Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
Show Hide image

The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Benugo
Show Hide image

The New Statesman’s ultimate Christmas lunchbreak guide 2016

What to eat and what not to eat while working during the festive season.

We all know the best thing about the festive season is working all the way up to Christmas Eve, so here’s a list of the best (and worst) high street Christmas lunch food my colleagues and I have painstakingly chewed up and spat out for your delectation:

Lunchbreak failsafes

Pret

Pret’s Christmas Lunch Sandwich, £3.60

Very much a Christmas sandwich by numbers this one – all the key ingredients of a traditional Christmas lunch, plus the inexplicable addition of mayonnaise. It’s a little too full, bits kept falling out, and while it’s not the best Christmas sandwich out there, it’s a solid midtable effort. Stephen Bush

Melvin the Melting Gingerbread Snowman, £1.25

If you take a morbid pleasure in melting a snowman, then Melvin is the gingerbread character for you. His marshmallow head wobbles above his dripping white icing body, but it’s only when you dunk Melvin in your tea that he truly crumbles into nothing but hot water. A festive treat. Julia Rampen

French Brie & Cranberry Toastie, £4.25 

Major disappointment. Tasted like feet, and not in the great cheese kind of way (more like Rachel from Friends’ traditional English trifle/shepherd’s pie way). I didn’t know it was possible to ruin brie. Pinja Saarikoski

Very Merry Christmas Lunch Vegan Baguette, £3.75

Great vegan sandwich, although the Christmas bells weren’t really a-ringing. Tasted more like a Moroccan feast, with the spicy, peppery veggies and pistachios. But I guess Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not always with turkey and stuffing. Pinja

Ham Hock & Sprout Macaroni Cheese, £5.50

We have reached peak comfort. Macaroni cheese: officially the world’s most comforting comfort food according to an extensive survey of all tastebuds and dopamine receptors. And Pret: the high street’s strong arms cradling you when you’re weak and vulnerable on a hungover mid-week lunchbreak, gently extracting a fiver in exchange for your regular dose of deliciously predictable flavours. This is what you get: a thick, creamy sauce with sprouts so cheese-drenched you’d never guess they were sprouts at all, and some unnecessary ham hock just to make it a bit Christmassy. Anoosh Chakelian

EAT

Festive Full Works Bloomer, £3.95

The texture of the bread is excellent and the serving of turkey and rocket is more than generous. But something about the after-taste doesn’t sit well. A potentially related disappointment is the failure of the press team to establish the meat’s exact provenance. While the ham has been procured “from the EU, with pigs raised in barns with natural sunlight”, the turkey “is cooked in the UK but is sourced from overseas”. India Bourke

Christmas Cheeseboard Bloomer, £3.96

This Eat sandwich takes its inspiration from a classic Christmas cheeseboard. As someone who is more excited by the abundance of yuletide cheese than Christmas presents, this was already right up my street. But cheese-filled Christmas sandwiches can often be bland, stodgy and – the greatest sin any festive meal can commit – boring. That’s not the case here. The cheddar is robust and nicely paired with soft, almost ricotta-like wensleydale, the multiseed bloomer pleasingly rustic, and the whole affair is well-seasoned with lemon and black pepper. But the inspired addition of slow-roasted figs and figgy pudding chutney are what turns a good, solid sandwich into a brilliant one. All in all, it leads to an unusual, irresistible taste and texture combo that is decidedly cheeseboard-esque. Anna Leszkiewicz

Brie and Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese, £6.50 for large portion

Hello! Is it brie you’re looking for? Well, this mac 'n' cheese has a lot of it. Loads. Tons. But it’s not the best brie in town – mild to the point of flavourlessness, but incredibly thick, this often felt more like an overly stodgy carbonara.  As for the alleged truffle – I couldn’t get so much as a whiff of it. Dull and heavy, for the price and whopping 1,000+ calories, this feels conspicuously lacking in luxury, despite the rumoured posh ingredients. (NB: This comes with an option of cranberry sauce, which I turned down. It’s possible that makes all the difference… but I’d be surprised.) Anna

