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Anorexia, breast binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering.

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes how recovery from anorexia is seen by many as having been achieved “when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved”. It is not just a matter of “being healthy” or “looking normal”; gaining body fat means, for a woman, gaining hips and breasts and having to contend with the gendered expectations that accompany this. A female with hips and breasts has a job to do, a role to perform, both sexually and reproductively. I did not want this role. It was easier to change my body than to ask the world to accommodate my humanity.

There is a way in which I understand force-feeding and coercive eating disorder management as a form of conversion therapy, an attempt to impose gender conformity on an unwilling subject. The problem is not the anorexia sufferer’s refusal to eat; she is absolutely correct in assuming that by gaining weight, she will be expected to give up something very personal and meaningful to her. “I have gained weight, but lost myself,” writes Nancy Tucker of her own recovery. “How can I explain that inside I remain an anorexic, but trapped in a fat suit?” How can one be seen as human being while looking like a woman? The anorexic must struggle with this conundrum, at least if she wants to live, but it cannot be hers alone to solve.

I first became ill in 1987, aged 11. I’d been an early developer, already wearing a bra at primary school. I did not want to be that person, the fat girl, the slag, the one who got her breasts groped, her bra snapped, pushed into corners, the one who ended up playing that role anyhow, because it’s less shameful to be a slut in a slut’s body than it is to be a blushing eleven-year-old prude with tits. I tried it for a while, a good eight months, then I gave up and stopped eating. Such a pattern is not uncommon. Eating disorders are more prevalent in those of us who experience an early onset of puberty. I knew, absolutely and without question, that the body I had acquired was not the one I was supposed to have. I wanted to be one of the skinny, straight girls, the ones whose bodies were indistinguishable from those of the boys. Better still, I wanted to be a boy, to never have to gain hips and breasts, or to bleed, again.

Had I been born thirty years later, starvation may not have felt like my only option. By which I do not mean that the situation for pubescent girls has improved. My groping male classmates interpreted female bodies through the lens of Playboy and page three; the harder, faster, crueller world of online porn was yet to come. I mean I could have said I was not a girl. I did not feel like a girl. I was not a girl, not that girl, not that bleeding, stinking body I had become. It would not have been a lie. If I were going through what I went through thirty years ago today, perhaps I would not have needed to flee puberty all alone. I could have asked for help. Instead of having to face down my force-feeding adversaries, I could have found adults willing to support me in my efforts to sculpt a body more in keeping with my sense of self.

For instance, recent advice given to UK schools on how to accommodate the needs of transgender children includes information on chest-binding. According to Cornwall Council, binding can be “hot, uncomfortable and restrictive – but very important to [pupils’] psychological wellbeing”. Teachers are nonetheless told to remain aware of the risk of “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting”. Lancashire County Council offers the following advice:

“If you have young people who bind their chests, monitor them carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

I’m perfectly aware that one is not supposed to question guidance of this nature. But I think, just for one moment, we should be honest about what we are witnessing. Young people who hate their breasts, absolutely loathe them, would be willing to take a knife to them and slice them off, would be practically suicidal if someone told them that these breasts were with them for life. Young people who know without doubt that their inner selves, their very identities, are wholly incompatible with the ownership of breasts. Young people who, in other words, feel exactly as I did. And instead of challenging this self-hatred – instead of acknowledging the pain (which no one did for me), but also recognising that it is not caused by the body itself – grown adults are accepting this narrative without question. Because it’s easiest. Because yes, a child still suffers, but the ends (not looking female) are deemed to justify the means (physical pain and possible long-term damage).

Pink News recently described the drawing of comparisons between anorexia and certain narratives of transgender experience as “insulting”. It was not made clear who was being insulted, but I’m guessing it was not anorexia sufferers; after all, they’re the mentally ill ones. While I have no desire to get into a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of definitions of sanity, I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the cultural, political and gendered meanings of anorexia without going all-out pro-ana and suggesting it is not an illness at all. It is an illness that operates within particular social settings, in response to and interacting with particular cultural influences. “The world gets harder and harder,” writes Hilary Mantel on self-imposed starvation. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.”  

The female-to-trans narrative offers a different way of framing the same impossible dilemma. We know that there are countless individuals who have always had this sense of not-belonging. It is now being suggested that contemporary trans politics is granting them to access the language and treatments they have needed all along. But another way of putting it might be that a vocabulary and treatment protocol have been created precisely in order to accommodate rather than challenge the relationship between gender and hatred of one’s own sexed body. What we are seeing remains a symptom, not a cure.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes her partner Harry’s experiences of binding:

“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers” you called them.”

I can easily see myself, aged 14 or 15, reading words like this over and over again, every bit as reverently as I used to read every anorexia memoir I could get my hands on, absorbing every word, feeling ashamed of not being as hardcore, of not having proven myself yet. You still have breasts. You’re not bleeding. Do better. Do more. This is not to question the genuine pain that is being depicted here. At one point Nelson reports her partner’s response to her own lack of comprehension:

“Don’t you get it? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world. I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

I don’t know a single long-term anorexia sufferer who has not expressed similar sentiments. And there is no simple response, because it is, in all likelihood, the truth. It is heartbreaking, a tragedy. We can acknowledge the validity of an individual’s suffering without losing sight of the fundamental injustice of it.

It would be wonderful if there were a simple answer to all this. Every day young women are encouraged – berated, almost – to accept their bodies, love their curves, not give a fuck about what men think. It doesn’t work. If it were that easy – if feminism were self-help, little mantras you repeat in your head, one long, extended Dove advert – we’d all be laughing. It’s not. Body positivity messages do not help, even those that do not come with advice on how to get “beautiful underarms” or “age-positive skin”. To really, truly get to the heart of what is wrong with female flesh, why it feels so hateful and alien to so many of us, we need to relate our alienation to the uses and abuses to which this flesh is put. And even then we need to accept that doing so will not necessarily save us as individuals. But the idea that sexed bodies do not match identities due to some innate mismatch – as opposed to the deeply political meanings inscribed upon them – is not just absurd, it is harmful. It leads us to focus only on our bodies and it short-circuits efforts towards long-term political change.

We are reaching a point where even questioning body-hatred is seen as a cruel denial of an individual’s inner self.  I have even seen articles including statements such as “personally, I would feel more empowered in my body […] if I heard that hating your boobs is OK”. How is one supposed to respond to that? ”Well, then, hate away?” Then there is the assumption that women who “consent” to be women – who choose not to bind or change their pronouns – must be so insensitive, so dumb, so politically unengaged as to be pacified by a quick “love your curves” slogan. The truth is that very few female people can accept their bodies as long as ownership of a female body – failure to starve it away, or crush it, or have it surgically corrected – is taken as implicit consent to be treated as a member of the inferior class.

I am not saying “burn your binders”. Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering. There is no quick fix, perhaps not even a lifetime one. But we need to think hard and keep asking questions, even if these contradict other people’s interpretations of what is possible for them.

We need to accept that an individual’s experience of themselves and their body is an interaction with the world around them. We need to do what we can to create comfort and hope. For women, there is a cost to growing and a cost to staying small. There is pain either way. But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever? No matter how much it hurts we must at least believe that.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.