Love thy body, love thyself
A few days ago, I checked the calendar. Instantly, my pulse quickened and my vision blurred – there it was, in black bold caps, a date that meant much more to me than any birthday or commercially marketed holiday. To have almost missed it made me all the more aware of the problems in this city.
February 26 marked the start of the annual NED awareness (National Eating Disorder) week; what tiny percentage of people in Hong Kong knew that? ‘There’s a laxative you can take,’ I overheard an austere- looking businesswoman tell her friend the other day, after said starving friend revealed that she always looked bulkier in her shift dresses post-eating. Of course. We are aware of the laxatives, the weight-loss pills, the diet tricks and how to cleverly skip meals; but mention NED awareness and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare.
The Hong Kong Eating Disorder Association (which was only set up in 1999) noted that the HK government has yet to put into place a specialised plan for treatment, making it almost impossible to know just how many ED sufferers there are. Many young girls here succumb to the lure of sickly ‘glamour’, the ideal of size 00 branding the inside of their jeans like a badge of honour. But more than that, in a city where chaos reigns, people turn to their weakest assets – themselves – and torture their bodies to retain some sort of control over their lives. Are you aware of that?
When I was 18 years old, I considered having the ancient Latin words veritas pulchritudo inked in burning lacerations on my wrist. Already paled to a jelly-like translucency, my skin was yearning for some sort of branding that would make it forever mine, that would bend it to my will. Dear reader, I was there. Veritas pulchritudo translates as ‘beauty is truth’ but now, looking back, I knew beauty had nothing to do with it. You do not merely suffer from an eating disorder, like suffering from a knee sprain or from a migraine. You slowly die from it; suicide in its most poisonous form, spreading like a tumorous cancer from your brain down to the very bones that create you. And what is beautiful about such a death?
Four years and a lifetime ago, I was one of those girls snapping those rubber bands till angry welts appeared on my arms, subsisting on an apple or less a day, stroking my hollow ribcage on those freezing nights to calm away the hunger pangs. I would wake in the morning with tears lining my eyes, startled by dreams of foods that I thought I would never eat again: baskets of golden fries, my mother's peanut butter French toast, burgers that stacked up like miniature skyscrapers. Carbohydrates did not pass my lips for over two years – the dedication to my cause was so great that I felt I was cheating by even strolling through the pasta aisle in the supermarket. I briefly flirted with the toilet bowl. I grew soft, grey hair on large expanses of my body, which I hid in shrouds of black and darker black, favouring tights even on the warmest summer days. Everything bruised easily. On particularly restless nights, I would feel my heart pulse away to nothing, skipping one beat, then a terrifying two, eventually pumping back to life.
Not all of it could be blamed on the sub-culture of pro-ED societies; in fact, I railed against it. In 2009, I was horrified by Kate Moss’ self-indulgent statement that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. It was never about being skinny or even about aesthetics, although I did like the way that androgyny became me. Everywhere I went, I saw stereotyped ‘eating good, starving bad’ slogans and images of emaciated figures which failed to move me in the slightest, even offending me at times with the unrealistic black- and-white-ness of it all. It was always about control, over my body, which I wanted to be as easily moulded as plasticine.
But the more I tried to rein in my body, the more it betrayed me. As the pounds began to drop, a strange purplish dip appeared on my left wrist, like a deep thumb print. With alarming rapidity the lesion began to gnaw away at my muscle and tissue in an upwards motion. This was when I had to stop playing the piano. It turned out to be linear morphea, a case so rare that it took a biopsy, two doctors, a dermatologist, a herbalist and an acupuncturist to figure out what it was. It affects 2 in every 10 million people and is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the body fights against itself because it has failed to recognise certain cells or tissues. The root cause of the disease is unknown, but in the most extreme cases, the lesion continues to spread until it has consumed some part of your body, driven it to wasted vein, skin and bone.
I remember looking in the mirror, with pointillist clarity, at every inch of ugly fleshlessness on my right arm. I didn't know it then, but that was when I began to change. It took days. Months. Years. I relapsed several times again, and again, one time so dangerously close to madness that I had a manic hallucinogenic attack. I tried prozac, which gave me chronic heartburn and terrible mood swings. I took in all the free medical consultation I could find: countless therapists, lecturers in one-off workshops, counselling in eight-block sessions. I meditated. But none of it really helped. One therapist point-blank refused to discuss the topic, always steering the conversation back to the oh-so-stereotypical Electra complex. ‘But do you think, perhaps, your mother is the cause of all this self-hatred?’ But one day she scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘You’ll find some information on this website.’
I found a lot more than just information. I found case studies, research articles, programmes, events, and a lot of people that actually cared about fighting what was inside of me. With relief, I scrolled through the pages, finally escaping the pictures of skeletal pubescent girls and gimmicky ‘food is scary’ stories. The first step was in the title: awareness. So here’s what I did: I marked down each NED awareness week in February every single year untiI 2014 – when I would be 25 – hoping that by then, I would look at the calendar and see my eating disorder as a memory and not a reality. The worst thing – and perhaps the best thing – about recovering from an eating disorder, unlike drugs or alcohol or even Oreos, is that in order to keep living, you must eat food. You must face your fear, your enemy, the thing you most loathe, every single day, every single fucking meal.
It is NED awareness week in 2012. I am 22 years old and there are three years of NED awareness weeks left in the calendar. I am aware. My body is mine and yet it is not mine. It is a separate entity, muscular, strong, able to lift things I thought I couldn't, resisting wind and rain and forever surprising me with its flexibility and durability. Food surrounds me but is no longer a catalyst for self-control. My left arm is healed, no longer alien to me. And I will never take it for granted again.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, seek help at The Hong Kong Eating Disorders Association, www.heda-hk.org