As I watched the anorexic girl in the burger joint I really, truly, abruptly, life-changingly recognised myself in her. While my affliction might look the opposite to hers, we were fighting the same demon, writes Meshel Laurie.
I nipped into a boutique burger joint recently. I hadn’t eaten much that day, so the sums in my head added up happily to a strong “yes” vote on the question of a lunchtime treat.
I’d spent much of the morning interviewing a Holocaust survivor, would you believe, for my podcast The Nitty Gritty Committee. He’d tracked back through the years of degradation and starvation he’d suffered, telling the stories he’d told so many times before, stories we both worried had been told too many times, and somehow didn’t seem to startle as they once had.
I was very present, please don’t misunderstand me, but I was also sitting happily with the knowledge that I was going to satisfy my demon that day. Yes, as I listened to a man talk about his youthful hunger, about digging up a dead, diseased, concentration camp guard dog, and secretly eating it in the dark of night, knowing that discovering would mean his own death, I rocked gently with the anticipation of my overpriced lunch.
“Would I have chips?” (Of course!) “Which sauce would I have?” (The creamiest one!) Much softer, though still clearly audible, “why do you trust your numbers? Any reflective surface will tell you they don’t add up! You, madam, do not understand the numbers. You don’t understand anything.”
“Nope,” I refocus, “the numbers definitely add up today, I’ve been over them and over them, it’s absolutely OK for me to eat that hamburger and by Christ, I am eating it. I drove the short distance from the Holocaust centre to the burger bar, euphoric.
I yanked my car into the parallel park out front in one fluid movement, like a Jedi through a waterslide. Once inside, I move with precision. There was no agonising consideration of the menu, I knew exactly what I was there for and was in no mood to dilly-dally. The numbers didn’t often add up this well on a day I happened to be in the vicinity of this hamburger. Who knew when the stars would align like this again, if ever? I wasn’t interested in playing coy.
I strode to the counter, which was helpfully vacant from the customer side, and placed my order with all the confidence and authority of a five-star general about to claim a pointless island in the middle of an overwhelming sea.
The girl took my order in the same vein. She was attentive and efficient and seemed to understand the seriousness of the mission. In retrospect though, I wonder if she really was focussed on her engagement with me, or just focussed on not engaging with someone else, a certain elephant in the room perhaps.
I started stuffing my change into my wallet and moved to a seat, counting down the minutes to my escape. I tried to stay calm, but I was pretty excited by this point, visualising myself accepting my bag of goodies and walking calmly to my car. It didn’t occur to me to eat inside the burger place. It wouldn’t. My mother never failed to pass comment when she saw a fat person eating in public, so I learned early and I learned well that my eating had to be done in private. In secret. The more exciting the eating, the more imperative the privacy.
It was then that I saw her, sitting a few tables away. I realised that in my self-consciousness I’d missed the sizzle in the air.
As I was saying, eventually, when my number was called, I’d accept my bag, walk calmly to my car, drive to a car park by the beach, and indulge myself in peace, away from disapproving eyes.
Even the ordering and buying of the food was humiliating. I tried to act natural; as though I didn’t realised I was committing a crime against human decency. Better to appear ignorant than wilful I always think. After I’d settled into a chair to wait, I decided it was time to throw my head up and check out the lay of the land. Was anyone looking at me? Was anyone judging me? Horror or horrors, did anyone in the café know me?
It was then that I saw her, sitting a few tables away. I realised that in my self-consciousness I’d missed the sizzle in the air. It was the kind of sizzle one feels when entering any mode of public transport upon which one passenger has been demonstrating their unmedicated mental illness for the other passengers. You know the vibe, when you jump on the train and wonder why all the passengers are crammed together down the other end of the carriage, then you realise you’ve almost tripped over a man in a silk nightie masturbating while singing “I still call Australia home”. You scarper down the aisle to huddle with the others and invest everything you have into your phone, or a grotty, discarded magazine or just the weird stains on the floor, even though you want more than anything to look at him and really take him all in.
And so it was in the café that day. Everyone in the joint was trying to tune in to the girl sitting closest to the counter, without actually looking at her. You could have heard a pin drop. Coincidentally, as my gaze found her, she ventured a quick look around the room herself. She knew, as she must always know that she was fascinating people. She was scaring them, she was confounding and confronting them, and in this of all contexts, she was really fascinating people.
The girl was anorexic. I’m not sure how adjectives work with that word in polite society. I want to tell you that she was “fully anorexic” or “properly anorexic”. I want to convey to you without equivocation that this was not simply a skinny chick upon whom I’m flippantly bestowing the title. This girl was the real deal.
