I wrote this post way back in 2006 for a body image zine and posted it on the old Mind the Gap blog. I still stand by it, but if I wrote it now, I’d say more about my experiences of sexual abuse and pay more attention to the ways in which being white and middle-class shaped my specific experience.
At the farthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death, Susan Bordo
I have something to say about bodies and discipline. Drawing upon my own experiences of growing up female, I’m going to try and articulate some connections between the sexual harassment of girls and the development of poor female body image and distressed eating. I define the term “sexual harassment” broadly here, referring not only to unsolicited sexual attention or undesired subjection to sexual material, but also to the general sexual “harassment” of women exerted through the disciplinary practices that Naomi Wolf dubbed “the beauty myth.”
The development of female secondary sex characteristics (breasts, body hair, curves etc) triggers the disciplinary apparatus of acceptable or normative “femininity.” Where the body is concerned, in western culture, female adolescence is treated as a kind of “breaking” in process. Girls suddenly find themselves subject to a whole range of pressures and rules; some accept it without much questioning, others attempt to resist in various ways. I found that from the time I began to develop my adult sexual body my sense of power and autonomy started to be eroded. Like most children, I had been powerful in my body: strong, autonomous and self-contained. I had not been aware of any sense of psychic split between my body and what I perceived to be myself. Now I found my body more subject to the judgemental gaze of others. I was brought my first bra early, when I was 10 years old and the boys immediately started making comments and ‘pinging’ my bra strap. Some adult men also started to look at me in a way that made me uncomfortable. Young women are encouraged to believe they are under surveillance all the time. Even if you have a non-oppressive family in this respect, the gaze is implied in magazines, on television and advertising, as well as on the streets and in school. From my self-contained, self-regarding, autonomous child’s body, I was slowly pressurised to see myself through the eyes of ‘others.’ These others are not necessarily actual people, although some obviously are, but they are no less effective when they are imaginary. Most importantly, I began to develop a sense of a split between what I considered to be myself (my mind and spirit), and my body, which gradually became viewed as the enemy, almost a separate entity to be constantly policed. This enforced dualism and body alienation is vital in the production of properly regulated and disciplined female bodies. It is also incredibly harmful to women and their health. We see its effects in their most extreme forms performed by the bodies of anorexics fighting to subdue and control their unruly, enemy bodies through starvation sometimes even to the point of death.
Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity – a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attend to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion – female bodies become docile bodies – bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, “improvement,” Susan Bordo
The body fascism inherent in the school environment works to regulate teenagers’ bodies through a kind of gender bullying – to which boys are also subject in different ways. Girls quickly start to judge each other and set up hierarchies based on who conforms to certain standards of (hetero) sexual attractiveness. For the first couple of years I tried to resist: I refused to wear any make up; I said “no” to the tight clothes and short skirts favoured by my peers; initially, I absolutely would not shave my legs. For me this was the only possible means of rebellion against the norm. I was angry because, on some level, I knew I was being oppressed by something I couldn’t name or fight. Then, one day when I was about 13 an older boy said to me rather kindly, “Isn’t it time you started to shave your legs?” After that I gave in and started shaving. There was just something so overwhelming about his solicitous tone of voice. As far as he was concerned he had my best interests at heart and, in a funny sort of way, he did. He just thought I was too slow to realise I should be shaving already.
By the age of 14, I was wearing a 36 DD bra. Although there were nice boys and I always had male friends, there was a larger group who believed it was their role to degrade women. Among these boys my name was “TITS.” That is, if I was lucky. If I was unlucky, it was “FUCKING MASSIVE TITS.” That was my designation: for 5 years I was “TITS” – no more nor less than the mammary glands on my chest. There was one more kindly character who used to call me ‘chesty,’ for which I was actually grateful. My best friend was considered overweight and her nickname was “big foot.” The boys would chant “big foot, big foot, big foot” when they saw her coming.
During this time, a male classmate subjected me to a more concerted period of sexual abuse and harassment. He would grab my breasts in the corridors. He jumped on me in the playground and rubbed himself against my body while I struggled to push him off. Whenever I was within eyesight or ear reach he would abuse me verbally with a stream of obscenities. In class he tried to sit opposite me to make threatening gestures. My teachers’ responses made the situation worse. I told my form tutor. She took me aside and gave me a talk about how we were all “growing up” and “boys did this sort of thing” because “boys will be boys.” So the harassment continued unabated. It was during this time that I began to eat compulsively and gained weight. I also grew my hair so that it partially covered my face. At a school concert my mother suddenly realised that she hardly recognised me because I had changed so much. Who was this pale, puffy, miserable looking girl bearing so little resemblance to her formerly bolshy child? Eventually, I could take no more. My mother tried to drive me to school. I would run after the car or start crying and hyperventilating. My father went to the school to complain, only to be told by the head teacher: “Your daughter has always been a problem.” At the time I was outraged, but now I can see that he was, in his way, telling the truth. From his perspective, I was indeed the problem because, as far as he was concerned, my classmate was behaving like a typical boy. I was supposed to be a typically “good” girl, put up and shut up, but I was causing no end of trouble by speaking out and complaining. In the end, I wrote a letter to the head teacher detailing every incident and sparing him nothing in language. Once he had it on paper he had little choice but to act and he could be effective when he chose. After I complained, other girls came forward to make similar verbal statements about the same boy. He was suspended for a couple of weeks and told, in no uncertain terms, never to anything of the sort again. But he was not excluded or removed from the classes we shared, so I still had to face him every day for the rest of my school career, with the result that I never felt comfortable or happy in the environment. It seemed a heavy punishment for having been the victim.