Paul

Dinde de Noël baguette, £4.50

Paul’s “Dinde de Noel” is another sandwich suffering from the curse of the Christmas Cranberry. Once invisible in the UK at yuletide, the cranberry has gradually invaded the festivities, a culinary equivalent of  the green parakeet. In this case they are embedded in the baguette like war journalists, immovable and advancing on all the other flavours. Which is a shame as the turkey is nice, the spinach admirable in its attempts to get us to eat our greens on the sly and the baguette itself a vast improvement on yet another supermarket sandwich. Pretty good value too. I did find the horseradish isolated in one corner, but having it as well as the cream cheese is another case of excess. One or the other but not both. Stephen Brasher

Greggs

Greggs Festive Bake, £1.50

As my colleague ever so astutely observed last year, the Greggs Festive Bake is not actually a Christmas sandwich. A year on, that is still the case, but it remains a deliciously good value handful of crispy pastry and well-spiced turkey filling. The dusting of oniony-sagey crumbs on top of the pastry really improves what is a complex and satisfying flavour profile. If you’re already a fan of the versatile foodstuff that is the Greggs bake (and you should be: what other treat is always piping hot, can be eaten with one hand on the bus and costs less than £2?) you will love this Christmassy twist on a well-loved format. Caroline Crampton

Greggs Turkey Bacon and Cranberry Roll, £1.50

It’s like a sausage roll but with turkey, bacon and little cranberries instead of sausagemeat. My love of Greggs has spiralled out of control since they introduced their £2 coffee and bacon roll deal, and I love the sausage roll, but this didn’t quite work – the flavours don’t really blend, you just have a lot of turkey, the odd bit of bacon and a cranberry every now and then. It felt unnervingly like eating catfood. Stephen Bush

Benugo

Honey roast pulled ham and smoked cheddar bloomer, £3.75

A great sandwich, this manages to taste weirdly healthy yet also delicious, perhaps down to its deep brown bread. The cheese is plasticky and thin, in that perfect sliced way, contrasting nicely with the texture of the pulled pork. Token rocket adds to the virtue factor; the chutney takes it away again. Hearty. Helen Lewis

As someone who is not an enthusiastic meat-eater, I approached the ham sandwich with trepidation and no little guilt, but found it unexpectedly delicious – the combination of the bread, the cheese, the high-quality ham, and the chutney, if indeed it was chutney, made it a very pleasurable experience – even if I did feel a little bit guilty about eating ham. Jason Cowley

Brie, pistachio, spiced apple and chutney baguette, £3.75​

I feel about this sandwich the way I felt about my first love – though it would do me no wrong, it lacks true passion. The acidic tang of the chutney overpowers the brie, leaving me with the sensation of eating a chutney sandwich. If that’s what you want, go forth. If it isn’t, go elsewhere. Amelia Tait

Turkey, bacon and cranberry baguette, £4.25 

Another where the bread is the star – yeasty and wholesome. A good balance of flavours between the turkey and bacon, and a generous helping of cranberry sauce, plus the inevitable token rocket. Not too salty, not too sweety, and there’s even a cheeky bit of stuffing in there. The mayonnaise is possibly OTT, but really, who cares? Helen

This is slightly sweet, slightly salty and very Christmassy. Its cranberry, sage and horseradish flavourings are well-balanced. And while it’s no River Cottage in the wholesome stakes, it feels satisfyingly nutritious – a sensation backed-up by the later revelation (from their press team) that all their “turkey farms adhere to ISO901:2008 standard.” (That’s a good thing.) Plus, “the turkey is produced in South Yorkshire using exclusively British birds. The bacon is produced in Scotland using pork form the UK and EU. The pork in the stuffing is of UK origin and is also produced in Scotland.” You can taste it. India

Leon

Leon Christmas Wrap, £5.45​

“It would be Rudolph not to,” says the blurb for Leon’s hot wrap, featuring turkey, stuffing and ham hock. While I’m willing to award points for the triple meatiness, there is overall something a little generic about this wrap. Because it’s served hot, all the flavours smudge together, and the fresh spinach barely intrudes on the mix. Still, the cranberry and port sauce lifts the experience, adding sweetness what could otherwise be a weighty proposition. Helen

