It was all about fitting in: the Right Clothes, the Right Hair, the Right Gang, and, most importantly, the Right Body. To tell the honest truth, I don’t know how it started, the calorie counting, fanatically doing Princess Diana’s leg lifts that looked just like a dog doing its business and weighing myself at least twice a day. It was almost a natural thing, something that just crept up on me and there I was doing it.
At first, it was fun. I made daily goals. My worth was measured with numbers. Praise Ryvita crackers and low fat yoghurts: little or no calories according to my little book. But oh, the terrible temptation of my mother’s baking: cakes, biscuits, pies, cream and butter in everything but the taste, oh so good and so BAD! I could not resist and therefore must be punished. If I put on even an iota of weight, down came my own stick on my own back. No treats for a week.
But I didn’t analyze any of this then. I was behaving just like all the other girls in my class. A beautiful attractive body was paramount and if you wanted to pull the boys, you had to have just the right amount of curves in the right places. Never mind that I was already had a beanpole figure.
I am sure that no fat actually graced my angular hips at 13 but see it I did. Nothing hung right on me either. When jeans were the right length, the waist fitted double around my waist. When I managed to find something that stayed up, it looked like I was wearing knickerbockers out of Oliver Twist. I so wanted to be different and yet the same.
In the common room in 7th form, Nicola speaks from my next food memory about her latest diet, which she claims is ‘the one’. Eat brown bread and nothing else every second day. So we all dutifully try it. One girl, with a back end like a bus and a bust to match, ran and ran and so we all ran too, trying desperately to capture that ‘look’. I have an awful guilty feeling gnawing at the back of my mind now: here I was, 6 ft 1”, tall and lanky: did they envy me? I have a suspicion that I would have envied myself had I been able to see my own shape clearly. Instead, I aspired along with hundreds of other girls (and some boys too I found out later) to be like the clear-skinned, curvaceous yet slim models in the Dolly magazines.
And what was that look? Who were those women we wanted to be like? Singers like willowy Kate Bush and slinky Sade were my idols. We tortured the plump girls at school. I’m ashamed of that now. Another girl in my class hung out with my equally stick insect-like friend Lauren and I, putting up with horrendously cruel putdowns about her weight and looks. She would never be a pretty girl, you could tell that. She would probably become an extremely reliable employee, a secretary, a dutiful wife, a knitter of sweaters for babies. But in the meantime, we picked on her like vultures at a carcass.
By the time I was 17, food was poison. I spent hours looking at myself to see where a donut or a pastry or a cake had turned up on thighs, arms or belly. My self-destructive habits began to seek allies in my creativity. Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden provided the background music to poems that were black and art that was blacker still. I have kept only two of ink drawings from that time depicting trapped and tortured screamers, jagged glass and arrows piercing heart and eyes. My eyes. My heart. I felt so trapped in a place where no one could understand and I let no one in.
On the outside, I maintained a façade of healthy eating. Wherever I was, I always ate an evening meal. I kept up appearances just enough to keep them from suspecting anything. To this day, my mother will swear on oath that I did not have anorexia as a teenager and I’m sure it was those evening meals that convinced her. I also believe that a desire to be free of the suffocating meal schedule in our house led me to starve myself. Eating was set out like a menu card in our house and don’t you dare try to change it!
The Official Meal Routine According To My Mother
Breakfast: 8:15 a.m. (sharp)
Morning Tea break: 10:30 a.m (sharp) Coffee or tea and 1 biscuit allowed.
Lunch: 12 noon (sharp)
Afternoon Tea: 3 p.m. (sharp)
Dinner: 6 p.m. (sharp except when hay making)
No eating after dinner allowed unless it is chocolate.
No snacking or picking allowed.
While I understood perfectly that this routine was necessary for my mother so that she could hold down a job and milk and shop and clean and cook, I still resented it. I still feel like I have to sneak food in her house even if I am NOT hungry, just on principle.
I have a photo of myself taken in Denmark, December 1985. A gaunt pinched face looks out above protruding collarbones and my eyes and hair seem too big for my pale face. In the beginning of 1985, Nelson Mandela refused an offer of freedom from the South African government but I took the offer of freedom given by my parents - a ‘travel gift’ to celebrate the move from high school to university. I was on my way to Denmark to my father’s family for two months. This was the first time I had really been away from home, away from my known culture, by myself for an extended period of time. It was intensely scary and marvellously exciting all at once to be winging my way to Singapore and then Copenhagen.
I arrived to be immediately recognized by my true family so it seemed – my father’s side of the family were just like me: emotional, artistic, loud, into music and bright clothes. Danish attitudes to teenagers were also very different and so open. At first I found this overwhelming and retreated, staying close to my aunt and uncle but gradually I gained the confidence to go out and to go shopping for hours by myself and explore castles and churches by myself. It was to be a very confusing time for me: confronting on one hand the way I was bought up and exploring new and exciting possibilities of ways to be, and on the other, judging the Danish culture and comparing it to that of my homeland, New Zealand.
Part of me didn’t want to change. I can see that now. I hung on to ‘old’ parts of myself while desiring freedom. It was this confusing time that precluded the most intense time in my history of anorexia.
Returning home was very hard. My plane was delayed in Copenhagen for 2 hours. I sat on the plane that whole time feeling that this was a sign that I was not meant to go back. I had to get off and keep finding this new me. I regret now that I wasn’t strong enough. Back I flew like a rubber band. Back to being an A++ student, a good girl, fulfilling the expectations of her parents and society.
