Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

A police spy’s ex-girlfriend on abuse and the state: “I didn’t have a chance”

“Lisa” had the ideal partner. Then it turned out he was an undercover cop. 

In the summer of 2010, Lisa and Mark were driving a van through the mountains of Italy. Brought together by their love of nature, cycling and climbing, it was an idyllic holiday for the British couple.

Then, one day, Mark went for a cycle ride. While he was gone, Lisa opened the glove box of the van and began searching for her sunglasses. Instead, her hand enclosed on Mark’s passport. It was the first tug of the thread that has, seven years on, still not led her to the full truth. And with every tug, she would be forced to accept that more of the happiness she had experienced over the past few years was based on a lie. 

“I have tortured myself with that for quite a few years,” Lisa (not her real name) tells me when I speak to her on the phone. “What did I miss? What should I have seen? Of course, I can see things now that are clear indicators, but it is so important for me to realise I didn’t have a chance.”

Mark was not the environmental campaigner he had pretended to be for the past seven years, but Mark Kennedy, a former undercover police officer with a wife and children in Ireland. Reporting by the Guardian journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, and their follow up book, Undercover, documented how, from the late 1960s, police had been infiltrating protest groups. Their deceit extended not just to having relationships with women while undercover, but even having children with them. In Kennedy’s case, he grew his hair out, pierced his ears and moved to Nottingham, where he began hanging around cafes popular with activists and introducing himself as Mark Stone. As well as gaining a reputation as an effective organiser, Kennedy had at least two serious relationships – the second with Lisa lasted six years.

When the revelations emerged, there was widespread horror at the idea that women had been manipulated in such a way. But seven years on, the public inquiry is cloaked in secrecy (hearings are ongoing, and there was one on 5 February 2018). Since 2014, the police have fought attempts to release details, in particular the aliases the undercover police went by. These are crucial as far as the activists are concerned, because it is these names, not the officers’ real ones, that will identify police spies. Meanwhile, the women, and in some cases their children fathered by undercover officers, have had to live with the consequences.

Undercover describes the woman named as Lisa in this article as a well-connected and trusted activist. At the time of the book’s publication in 2013, she had not spoken about her experience. Five years on, she says she needed time to make sense of what had happened to her.

Kennedy pretended to his activist friends that he was a professional climber, while hinting at a shady but lucrative previous life smuggling drugs. He was a reliable driver, and a regular at protests, including one where he was beaten up by police. One of the challenges Lisa grappled with was accepting that she was not, as she initially felt, simply too stupid to notice. “He was a trained manipulator who had the whole weight of the state behind his lies,” she says. “He had fake passports. He wasn’t a normal liar who I should have spotted.”

Another reason Lisa had managed to overlook the little things was because the relationship was one of the happiest she’d ever experienced. “What I realise now is, because it was important for this cover, he was putting a lot of effort into being my ideal partner,” she says. “That is hard.” Another woman in a similar situation described it to her as having a partner without an ego. “It is hard to think what a normal relationship would be like that after that.”

Lisa with Mark Kennedy, whom she knew as the environmental activist Mark Stone

I speak to Lisa in late December, shortly after the #metoo movement sweeps the world, when the words abuse and power seem to go hand in hand. In 2011, Kennedy told the Guardian there were “no lies” about his love for Lisa and that their relationship was “the realest thing I ever did”. In 2009, shortly after a raucous 40th birthday party with his activist friends, Kennedy’s handlers reassigned him to a desk job. He subsequently quit the police and returned to the activist scene – but crucially without the fake passport the police had previously provided for him.

How does Lisa understand the relationship, all these years on?  “I think it is something I will always wrestle with,” she responds. “I do want to believe he did feel in love with me, he said that he did, and I would like to think I could recognise genuine feelings.” Initially, she attributed the abusive nature of the relationship to his employers, but over time, her view has changed.

“I still think a lot of people were responsible for what happened to me and not the one person who I was in a relationship with,” she says. “However the feelings have faded and it is very, very obvious to me that there was a huge power imbalance in that situation.

“To put someone in a position that they were consenting to a relationship [that] if they had known all the facts they wouldn’t be consenting to – that is abusive.”

It is this power imbalance that continues to haunt Lisa, even after the hurt has waned. She is haunted by the idea of backroom staff “observing my most private and intimate moments without my consent, reading my text messages”.

She also thinks about the wives of the police officers, inadvertently co-opted into the undercover world. According to Undercover, officers with wives or stable partners were preferred as undercover spies, because they were less likely to form emotional connections with the women they slept with (a whistleblower also described to The Guardian how potential spies were vetted by visits to the marital home). Their wives did not seem to merit similar consideration. “I think it is a total disregard for women’s lives,” Lisa says. She thinks about Kennedy’s children a lot, and what it was like to have “a dad part time”.

It was family that gave Kennedy away. Lisa had accepted Mark’s excuses for his absences (work), and explanations for why she had never been introduced to his family, although she once had an awkward conversation on the phone with a brother. “I realise now it was because his brother probably didn’t really want to speak to me. His brother wasn’t a police officer and was dragged into it.” When she opened his passport that day in July 2010, though, it was the discovery that he had a child listed that startled her. “People change their names for all kinds of reasons but people don’t have kids and don’t tell you about it.”

There were many more tugs of the thread to get to the truth. After discovering the passport, she confronted Mark; he claimed that in a past life he had been a drug runner, and cried for hours. They went on holiday again. It was only in the autumn that she asked a friend to help her investigate.

Lisa still hoped that her suspicions were wrong: even the revelation that he simply had another family “wouldn’t be quite so devastating”. When her friends had unearthed enough to convince her that she was right, she changed her mind and wanted to fly to Ireland to confront him. Her friends talked her down.

Instead, they persuaded her to ask him to come to them, and to her surprise, he agreed (she thinks he needed to know what information they had on him). Even then, she held out “a tiny, tiny shred of hope it wasn’t what I thought it was”.

Kennedy, who spoke to the press after he was exposed, told the Daily Mail in 2011 that the confrontation, which took place in the house of several activists, was “hugely menacing”. Lisa, though, says such fear was misplaced: “For all we knew he was still a serving police officer. We suspected he was wearing a recording device.”

Where Lisa and Kennedy’s accounts agree, it is on the emotional devastation of the moment. Kennedy said that the accusations brought him to tears, and he was “destroyed” by the look on Lisa’s face. “I think the person who turned up was a shell of a person,” says Lisa of the encounter. “He had kept this up for a long time and it was about to come crashing down. I imagine that was scary, even though we weren’t scary people. The thing we wanted was to get to the truth. We wanted him to tell us the truth.”

Since that time, Lisa has tried to move on with her life. However, her fear of encountering another undercover officer is so strong that she has had to give up many things she was passionate about, including political campaigning. She has also moved to a new town. Yet the scars take a long time to heal. “While I have got some amazing friends I would trust with my life, I haven’t found able to trust anyone in an intimate relationship since then,” Lisa says, her voice breaking up over the phone.

In late 2017, at the time the #metoo movement was sweeping Britain, Lisa joined other women formerly deceived by undercover policemen in lodging a complaint with the United Nations. Describing their experience as psychological and sexual abuse, the women argue that the UK government failed to prevent institutionalised discrimination.

Campaigners against police spies estimate that only 10 per cent of operatives have been uncovered. Lisa hopes the complaint will unearth what remains elusive – the identities of those in the back rooms, who gave Kennedy his orders, and why. “The questions I still need answers to, they are not about him – who he was,” she says. “They are about who they were. Who was directing him, who was watching our relationship and what was it all for?”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.