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Part 1: Anthropophagy
My mother has always dieted as if trying to practice necromancy.
Last month, she walked me through her newest diet regimen. She eats exactly seven grapes, and one fig, which she has cut up into small segments, to ensure she gets the right combination of chemicals. I watch her carefully pry apart a sticky dried fig in her hands, portioning methodically. She eats one grape, then one seventh of a fig, fearfully and wondrously. Then another grape and another seventh of a fig. This, she says, is the ultimate fat loss method.
When I was a child, my eldest sister would drive my mother to her Sureslim appointments every second weekend, my mother’s nerves too frayed to have ever learned to drive.
The only time she had tried to learn she had driven herself into a ditch. She wants us to drive, though, tries to goad us into learning. For my last birthday she gave me a card that read: ‘CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR DRIVER’S LICENCE!’ Something that I don’t have.
Inside, she had written the note: ‘I read somewhere that parents who spend a lot of time with their children have longer lifespans.’ Beneath that: ‘So that’s how I know you want me to die.’
At the office, my mother’s weight loss coach would be waiting, a folder clasped to his chest, ready to hand over my mother’s latest diet plan, something obeyed as if it had been inscribed upon a stone tablet and passed down a mountain. One boiled egg and three olives for breakfast. A lettuce wrap for lunch, made using only wholesome Mountain Bread, which was the most joyless bread you could find before gluten-free became widely available. Every Saturday on our weekly trips to Westpoint shopping centre my sister and I would down our McDonald’s or KFC and my mother would sadly peel her egg and eat it.
We grew fat while she grew no thinner. Some days I’d return home from school to find her wearing a garbage bag like an ersatz pair of pants she had punctured holes in, cycling on the second-hand stationary bicycle my father bought her, trying to sweat the fat off her body. Other days, when my sister was a teen and I a tween, she took us to the pharmacy to buy my sister laxatives for her sudden weight gain.
I struggle to differentiate her behaviour from prayer, from the way I worry at my fingernails, ingesting the hangnails, from my sister tearing out strand after stand of her hair, from me carefully appliqueing the word ‘fat’ to my stomach with texta when I was twelve. I struggle to differentiate us, we who have inherited this gaze, these eyes which cannot see ourselves kindly and cannot see each other kindly.
I try to understand her over-feeding of us, even of my big fat dog.
Television tells me she is a whimsical ethnic mother, trying to plug a hole in us through our mouths, looking for a shortcut to satisfy us, fulfil us, find a way of knowing that our life is improved by her hand in real-time. You think, ‘Oh, this is just an ethnic stereotype—the Italian Nonna who wants to feed her babies, the Greek or Mediterannean or Middle Eastern lady in the apron who won’t let you leave her house before you take home a Tupperware container loaded up with leftovers or eat a bowl of goodbye-fruit.’
There’s a less rotund edge to this whole performance. The overly-large portions that could feed two or three. If I, to this day, don’t finish these plates, a sort of dance begins, wherein my mother or my sister loom over me, circle me, chidingly, mockingly, asking, over and over, ‘Why aren’t you eating? I bet you’re dieting again, huh? You’re not even that fat. You just need to lose some weight from your hips.’ My mother.
‘Wow, oh my god, you’re soooo skinny, you’re just like soooo healthy.’ My sister.
I may as well not be there, I try to tell myself—they are merely playing out some gross pantomime under lights so bright I appear only in silhouette. Audience participation is not required.
‘No,’ I say, nonetheless, weakly.
Never use the words 'I’m full' or the vultures will start to cluster, crowd around, assemble, and needle you until you’re empty inside again, doing things to make sure you suddenly fancy the idea eating until you feel pain, a tiny act of self-harm. They insist you eat a slice of cake for dessert or load up your plate and watch you till you’re so stressed and sad that you do take a bite because—it’s easier. It’s easier to move towards disorder.
I announced my first diet at age nine, before I knew fully what I meant. It was as if I was peating a word learned by ear, via immersion, because your family does not only teach you how to speak but also what to say.
My psychologist theorises once that perhaps my mother is trying to insulate us, equip us with a fine layer of blubber which might deter our rapists-in-waiting. That old joke we used to say as kids, about fat people being harder to kidnap.
I demur, agree for a second, and come close to believing that this desire of hers to protect us also runs alongside her wish to police our bodies. It reminds me about a holiday we took together in Newcastle two years ago. I remember we walked along Nobby’s Head toward the lighthouse, slowly, hitting upon a tall patch of grass where it was suddenly just me and my mother and a man. She stopped mid sentence, said, ‘Eda, I’m scared,’ and I hurried us away, while the man barely looked up from his fishing rod and line.
