Essay and photography by Claire Summers
Essay and photography by Claire Summers
Claire Summers

My Body Is A Battleground

For as long as I can remember, I have declared my body a battleground. At once enemy and ally. And for as long as my mother can remember and her mother too, we’ve been dressing ourselves in the observer’s opinion. The one that has always told us to how a body is “supposed” to be. The one that sold us crash diets and crash courses in how to revile ourselves. General disgust and discomfort has become a generational hand-me-down. It fits too well.

The first time I knew my body had started to go “wrong”, I was seven years old. I had gotten my first stretch mark and my mother cried. I locked myself in the toilet and stared at it for a long time, marked it as my enemy. The first casualty on the battlefield. My allies were few. ‘Fat’ was a word weaponised and the kids at school were well armed. Nine different schools and nine different uniforms that never quite fit right. The popular opinion on how to fit in was built with narrow standards and dished out to the rest of us as a ‘how to’ guide.

At sixteen, I really sunk my teeth into it, pushed my fingers into it. Really decided to commit. Developing an eating disorder was a way to meet the problem head on, to find a fix to everything that wasn’t quite right about me. It felt like a natural progression from the almost ten years I had already spent at that point habitually punishing, monitoring, doubting, questioning my body. I thought I had found my answer. I have spent years relying on it to feel in control, to feel relief. I’ve normalised it to the point where I can’t identify when it stopped being ‘the solution’ and started being ‘the problem’.

Now, with a further ten years down the drain (metaphorically, literally), I can’t find the line where it ends and the rest of me begins. This solution-problem that I created now walks handin-hand with everything I do, everything I think. It’s there with me when I eat, drink, fuck. It’s there when I get dressed, flirt, exercise, dance, swim. When I have my photograph taken or glimpse myself in a shop window. I’ve been seeing myself, in all of these things, over and over again through the observer’s opinion.

Over lunch the other day, my father told me that I “chose this”, that I should now be able to move past it with my “rational mind”. As quickly as he realises his error, I’m crying in the middle of a Chinese restaurant. I unravel, I stutter. Can’t pull myself together so I pull myself apart instead. A waiter steps in and curbs the crying by filling up all of our glasses with water while we sit and watch him in silence. Afterwards my father drives me home and I spend the rest of the day asleep. My mother asks me what’s wrong but I don’t have it in me to explain, so I tell her that I am tired.

A week later, back in my home state but stuck in that same state of mind, my father calls me. He says he’s worried that he’s not in touch with what’s going on with me, that maybe he hasn’t been for a long time. For weeks I have been thinking about that; the unknowable internal worlds of the people we love and how they can exist, thrive, for years without us ever being introduced to them. My own internal world is governed by a set of laws that I can’t seem to rewrite. I wonder if maybe my father was right, if I did in fact choose this or if it was chosen for me. Even now I can’t decide.

I read Eloise Grills’ essay, Big Beautiful Female Theory, in a cafe one day and I cry and every stretch mark I have tingles. I’m making a habit of coming undone in public places. She writes, I’m laid to waste I’m not getting laid I’m wasting away but not in the conventional sense In the sense that I’m wasting my life thinking my body’s all wrong And if I spent less time hating it I coulda been a female astronaut I coulda been a female physicist a female doctor a female brain surgeon which is of course just a brain surgeon except...

I’m tired in a whole new set of ways. Not tired of not fitting in, but tired of wanting to. The relief I used to feel in bathrooms where I checked if the door was really locked one, two, three times over, is starting to feel decidedly like the enemy, no longer an ally. It’s the strangest sensation when the thing that trapped you becomes the tool you use to wriggle free. Now, my relief has started to come from popular culture, a mechanism whose base formula must surely read “pop culture = the observer’s opinion”. An entity once aggressively rigid in its standards, it feels like, little by little and not always in perfect form, that is changing. The scope of what my body could be to me is expanding, leaving me with the pleasure of (slowly) putting behind me this idea of what it “should be”. The observer’s opinion is not what it once was. There’s more space within it. We are retiring old slogans and inviting each other to write new ones. Because “nothing tastes as good as [solace] feels.”