Photo by Andrew Bret Wallis
Artillery Row Books

Wrestling with recovery

There is no binary between sickness and health

For a short while after it was published, I held off reading Good Girls, Hadley Freeman’s anorexia memoir. I felt it was the kind of thing I should read — I love Freeman’s writing, and I share with her both the experience of an eating disorder and politically inconvenient (for the left, at least) views on sex and gender. 

Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia, Hadley Freeman (4th Estate, £16.99)

Yet I worried this book in particular would throw me. To be specific, I feared it would make me unhealthily jealous. I knew Freeman’s anorexia had been serious. How serious, though? More or less serious than mine? If equal or less, why should hers be memorialised in this way? 

I know how insane this sounds, how petty, how mean. There’s a part of myself I’ve never been able to banish, ever since I acquired a body that passes for “normal” (a term which Freeman herself associates with the onset of her disorder — who’d want to be “normal”?). I would like people to know, perhaps by means of a badge, a certificate, a flashing neon sign, that the body they see before them isn’t my true, authentic one. My true, authentic body looks really ill. 

I’m aware that this feeling is not unique to me. A lasting impact of long-term, self-imposed starvation is the desire for its recognition. I can’t have done it all for nothing, can I? How can something that took so much time, stole so much thought, have led to something that could be unravelled all over again? There is a sense in which I believe I am owed some form of permanent monument, matched to the amount of effort I put in (the craziest ideas, the most irrational fears). That monument should be my body; people should be able to look at it, even now, and just know. 

There are people who would argue this is a sign of ongoing sickness. Most of the responses to Freeman’s book have been extremely, deservedly positive, yet I have noticed some claims that her failure to end it neatly, showing instead the ups and downs of the post-anorexia years, the raggedness of trying to catch up on an adolescence already missed, render the story itself flawed. With the right treatment, it could have been told (lived, that is) better — as though adaptation to living in a female body were that simple. It is as though anorexia were pure illness, not something that sits on a continuum with the constantly contested, changing relationships we all have with our bodies, both as we experience them and as the world perceives them. 

There was a point in my own recovery when I decided there would be a cut-off point: I was ill; now I am not. Better: maybe I remain ill (a tiny bit), but one day soon there shall be no trace. I would know, with great precision, exactly which thoughts were unhealthy, which were not. I almost drove myself mad with it, all over again. Looking back, I see what I wanted was yet another version of that non-relationship with the body in its social context that I’d originally sought through starvation. I could no longer deny that relationship by not eating — given that I did not want to die — therefore I’d deny it by sheer act of will. 

If I said my body meant whatever I wanted it to, regardless of how it was situated in relation to others, then that would be the case. Any evidence to the contrary would be discarded as evidence of sickness. There was, somewhere out there, a version of myself that was completely pristine: not necessarily thin, or fat, or anything much, but unsullied by anything so messy and uncertain as mutual dependency and growth. 

The meaning of your body is unstable, beyond your grasp

It’s only with maturity — which has been a long time coming, given my own delayed, patchy experience of puberty — that I’ve realised how flawed this thinking is. Freeman associates finally making peace with food with having children, and I think this is true of me to an extent (although, like her, I’d hardly claim this to be a necessary requirement). It’s being made aware that the meaning of your body is necessarily unstable, always slightly beyond your grasp. Whether feminist or medical, the objective cannot be to pin it down, freezing yourself in time, denying the perceptions of others and justifying this on the basis that you chose just the right moment for freezing, just the right perceptions to reject. That isn’t how we live and grow as social beings. We cannot exchange one trap for another, telling ourselves that this trap is healthy, the other, sick. 

Other criticism of Good Girls has focused on how Freeman compares the self-imposed starvation of adolescent teenage girls with the rise of gender dysphoria in adolescent females. It’s a comparison that has been denounced as “vile” (so much for combatting mental health stigma — turns out there’s nothing worse than having nice, normal puberty dodgers compared to crazy anorexic ones). Here, as in the yearning for tidy recovery narratives, we are not supposed to view the adolescent in flight from the body as a human being, existing within a specific but also changing social context. You’re just there, an object, fixed — either to be approved of (as is the case when breasts are surgically removed), or condemned (as in the case of their being starved away). The negotiation of discomfort, as much as its inevitability, cannot be permitted. If critics of Good Girls want to claim neither anorexia nor gender dysphoria are political, they are doing a good job of demonstrating the opposite.

I’m conscious that in acknowledging my own discomfort with the body, I potentially discredit myself. Yet the binary models desired by so many — sickness/wellness, or wrong body/right body — seem to me precisely what keep so many people stuck in one place, unable to accept the uncertainty of a body that moves through time. 

I know my desire to memorialise a past body as a more authentic representation of myself is irrational. I also think feelings such as this are part of being human. They could be better, but I’d mistrust anyone who claims they can be tidied away. 

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