Counting the Bodies
1. The Writing Body
I believed, for the longest time, that my writing and my body had little to do with one another. Of course, I knew, intellectually, that in order for the words to appear on the page, I had to sit down and pick up a pen or move my fingers across a keyboard. But when my books came out, and interviewers asked about my process, I remembered nothing. I felt strangely guilty, and sick.
We talk about a writer’s ‘body’ of work, but when did you ever see a book that looked like a body? Books are made out of paper and glue; digital books are made out of pixels. They do not live, they do not die, they do not eat or cry or fart or internet-stalk someone they met at a party one time and don’t even like. They are objects. Yet somehow, writers smuggle the feeling of eating and crying and farting and all these other bodily ‘ings’ into their pages. They are objects that show you what it is like to live in a body, but they are not themselves, bodies. How? And what does this showing do to the writer’s body (do they really have a body)? I’ve written for more than half my life but I still don’t know.
2. The Reading Body
The first time I read a book without adult intervention, I was seven, and on a thirty hour plane journey from the UK to Australia. I was travelling with my Dad, whose boredom-fighting powers were inferior to my Mum’s. He played Connect Four, but when I tried to talk to him, he felt far away. He was in his body, but not. After five or six hours of lying, cold and bored, on the floor of Jakarta airport, I opened Dick King-Smiths’ Sophie’s Snail. It contained more words than it did pictures and was, therefore, very grown-up.
When my Dad shook my shoulder, telling me it was time for our next flight, I didn’t move. I didn’t want to. I could’ve stayed on that airport floor forever. But only because I could no longer feel its cold, hard surface; I’d been in the world behind Dick King-Smith’s words. I’d been Sophie, but not. I often made up spells and potions with my friends, but this — this sort of magic was real.
Between the ages of seven and twelve, I read whenever I could. Judy Blume, Jacqueline Wilson, Phillip Pullman, and yes, JK Rowling — all the things you’d expect from a white middle class Millennial.
Then came adolescence. The feeling that my body was somehow worse than other people’s grew — and far more dramatically than my aa-cup “boobs”. Words were no longer enough; I needed something stronger. What I found: Smirnoff ices, sugar, weed, pills, boys. Also: academic achievement. I read, but only for class. My friends were dismayed that I managed to smoke so much weed and get so many A*s; neither they nor I understood that they were simply different attempts to get as far away from my body as possible.
It was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) that reminded me reading could be more than a ride to an A*. I read it when I was sixteen, the year I’d swapped weed-smoking for anorexia — a far more effective way to escape my body. I read it in one of my many periods of ‘quasi-recovery’; I wasn’t trying, as I had been, to get thinner and thinner and thinner, but I was scared of being anything other than the thinnest person in the room, because — why? I could refer, here, to the neurobiological explanation for anorexia; how, in those with a genetic disposition, food restriction flicks some cognitive switch which makes more restriction — and more and more — feel like the best idea. I could refer to the early noughties penchant for low rise jeans, to the deep-rooted misogyny and fat phobia of Western beauty standards, or to my Mum’s obsession with eating ‘healthy’. But although these explanations played a part, the bigger part, I think, came from the need to prove that what I felt about my body — that it was wrong, I hated it — was real. My body became an object I could control.
White Teeth made me feel, briefly, like a subject. It was fun. It was fun in a way the things I was supposed to find fun, weren’t. It was certainly more fun than anorexia. To postpone its ending, I read the inside covers, the quotes, the author biog. Smith had grown up in North London and studied at Cambridge. She was twenty five. I was growing up in a suburb of South London that was not unlike the suburb of North London she’d described, and I wanted, desperately, to go to Oxbridge. I did not, at this point, want to write a novel; I was simply in awe that she — just one human body — could absorb so much life. Because that was what it was, between the pages —not words, but life, and lots of it. Life, but without the boredom, the shapelessness, the pointlessness, the pain. Magic.
I remember trying to explain this to a friend in the canteen lunch queue. As we neared the trays and cutlery, she turned away from me, and in her matted bun, I saw something. A dream? A premonition? It was a creature — not quite human, not quite animal — and it was flying over a landscape that was part-London, part the Crash Bandicoot Playstation game. The creature was Smith but not Smith, me but not me, alive but not alive, but definitely not dead. It possessed some sort of suction device, not unlike a vacuum cleaner, only, instead of sucking up dirt, it was sucking up the stuff — good, bad, difficult, boring, painful — that made life mean something. This was the best way I could describe what the book had done to me. I couldn’t evidence it in the way I could my interpretation piggy’s death in my GCSE exam. But writing about Piggy, was, like all school writing, like almost all of my social interactions, a game of working out what the person, or the exam question, wanted, then delivering it, and with such force that everyone would be sure you were ‘just being you’.