The Leon x Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry, £6.45

Always a little bit afraid to find out who Gizzi Erskine actually is for fear of becoming an adult, I approached Leon’s Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry with some apprehension. Everything from Leon is so wholesome and grainy and aspirational, it puts my usual eating habits in unflattering, baked bean-flavoured contrast. But this curry was delicious. The creamy, lightly spiced sauce was a lovely accompaniment to the juicy hunks of carrot and parsnip. Unusually, the turkey had some flavour too – lifted valiantly by the generous sprinkling of crispy onions. Apparently the Erskine family has this recipe on Boxing Day – a far cry from the customary stale crisps and backwash-addled Baileys, but almost as tasty. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Pistachio & Pomegranate Sprout Salad, £2.25 out/£2.70 in

Even stalwart vegetarian colleagues were a little appalled at the idea of this pistachio and pomegranate sprout salad. And they were right not to let me palm it off on them. Although each of the flavours work on their own, the jarring mixture gives the impression of a salad that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. The pomegranate dressing is tart and sweet, the pistachio crunchy and earthy, and the mint and dill sort of pointless. Maybe it’s all just to cover up the flavour of the one actually festive ingredient: sprouts. But even uniting against this common enemy doesn’t give the salad’s component parts much cohesion. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Mince Pie, £1.60 out/£1.90 in

Apparently this mince pie is wheat-free and infused with orange zest and earl grey. But what isn’t these days? I think I had a bikini wax of that description the other week. Anyway, regardless of its special features, this simply tasted like a very nice, very compact, very regular mince pie. Anoosh

Supermarket sweep

Tesco

Tesco Wensleydale & Spiced Carrot Chutney, £2.00

As soon as you open this sandwich, it smells like Christmas. The chutney to cheese ratio is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with equal servings of both making for the perfect consistency and taste. The fact it is carrot (carrot!) barely registers, and the overall sensation is extremely pleasant. That said, the perforated edges of the sandwich box were not properly perforated and thus it was difficult to open, something you might want to consider if you like an easy life. Amelia

Hovering somewhere between your standard cheese and pickle and the festive staple brie and cranberry, there isn’t much flourish to this Tesco sandwich. It’s what it says on the tin – cheese, chutney, plus a bit of spinach thrown into the mix. There are no hidden surprises, but what’s there is pretty good – the full-bodied wensleydale actually tastes of something (unlike a lot of the brie offerings) and the carrot chutney suits. If this sandwich was a date, it would probably be the right level of friendly towards your parents. Not a love match, but nice enough. Anna

Tesco Pigs Under Blankets, £2.35

There was gristle in the mini sausages which was exceptionally off-putting and I’m too traumatised to finish this sentence. Other than that, flavours were good. Amelia

Tesco Finest Turkey Feast, £3.00

According to this sandwich, vegetables are something that happens to other people. I thoroughly approve. The flavours here aren’t subtle – meat, meat and more meat – but they are clean and more-ish. The malted brown bread is quite posh, but could be posher. Some might find the egg mayonnaise texture jarring alongside the crisp bacon, moist turkey and doughy chestnut stuffing. Helen

Aldi

Festive Feast sandwich, £1.59

Aldi’s “Festive Feast” is no worse and a bit better than some other turkey/bacon/cranberry/stuffing combinations from rival supermarkets and no-one could complain about the price as it is only £1.59. Strangely, Aldi itself seems a bit shy about it with its logo hidden on the reverse of the carton underneath the recycling information. The brand seems to be “Just Tasty”, though whether this is to make it look more upmarket or downmarket against other sandwiches isn’t clear. Santa Claus is coming to town but he doesn’t want you to know about it. Stephen Brasher

Brie and Cranberry sandwich, £1.29

There are no shortages of brie and cranberry sandwiches at this time of year – only one or two will separate themselves from the pack to impress your tastebuds. This sandwich doesn’t. It’s a perfectly fine offering, not horrible, but forgettable. The word I’d use to describe it is “functional”. For those who think Christmas food should be about so much more than mere survival, this is not the one for you – but at £1.29 we can’t complain. Anna

