Anorexia is a case in point. You might be confused about your identity and where you fit – but here’s the thing – you can always be thin. A lie, of course: you can starve yourself into the grave and it won’t be enough. But it gives you a sense of purpose. And a negative self-image can seem better than none at all.
It’s hard to give up on an old identity – even if it’s false. Hard to find new ways of coping – and communicating – when you’re not sure what to say.
We speak in different ways. Some of us use words. Some use routines. Some use fists.
Some speak with pictures.
The artist Tracey Emin has a complicated relationship with her body. She says:
‘I’ve always had a thing about my body, always not felt good about it. The happiest I am is the thinnest I can be. I think the less of me there is the better I feel about it…’ (source)
Emin tries to make herself smaller, physically less. And yet, her body is the focus of much of her art. In this way she draws attention to it and makes it the biggest part of her. It’s the same thing as the anorexic who feels unseen and shrinks herself, but ends up taking all the emotional space.
‘You know when you feel physically sick of yourself, if you see your name once more, you’re going to run away from yourself? I have to be outside of myself quite often to be able to do what I do; I have to have some kind of objectivity. I’m over somewhere looking at me thinking, ‘Oh look, there she goes, look, she’s doing that’.
As Emin comments, she’s observing herself instead of being herself. And this gives her an identity – but separates her from it. This too is the anorexic endeavour: to rise above your own body, but to lose it as well. To exist as you want others to see you; but alienate them instead.
‘I was trying to see what I looked like. It was almost like the mirror didn’t work and I had to have this other proof of who I was….From the age of ten to my 30s, I have documented my mood and face alone in the photo booth. When I was 13, my purse went missing at school. Inside were maybe 50 strips of photo-booth pictures. I found them in a pile in the playground, ripped into tiny pieces. It was all I had to prove to myself who I had been and how I appeared. They were my identity. The memory of my own existence. And someone had destroyed them.’
Emin went on to make her body her canvas. Like many of us she felt invisible – so she put it at the centre and worshipped it. But by doing so, she and we – can destroy the very things we long to create.