To this psychologist I one day find myself caught in a loop, can’t stop repeating the same sentence—and I’m thankful she gets paid as well as she does, to listen to this shit that seems deep to me, but isn’t, as I repeat, over and over—’I’m her mother,’ I say. ‘I’m her mother. I’m her mother.’ I’m not.
That theory doesn’t quite hold water to me, though. I can’t help but ask why this selfsame mother criticises myself and my sister for our weights, likes to point out how her legs are thin while ours are not. How my formless clothes make me look as if I have shit my pants. How our partners won’t want to fuck us if we keep blowing up like inflatable pool toys.
When I gained a sudden and inexplicable amount of weight in 2015, ten kilos in a year, then twenty-five in three, which came upon me as if overnight, no one thought to ask whether something was wrong—which, of course, it was. Instead, my mother pounced upon it as an opportunity to ensure that I start to dress more conservatively.
‘Şinasi at Main Street Kebabs called you a slut, the other day,’ she said to me. ‘I wanted to disagree but he saw the way you dress. You can’t dress like that anymore.’
She smiled smugly like the face she would pull while we ate our KFC and she ate her single boiled slimy Sureslim egg.
My first memory is of my first nightmare. When I was four I woke up in bed, crying, replaying the dream I had just had: that all the children in my pre-school class had made sandwiches out of themselves, placed two giant slices of bread on either side of their body and gone to town. It has caused something of a preoccupation with self-cannibalisation. I think often about how the human body, when it goes hungry, starts to digest itself, stomach acid chewing into stomach lining.
It’s what makes this one line of a story I read about ten years ago so memorable, a story I read at the height of my interest in anonymous chat forums and the internet phenomenon of Creepypasta. One of the most famous Creepypasta people wrote under the name Josef K, and to this day I couldn’t tell you anything about anything he’s ever written, except these two things: that his best story, the favourite of his fans, is entitled ‘Sick’. It’s about a man who lives in a town where an omniscient presence off-screen has poisoned all his food, but only his. He throws up everything he eats, every day, because the poisoner is one step ahead at all times, has corrupted everything he tries to eat, even things he steals, even the food in houses he picks at random the next town over. Finally, in desperation, he breaks into one final house, and instead of eating the food he finds, this man performs the truly unexpected: he kills and eats the occupant.
The second and last thing I remember is the quote. It appears in another story Josef K wrote about two or three friends boarded up in the upper storey of a house, waiting for zombies or beasts or evil wizards to finally break in and kill and eat them.
I only remember the one line from the story, but I think about it everyday, the moment when one of the characters turns to the other and muses out loud, ‘God. Of everything we’ve lost, what have we gained?’
Part 2: Fuck You, David, and Your Little David Too
It’s perhaps not surprising that I viscerally reacted against femininity when I was young. Throughout puberty I wore two bras—three bras, sometimes—in an attempt to stop having tits. I put little white stickers over my areolas so I would feel less like I had tits, without ex-periencing body dysmorphia per se. I only wanted to be smooth, not visible from the outside. And I would think gory things about wanting to slice them clean off. It was all shame. I felt ashamed about having these body parts which felt like targets on my back. Like I’d accidentally handed someone a list of my most embarrassing moments and greatest fears.
Weight marks us in a similar way—tells others that we’re supposedly imperfect, how we’re imperfect, and that there’s an easy inroad into criticising and oppressing us. Concerned trolls will use it to cannily deduce that there’s something wrong in our personal lives, on the level of our unconscious, or that we aren’t entirely self-actualised, or are lazy, or perhaps have poor time management. Frat boys on the street will use it to call you a tub of lard or a whale and high five their friends. Two sides of the same coin.
There are countless other ways in which our bodies tell on us, provide others with these in-roads. Having a body deemed unliveable or uninhabitable, which nevertheless we do inhabit, makes it so that anyone who is seeking a way to make you feel bad, to assert their power over you, doesn’t need to look very hard—only at the colours of our skin, the ways we walk, talk. Our bodies give themselves away, as plain as the noses on our faces. Or the Tweets we write after midnight. Being embodied is to seem to over-share in every moment.