‘Clare, come on.’ My friend tugged my blazer.
We were at the front of the queue. Whilst my friend strode towards ‘Special of the Day’ — flan and chips and beans: just like every other day — I froze. Describing what White Teeth had done to my body was complicated, yes, but not as complicated as deciding what what anorexia would let me eat for lunch. I can’t remember what I chose or how long it took me to choose it. But I’m pretty sure that by the time I sat down, I was thinking only of the food on my plate, how little I’d manage, and how bad I’d feel about it afterwards.
3. The Clever Body
When I told my English A Level teacher that I was applying for History and English Literature at Oxford, she asked what I’d read beyond the school syllabus. I said: not much. I did not say about the problem of my body and how to get out of it. The teacher made a face. ‘If you want even a chance of passing the interview, you need to read some more classics.’
The possibility of sitting before a panel of Oxford academics only to be judged not clever enough was — no. Just — no. I dialled down my terror by dialling up my anorexia. I curled up under blankets and read all the books I should’ve read whilst I’d been puking Vodka on suburban bedroom carpets. My periods stopped and I was constantly cold and anxious. Every time I finished a book, I felt a ‘ding’, much like when I opened my exam results to see that, yes, once again, I’d got the highest grade, much like when I stepped on the scales to see that yes, once again, my weight was lower than the day before.
But when my English teacher gave me a mock interview, I had nothing to say. These books had taken me nowhere — not because they were bad books but because my body was not present enough to receive them. The teacher was puzzled. ‘But you’ve so much to say on paper,’ she said.
The real English interview was worse. The interviewer asked — and in a tone of clear disapproval — was why I was doing so many A Levels. She smirked, as if she knew what my achievement addiction was really about. Then she asked about Mrs Dalloway, and I knew, before I opened my mouth, that my answers would fail. The magic was gone.
In my History interview, however, it returned. I’m not sure if it was the tweedy male interviewers’ words, or their body language or their smiles, but I forgot that my words and my body would later be judged. It was more as if, together, we were talking our way towards a world which we trusted, even though we couldn’t completely see it, would be more interesting than this one. I was a little sad when it was over.
When I got home, my Mum shrieked at my thinness. She filled an entire kitchen cupboard with chocolate, but it wasn’t until I found out I’d got in for History that I began to eat it. I’d wanted to do English more, but who cared? It was the getting in that mattered. The validation.
I ate until she stopped telling me I looked like the horrifically skinny girl we’d once seen in Topshop. Whilst a part of me felt like a failure for not being as thin as she was, the other part felt superior; she was probably in hospital, being force-fed, whereas I could keep going with this milder anorexia forever and ever.
4. The Hungry Body
Shit. I’m losing my way. I set out to write about the relationship between writers and their bodies, and I’ve ended up writing about my relationship with anorexia. It has a habit of doing that, you see — I mean derailing whatever it was you thought you were up to.
What I wanted, when I sat down to write, was to write what I wanted. What happened, instead, is that my body has said what it wants, and what it wants, apparently, is to tell the story of the things I have done to it.
To this end, I gravitate towards books that value the body as a site of knowledge. Books like Melissa Febos’s Bodywork (2020), in which she advocates for ‘discerning artistically between the narratives that have been downloaded into your brain and the ones of your own design’ (2020, p.48). Or Julietta Singh’s No Archive Will Restore You (2018), in which she abandons pursuit of a ‘legitimate’ archive for ‘the messy, embodied, illegitimate archive that I am’ (2018, p.27). Whilst both Singh and Febos move seamlessly between intellectual telling and more visceral, poetic showing, they trust their not-quite-speakable intuitions to drive their texts. They trust their hungers. They trust their hungers, and yet, their texts are as neat and controlled as their bodies are not. Which makes me wonder what writing does to a person who’d rather not have a body at all.
5. The Body that is Basically a Brain in a Jar
Elizabeth Grosz argues that Western philosophical thought is undergirded by a ‘profound somatophobia’ (1995, p.5). This fear of the body results in a dualistic thought system that separates ‘mind’ from ‘flesh’. This corresponds, of course, with ‘valuable’ and ‘not,’ ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ The former is hard and serious, the latter, soft and silly.
I would like to say that I write against this division. That when I get into the ‘zone,’ I feel as if I’ve discovered a third leg — one that contains a mouth, an ear, a nose, a sensory organ too delicate to name. But this is not how it feels to live in a body; it is how it feels to escape it: it is how it feels to get high. And I don’t know about you, but it is when I feel that I am closing in on my body’s specific truthiness that I get the highest, though of course, never high enough. Which is why, like all good addicts, I keep coming back for more. I’m not sure if it is possible to write with my body without, in some sense, writing against it.
