The connection between women and hunger is not as easy to make as, say, women and dieting, or women and body image, but there is connectivity. In global development terms for instance, women often hold the key to defeating hunger in their communities. In fact, some posit that empowering and equipping women could be the most powerful way to combat world hunger. At the other end of the ’empowerment’ spectrum, I find the gruesome physicality of force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strike as the ultimate insult to women’s personal and political autonomy.
These political, historical and cultural contexts for hunger all coalesce in Small Acts of Disapperance: Essays on Hunger. Fiona Wright deserves a medal for her courage. She has written a collection of essays that excavates her anorexia, her mental illness and her incomplete journey to recovery. Through these memoirs she opens herself up to scrutiny and bewilderment. But in doing so, she wields the power to enlighten and instill empathy for an illness which is widely misunderstood. Moreover, her lyrical style of writing meant I was a more than willing witness to this personal exploration. The prose flows beautifully and she makes a difficult subject easy to absorb; her credentials as a poet are easily evident throughout this book. As a consequence, reading Small Acts of Disappearance left me with a much more nuanced understanding about eating disorders, and the pivotal role of hunger.
Hunger is a friend
Although every woman I’ve ever known has, at least, some slightly unnatural relationship with food (it’s a rare woman indeed who doesn’t self-castigate, even a teensy little bit, when digging into a piece of cake), I’ve always instinctively known that hunger is not my friend. It’s something to be defeated, either through a short exercise in self-denial which will inevitably be rectified, or by simply giving in to it at that moment. What I realised through Small Acts of Disappearance is that for those with anorectic behaviours, hunger is something to be embraced, cultivated and nurtured, like a pet or a small child. Hunger becomes a compliant companion. And in turn, it also acts like a shield:
We feel worse, far worse, when we don’t have our hunger to protect us. I never thought I would feel as much – sweeping sadness, flashes of embarrassment… loneliness – and to feel as often as I do now that I’m without my hunger. Hunger suppresses the emotions – and this is often part of the appeal.
Hunger is an addiction
Hunger is addictive, and it is intensely sensual, pulling the body between extremes of hyper-alertness and a foggy trance-like dream state.
It comes through again and again that the sensations delivered by extreme hunger, for instance, a highly acute alertness which delivers ‘brittle, saturated, super-real’ experiences – in the end functions much like any other addiction. Defeating this psychological dependency is as much part of the recovery as learning to digest food again. As ignorant as it may sound, I found this startling. In learning that if the body and the brain can become addicted to hunger – a state our whole body is programmed to reject – I feel I have a slightly better grasp on how other addictions or destructive behaviours can undo people in all the myriad of ways that they do.
Self-denial cannot be underestimated
Another message delivered so strongly in this book, and which I think has transferability across all states of mental well-being, is that self-denial is an incredibly powerful, and destructive cognitive process. We all do it, we can recognise it easily in others we know well, and yet the ability to acknowledge it within ourselves is a herculean task.
It took Fiona years, several unsuccessful interventions and at least one admission to hospital for her to truly recognise that she had a medical condition. Even then, she denied to herself how the disorder had developed.
I thought that I was different. I realise now that this was partly because of my own misconceptions about the nature of anorexia, and the people who fall victim to it, but this is also the way that the illness operates, by deception by a long series of constraints that tighten so slowly that they’re barely noticeable at all…..
I wonder now if these elisions in the narrative have kept their dark power, somehow remaining in the shadows of the story that I’ve told myself in the meantime.
As I read Small Acts of Disappearance, I mentally flicked through my catalogue of female friends and acquaintances and tried to determine who may have displayed the kind of behaviours Fiona ascribes to herself. Conversations about ‘naughty food’ and indulgences aside, I can think of at least two. I am wondering now how their life is for them.
The average time for a recovery from an eating disorder is said to be seven years – the same length of time for all of the cells in a human body to be replaced.
Small Acts of Disappearance gave me a new perspicacity not only about anorexia, or in relation to our cultural positioning with food, but also about how easy it is for our brain and our body to decieve us, and let us down. In addition to this though, and perhaps somewhat unexpectantly, I enjoyed Fiona’s writing style, which is delicate and often poetic; I often found myself re-reading passages because of this skill.
Fiona’s beautiful writing, her honesty and acuity, as well as her obvious strength of character means that Small Acts of Disappearance, whilst not being a comfortable read, is an enriching one.
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