Waitrose

Waitrose Christmas Roast beef, stilton and quince with crispy onions, £3.95 

Waitrose is so good at being Waitrose isn’t it? It just really owns it. And nowhere does it lean further in to its status as lord of the supermarket manor than its roast beef, stilton and quince sandwich. It comes in a little box the shape of a house, for god’s sake. You basically buy property when you buy this sandwich. And it is a sophisticated affair – succulent beef, fiery stilton, the sweet hit of quince on your saliva-drenched tongue. You will never quite be able to look Tesco in the eye again. Also, thrillingly, it comes with a mini add-your-own bag of crispy onions. The bourgeois equivalent of the salt ‘n’ shake crisps sachet. Crunch ‘n’ class. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Clementine Juice, £1.40

A shameless hasty seasonal rebrand of, uh, some orange juice. But a little weaker and without bits in. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Sandwich, £3.20

I can't work out why this sandwich was terrible, but it was. Despite the fact that it has everything you'd want, the essentials of a good Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, cranberry), it doesn't work. The ingredients were poor – the bacon sharp and flavourless, as if a piece of plastic had been left in, the stuffing dry, the turkey forgettable – the bread dry, the mayonnaise overpowering. Avoid. Stephen Bush

Heston Charcoal Bagel with Tea Smoked Salmond, £3.60

This is a really posh bagel. First of all, it’s black. Way classier than your standard beige, or flashy Instagram-courting rainbow. And it has a picture of an opulently-robed salmon on the front of the packet, tempting you in with its knowing gaze. The dill and “caraway pickled cucumber” (ie. a bit of gherkin) lift the flavour of the classic cream cheese and salmon combo. The only real Christmassy element is the lump of coal (ok, charcoal). It all tastes delicious, but there are far too many chia seeds on the bagel. They drop off everywhere and get stuck in your teeth. A middle-class nightmare. Anoosh

Sainsbury’s

Brie and Cranberry, £2.60

Tasty, not too sweet, but also could have been a little bit more robustly stuffed with ingredients. Julia

Taste the Difference Crab, King Prawn & Avocado Sandwich, £3

This seafood smorgasbord is the most delicious lunchtime snack I’ve had in some time. Like a kiss from the sea, or, more accurately, a snog with a mermaid. The avocado was a perfect creamy bed for the tangy but sweet meat. But if crab, prawn and avo mean festive flavours to you, then I’m sorry, but I don’t ever want to come to yours for Christmas dinner. It’s all about chewy and bland poultry, not poncey sea beasts. Anoosh

M&S

Scorched Squash with Beetroot & Pomegranate Relish wrap, £2.80

This sandwich is trying too hard. Yes, there’s parsnip mayonnaise. Yes, the sage and thyme wrap has a slight stuffing aftertaste. Yes, 5 per cent of the £2.80 cost goes to charity. But, no it is not remotely festive. Finding interesting veggie options at Christmas can be tough, I admit, but the best idea is often to keep it simple. What even is “scorched squash”? Serena Kutchinsky

Festive Feast Trio, £3.30

Trios are very Christmassy. The three wise men. Seeing three ships. The number of days you stick to your New Year’s resolution. So M&S gets points for its “Festive Feast Trio” just for that. But it’s also a passable seasonal platter, spread between three rolls. The “posh” prawn cocktail sandwich is only really posh by Seventies starter standards – the slimy prawns are lent an all-important crunch by the cucumber and lettuce, but it’s nothing special. Then there’s the turkey feast and brie, which doesn’t have much flavour at all – but that’s probably because it’s turkey and brie. The third wise sandwich, cheddar and grape chutney, is more moist and punchy. Basic dry, unflashy bread all round. It’s an ok selection if you can’t decide which sandwich to buy, but honestly, you should be able to decide this far down this article. Anoosh

Venison & Sour Cherry Chutney, £4.50

With the sale of Sir Edward Landseer’s most famous painting in the news, what better to accompany a viewing than a M&S Venison and Sour Cherry Chutney sandwich? It’s a winner but a little less filling would allow you to taste the venison properly and the sandwich would be more Monarch of the Glen and less “The Stag at Bay”. Stephen Brasher

Morrisons

Turkey Dinner Sandwich, £2.30

The full-works supermarket sandwiches tend to all merge into one, but this one is slightly better than the others – the cranberry sauce is a bit tarter and less pointless. Anoosh

The ghost of Christmas future

HUEL

Christmas Pudding Huel, £28 for 1.7kg (14 meals), £45 for two

“Nutritionally complete meals in a couple of minutes.” This is the message from techy flour merchants Huel (“human fuel”, not “gruel”, despite appearances). Yes, once climate change destroys all the Big Macs, the food of the future will come in varying sizes of clinical sealed white pouches, complete with a helvetica font. Its mission? To make whole meals “with minimal impact on animals and the environment”. If you’re an eco-friendly health fadder, this will be just your cup of powder.