Once, while riding a nightrider after an evening out with my partner, I noticed a young, white, sloppy-drunk-seeming white guy observing us with surprisingly clear eyes—while his head bobbed, his eyes didn’t stray. We had taken a seat almost in the back of the bus, a zone two massive nerds like us would normally avoid, ingrained from childhood, but I was fatigued from the six to eight drinks I had imbibed and less hypervigilant about my safety than I might otherwise have been were I more sober, or older like I am now. I had my eyes closed, head on my partner’s shoulder. He had removed my glasses to make me more comfortable, and placed them in the deep pocket of his button-down flannel.
This guy sitting in the seat in front, who tracked us as we got on, eventually spun around in his seat, detecting an unprotected woman, and after watching me for a while leant over to my partner and remarked, ‘Hey man, your bitch is really out of it.’
As if impressed. The white guy was busy eyeballing my partner, who for his part wasn’t engaging, had his eyes fixed nervously frontward, and so they both missed my snap back to attention.
‘Nice glasses,’ the white guy said to my partner, after another moment of keen assessment, searching for a way in. A shot across the bow—he had found a chink in our armour. A pathway into power, a visual landing strip, access to a shortcut sure-fire method of making us feel small. All bullies say the same things and know to say the same things. They draw upon established power relations which exists as a resource, which flow through the general populace and can be called upon like the Force at any given moment. It’s fucking Foucauldian.
Four eyes, this guy was saying, just like I got told when I was six and seven and eight and nine at public school.
My partner remained silent. I quickly retrieved my glasses and propped them back on my nose, a drunken gesture of defiance or solidarity. No pasarán sort of shit. The white guy pivoted his head back to look at me. Noticed the glasses that had appeared on my nose seemingly out of nowhere.
‘Oh,’ he said, rearing back, and falling quiet. We lost his interest.
I seethed and seethed and for the entire bus ride eavesdropped on the vile conversation he was having with his friend. My concentration became singular. I took careful notes—I had to. The way to insult him wasn’t written on his face like my gender was or our glasses were. All I managed to ascertain is that his name was David. This felt like enough. You can do a lot with David. When we stood up to get off at our stop he tried to throw in one last lobby.
His grand pronouncement, as my partner moved to walk past him down the aisle. ‘Hey,’ said David. ‘Hey. Hey. You’re Asian.’
That was it—it was easy. Inside the Australian public consciousness lies racism, thrumming sub-surface, and it is drawn upon whenever it becomes necessary to make someone else feel bad, usually on public transport. Fatness is a joke; non-whiteness is a joke; femaleness is a joke; presenting as queer or trans or non-binary, all jokes. It’s easy. You might even do it, without wanting to. When you find yourself getting mad at, say, a person of colour who takes too long asking the bus driver a question. You get agitated—it happens. You just want to go home. You think, but would never say, ‘oh my God, can you just go back to where you came from?’
It's easy, because you've been taught not just how to speak, but also what to say.
Before my partner had a chance to jump in—not that he would have, he was as non-confrontational then as I am at present, now that I have developed a deeper regard for my safety—I issued the line I had prepared, to David.
It was all I could think to say: ‘And you’re a cunt. David. You’re a stupid cunt.’
As we legged it out of the bus I overheard his friend lean down and say, distantly, but in shock, ‘How did she know your name?’, as if convinced I performed witchcraft. I hadn’t even insulted him; all I could do was invoke his name in an attempt to reclaim some power, some information, some way in which he told on himself in the ways that marginalised bodies tell on themselves all the time.
The best part about the whole thing was a guy who had been sitting at the front of the bus the whole time, uninvolved and who got out at the same stop mere moments after us, called out at my back, right before we took off in opposite directions: ‘What did you say?’
And I said, ‘Not you, mate, I wasn’t talking to you.’
And he said, ‘Oh, weird. How uncanny. My name is also David.’
Julia Kristeva, ‘Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection’, 1982, pp. 2-3
Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body, 1996, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 3-4
Josef K [pseudonym of writer Cameron Suey], Sick, available online: https://thejosefkstories.com/2008/12/15/sick-or-the-algorithm/.
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: on the Discursive Limits of Sex, 1993, Routledge: London
Michel Foucault, ‘Society Must be Defended,’ Lectures at the College du France 1975-6, 2003,eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey, Picador: New York, pp. 29-30.
Image credit to the Gunaydin family, particularly B., S. and M. Gunaydin, as well as A. Marinho, Dorine Setakwe and Kristen Ordonio.
Eda Gunaydin is a Turkish-Australian writer interested in diaspora, class and intergenerational trauma. She has been a Scribe Non-Fiction Prize finalist, Neilma Sidney Literary Fund recipient, and appeared in publications including The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and Voiceworks.