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Restrictions

Content warning: eating disorders and disordered body image 

 

It’s halfway through the longest March. 

Italians shelter inside, 

the concept of quarantine still new and terrifying. 

Your body balloons, imagining the stagnation.

People sealed into apartments like water frozen into ice cube trays.

Opportunities for cardio snatched away.

Subsisting on carb-heavy dry goods,

pasta and noodles and rice… oh my.

 

The ghost of your eating disorder,

forever riding shotgun,

simmers maliciously, smells fear, readies itself

to channel this turbulent uncertainty into its grasp.

 

You walk for hours, drinking the fresh air like Melbourne Breakfast T2,

propelled by fear that this reliable coping mechanism could soon be forbidden.  

Your shelf in the share house fridge depletes like supermarket aisles.

Draining your energy stores before a looming apocalypse 

is neither sensical nor smart.

A swift demise in the survival of the fittest.

Yet it’s all you know.

 

~

 

You retreat to the skin-tight security of home, 

pressing down like the doonas 

you bury your body beneath.

Terrified by the crowded pantry,

you watch the food multiply, gradually.

A platoon of Arnott’s packets conquers the bottom shelf of the pantry 

and of your consciousness. 

It becomes unbearably claustrophobic.

Not only stuck inside a house of food,

but suffocated further inside a brain of lists, rules and dangerous cravings.

An impending binge, five restrictive years in the making,

lurks within the walls,

closing in with each undistracted hour.

 

Rooms thick with awareness 

of this uninterrupted proximity to your most tangled, absorbing fear.

of the countless hours stretching ahead, 

each one demanding absolute discipline.

 

Restrictions,

already the doctrine of your brain,

now the way of the world.

You respond to constraints with more constraints.

Showers before dinner, never after.

The feeling of water hitting a full stomach so discomforting, so disorientating

that it drags illusory hugeness

(verified by a treacherous bathroom mirror)

into the next day.

The next day, with the same foods, same times, same rules.

 

Not too much fruit in the smoothie,

the only breakfast your hands allow you to assemble.

Fruit and water leave room for error later in the day,

not that you allow it.

It leaves you unable to stop shivering

for the entire mid-winter morning,

a symptom of the way you have forgotten 

how to provide comfort to your body,

and the subtle punishment you have come to find more natural.

After lying, pretending and distracting for so long,

you know, with heavy disappointment,

that even if you tried to listen,

you wouldn’t understand the language with which it cries ‘help’. 

 

With performance ripped away, 

you realise, uncomfortably, how steeped in validation 

your music has become.

The music that has poured in and out of you 

since rubber duck bathtimes 

when you were small enough to use the tap as a shower,

and your attitude to your body was either 

total indifference or fleeting curiosity.

With no microphone to funnel an identity into,

you’ve swapped applause for silhouette

as an indication of worth.

Squirming at the ‘vanity’ (chronic mental illness),

you dive back into a primal passion for writing,

hoping to scholar yourself out of this shallow, vapid bubble.

But perfectionism prevails over all.

 

No shop windows to body check with

but five mirrors, an oven, shower glass, and the accidental front camera ambush,

broadcasting your gradually dwindling discipline.

You seem to forget what real people look like.

Counterfeit paper dolls on tiny screens 

become the touchstone for noxious comparisons.

 

~

 

The festive season looms.

Last year, you were a well-oiled steel statue with the willpower to match

(still not enough, never could be).

You dread the good-hearted comments of Christmas events

‘Looking well, Jessie!’, or

‘Have some more!’

You’ll seize these report cards, these annual checkpoints.

Concerned frowns mean you’ve still got control.

Encouraging smiles mean you’ve lost it.

 

The way this disorder injects lethal paranoia

when threatened by seeds of self-acceptance,

and crafts absurd conspiracies behind their love

… it’s fucked up.

You just want to try more than one dessert 

and stew, poolside, in a chlorine-clouded food coma,

without the heaviness of your stomach 

permeating your entire being like venom.

Without the pervasive internal combat 

as you try melting, invisible, into the kitchen queue,

clenching the smallest plate you could find

with the grip of an agitated child getting vaccinated.

 

To cautiously dig out a safe spoonful or two, or

to overcompensate and avoid attracting attention?

To write ‘pathetic’ or ‘greedy’ across your plate?

That is the question of Every. Public. Meal.

After so long, you’ve forgotten the strain of these split-second decisions,

acutely aware of their being aware.

Of judgement swirling,

wrapping you in a cloud 

of self-consciousness, shouting thoughts and weakly performed nonchalance.