This girl was now down to 56 kg. This girl had a pair of size 8 Jag jeans and if she didn’t fit into those jeans, then it was no food other than crackers, carrots and apples washed down with copious amounts of Eno (antacid salts) to make sure it didn’t sit long enough in her stomach to create fat. Her nickname was Great Dane. Fellow hostel roommates would hang carrots on her door as a joke. She wavered back from lectures, blood sugar levels dangerously low, allowing herself eat a small salad with maybe one piece of Molenberg bread as a ‘treat’. The rubber band was beginning to stretch in a different way now. I was beginning to see this thin girl, fanatically exercising, as though from a distance. Years later, I knew what Eckhart Tolle meant when he suddenly realized what he was saying about himself when he said ‘I was beside myself’. Sooner or later, something had to give.
I believe it may have been a comment made by Mr. Charlie Burns, a fellow university student from Canada that may have tripped me up in my slow and steady march towards starvation. I really liked him. He was so funny and he took me home to meet his mum and dad and sisters the day after I met him. We all laughed and joked like a house on fire. I had dinner at their place at least once a week and I hoped that our friendship would go further.
It certainly looked that way one afternoon as we canoodled away on my hostel bed. In amongst the kissing, I mentioned sex. Charlie looked up abruptly, looked me slowly up and down and said with a very straight face, ‘I’m worried you might stab me to death with those protruding hip bones of yours.’ I was absolutely shocked. If I said anything or reacted in any other way, I can’t remember. We stopped seeing each other after that but remained good friends.
Two months later, I hit the wall. Late one night right before exams, when I was sailing on to top many of my classes and was being pressured to take a double major in English and Psychology, I simply realized that I was killing myself. I thought about actually getting on with it a bit faster but knew I would never have the guts to do it. I felt so dirty and wretched, screwed down, tighter than a cork in a bottle. That night, the sensations in my body and mind were literally as if another me was clawing painfully from a chrysalis, having been in transition ever since I left home, reforming and replacing eighteen years of conditioning. I fell asleep at 2 a.m. and slept like a baby. I awoke refreshed and clear and somehow that was the beginning of the end of anorexia for me.
I craved the physical presence of people. Night after night instead of cramming for exams, I frequented the local drinking establishment with an apple in my pocket, just sitting listening to people talk and laugh and argue. I didn’t want to drink though.
I needed to remind myself of humanity, stop the isolation and integrate the changes. The burly bouncer would always come and tap me on the shoulder as the cops arrived so I could get out quick. He seemed to understand why I was there without asking any questions, always giving me a smile or thumbs up. I was letting people in again but fortunately I knew I didn’t need alcohol to do that.
My body sucked up food like a growing child despite my stomach lining being inflamed from too much antacid and a poor diet. I put on weight. Charlie moved into the house I rented at the beginning of my second year of varsity, along with 4 other fun-loving flat-mates. I found another Canadian boyfriend (seems to be a habit as I ended up marrying one too!) and sex was high on the agenda. I was finding something else to do with my body and it was much more fun than focusing on what I was or was not eating!
I mentioned Eno antacid earlier. Well maybe you remember those jars. They had a unique shape, rather like one of those Russian nesting dolls with a flat head. I kept all of the empties and used them as containers for herbs and spices in my new flat. I opened the cupboard one day and saw them all lined up and another rubber band snapped: I emptied all those jars out and threw them away. For years afterwards, the sight of one gave me a sick feeling, reminding me of what I was capable of but that was it. I was over the critical hump, cruising down the other side to health and well-being.
Food rapidly took a back seat to other more adventurous activities taking place in my life. Although I still valued a certain standard of fitness, I wasn’t so hung up on what I ate any more. My body took on a remarkable puppy fat ‘sheen’ for a year while it gobbled up all the minerals and fat that I finally gave it. My grades took a steep dive – straight down into the C bracket but my sex life took off with a bang. While my fellow psychology students were studying animal behaviour, I was in the field as it were, experimenting with ‘human animal behaviour!’
The uptight, stressed out good little girl panicking about that one extra chocolate biscuit had emerged from the cocoon of control. She joined wild weekends to friend’s parent’s holiday homes and drank brandy late at night on the deserted beaches. She was beginning to experience life away from the controlling influence of her mother.
I learnt through my reading on anorexia that most ‘victims’ develop a deep-seated anger towards parental/societal control and turn it in on themselves. Bulimia, self-mutilation and most addictions can all stem from the early experience or perception of lack of control over one’s own life.
While this all made sense to me on a mental/emotional level, I also felt that a kind of physical ‘skin’ had slipped off me the night I thought I must kill myself and end the continual negative thoughts and fanatical behaviour around food and exercise. Friends asked me if I thought maybe therapy would be a good idea but I knew I didn’t need that. I had emerged from the dark into the light and could see very clearly what had been going on. The shell had cracked and while my mind seemed to recover quickly from the self abuse, my body suffered for 3 years afterwards. Chronic diarrhea and digestive problems plagued me as my stomach lining struggled to heal. Finally I turned vegan in an attempt to still the burning flow of food through my gut and it worked.
In my adult life, I love food. I am known as a great cook and efficient organizer of events requiring good food and lots of it. You would never imagine me as an anorexic if you met me now. I write a magazine column about food. But somewhere only skin deep, there is the ‘me’ who felt that the only way to fight back and have control was through starvation.