Friday, October 8, 2010

the (wo)man in the mirror

I have (and have always had) a slightly warped relationship with mirrors. I was about nine when I realised that certain mirrors in the house were more flattering than others. The one in my room, for example, always makes me look a little thinner than I really am. The one in my father's room (mounted on a huge chest of drawers) is more accurate, perhaps because of the good light streaming in through the windows. When I went to Rhodes I graduated to a kind of mirror-university as well. At Hobson House, there are several flights of stairs, and each wall facing the stairs has a full length mirror. There was another one just down the hall from my bedroom on my way to the bathroom. I must have looked at myself in the mirror twelve times just going to breakfast and back. Perhaps the most famous mirrors are those ones in clothing store change-rooms. You can really see if-your-butt-looks-big-in-this in the Woolworths three-mirror sets, and at the less pseudo-highbrow store, Legit. The changing room mirrors in Mr. Price are by far the worst. It's almost impossible not to feel huge in those slightly neglected cubicles with the spare hangers on the floor and the harsh light hanging above the single mirror that shows up every wobble. Countless articles have been written in Women's magazines about the terrible way our bodies look in changing room mirrors, so I'm not going to whine on about that for a while and then sum it all up in a cute conclusion about how my boyfriend thinks I look beautiful anyway or how I woman-bonded with someone else in the queue who felt exactly the same way.

It's not even really about the mirrors, or the woman in the mirror. It's about (Oprah-revelation moment) me looking at myself in the mirror, and what I see. I am horrified - for example - when I look at my matric photographs. In my head, I was always a little larger than most, but never the little round person I see when I look back. I never saw the round person in the mirror.

At University, I was amazed at how much weight I was losing (finally eating properly and exercising enough) that I'm sure my morning routine (again in front of my mirror, trying on clothes, seeing how thin I looked) became almost narcissistic. My mother lost her temper with me because I kept looking at myself in the mirror to check that I was still thin. I denied it at the time, but she was right, I was terrified of putting all that weight back on and ridiculous as it sounds, I had to keep checking that I hadn't.

This is where writing this blog gets a little embarrassing. I get embarrassed watching all those people on television and reading about them in the magazines: how they were huge but just couldn't stop themselves from eating (tears inevitably leak out of the corners of their eyes as they tell the story) and a fair amount of the population who have never had the misfortune to be overweight look on in complete incomprehension. Then the large person comes on the television show or comes out in the article looking marvelously skinny and happy and everyone claps approvingly. Then a few years later (like me) they put on weight again, despite having lived a healthy lifestyle for years.

So how did I become this embarrassing person? When did I take on this debilitating and trivial (even more humiliating because it is such a seemingly trivial thing to fix) eating disorder? I shouldn't even have to write about this. I'm 23 years old. Surely there are more important things in life I should be focusing on instead of my diet and exercise: something I sorted out years ago. I am intelligent, highly educated and I have a healthy body that responds well to exercise. I am not and have never been prone to asthma or joint problems or sports injuries. I am even well co-ordinated. So what is my problem?

Firstly, I have always seen not being afraid to splurge on dessert or pizza as a sign of feminist forwardness. I shouldn't have to restrict my diet like a girl who wishes to be something close to a brainless barbie doll. Talking about food and what one should and shouldn't eat isn't as important as what is happening in my mind and in my soul.

Of course, what happens to my body is actually what feeds my mind and my soul. If I feed it with coca-cola and cigarettes, I won't be able to concentrate very well because of all the sugar spikes. I may even become moody (not a good look for the soul) or unpleasant.

And anyway, who said that the mind and the soul floated above my body and were separated from it? Our bodies are our mind and soul. When we feel nervous or extremely sad, the pit of the stomach starts to hurt. When I had the idea for my thesis topic, my whole body tingled with joy. It stands to reason that talking about food and nourishing my body is important.

