Detaching the shadow: letting go of anorexia

“I wasn’t crying about mothers,” he said rather indignantly. “I was crying because I can’t get my shadow to stick on. Besides, I wasn’t crying.” 

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The old demon is back. Actually, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure it went anywhere. And if I was honest … No, if I could be honest, about this thing which they call anorexia (a word I find difficult to verbalise and even more difficult to write without feeling stupid and apologetic) that would probably be a good start. But I’m kidding myself. Maybe.

It is always lurking. No matter how often you declare look I ate all my dinner and feel happy and not guilty at all about it. No matter how often you remind yourself that when someone says you look healthy they don’t mean chubby or fat or obese. It’s a good thing. Healthy equals good. No matter how often you run and refuel body. Because you know that. You’re not stupid. Refuelling. Like a car. Think of your body as a car she told me. That will help. And it does. Sometimes. But it is lurking. Still. That big, grey shadow lurks, waits, eavesdrops, niggles and niggles, somewhere between the bottom of my ribs (which probably aren’t as obvious as they used to be which, if I was honest, makes me anxious from time to time) and the pit of my stomach.

Today the shadow bounded from its hiding place full of bad energy and cruel words. It bounded like a pretentious child from the pit of my stomach to the top of my head, filling every part of me on its frighteningly quick journey. Cement. It’s quick-drying cement.

To be honest, which can be hard with this grey shadow, the journey probably wasn’t as quick as I’d like to think. I’d like to think; wow, where did that come from? That took me by surprise. But it hasn’t. Not really. I know it has been meandering on its well-trodden path for sometime. I was just able to slow it down. For a bit. But now it has taken the front seat. Shotgun! it must have shouted, leaving common-sense and you-know-better and grow-the-hell-up to squabble over who had to sit in the middle. No one likes that middle seat.

But why today? Today I got a call-back and an audition. For tomorrow. Both of them. It’s not like I ever get a lot of warning about these auditions and things but something about getting these two opportunities, in close succession, just made me feel so ….under-prepared. Not from lack of research, reading the script, practising, rehearsing, training. No. None of that. Under-prepared because I haven’t been suffering from anorexia for nearly a year now. Because when I was thin anorexic I felt I was the perfect size for film and TV work. I felt good. People said I looked thin and good – god, you look great, look how thin you are, they would say. The camera adds ten pounds, right? Right? I mean, it must be true if the Daily Mail says so. Plus, those actors always look so much smaller in real life …

I think I am fairly intelligent woman and I know the damage an eating disorder causes and I know that I’m not fat. I know it. But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that the film and TV industry wants someone who isn’t an Australian size 4. Emma Thompson recently spoke of the pressure on female actors to be like models. And it is true. I get casting briefs that provide me with “character references” that are descriptions of models, not characters. I sit in casting waiting rooms with women whose legs are as tall as me. I have listened as the casting director bemoans the fact that the models can’t act but that’s what the producer / the director / the production company wants. Because anyone can act, of course, but not everyone can be a perfect size 4. Now, I am not saying models cannot act, or vice versa, but, well, sometimes …

I am not blaming the industry for my problems. I mean, it all started long ago – I link a lot of it to watching Ariel’s waist in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. How is she so skinny and beautiful? thought 10-year-old me who now wishes 33-year-old could go back in time, smack myself in the face and shout IT’S A DAMN CARTOON IDIOT – IT’S NOT REAL! EAT THE FRICKIN’ POPCORN!

No, I am not blaming the industry but I know what it wants. I worry I don’t live up to those expectations, those thin, tiny bodies it so adores. As soon as that worry sets in, well, the grey shadow can sneak up and grab the front seat. I’ve left it wide open.

This grey shadow. It’s boring. It’s predictable. It’s the most selfish thing in the world; there are people dying of starvation, dying of obesity, living in poverty, living in fear, not living at all …

But this grey shadow isn’t so great and letting me see things with honesty.

It used to make me run in heavy sweatpants – even when it was warm. It used to make me do a lot of math – but never count over 1000 but, better still, 800 on a “successful” day. It used to make me obsess over jeans and brush my teeth at weird times and stare in the mirror and not leave the house. It used to make me tired. It used to give me dry skin and rings under my eyes. It used to make me believe you could never be too thin and thin was everything. It used to make me think I was happy – that was its second biggest lie. It used make me think it could define me – that was its biggest.

Honestly I will try honesty – I will call it now that I’ve seen it. I will take notice. I will do those things I have been taught to do and I won’t let it define me. I will eat. I will drink. I will be merry. And I’ll keep reattaching my true shadow and not this dishonest, unhealthy version of me. I’ve already made a start here … honestly.