Susanna Fournier is an actor and writer living in Toronto
The body has secrets but the body doesn’t lie. Which is weird, because I lie.
Here’s something true: it’s pretty weird out there for a feminist anorexic. Sorry, a what? I’m a feminist and recovering anorexic. I spent a great deal of my 20s in this strange paradox. My feminism was public and my eating disorder was secret (they usually are). This secrecy was especially motivated by the shame I felt about how my eating disorder didn’t make my feminism seem very feminist. As a theatre maker I tell stories through space, body, image, movement, and text. The medium is a potent vehicle for my feminism because it is a physical space in which I can place female bodies and stories at the centre of what an audience is going to experience. My work is political because I am and I’m known for that. So my life was a precarious double act between “YOU ARE WHAT YOU PREACH! #yesallwomen” and “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT! #nocalories.” Feminism isn’t a test, but I sure felt I was failing it. Like many addicts, especially anorexics, I felt a certain thrill—a result of the anxiety—of living a double life. Feminism may not be a test, but anorexia is. It’s a daily test of your body, your will power, your limits, and how far you can push them while still functioning. The test gets harder, and the high comes from testing the test, can you do more while eating even less? I was a highly functional anorexic. Unlike many addictions, which often result in losing control, anorexia is about maintaining control. Until your kidneys start to let you know your control is getting out of control …
People develop eating disorders for many reasons. Popular ideas that all eating disorders stem from body image issues is unhelpfully reductive. It’s more useful to consider that eating disorders, like many addictions, are symptoms of how an individual manages—or doesn’t manage—their feelings, and how and where an individual feels they have power in their life.
My eating disorder developed from perfectionism. Psychoanalyst Marion Woodman outlines the dangers of perfectionism in her book, Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride. I read this book in high school and it became a bedrock to my developing feminism. Woodman explores the cultural and personal ramifications of western society’s mind/body split. Traditionally the body, and the knowledge it contains, has been viewed as feminine (as has the soul), whereas the mind has been viewed as masculine, and therefore superior under patriarchy. She posits that generations of thinking of our bodies as inferior containers to be subjugated by our rational minds, has created a disembodied society. Viewing our bodies as ‘separate’ from our Self fractures the psyche. What is feminine in us is banished, repressed and abused, while what is masculine is prized and rewarded.
For Woodman, food represents the mother archetype. Food is a symbol of femininity because it is a life giving force. It is no wonder then that Western culture, a culture of misogyny, is a culture in which food related illnesses, obesity, disorders, and addictions are completely out of control. The over-eater tries to satiate her spiritual hunger for the feminine by binging on food, whereas the anorexic negates her hunger itself.
North American society is consumerist and power-driven. It values commodities and rewards product. Perfectionism develops as a means to achieve social value through delivering excellent results. Women are especially prone to it given that we still have considerably less social power than men, so if we want access to any power at all we are taught we must earn it by meeting society’s expectations of women to perform the roles of good student, daughter, girlfriend, mom, wife, sex object, emotional caretaker, domestic labourer, employee, happy, sweet, accommodating, female. An addiction to perfection is one of the most socially accepted and rewarded addictions. It’s considered an asset by many.
So I’m reading this book in highschool a good three years before my anorexia developed. 17-year-old me didn’t think I was a perfectionist. I certainly didn’t subscribe to traditional ideas of “feminine, goody-two-shoes” stereotypes. I didn’t wear cardigans. I wasn’t preppy. I was grunge. Yes, my average was above 95%. Yes, I played leading roles in the drama program. Yes, I was the arts rep on student council, and a teacher’s assistant in two different courses, and yes, I had a part-time job—but I also skipped school and didn’t give a fuck because it never affected my grades. I was confident that since I intellectually understood compulsive perfectionism there was no way I could possibly fall under its spell. Besides, I was feminist and therefore a rebel. It’s no coincidence that it was only after I graduated from a school structure in which I could surpass and exceed constant expectations that my addiction to perfection, no longer having an external outlet, turned inward. Ah. Hello Body. How long have you been here?