This girl’s skin was so pale there was no trace of pinkness about it. It was blue. I’m quite sure of it because I bucked convention and looked. In fact, I drank her in, taking mental notes so that my memory would be clear. Under both eyes were dark circles that seemed to drip downwards toward her sharp jaw. Bones protruded from her cheeks, and the very workings of the muscles and ligaments covering her skull were clearly visible as she chewed her fingernails for comfort. The sleeve of her jumper dangled from her bony wrist as she scratched at her neck with long fingers, each finger with a red and swollen over-sized knot for a knuckle. She moved to scratch the back of her neck, revealing round vertebrae that looked like they were trying to release themselves from her skin.
Our eyes met briefly as she scanned the room, and remarkably, it was she who looked away in shame. I did not expect her to look quickly away, to bite her lip, pull her jumper down tight over her hands and knees, to pull her elbows and arms in to shield her, to shake her hair down over her face and to jiggle her legs. I didn’t expect her to commence the unmistakable nervous reaction checklist of the physically ashamed.
So why wasn’t she acting victorious, the girl at the burger place, like a person who’d conquered not only her human cravings, but part of her actual life-force?
I’ve always been bitter about anorexia to tell you the truth. I fantasised about it as a teenager, as I suspect most of us did. I tried really hard to get it. Unfortunately I have a different eating disorder. I don’t think mine even has a name. There are no tumblr sites dedicated to its glory, that’s for sure.
Anorexia is an over abundance of virtuous traits, like willpower, self-discipline and tenacity, whereas whatever I’ve got is associated with laziness, over-indulgence and weakness. Anorexia is the result of extended effort and commitment; whatever I’ve got is a dreaded consequence of giving up. Anorexia is a complaint of supermodels and actresses, whatever I’ve got is the subject of endless nightly news stories about the draining of public resources and airplane seats, set to footage of tubby suburbanites with bad haircuts, lugging themselves and their cheap tracky-dacks around food courts and shopping strips. For fat women in particular, there are no aspirational patron saints.
From online dating dishonesty to the long-term relationship crime of letting oneself go, fatness is the final frontier of female treachery. Anorexia happens when you’ve been a little bit too successful at keeping yourself tidy. Less a crime, than an over-achievement, more a slightly better than best-case scenario, than anything like a worst-case scenario.
These are the undercurrents I’ve lived by, in cursing the Gods for bestowing the less glamorous eating disorder on me, the one without a name, the one that’s never in fashion, the one that lives the furthest from perfection.
So why wasn’t she acting victorious, the girl at the burger place, like a person who’d conquered not only her human cravings, but part of her actual life-force? I mean I’ve always thought that if I managed to do that, I’d feel victorious! She was acting self-consciously, like she was desperate for this bit to be over. She was acting like a lot of thought had gone into this hamburger – a lot of adding up of numbers. She was acting like this was an awkward precursor to a very private ritual that she was ashamed of. She was acting like me.
That’s right guys – it’s epiphany time.
I really, truly, abruptly, life-changingly recognised myself in that tiny girl. “Oh my God,” I thought, I very nearly said it out loud actually, “you and I are fighting the same demon, but using different tools. The only tools we’ve been able to master”.
I don’t pretend to know how that particular demon grows and overwhelms some of us, and if I’d figured out how to change tools I probably wouldn’t be writing this, but I feel like finding compassion and commonality with that girl has unlocked something significant within me. The isolation and “otherness” of the disorders that dare not speak their names (or even have names), that’s what will kill you in the end, I’m certain of it.
I wanted to hug her in that moment. I wanted to tell her I knew. I knew she didn’t feel successful, like I always thought she would. I wanted to tell her I knew she felt trapped and embarrassed by her own body and probably dreamt sometimes of climbing out of it once and for all. I wanted to tell her I knew what it was like to wonder what people were thinking when they saw you order a hamburger. Weirdly, I wanted to tell her I loved her.
I couldn’t say anything to her though. I knew she wouldn’t have wanted it. She wouldn’t have wanted me to draw attention to her, or to admit to her face what she begs the rest of us to ignore, I know because I was begging her to ignore me too. So both of us waited for our orders, and when they were called we stood to receive them. We tried to pretend that our being there was insignificant, and we hid our parcels under our arms as we walked calmly to our cars. We drove off for some privacy in which to indulge our demon, no doubt disposing carefully of the wrappers so as not to remind ourselves later of what we’d done.
And all the while, just a few blocks away, an old man pondered his place in history. He once dug up and ate a diseased dead dog, and he couldn’t be prouder of it. I wondered as I drove away, what he’d make of two free and healthy young women who believed that food was their enemy.
Meshel Laurie is a stand up comedian of 20 years experience, a radio and television broadcaster and writer.