I fight Serious Illness, each and everyday. You all know that. But don’t you see? When the body breaks, so does the mind. After three years of fighting Serious physical illness, I developed Anorexia Nervosa. I am now recovered from this, while I continue to fight my physical conditions.
Other girls are not; other girls have died. They were lovely and beautiful.
Society has an idea, a perception of beauty. It does not include wheelchairs. It does not include prosthetics or Ileostomy bags. Nor bandanas or oxygen cannulas. It does not include burnt skin, and cleft palates. There is no room in society’s perception of beauty for scars and pacemakers, Tracheostomies and walking sticks.
For young women and girls like myself, there is no room for beautiful. Not according to you. You as a society stare at us, and mock us for our weight, be it emaciation or obesity as a result of our conditions or treatments. You snigger at our limps, and you raise your eyebrows at the cannula scars on our arms.
Some of these photographs are of me, others are not. But they all represent me and my journey.
We are not bronzed and we are not toned. We are broken, scarred and bleeding.
But for God’s sake, take a look at us.
After this, I want you to try.
Try and tell us that we aren’t beautiful.
Early one afternoon, I heard Daddy’s drill. I followed him from room to room, sobbing, as he removed each and every mirror from the family home. Full length and shining. Portrait style, smeared with gritty fingerprints, desperate efforts to claw into the other side. The bathroom, the laundry, my bedroom. The pretty pocket mirrors, tucked into the walls of the leather draped over my shoulder. My sobbing and pleas were drowned out by the whir of the drill.
Please Daddy. Don’t let him take them Mummy.
My screams rose in pitch, a cacophony of clawing desperation. I screamed for help, for mercy, and no one heard a word I said. The sick nestled, hot and eager in my throat.
Finally, they looked at me. They saw me in a light of reality that I could not. My bones, milky filaments of skin, stretched across pieces of Lego. At the nails which weren’t there, as though each week of starvation sacrificed a chance of polished, painted femininity. But of course, the change was so gradual, the process so painfully slow and quick, that we never noticed them falling off. One day I was sick and beautiful. The next I was sick and starving.
They didn’t know how this had happened. Wasn’t I sick enough? Wasn’t being in a wheelchair, in the hospital enough to deal with?
Your body has already destroyed itself; why are you making it worse?
They told me that I wasn’t allowed mirrors anymore. It didn’t make sense. A girl wasn’t allowed boys to sleep over, more than three giggly cruisers, and a door open policy. Girls had pocket money and mobile phones taken off them, not mirrors.
But of course, I wasn’t a girl anymore. I was a disease. A ghost of the girl who had once been. They said that I spent too much time in front of the mirrors. They said that four hours on my makeup wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t normal.
I stared at them in disbelief. When was the last time that I had been healthy? When was the last time that I had been normal? Didn’t they see that was the whole point?
When I was a little girl, Mummy always told me that I should treat others how I wanted to be treated. My body made it clear on that fateful night three years before that it wanted to destroy, and be destroyed. My body wanted to die. I wasn’t allowed to say that word. They said I would be ok. That the doctors will find something to help. And then I couldn’t walk anymore. They continued to tell me it would be ok. Then my body was shutting down. Still, it would be ok. Of course it would, they said, gulping back the screams in their throats.
For three years, I had seen how it wanted to be treated. It made me vomit and bleed from every orifice. It stripped the muscles from me in violent fits. Shredded wallpaper, torn down in violent distaste.Paving way for bare walls and an empty house. It didn’t take my friends. Rather, it chased them with IV’s and the favors.
Can you open my drink for me?
They were never stupid enough to pretend that everything was going to be ok. Teenagers are smarter than you think.
It wasn’t ok to starve yourself. Or so the doctors said, as they placed me on clicking numbers of fear. I wasn’t allowed to wear clothes. They said it would change the results. They needed to know how close I was. How close I was to finishing what my body started those three years ago.
You’re a smart girl Jess. Why are you being so stupid?
And once more, I would say nothing. Instead, I would return to the place which reminded me of why I was doing this.
Mirrors don’t lie. They don’t tell you that it’s going to be ok. They don’t feed you morphine and they don’t decide on your chances of survival. They don’t need to say a word.
I finally saw what the rest of the world was too afraid to tell me. My fingers stroked the tread of the wheels beneath the legs which were now rendered useless. People gasped at my skin, sullen and swollen, the telltale kiss of Prednisolone. The empty spaces next to me, where friends once stood. Skin was white and blood abundant. Rose petals lying in their snow casket.
Maybelline told me that she was born with it. I wondered if things would have been better if I had; maybe I wouldn’t have known any different. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much when my life split into shards of bone and bullets. Vogue told me that she was the It girl. Each day I heard the world scream Sick girl. The girls in gaggling groups were easy breezy covergirl. The scratchings in my charts told of difficulty breathing.