Then there's the ugly factor. When I was at my thinnest, I remember sitting at a lunch table and hearing a then-friend say that she would never be friends with anyone who was ugly. I felt sick and horrified at this person. Firstly, no-one is "ugly" unless they are a horrible, twisted person who makes life a misery. "Beauty" really is relative. Advertising and media saturation makes female "beauty" something standard (stick-thin figure with big boobs, Bridget Bardot lips and big, long hair). Actually, different cultural mores make many different bodies and appearances beautiful. I probably also felt so sick because it nudged at one of the reasons I became thin: overweight people are often thought of as "ugly". At school I remember being told I looked like a dancing couch. Ouch.

It is also (apparently) everyone else's business when a person puts on or loses weight. When people started commenting to my face about how much weight I'd lost and how good I looked (they didn't say anything when I put some back on, though I had heard those same people talking about the weight gain of others so I knew they were talking about me) I felt like they wanted to own some part of my body.

It was around this point I realised I had been sucked into the "beauty" hamster-wheel myself. I now had a friend who wouldn't be friends with anyone like me. I say "like me" despite the fact that I was close to 52 kg and no-one would call me "ugly" because I was fat. It was more because - to misquote George Orwell in his novel "Coming Up for Air" - inside my thin (woman) was a fat (woman) trying to get out. So being thin wasn't a guard against people who were shallow, and I still sometimes felt sixteen kgs heavier. What I did feel was a lot more energetic, cheerful and able to take on the world.

So it is not being overweight that I object to. It is the wilful damage of our bodies that prevent us from experiencing the vitality we have when we are a healthy weight. Knowing that, how did I come to damage my body (again)? I've realised that when certain people work extremely hard they have little time for fun, so food becomes the fun. A chocolate (for example) is super-sweet, in a brightly coloured wrapper and one has to go out to a brightly-coloured shop to get the super-sweet chocolate.

Also, I have to confess and admit that certain foods can become an addiction. I have heard it said that sweets set off some of the same happy chemicals in your brain that cocaine does. Now some people can sample a drug every now and again and not get hooked, whereas others start to spiral into addiction from the very beginning. This kind of characteristic is usually genetic. Now, both my grandfathers were such serious alcoholics that neither of them saw 65, almost everyone in my family is either a smoker or ex-smoker and my uncle is addicted to gambling as well as cigarettes. Clearly, I am susceptible and my earlier blog about my not being addicted to anything was incorrect. Refined sugar is my drug of choice.

Being overweight (and a sugar-addict) can have nearly as many health risks as being a life-long smoker. I could get diabetes, have a heart-attack, a stroke or suffer from countless other diseases. It also hinders my daily life in little, irritating ways.

The moral of the story? People's relationships with their bodies (and the bodies of others) are frequently misinformed and often more complicated than one can explain. I realise that this blog is confusedly written. It's because there are more factors and they are more intricately related than it is is possible to explain in one blog. It's not about the weight, it's about our loving our bodies and wanting what is best for ourselves, but it is about the weight: we cannot love ourselves and masochistically overfeed ourselves.

So the tricky thing is to get off the "beauty" wheel and truly love and cherish my body and encourage others to go forth and do likewise. And I really do need to get over my sugar addiction. Next time you see me, ask me how long I've been clean.


  1. Oh Clea, I love your wit, and I love your honesty.

    Please believe me, I hear you loud and clear. The scary thing is, 'nothing tastes as good as thin feels', as the fridge magnet goes. There's a terrifying buzz one gets from being really hungry, and learning to control that hunger. Its the closest I've ever been to being the master of my own domain, and I am sad to say that I've also had my brushes with eating disorders. Never bulimia (ugh) but getting hooked on being thin. The compliments, the admiration, the control and the way clothes just look better...

    The relationship is complicated, and always a reflection of everything else that goes on under the surface. Today, I changed my pants because my hips looked too wide. I am wearing my Thai fat pants. I have no rational reason to do this, other than the fact that I am so obsessed with looking good and being the best that having any kind of shape seems to undercut that.

    This is the kind of ridiculous stupidity my brain tosses up at me every day, and its something nearly every woman struggles with every day. Some men as well.

    I love you for speaking out what so many of us feel, every day. Keep on writing, beautiful Clea...your voice is getting clearer and stronger with each post.

  2. Clea, this really is one of my favourite blog posts ever. Because I can relate. We all can. Thank you!