter if her breasts stuck out farther than her stomach. She didn’t think to tell him that her body was none of his business and that he looked like a wildebeast.
So, she just decided to stop eating and discovered that it felt good to be hungry. Nobody could stop her, it was her secret. She’d really been hungry all her life for something and starvation really fit how she felt inside. “Girls are supposed to be barely visible like little wisps of clouds, delicate and thin like a veil,” she thought. Her mother was thin, but always trying to lose weight and her friends went on different diets all the time, sometimes fasting and drinking a lot of water. It was like a club she wanted to belong to.
“My Body is Not Mine”
“What is really feared is an open door into a consciousness which lead us back to the old, ancient, infant and mother knowledge of the body, in whose depths lied another form of culture not opposed to nature but instead expressing the full power of nature and our natures.” (Susan Griffin – Woman and Nature).
When she looked in the mirror, she couldn’t really see herself; the reflection was a body she couldn’t own. There were certain days when she felt powerful and edgy with hunger, days when she managed to fulfill all the expectations she had of herself but the whispers in her head always told her it wasn’t enough. The moments of feeling that she had mastery over her world disappeared so quickly and she tumbled down, down, down into the familiar realm of darkness where she would be devoured by the relentless shadow beast-ess who told her it would never be enough.
She escaped food by denying hunger and when she was forced to eat, she felt angry, even rage toward those who hovered over her wanting to cover her beautiful bones, to fill her hollow cheeks and make her fat. She hated food. It was her enemy and she considered people who gave in to their lust for food weak, without any discipline. She stepped on the scale like Wendy stepped onto the plank in the story of Peter Pan. With her hands tied behind her back, she walked the plank with her head held high knowing she would step off plunging to her death into the sea below. Wendy could not turn back and neither could she. Once the journey had begun, there was no choice but to continue. She dared not look down at the scale fearing the numbers would not say what she wanted them to say. She set a goal to drop below 100 pounds, then below ninety and then below eighty…there was always another magic number to reach as the whispers kept encouraging her to keep up the march to the end of the plank where she would fall down into the depths. And maybe (she thought) I will just disappear.
Girls and women who are beckoned into the world of starvation are powerfully loyal to that demon from within. Their bodies speak of something much more complex than just a desire to fit into a smaller size or be thin because that’s what our culture values. Obesity and anorexia and bulimia are sisters, all ways of expression that speak of women’s relationships with their bodies, their sexuality and their relationship with the culture. In all three conditions, a female disowns herself and condemns herself to a world of isolation. Her shame over eating and her pain around being invisible are spoken through her body. She might decorate herself with symbols that punctuate what she feels or attempt to speak loudly by cutting or burning. She buries herself in fat to become invisible, unreachable as does the woman who starves. To eat until she is in agony and then vomit is to dissociate from herself; to reject all that she consumes is to act out the emptiness she feels all around her, to vomit all she has swallowed her whole life and feel rid of it.
When a girl starves herself, her parents’ agony and pleading for her to eat only makes her will stronger and she finds more power in resistance. When people stare at her bones, she may feel both proud and self-conscious; she finds herself wanting to spit and slap or to breathe fire and tell them to stop staring because she is not like them; they misunderstand her message and do not care to listen anyway. She becomes weak only in body but not in spirit; in fact, her hunger brings her closer to the world of spirit or maybe death where she feels alive. Her marriage to the sharpness of her bones is deep and rooted like her body is to nature itself. Her menstrual cycles stop and she no longer cycles as the moon cycles around the earth. Her womanhood becomes a question mark, gray and misty beneath the layers of clothing she must wear to keep warm.
Is this her way of saying that to be female is to be unseen? Is this her way of stopping the speed of life with all its conflicting messages? As her menstrual blood slows to a stop, she stops being in synchronicity with the moon’s when it beckons the tides of the earth’s seas. Does she want to stop being pulled and simply cease to move?
When she is placed in the white-walled rooms of a treatment center she is asked to paint what her “disease” looks like. She paints a monster (the beastess) black and red with herself as a tiny little being in its grip. It won’t let her love herself no matter how hard she tries to be perfect, she can never quite get there to that place. When they force her to eat she wants to cry. They don’t understand that it’s too painful to bring the fork to her mouth. She can’t let it touch her lips and she swallows with great difficulty and hates the food as it descends into her stomach. Once she swallows, it’s too late unless she vomits it. She’s gotten so good at it that it’s almost automatic when she eats now. When she can’t throw it up, she runs and runs and runs until all the food is gone and she can feel empty again. Emptiness is what she feels in her soul and she can only be with her soul in starvation.
The whispers in her head turn into screams when she overeats shrieking at her that she is disgusting and fat and that she should die. There is no escape from it and the food burns in her stomach. There is no restful place, no peace and no relief.
Research suggests that girls starve in much greater numbers than boys. Scientific research applies its best methods hoping to nail this thing down to fit into some kind of criteria so it can be medicated and stopped. Girls are hospitalized in desperate attempts to save their lives, but all too often, when they are free, they return with a vengeance to the bewitchment of starvation sometimes becoming even thinner and closer to death than before. She will use any trick she can to deceive her captors by filling her pockets with weights to make them think she has gained weight. She will go along, smile and be the perfect little girl and thank them for trying to save her, but inside, she roils with anxiety over how they are trying to ruin her.
Is there a loving maternal presence; an image she can hold of a safe pair of arms that hold her and feed her little bits at a time soothing and telling her it’s okay for her to eat, but she doesn’t have to eat more than she is comfortable eating? Peggy Claude-Pierre who runs the Montreaux Clinic in Victoria, B.C. nurtures girls who come to her barely alive, resistant to allowing themselves to be fed but she feeds them like little birds. She has come under fire by the medical community for her unconventional ways of working with starving girls and women because her treatment does not follow the medical model, yet she has had many successes. What else can one do other than to love the girl who wants to starve, perhaps gaining entry into her world so that she might allow herself the gift of nurturing and holding? The medical and psychological modalities feel an urgency to fix her so she does not die, but in this urgency, there is no time for witnessing, only to rush her into a way of being that she is desperately afraid of. To walk tenderly into her world, they risk allowing her to die, but by invading it with heavy footsteps, they hear only the sounds of their own voices, which affirms to her that she is truly invisible and her quest continues. I cannot help but wonder what she might do if the tension between life and death could be held for long enough that she would unfold and reveal herself in a way that would bring reunion with her own flesh , her soul and her feminine body?
She knows she is in bondage, she does not need punishment because she already knows so well how to do that to herself. What is it that makes her want to starve? And what is it that drives her to eat until she cannot hold any more and then vomit often over and over again so that her world narrows and the door to the outside world is closed. Hers is a world of dimming light and retreat into isolation until she disappears. What is she trying to tell us?
If we look into the soul of a girl or a woman who has disowned her flesh as alien what would her soul reflect back? A female is associated with nature and with Earth because as the earth gives life, so does her body. The earth’s seas are pulled by the moon, as the sea inside her ebbs and flows. By her will to starve and suffer, is she speaking the earth’s suffering in some way? Is she calling for us to see how she is dying for lack of love and reverence for her nature as the Earth struggles to right itself from human assaults on her flesh and blood? Maternal love toward herself is out of reach but if she could speak the language of her soul to someone who would listen, would she feel fed? Would her passion for starvation be supplanted by love for herself as a precious daughter of Nature who has a knowing and wisdom so acute that she actually has the power to help things heal and grow?