The misogyny of western culture teaches us that womens’ bodies are containers whose functions and malfunctions are determined by male power. Fuck. That. Noise. Is what we need to whisper/say/yell/scream out everyday. But at 20, I had already learned so well that list of all the things society told me women can’t be. Near the top of that list is the word “angry.” Women are taught how to be anorexic with their feelings before the compulsion ever manifests with food. Deny your feelings ladies, they make you weak or hysterical. Deny your hunger for justice, you won’t get it. Deny your sexual appetite, it puts you at risk. Deny your intelligence, your passion, your potential—deny, deny, deny. The message to women is clear: take up less space. So I did. Like a perfect girl I took all those feelings, all that anger, all that passion into two places: my public theatre and my secret Body.
The paradox of anorexia nervosa is that it is both a claiming of agency and also a succumbing to compulsion. The anorexic attempts to claim the Body back from the ravages of other people’s wars by destroying the battlefield. It’s not a sustainable tactic, but your enemies can’t conquer you if there’s nothing left to conquer. One of my queer male friends speaks of his anorexia as motivated by a need to claim his Body as “other” in resistance to a culture of heteronormative ideas of masculinity. In both cases the anorexic transmutes the Body from a surface into a weapon: sacrificing a home to gain power.
“The body has secrets but the body doesn’t lie.”
So I was writing my body and feelings into perfection through food control and exercise, while writing my feminism as perfectly feminist. I was writing fractured selves right down the middles of the mind/body split. My writing itself was not untouched by the split. I see its effect everywhere in the disembodied ways I learned to use language to talk about myself. “The Body,” “the anorexic”… the words I use as containers to create an illusion of objective analysis instead of saying “I.” Instead of being a surface I turned myself into a weapon. I. “The Body.” I. “The Body.” I. I have been trying to write myself back into my Self for the last ten years. It’s strange to think that the very mass I am made up of, the thing that is me, can seem so far away. A stranger. A stranger I desire. A stranger I fear. A stranger I am. I am body as I write this. Thinking. Feeling. Breathing. Typing. Here. Now. Always here, always now. And yet much of my adult life I have been longing for Body while dominating Body. I feared my body so I sought to control it. The moment I choose the power to enslave, I have lost the opportunity to know. I have lost the ability to love.
Writing is a very physical act for me. I take breaks to walk and dance and run. I do not consider these activities separate from writing. Thoughts happen differently when I am in motion. I learned to run because I found myself able to let my mind wander into deep meditative creativity through the constant repetitive motion. I began running greater and greater distances because I wasn’t finished creating. The shadow side of this was then how running became instrumental to my anorexia as a way to burn off the calories I was tracking. My most creative behaviour was now entangled with my most destructive. So here we are back at the paradox. How many hours did I spend running away/toward/into myself, determined to burn off as many calories as I could while creating an anti-imperialist, feminist piece of theatre in my head?
The thing is, there is no perfect end to this essay. The addict in me is horrified by that. But I’m in my 30s now, and recovering—which is an imperfect process—so I can tell you things imperfectly. I can tell you the stats on eating disorders in this country are wrong. There’s barely a woman I know who doesn’t tell me about “that time” in her life—that time she was starving, or throwing up and hiding it, because she couldn’t cope, because she was furious, because she felt powerless, because she was afraid, because she wanted more, because she was bored, or because she wanted to be perfect. These women were never hospitalized and never catalogued. Some relapse, some don’t. Many know it may always be there, reminded of it every time they eat. Some get told, often by men, they don’t actually have disorders because they were never hospitalized, as if they’ve somehow “failed” their disorder because it didn’t almost kill them (or it did). I can tell you I see disordered eating habits emerging more and more in men who want to be “jacked,” so they can feel strong and manly and in control of their lives. I can tell you that I love food. I can tell you that every bite I take is a feminist act. I can tell you that my appetite for life is ravenous. I can tell you about desire, about the paradox of being full of longing. I can tell you I am still learning how to fail. I can tell you secrets and I can tell you lies. I can write my way home.
Susanna Fournier is an award-winning theatre maker based in Toronto. Her work is Feminist and anti-Imperial. She interrogates socio-economic-gender power relations and their perversions. Her company, Paradigm Productions, has launched work at The Toronto Next Stage Festival, The Rhubarb Festival, Buddies in Bad Times and Nightwood Theatre. She’s currently working with The Howland Company in residence at The Canadian Stage Company to workshop take rimbaud, her post-dramatic adaption of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, A Season in Hell. She is a 2016 Nominee for the K.M Hunter Artist Award for Theatre.
This essay is part of a month long series on writing the body.