To be a woman in the Western world is to live under the hold of normative femininity — the surreptitious web of supposed truths about the correct attitudes and appearances of womanhood. They are cruel and demanding lies built on misogyny and the contempt of women and their potential. To be a woman in the Western world is to understand that your worth stems from the ability to be thin, passive, agreeable, servile and beautiful.
A woman who achieves these qualities — so the lie goes — is on the path to the freedom of fulfilment. Simone de Beauvoir told us that women are made, but what is it that we are created to be? Self-loathing sex objects barred from the wholeness of human experience. We are coerced and cajoled into strict standards of acceptable femininity, a ‘…narrow coffin of performance and perfection’, according to Laurie Penny‘s Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. In an effort to survive under the prescriptions of our society, many women find themselves under the thrall of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and other disordered eating habits that can be just as dangerous despite not being pathologised.
Although eating disorders are a well studied and often written about area of mental health, I feel that as a consequence of the heterosexism and racism of our society the influence of race and queerness on the development of destructive eating patterns has been sorely neglected. The truth is that it is not just rich, white, straight girls with perfectionist tendencies in one hand and issues with their mothers in the other who fall prey to the vicious cycles of starving, binging, purging. I know this first hand, I know this with every sinew of myself. I know this as a brown, queer girl who was diagnosed with bulimia when I was just fifteen years old. Not despite my lesbianism and my Blackness, but because of them.
When I was thirteen years old I began starving myself. I did so, in short, because I wanted so desperately to be thin. And by thin, I mainly meant white. I wished to be slimmer, smaller, slighter because that was the beauty I saw beamed at me from the TV shows I so desperately clung to in a bid to escape and from the magazines I pored over, fascinated by the lithe limbs and flawless milky skin of the models within their pages. When I saw these images I felt not just abnormal but abhorrent. An aberration.
Furthermore, next to my svelte, slight, white friends I felt monstrous and vast, an expanse of disappointment next to their slim elegance. Their hair fell in straight sheens of silk and their skin shone like snow. My hair was unruly, disobedient and permanently reaching up to the sky. My skin felt dirty and dull pulled over swathes of myself that I wished would disappear. In photos I loomed over them, broader, taller, darker. They seemed to obey the contours of their bodies, but I was spilling out of mine. I desperately tried to occupy less space, to shut my mouth, to flatten my hair with painful relaxers. Dismayed with the fullness of my lips and how I thought they betrayed my ancestry, I used to bite down into my bottom lip hard enough to let blood run, convinced that this would make them smaller. I stayed sullenly in the shade, wore Factor 50 suncream and only ever let myself sunbathe under layers of towels. I did not dare catch the light lest it accentuated my Otherness in the bright unrelenting white of my suburban surroundings.