In her essay, ‘Making Things and Practising Emptiness’ (2011) queer theorist Eve Sedgwick frames writing as a maniacal denial of material limits. When she practises visual art (makes ‘things’) the questions “What will it let me do?” and “What does it want to do?” are in constant conversation with “What is it that I want to do?”’ (2011, 79). When she writes, however, the process is quite different:
I am an insane perfectionist —to a degree that amounts to endless self- punishment—and am fuelled by a neurotic demand for mastery even in this area that, intellectually, I know so well puts mastery altogether out of the question. But really I think anyone who’s verbally quick at all—verbally and conceptually—is liable to develop such grandiose illusions of magical omnipotence in relation to language—exactly because, unlike making things, speech and writing and conceptual thought impose no material obstacles to a fantasy of instant, limitless efficacy. (2011, p.80).
The absence of Sedgwick’s body is very present in this quotation. The disconnect she points out between her ‘neurotic demand for mastery’ on the one hand, and her ‘intellectual’ understanding that mastery is impossible on the other, imply that her neuroticism is located somewhere other than the intellect, the intellect somewhere other than the body. She understands the fantasy but such understanding is not quite enough to release her from it.
When I first read this essay, in March 2020, I felt sorry for Sedgwick. Couldn’t she see that language, too, was material? Could she not find joy in its refusal to bend to her demands, just as she could when making “things”? I thought I could; I was a creative, not a critical, writer. Having started to write fiction as an escape from my weekly Oxford essays — far too many of which were about the Victorian High Church — I couldn’t shake the notion that the former was the opposite of the latter. I was always asking what language would let me do and was OK with the answer, which was mostly: not much.
But March 2020 was the start of the pandemic and of an anorexia relapse that would derail my life for far longer than the lockdowns. It was six months after the end of my thirteen-year relationship and the rejection of what I’d hoped would become my second novel. I wasn’t sad or scared about any of this, however, because I felt the sort of nothing you can feel when you feel like a brain in a jar. I’d wanted to master my body, and now I had; my clothes hung off of me and hunger seemed like a problem of the past.
At first, the jar felt limitless. Prolonged semi-starvation made me high. I slept as little as I ate, wrote for hours and hours; my writerly and bodily ‘delusions of magical omnipotence’ only seemed to fuel one another. I was never bored.
But within a few months, the jar began to feel, well, like a jar. The high dissipated into despair, insomnia, dizziness, fatigue, anxiety, headaches. I found it hard to hold a thread of argument or narrative or even basic conversation. I dreamed only of food. I exercised excessively, compulsively, convinced that if I stopped, terrible things would happen. My neurotic desire for mastery had mastered me.
By the time I started treatment in Autumn 2021, the jar felt so cramped, yet so familiar, I didn’t believe I’d ever live anywhere else.
6. The Body that is Basically a Brain in a Jar with Holes In
‘You have an individual body in which you exist, eat, sleep and go about your day-to-day life. You also have a second body which has an impact on foreign countries and on whales’ (2017, p.19-20). So writes Daisy Hildyard. Her concept of the ‘second body’ is a way of tracking the ways in which the human body affects global eco-systems; it is a resistance to the humanist notion of human as contained individual, but rather, as part of an interdependent mesh of living organisms. It is a resistance, too, to what Rob Nixon terms the ‘slow violence’ of environmental destruction, that is to say, ‘violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all’ (2011, p.2). Hildyard writes of butchers and scientific researchers and microplastics and the flood that drives her and her family out of her North Yorkshire house. She writes of the ‘horror’ at her body’s ‘permeability,’ choosing Nina Simone and Shakespeare’s Shylock as two examples of artists who helped her to understand that one might approach one’s embodied vulnerability not with fear but with joy and dignity (2017, p.107). She mentions this horror, and its corollary, only in passing, and at the end of her narrative.
I can’t help feeling that Hildyard’s ‘horror’ has more than a little to do with Sedgwick’s neurotic need for linguistic mastery and Grosz’s somatophobia — all of which have a lot to do with anorexia. Because what is anorexia if not a refusal of both bodies, but especially the second one? It is a refusal of the notion that you need what is not-you to sustain you. This is part of the reason why feeling hunger, let alone admitting it to someone else, or acting on it, feels, to me, like failure.