As it’s Christmas, I tried the Christmas Pudding flavour. I mixed one scoop (38g, 152 calories – nearly a packet of Walker’s crisps, I wistfully discovered) in my special giant space beaker with the required amount of cold water. Then I drank a little bit of it. Then I shuddered. It tastes of over-diluted, grainy powdered milk, with a sprinkling of grated cardboard. It has the consistency (but none of the sugary flavour) of leftover cereal milk. The aftertaste is a sort of woody processed spice, like really cold tiny fragments of clove coating your tongue. The vanilla flavour is more palatable, but I reckon the best thing to do with this Christmas pudding is to set fire to it and leave it at that… Anoosh

Coffee shop pitstops

Costa

Turkey & All the Trimmings Toastie, £3.95

Quite pleasant but the overwhelming taste is of a wet turkey struggling to get out of a vat of cranberries and ultimately drowning. Stephen Brasher

Pigs in Blankets Panini, £4.25

I will admit I consumed this in sub-optimal conditions – heated in the office microwave, rather than grilled. But that doesn’t really excuse its blandness. I mean, come on. There are two types of pork here, plus “herby stuffing” and cranberry sauce, and the damn thing is 559 calories. How do you make anything 559 calories and not be nice? By this point, the conscientious dieter will already have mentally rejected this in favour of a chicken salad, so why not go the whole hog and put some more cheese in it? And yet nothing in here really tasted of anything more than “vague meat”.

Also, because the ciabatta hadn’t been stamped flat in a grill, it was difficult to keep the sausages – which were unpleasantly flaccid – under control. They slid out and nearly landed in my lap. (I should have taken this as a sign and abandoned them.) On a bitterly cold day, I can see this being a tempting option when it emerges toasty fresh from a grill, but it isn’t to be contemplated under any other circumstances. Helen

Gluten Free Turkey, Bacon and Cranberry Wrap, £3.20

There are two things you need in a successful wrap, whatever the time of year: an even spread of tasty ingredients and enough structural integrity that it won’t leak in your hands. Sadly, this offering from Costa could provide neither of these things in full measure. The turkey was more flavourful than in your average shop sandwich (ie, it had a slight poultry taste) but it, as well as the lettuce and bacon, had bunched at the top, meaning that after a couple of bites I was just eating wrap and sauce. And that sauce – the sweet cranberry jam had leaked out the bottom of both halves of my wrap, leaving me with unpleasantly sticky fingers. The wrap itself is slightly chalky in texture, as is usual with gluten free products (it’s made mostly from tapioca starch, according to the list of ingredients). The flavour combination is reassuringly Christmassy, but unfortunately the starchy wrap rather dampens any festive spirit this contender might have evoked. Caroline

Starbucks

Starbucks Turkey Feast baguette, £3.99

This one really is a feast: bacon AND turkey in a harmonious conversation with each other. Surprisingly the turkey tastes like what your momma makes at home, and there really is some smoky maple in the bacon. Some more cranberry chutney would perk it up to perfection, but all in all I’m left happy. Right until I remember it came from Starbucks, and start thinking about America. Pinja

Festive Veggie Feast baguette, £3.99

A Starbucks food sceptic, I did not expect to be won over by their Veggie Feast Baguette. But it was a triumph. The baguette is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, the squash full of autumnal flavour, the sage and onion stuffing ensuring this is decidedly Christmas fare. But it’s the cheese that really makes the sandwich – there is absolutely tons of rich brie, thoroughly melted and paired with a delicious real ale chutney. While other festive veggie options can feel far too healthy to really count as Christmas food, this is indulgent in the best way. Anna