I didn’t fit their ideal. I wasn’t the worlds beautiful. You did not see wheelchairs on catwalks, you did not see falling hair on glossy covers. Lips were red and matte, not copper taste and dripping. Adriana made certain that I was aware that beauty was bronze, and starched and bleached belonged to Snow White’s casket, in the back, dusty pages of a children’s story. Disease ensured that my breasts did not grow past that of the smallest that you have please. Helpful shop assistants with gleaming smiles assured me that augmentation was painless. Until then, I hadn’t realized that sixteen year olds could be considered to have their chests cut open, in the name of beauty.
You did this. You, as a society, who welcome photo shopping with open arms, and scream ‘poor soul’ at the bald or the incomplete. The society that will only partner ‘sexy’ with busty, toned and ‘a bronzed beauty’. The society which does not allow for the mangled and scarred, bandanas and prosthetics. The society which cannot fathom that beautiful and wanton could ever take describe the girl with the oxygen cannula.
You did this, as an individual. For staring the girl up and down, with her curves poking through the slats in her silk. For whispering and pointing as an oxygen tank trails behind a girl too young to have forgotten how to breathe. For talking in your lunch break about the new girl, her eyes too blue for your liking. For the pitying smile which rolled with her wheels.
Isn’t it sweet that she still wears heels? What a sweetie, you cry.
Most of all, I did this. Because I believed you all. Because I let myself believe what you told me.
It took time. It took screams over lasagne and the removal of every glossy starvation bible in the home. It took months in therapy, as gentle voices taught me how to eat once more. I survived it. Others did not.
My body continued to fail and break. It is yet to regain my trust, and yet to regain the doctor’s faith. We do not talk about remission anymore.
Last night, the man that I love told me that I was a waste of his time. I wasn’t worth waiting for.
And I started to remember. The blood in the mornings, and the tablets for dinner. The babies they don’t think I will have, and the hospital admissions that I will. The knowledge that it takes a certain kind of person to be with someone like you.
I remembered how to starve myself. And I remembered where the mirror was.
I want you to look at me. See me standing here. Black tights, skirt. Cardigan, beanie. Boots and shirt.
Watch me as I peel off the scarf which covers my blonde locks. See that too many pieces fall to the ground. Look at me as my body malts. Pick up the pieces of the hair from the floor.
Now try and tell me that I’m not beautiful.
Look as I slip each spindly arm from beneath the cardigan knit. I know that you see the blue veins of bloodied web plaiting and weaving over the inner of my arms. My blood tries to keep up with yours, it really does. Sometimes effort just isn’t enough. I know you can’t ignore my collarbone. A coat hanger splayed beneath white, stretched pastry. Staying alive consumes more than you could ever understand. There is no possibility of extra. See that I am white and spindly. A fluid shadow.
Now try and tell me that I’m not beautiful.
I want you to look, as I slip my skirt down, along with the tights. Do not look away. Do not pretend that you are not mesmerised. See that my legs stretch into your dreams. Do you see the purple kisses around my ankle? Here hides freshly broken bone. The Osteopenia has worsened. I only walked into the side of the bed. See that my thighs curve, just a little. This is where the supplements go. Do you notice that I can walk today? Will you still think that these legs are pretty when I am lain broken in a bed?
The shirt must go. It is now the odd one out. Isn’t it funny how easily things can change? Watch my fingers stumble over each and every button. I will not ask Mummy to help me today. Today I will do it myself. Watch as the cotton slips to the tiled floor. I know what you are seeing first. The scars and burns. It’s always the scars and burns. See, stretched over my tummy? The surgeon had to cut me. I was scared, but he did it anyway. The cyst was just so large. We never had a choice. Puckered purple slices. They once homed pretty little stitches. Now I wait for the one who is truly worth to kiss them. And then the burns, of course. They are red and splotched. There is no constructed plan, no pretty pattern. Just the angry reminder that heated wheat lives here night and day. No procedure can heal the latest darkness to make itself at home between organ and tissue.
And now look to where your eyes were always headed. Breast. See that I will never advance through the alphabet. See that I will forever be singing the first letter of my ABC’s. They do not grow, for they cannot. My lecturer told me that sickness does not result in knowledge. I guess that it doesn’t result in growth either. See that they will always be pretty and pert.
Now ask me to turn around. I know that you are looking at my peppered, bony spine. Not an inch is without bruises. You want to know who hit me. I will be honest with you; I will tell you the truth. It was the chair. And the bed. And anything and everything else which makes love with my vertebrae. See that it is a translucent instrument, with the prettiest of highlights and shadows. Look at how pretty my back is, when curled amongst the sheets.
Try and tell me that I’m not beautiful.
I know that I am not your idea of beautiful. It is a knowledge I am familiar with. It is no surprise. It does not hurt me anymore. I stopped starving a long time ago. The hurting eased a little after that.
But just look at me.
And now try and tell me that I’m not beautiful.