Recent news of the death of anti-anorexia billboard model, Isabelle Caro, came one day after I gobbled Portia de Rossi’s graphic memoir about her battle with anorexia in almost one sitting. An Unbearable Lightness intrigued and terrified me. De Rossi’s obsessive calorie counting, exhaustive exercise and waifish results seemed strangely juxtaposed with the delicious gluttony I’d experienced over Christmas – nine weeks after the birth of my third child – weighing my heaviest.
Female body image is a complex beast. It wrestles at some point with most of us – regardless of the skin we’re in.
Like de Rossi, I went to an all-girls’ school. One of my classmates was de Rossi’s Siren’s co-star and former fiancé of James Packer – Kate Fischer. Kate won the Dolly Covergirl contest in 1988 and left school to pursue her modelling and acting career shortly thereafter – not before telling me, after I congratulated her on her win, that I could probably enter Dolly’s ‘profile’ competition the following year, because I looked ‘quite nice side on’.
It’s no wonder we were never very happy with how we looked. Navigating the minefields of high school, we sometimes talked of ‘health kicks’ and ‘diets’. Most of us were never very serious. In my case, the resolve invariably lasted until recess when I couldn’t resist a sausage roll from the tuckshop.
There was always some bit of me or other that I thought should be smaller or bigger or more toned or less angular, or should look more like the corresponding part on the next girl. This was particularly true when I compared myself with the girl who was going out with the boy I fell for in Year Ten. Everything about her seemed ‘more’ than me – more tall, more blonde, more blue-eyed, more confident – more of everything I wasn’t.
I look back now and wonder what I was thinking. I was five-foot seven, about sixty kilos, athletic, healthy and ‘quite nice side on’ – harbouring a dissatisfaction with a body that – three kids, twenty years and a corresponding number of kilos later – I would welcome back like a prodigal daughter.
Long legs but slightly too rounded thighs? A-cup boobs? Lanky arms with big hands? All is forgiven, teenaged body! I like you just the way you were!
I loved food then, and I still do. Becoming anorexic was, thankfully, never something I contemplated. The same could not be said for one of my best friends who flirted with dieting along with the rest of us, but got serious with it long after we got hungry, saw sense and headed for the canteen. When the disease held its tightest grip on her, she weighed the same as Portia de Rossi did at rock bottom – thirty seven kilos – which is about the same as my primary-school-aged daughter now weighs, which is another reason why I read de Rossi’s book so compulsively.
I’m a mother of two girls, and an illness like anorexia can keep me awake at night. If playground peer pressure was hard in the 80s, at least we got a break from it after school. Its online descendent follows children home and into their bedrooms. Where we once might have known one girl with anorexia, our daughters can type ‘pro ana’ into Google and be swamped with nearly a million references to websites and blogs where a worldwide community of girls encourages each other to starve.
I was a gestational diabetic during this last pregnancy and have more than made up for the sugar deprivation since, which might explain why I’m still most comfortable in my maternity pants two months later. Granted, I currently weigh a little more than I should – but I won’t be bullied from my Size 14 by magazine covers showing post-natal images of Yummy Mummies intent on erasing all evidence of pregnancy before their child’s first smile.
De Rossi has it right in her epilogue, when she describes her new, relaxed approach to healthy living: eating anything she likes in moderation, walking her dogs as exercise, dancing and riding horses. You can’t read a book like hers without asking yourself the ageless question: ‘Am I happy with my body?’
This old thing? With its extra kilos and cushiony abs, over which a roadmap of stretchmarks plots the course of three pregnancies?
This body, that conceived my son and daughters – sustained them, grew them, carried them for nine months, laboured for hours and hours to push them into the world and fed them?
Am I happy with it?
Just as I am.