High street treat

Pizza Express

Porchetta Natale Romana Pizza, £13.20

Before going further, I must admit to being an unpicky Pizza Express fan. Give me anything on a Romana base and I’m yours. So it’s unsurprising that I loved the seasonal special “Porcetta Natale Romana”, which is apparently a “delectable twist on the classic Christmas roast dinner” – or “pigging delicious”, according to a more straightforward bit of the press release. It is a juicy and delicious meat feast: pulled pork, herby stuffing, glistening scrunches of pancetta. Its triumph is also its downfall, however. By bypassing the dull flavours of turkey it also ducks being an authentic Christmas dinner on a pizza. Anoosh

Snowball Dough Balls, £3.85

The only thing more delicious than fluffy balls of dough are fluffy balls of dough with wordplay attached. So it was with disappointment that I learned Pizza Express’ seasonal rebrand of its classic dough balls starter aren’t called snow balls. Not even snough balls. No, they’re called Snowball Dough Balls. Which is silly. Still, piping hot, dusted with cinnamon and dipped in rich vanilla cream, their sheer tastiness almost makes you forget the missed opportunity to pun. Almost. Anoosh

Cauliflower Cheese Romana Pizza, £12.50

Have you ever eaten a delicious pizza, dripping with cheese, smothered in garlic, and thought, “Nice, but what would make this really amazing is some cauliflower?” No? Well, Pizza Express assumes you have with its veggie Christmas special, Cauliflower Cheese. It always slightly amazes me what meat-eaters think will get vegetarians salivating – hint: not cauliflower! But this pizza is actually really nice, mostly because of its other winning ingredients: pecorino, “pink” onion, and pine kernals. It loses points for me for having no tomato. There’s nothing that draws me to this pizza over the chain’s other (brilliant, in my humble opinion) offerings, but it’s not bad either. Anna

The artisan choice

Forman & Field

Traditional Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese Bagel, the “Boris Bagel”,​ £5.95 for two

It’s the “Boris Bagel”, from the people who brought you the Boris Bike and the Boris Bus... Except this is not double-decker and you can open it, unlike a Boris Bus window. Actually H Forman & Son are the oldest remaining salmon smokery on Fish Island in the East End, an area once home to London’s largest Jewish population and still several legendary bagel shops. This bagel has definitely got that authentic chewy, glossy quality familiar to regulars at Brick Lane’s 24-hour Beigel Bake, and a world away from crumby supermarket fare. You know when you have top-quality smoked salmon, and this is it: a classy shade of pink, and you can taste that swirling oak smoke. It’s offset by some nice creamy cream cheese, and elevated with chopped chives and lemon juice. Not exactly a Christmassy choice – perhaps one for Hannukah. What makes it Boris-y? It seems it was named after him after he sang the praises of Forman’s, and opened their new factory. But that was back when he was Mayor of London. Does Brexit mean bagels too? Oh and where’s the Sadiq Sarnie? Tom Calvocoressi

Letterbox lunch

Graze

Merry Mince Pie Flapjacks, £1.19

It is arguably against the very spirit of baby Jesus to eat something that tastes like a mince pie but is not a mince pie. This, however, is good news for mail-order desk snack connoisseurs Graze’s Mince Pie Flapjack, as – despite the name – it tastes nothing like the traditional festive offering at all. What it does taste like, however, is gingerbread, which is fine, really. Better for everyone. As a spicy, Christmas flapjack, this will warm your bellies. As a mince pie? It is nought. Amelia

Posh crisps

Fairfield’s Farm

Kelly Bronze Turkey, Sage & Onion crisps, 80p

These high-quality crisps have a satisfying thickness, reminiscent of Kettle Chips and other similarly posh potato-based snacks. The simple, stylish black packaging is eye-catching. And you can assuage waistline guilt safe in the knowledge that this is a product with strong eco-credentials – the crisps are hand-cooked on a family-run farm in Somerset using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The only problem is the flavour. The turkey taste is weak, and the sage and punchy onion is overwhelming. The overall effect is that on the first bite they seem flavour-free, only for a salty aftertaste to hit seconds later. Definitely one for sharing, rather than solitary scoffing. Serena

All images are publicity shots from the respective outlets, apart from those used to illustrate Waitrose and HUEL, which are the author's own.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.