So I sort of won my battle, but the damage had already been done. I repressed my anger and started to seriously kick the living shit out of myself. During the period of abuse, I had already got into the habit of compulsive eating and would eat so much that I found myself in pain. After a while I started making myself vomit for relief. My experience of harassment at school played a major role in consigning me to the hell of eating distress, which was to afflict my life for the next 10 years.
I was bulimic until I was 16 and followed the bingeing and purging pattern. I actually gained more weight during this period because I ate so much. This was ok with me; I wanted to be “fat” and “ugly,” as I perceived it. Then I left school and went to the local tertiary college to start my A levels. I decided to make a new start, change my image and loose the extra weight. I guess I wanted to try and conform – sick of the misery caused by resistance. But my eating problems took a more sinister turn as the anger I’d been repressing began to surface. I started to diet and quickly achieved success, loosing a stone without any problems. I started to weigh myself every day and keep food diaries. The admiration and compliments I received from friends and family only served to reinforce the behaviour. Even good people are conditioned to react positively when they see evidence of weight loss in a young woman; they don’t stop to think what damaging behaviours they might be reinforcing when they tell her how well she’s doing and how fantastic she looks. I counted calories obsessively, dropping from 2000 a day, to 1000 a day and finally to my ultimate goal of 500 a day. I drank pints of water, ate 100s of apples and walked as much as possible. Every time I looked in the mirror a fat monster stared back at me and I vowed again to do better. I lied to my family constantly; I would tell any lie as long as I got to continue my behaviour. Sometimes I would binge and purge. From a strong, assertive and often extremely naughty little girl, I became an anxious, thin young woman who spent most of her time obsessing about her appearance, rather than fighting with the world.
When I was 19 I finally started to fight back. Feminism has helped immensely, but there was no overnight cure; over the past 7 years I have been periodically beset by bouts of illness, usually triggered by stress. I know it could come back again given the right circumstances and that ultimately only I can make the decision to get fully better.
The [anorexic] woman’s body may be viewed as a surface on which conventional constructions of femininity are exposed starkly to view, through their inscription in extreme or hyper literal form. They are written of course, in the language of horrible suffering. It is as though these bodies are speaking to us of the pathology and violence that lurks just around the corner, waiting at the horizon of “normal femininity,” Susan Bordo.
The “beauty myth” is a subtle and insidious form of domination which regulates, polices and produces the disciplined and often sick bodies of young women. Women are placed under enormous pressures of expectation with regard to their appearance, and the lens through which they are expected to regard themselves is the lens of misogyny. No wonder so many hate what they see in the mirror, because they are constantly subjected to a gaze that hates the bodies of women in their natural state. We live in a world in which the epitome of female beauty is the dead-eyed, bone-thin body of the supermodel, a passive clotheshorse – an automaton rather than a woman. The anorexic body is therefore an extreme version of exactly what misogyny does want from women – to keep them tiny, childlike and weak.
Feminist theorists such as Susie Orbach and Susan Bordo have both argued that anorexia is a kind of unconscious rebellion, a female protest. Wrong headed and hideously self-destructive, “counterproductive” and “tragically self-defeating,” of course, but a protest nonetheless. Little wonder that we use the only we’ve thing got – our bodies – to mount protests; if our bodies are being surveyed anyway, this is the obvious place to demonstrate. In a sense, the anorexic body throws body surveillance back in the face of culture: “Go on look at me, I am in pain. Do you like what you see? Is this what you wanted?” For women, it is not surprising that the adult female body becomes the object of such intense hatred, because it seems to be the source of our suffering. Many anorexics will tell you that it’s as much about being in “control” as it is about being thin. This is certainly not the whole story, but it is an important part of it. I know that I don’t have any great desire to be thin simply for the sake of it, but I do want to control my body, because for years it seemed to have been taken out of my control, owned, surveyed and grabbed at by other people. Eating disorders are also a way of saying “this body is mine, I will do what I want with it and not one of you can stop me.” I guess death is the ultimate escape from the pressures of womanhood. Anorexics feel this to be true. What we have to realise is that, if we are to survive, there are better ways to resist than destroying our bodies.
It does not have to be this way, but things are getting worse and we have to change for the sake of everyone. Young women must be raised to believe that their bodies belong to them; ways must be found to effectively counter the media. Families and schools have got to stop looking the other way when the bones begin to show. Resistance must include an analysis of capitalism, which produces the market for the beauty and diet industries. While women, and increasingly men, indulge in useless, damaging, painful and even dangerous beauty practices, the multi-billion pound beauty industry rips them off at the expense of their bodies and minds. Eating disorders and body anxiety are growing among boys and young men. Why? Because the beauty industry has realised that if it can convince them to do what women have been doing for years, it can make many more millions. Is this what we want? An insane world in which vast numbers of men and women hate, starve and torture themselves and waste their time and energies in the pursuit of impossible ideals, in the pursuit, in other words, of nothing.