One afternoon, several months into treatment, when I understood the theory of recovery — eat more, gain weight, quieten the thoughts — but was failing to practise it, I, too fuzzy-headed to read or write or even answer emails, rewatched About A Boy. It was a film I used to watch a lot with my Mum; we loved its celebratory send-up of intense, weird single mums and their intense, weird kids. We loved, too, its send-up of Will — the spoilt, rich bachelor friend, played by Hugh Grant. ‘No man is an island,’ the intense, weird single Mum tells him, when he tries to extricate himself from her child, with whom he has, despite his island tendencies, bonded. ‘Yes I am,’ he protests. ‘I am an island. I’m fucking Ibiza!’ This time, it wasn’t the child with whom I identified; it was the spoilt bachelor. It was the straight white single cis man I, a queer nonbinary afab adult child of a weird, single, queer Mum, identified. I cried for the first time in months.
7. The Body That is Not a Story
If I said that identifying with Hugh Grant was it — the turning-point at which I finally broke down and ate one of the many protein bars that were gathering dust in my cupboards, it would make a better story, though perhaps not as good as if I’d reached a life-threatening ‘rock bottom,’ such as a hospital admission.
I could list any number of reasons I swapped a slow getting worse for a slow getting better. I could say it was because of a new relationship; because trying to teach and write and socialise and do anorexia was too hard; or because I finally understood the gravity of the physical damage I was doing to myself. I could say that, like Leslie Jamison, in her essay, ‘grand unified theory of female pain,’ I accepted anorexia’s total failure as a communication system: ‘we want our wounds to speak for themselves…but usually we end up having to speak for them’ (2014). I could say that is what I am trying to do here.
But the truth is, I’m not sure what changed or why, or what writing has to do with it. In their experimental memoir of cheffing and anorexia, Elegy for an Appetite (2022), Shania Loew-Banayan writes towards this uncertainty:
I was coming back to life & that meant another fattening. I worked with other women who loved eating worked for a woman who loved feeding dated a woman with a roving and ferocious hunger. Food everywhere & our glowing giddiness of its stewardship. Or horniness or attractingness we were just magnetic with it all ourselves our livings our cookings and our eatings. No I did not seek the fattening no I did not like it either it was just another truth (2022, p.35).
This passage is packed with bodies. In the middle sentences, Loew-Banayan expresses something like Hildyard’s ‘second body’ in ‘we’ pronouns, gerunds, and a defiant absence of punctuation. It is a letting go of the ‘I’ so as to open up to others; it is as wild and as hungry as that neither-bird-nor-Crash-Bandicoot I glimpsed in White Teeth almost two decades ago. But the controlling I-am-Ibiza ‘I’ frames the passage. This ‘I’ both is and isn’t Loew-Banayan, is and isn’t anorexia; it haunts their life, telling them they’d be happier in the jar. Recovery, just as much as anorexia, seems to exceed the limits of the ego, and of language. It is a magic that feels like is being done to you – a ‘with’ that feels like an ‘against’.
But recovery is a different kind of magic to narrative. In The Undying (2019), Anne Boyer writes:
Freedom is whatever we notice because it isn’t like doing the dishes…what is important about doing the dishes, which is that it is not interesting or remarkable work in itself, but that it is the work on which everything else depends. An ongoing necessity like dirty dishes needing to be done doesn’t produce narrative. It produces quantities, like how many dishes were washed. It produces temporal measurements, like how much time was spent washing them and when. Narrative end. Quantities, hours, and dishes don’t (2019, p.107)
Boyer is writing about the difficulties of writing about her breast cancer and treatment but the passage reminds me why anorexia recovery is both hard to sustain and to write about. You eat sufficient quantities of food for sufficient quantities of time to teach your body a new story about it; your life revolves around the repetitive and un-narrative-like mundanities that sustain it. Just over a year ago, for example, I freaked out over half an egg sandwich. These days, I eat them with no fuss. To explain this change, I’d have to describe the hundreds of egg sandwiches and almost as many hours of therapy that lie between. To get anywhere near the change’s ‘why’ – well, I suspect it would bore us both to death.
Sometimes, I think I’m free: I’ve gained weight, my blood tests are normal, I can eat without worrying too much about the when, the what, the how much — just like anyone else. I can live in pure story. But this sort of thinking means I skip my afternoon snack, and if I skip my afternoon snack, anorexia skips into my brain and whispers: good. Now you can eat less at dinner. Recovery is not a narrative because bodies aren’t narratives; they aren’t quantities, either, but if I am going to find out what mine might think and feel and do and write when it’s well, I need to keep counting.
Clare Fisher is a prose writer and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sheffield. They are the author of the novel, All the Good Things (Viking, 2017), and the short story collections, How the Light Gets In (Influx Press, 2018) and The Moon is Trending (forthcoming, Salt, 2023). Their work has been published in six territories worldwide, won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Award and the International Dylan Thomas Prize.
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