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The Anxious Artist Explores Body Image

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude’ (1907).

It is the new year, 2023 and I am glad to have resumed by normal routine and am back to being creative. It is my art practice that gives me a sense of purpose and among other creative people, I feel I have found my clan, which is so important and previously unfamiliar.

After the overwhelming experience of managing my eating disorder over Christmas, while surrounded by temptation, I am now trying to maintain the good work I had done in trying to eat regularly and healthily. My art practice is one of my main motivators in this, as it is hard to be creative when the brain and body are in starvation mode.

Although I know I am doing the right thing for my health and wellbeing, noticing the changes in my body shape is far from comfortable. I have found a strange sense of security in the hard, firm angles of my protruding hipbones and even in the pain when I sit down, I feel reassured that this is an indication of an absence of flesh. I feel safe in the discomfort. As I sit here now, at my desk, I am aware of the extra padding accrued by gradual weight gain. I feel bereft, but must remain determined. My fear is loss of control, that the weight will continue to pile on, as I give in to my insatiable hunger and that this 'weakness' will be evident for the world to see, as my body takes up more and more space. Space which I feel I have no right to. So, I sit in discomfort, as the flesh of my thighs reach out to meet and touch one another and as I look at my reflection in the mirror and see my sunken cheeks gradually fill. I feel ashamed and want to hide.

Self Portraits by Naomi Elfred-Ross (2016). Oil on canvas and mixed media.

As I have written previously, anorexia nervosa is not about losing weight in order to look good. However, there are unavoidable societal expectations of women, that in order to be visible they must look a certain way. As a teenager, my needs were great, as I faced insurmountable challenges at home. The fact that I was overweight seemed to make me invisible. I was also a good girl, who was doing her best not to rock the boat that often felt about to capsize and so I kept quiet and worked hard at school. No cause for concern. I comfort ate to suppress my feelings, to avoid exposure for fear of the repercussions of this. It was some years down the line, at 17 that I actively sought out help and was lucky to have received the attention, kindness and committed care of an art therapist, who was also my art teacher. I had been heard, but somehow this felt like too much, it was unfamiliar. Perhaps I also felt undeserving of the help, but my weight seemed to rapidly decline, as my food intake diminished and somehow this made it more possible for me to receive the help I was being offered.

It was a mixture of fortune and misfortune that the result of my rapid weight loss quickly meant I was surrounded by concerned professionals. Help was at hand and lots of it, especially once I found myself in hospital for months on end. Don't get me wrong, I feel so immensely grateful for all of the kindness and thoughtfulness that was shown to me and my family and it enabled me to take the important step of leaving home and doing my art degree, but the help came at a great cost. I had been left with the message that in order to receive or be deserving of help, in order to be seen and for people to pay attention, I needed to be excessively thin. Somehow, I could not express this need by words alone. Perhaps the right words simply don't exist and would never be enough alone to convey such vulnerability.

Since then, this message has somehow remained with me. Some might say it is irrational, but having had such a powerful experience and knowing the weight biases of our society, I am not sure there isn't some truth in it. However, my lived experience and therapeutic work, both as nurse/therapist and receiver of therapy, I have learnt that the needs I now experience must and can somehow be met from within, as I identify and form a relationship with my internal parent. It is she who may then respond to the needs of the frightened and traumatised child in me, in a way I had not experienced consistently in the past (through nobody's fault).

This is not an easy job and is and will be a daily challenge. The concept makes sense, but I have an idea there is much work to do in order to allow myself to take my needs seriously and respond appropriately. This is unfamiliar territory and I believe I am far from alone in this challenge, as many of us suppress our very real needs and refuse to allow ourselves to show vulnerability, in order to receive help. Our society fears vulnerability and 'neediness' and yet we all 'need'. This is true both from ourselves or others, sometimes we need to be able to lean and trust the support from another can hold our weight. Again, a frightening prospect to test out.

As ever, I count my blessings, as I remind myself that I have my creativity, which has come to my service on countless occasions and I trust will continue to do so. This source of resilience was learnt in my childhood too, particularly from my mum and I am immensely grateful to her for this.

Perhaps, one day, I might even learn to love my body, in whatever form it assumes. A previous experience of recovery was aided by regular life drawing classes. I learnt in these classes what beauty can be found in the folds of flesh, cracks, lines and imperfections. It was the 'imperfect' bodies that told a story of a life lived. It was in seeing the humanity worn in another's naked flesh, I realised, is where true connection is found. I had considered life modelling myself and think I would if I imagined I could sit still for long enough, but very much doubt it. I may not have maintained my recovery on that particular occasion, but I have not forgotten what I learnt then and feel better equipped this time because of it. There are bound to be ups and downs and surely the sudden death of my mum in the Covid 19 pandemic was going to shake me badly. So, I can forgive myself the subsequent relapse and pick myself up and keep doing so, until these tumbles lessen.

Life Drawings (2018). By Naomi Elfred-Ross.

A source of support, connection and safety may also be found in the art made by others, as the artist shares their own experience of the world, their thoughts, feelings, passions, challenges and beliefs and in doing so, they reach out to us. I recently visited the exhibition of Magdalena Abakanowicz, at the Tate Modern. Abakanowicz created 'situations' and 'environments' in positioning larger than life organic, hand woven, three dimensional forms, within a space. The grouping of these forms, which cast dramatic shadows on the surrounding walls and floor, created something evocative of a forest. Being a regular forest walker and familiar of the sense of safety and protection offered by trees, I found myself wishing to dwell in this space which Abakanowicz created (what a gift!) and intend to return. Like trees, these immense, beautifully textural forms provided a sense of sanctuary, which is so important when one feels vulnerable and exposed. The experience was also evocative of my childhood and the many cherry trees in our back garden, in which my brother and I would play and hide. Another example of the resilience I gleaned from my childhood.

‘Albakans’. A Fibrous Forest (1964). By Magdalena Abakanowicz.

So, as I meet this present challenge of re-exploring the strange and unsettling territory of attaining and maintaining a healthy weight, I remind myself of the creative opportunities this will proffer, if I allow myself to step back into life and trust I will be held. Art, as it always has done, will also offer me an outlet for the rollercoaster of overwhelming emotions I will inevitably be confronted with. Just as was true in my childhood, my internalised parent has provided me with ample creative resources available at my fingertips. On difficult days (there will always be difficult days) it takes great strength and willpower to reach out for these resources, but I seem to get there in the end. This will serve not just as a distraction, but will provide fundamental building blocks in personal growth. In turn, I might feel able to let go of the need to control my weight; I will, after all, be looking after myself and will no longer need it. This may be the work of a lifetime, but it is also lifesaving and so surely worth the effort.

As I end, I am aware of my hunger. This is something that is also uncomfortable, but a necessary signal of need. I will respond. It is lunchtime.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

Me, aged 14 (ish).

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