You anticipate the inevitable upper arm squeeze,

already knowing its exact girth.

Tactile expressions of concern always awake both Validation and Shame,

the founding fathers of this wretched disorder.

They wrestle for days afterward.

But this Christmas, Validation will be in the clutch of the arm pinchers,

finally satisfied with the meat on your bones.

Leaving you with Shame to swell alone.

 

Unless 

two negatives make a positive.

 

Unless

the attempt to control an uncontrollable threat,

the story of your life,

becomes the story of the world.

Unless

one cancels the other out.

Unless

2020 lets you see through the utter illusion that is control.

 

~

 

November

a concept you preach to everyone but yourself 

finally finds a door and shows up in the hallway of your mind.

 

Your weight is supposed to fluctuate.

Your body is supposed to change.

Supposed to.

 

Exhausted spirit clutches this rescuer.  

Drags it deeper down the corridor towards acceptance.

 

You are not a failure.

 

There is no virtuous prize to be won for shrinking to certain measurements, 

and no misdeed committed by stretching them.

The world does not balance on your hips, they are not the axis of happiness.

 

Your story is told by your body as much as you want it to be.

 

Your current body houses a soul 

surviving a global pandemic with all their loved ones alive – 

the most profound blessing.

Who has the means to eat nourishing food that powers and protects their body.

Who is re-learning hunger cues,

and might nibble more here and there whilst figuring them out.

Who has accepted that some forms of exercise 

bring more joy than others

and that sweat is not holy water – 

it neither cleanses nor anoints,

it has no moral value.

You develop softer rituals;

morning coffee walks,

Cab Sav Friday with Dad,

devouring Mum’s tenderly grown produce.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder,

now platters, picnics and parties kindle true delight,

You nurture your body alongside dear friends, 

with malignant, third-wheeling disordered thoughts 

a blessedly distant whisper.

You learn not to panic when bones can’t be felt sharply.

Instead, a gentle hello to soft fat deposits when they visit.

 

Embrace gentleness as the word of 2021.

 

You awaken to the truth

that despite your body feeling swollen to alien proportions,

your clothes are merely a pinch tighter.

The alleged hugeness is a phantom.

And this why you can’t trust your own eyes,

those poor indoctrinated deceivers, lying for years.

 

You come across a delightfully candid photograph 

of Marilyn Monroe’s deified body looking…normal.

Overnight, she saturates your saved posts

and you turn to them not for torment, but comfort.

The assertive fluctuations in weight,

and the complete lack of consequence they have on her magnetism.

The head-thrown-back laughter,

the coherent performance of an entire aura,

the poise without pose,

the sheer, fascinating power that can be generated by a single body.

The complexities of this infatuation lie in another conversation,

one about Eurocentric beauty standards and privileges

and the warping, destructive powers of the male gaze.

But for now, you acknowledge and cradle the flicker of empowerment she sparks.

 

Confidence, like the Ocean Alley song.

Confidence, like the sensual delight of eating a mango.

Confidence, like what happens when you’re eating enough.

Confidence, like the inexhaustible dopamine rush of Ariana Grande’s music.

Confidence, like bursting with love for your friends.

Confidence, like tending to your depth of spirit that outshines its exterior, 

infinitely. 

 

You pull sneakers on with exhilarating gratitude for your legs,

chase curled, dry leaves on the path

and crunch them like fears. 

 

~

 

A revolutionary December.

No pre-emptive restriction.

Cravings honoured,

sugar consumed,

cocktails drunk.

Take a ‘safe’ salad to share, but also eat your weight in ginger cookies.

Honour all the usual mealtimes, no matter the day.

Fairy bites, baby steps.

 

The ecstasy of taking back your body is unmatched.

The brain space freed by abolishing Food Police is dizzying.

 

Repossessing her potential,

loving lumps into curves,

aesthetic into function,

flaw into neutrality,

self-sabotage into nurture,

insecurity into trust,

obsession into gentleness.

 

You are certain this first step would not have been taken 

without a reprieve from the critic you imagined behind every gaze.

Without the dwindled compulsion for performative competitiveness. 

Without the obliteration of supposedly concrete cycles. 

Without forced seclusion with and within your body.

 

The way towards self-acceptance

is through navigating its ocean of volatility.

You discover bad days between the good

and instead of sinking deep in a storm,

wait patiently for the sun to return,

so that you and all your future bodies

can bask in its warmth.

 

If you need help with an eating disorder, you can contact The Butterfly Foundation via their helpline (1800 33 4673) or website (https://butterfly.org.au/).

Jessica McCarthy

The author Jessica McCarthy

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