Lost in translation
by Emma O'Brien
I’ve had this thing in my mind for a really long time now.
I feel a need to apologise to my best friend for something that’s been in the room for as long as we’ve known each other.
We met when I was 15. She was a bit younger. We bonded over shared idiosyncratic childhood crushes and failed attempts at writing on chalkboards with our mind-power like in Matilda, and somewhere along the way she became my other sister; as much a part of my being as my limbs or my lungs.
I don’t think either of us were especially happy teenagers, and that’s maybe why we needed our relationship.
I did a therapy exercise once, that required you to imagine somewhere safe and happy, and my mind took me to her bunk bed in her mum’s old house in about 2001 when, in the way of teenage girls, we were basically never apart.
I have this memory of the first time I stayed there: she apologised for the mattress, which had prominent springs. I remember her saying, “It pokes my ribs so I can only imagine how it’s going to be for you.”
And there, that’s The Thing.
She is fat.
Always has been. Not lazy, not a glutton, not a perennial dieter; just fat.
She won’t mind me saying that. The only thing that would piss her off is that most people will probably criticise me for saying it, and try to reassure her that she really isn’t.
But she is.
It’s just a fact; a description. The problems only come when we start attaching a status and value-judgement to a state of physical being.
And this is where I come in. I have anorexia.
Though it may be more appropriate to say that for the last couple of years, anorexia has had me.
I’m not a typical anorexic, according to the staff at the day unit I’m in right now (though, in a lot of ways, I’m sadly all too typical).
I developed severe and chronic OCD in childhood, which came with the free gift of a vomit phobia. This, by default, created a complex and aversive relationship with food. I have never, in my life, been any bigger than a size 10.
I have never been overweight. Nobody has ever suggested to me that I might need to lose weight. In fact, they envy me.
Girls who would cross the road for the chance to bully me at school, women so beautiful I feel like sentient dog turd standing next to them, mothers, professors, nurses even:
“Oh, but you don’t have to worry about anything, you’re so lovely and slim!”
I ‘don’t have to worry’. What a fucking joke. Would be nice if it was fucking funny.
Anyway, long story short, food and I were never on comfortable terms. And the people around me when I was younger seemed to see this as some kind of bonus, a little bit of good luck. I would always be slim, without having to diet or deny myself food I wanted.
It was not a bonus. It was a horrible state to be in.
I need to be clear about something: I don’t do the clichéd things we are told All Women Do.
I have never read a fashion magazine in my life (except when my mate Juliette is in Cosmo, cos she’s awesome and has a Muppit of herself.)
I’m not preoccupied with looking good. I am, in fact, far more preoccupied with wearing make-up that makes me feel slightly better about my face, because then people might see me and think, “Ahahahaha, that girl thinks she looks alright, when in fact she is the literal embodiment of cat vomit!”
I don’t do what adverts tell me to. Which is just as well, really, because I saw a Veet trimmer advert yesterday where this woman did her brows after she did her bikini line, and now she has pube brows.
I don’t look at women in the street and put imaginary circles around their stomachs to make myself feel superior.
My mother didn’t diet. She didn’t keep scales in the house around her daughters, and she certainly never told us we might need to diet. If anything it was getting the bastard food down my shrieking, terrified throat that was the issue.
I don’t think about women I’ve slept with and remember if they had slightly uneven thighs; I only know they were beautiful.
In four years, my ex boyfriend never considered the possibility that any part of my physical being was anything less than exactly perfect.
But those who know me have all, over a number of years, seen me attempt to filter and process my deep-rooted beliefs that I am too stupid/too ugly/too loud/too quiet/too annoying/too worthless, through the language of “I am too fat.”
And that’s why I want to say sorry to my best friend.
See, if I were to describe her to you normally, I wouldn’t consider her relative size to mine. I would tell you she is beautiful, curious, witty, observant and clever, and has three spinning wheels in her house - and has never had any trouble getting laid, just for the record.
But so many times when she’s seen me starving and shaking, reeling and crying over a Boots meal deal, it may well have sounded as if I thought size was the most important measure of a person’s value, to me.
But I never have. Because I know that I am not, and never have been, fat.
And that even if I were, it wouldn’t matter a toss to anyone who was going to love or like me anyway.
I didn’t get an eating disorder because we live in a misogynistic, diet-obsessed culture of lifestyle criticism.
I got an eating disorder because really, fundamentally, under my smart wit, sarcasm and third-wave feminism, I believe that I am worthless, and that I must apologise for my existence and show as much as possible every day that I understand, I understand I’m awful and I’m trying to punish myself appropriately.
When I lose weight, it’s not a shock to anyone, because I’m only speaking in the language of Generations of women who have read, seen and heard that when they feel bad, they’re supposed to feel fat.
Who are drip-fed every day, the idea that those two things are the same.
And if you learn to think and speak like that, not as your first language, but to express things about yourself that you can’t say out loud for fear the world will shatter under your unworthy feet, you’re really in fucking trouble.
I want to apologise because I know better. I want to apologise because all of this should be really obvious. And I want to apologise for who I am and what I’ve failed to be.
I have nieces, sparkling beautiful happy little niecelets who are going to be pushed out into the middle of all this, and I want to apologise to them for the whole fucking thing.
And maybe that’s why we should ask why we’re still fucking doing this.
And try to change it for the better, for us all.