CW: Eating disorders, mental illness, self-harm
April 6, 2016
by Karissa LaRocque
I joined a roller derby league in the fall of 2014. When I tell this story, I try to choose an image for you. I try to show how there’s this fishing line connecting my insides to the world, which I tie into small knots. The knots make me ill—unable to eat, sleep, think, drink. When I started playing derby, I had tied so many knots that eventually I could barely stand up—but that image still isn’t quite right. The feeling was of surfacing, but fishing lines are violent things that pull fish out of their comfort zones to die. I was just tying knots all on my own with no one on the other end.
As I watched my fishing line turn into a cat’s cradle, I joined a women’s roller derby league. Full contact.
Derby was more about aesthetics than praxis for me. I loved the feeling of the sport—a league of cis and trans women and non-binary players racing around a track on roller skates, knocking the other team out of the way in order to ferret their gold star, the jammer, through the jam of players. You use your body like a tool, in conjunction with other tools. Your mind is just a way to calculate the best way to get at the high-velocity physics. I was a fresh-meat baby more interested in theorizing derby than doing it, in thinking of my body as active and powerful, as integral to others as we worked together. If I had stayed in derby, I imagine I would feel how Kaarina Mikalson reports feeling about derby—safe, supported, excited, powerful, strong.
I considered how I was undertaking the most aggressive kind of physical activity I had done in years while being the most emotionally, mentally, and physically defeated I had ever been. I thought about it often; I was almost proud of my bravery in playing derby while the fishing-line knots accumulated. But I also thought about what kind of narratives women tell and are told about their illnesses—about how narrativizing fragility can be perceived as beautiful, about how hollow bodies can be seen as a neat metaphor for trauma. I have no interest in showing my trauma and pain by showing you how my body looked—how it suddenly fit, in terrifying ways—the fragile and delicate figure of the wounded woman, the woman whose body is a text in itself, the woman whose body tells her story for her. I admitted in secret texts and phone calls that something was wrong with me, some new kind of illness that I hadn’t experienced before. What I would less readily admit is that what I was doing in my head at night—grappling with the shame I felt at being ill in a way others saw as desirable—felt much more violent than braining myself on a community centre gym floor every Monday evening and felt much less beautiful than a defined clavicle or hip bone.
I smashed my body into the bodies of other women at a high velocity. I had to duct-tape knee pads on myself to keep them up. I became a muddled cliché of illnesses, swallowing vomit at the sight of food and staying up at night with my hands on my head asking stop, please. What I did that year I find difficult to put into quantifiable terms—I stopped eating for X days, I lost X pounds, I slept X hours a night, I hallucinated X times, I blacked out X times, I spent X hours staring at the wall, I talked myself into mania X times.
I am evasive about disclosing my illness, I know. The pain of women is often seen and treated as overblown, hysterical; as Not That Bad. I couldn’t believe, maybe still can’t, that I was severely ill. At the time I would be more willing to call it being severely Not Okay, to write you a poem about a cat’s cradle. In more concrete terms: I believe I began to suffer from an inability to eat brought on and aggravated by intense bouts of anxiety, mania, and panic attacks. From the outside, I believe that this illness looked to those around me, even those close to me, like anorexia nervosa and bulimia. I often couldn’t bring myself to eat or stop vomiting even though I desperately wanted to. Concretely, it looked like me weighing 100 pounds and occasionally slightly less, seeing numbers that I probably hadn’t seen on the scale since I was a child.
Sometimes we hurt ourselves in order to protect ourselves. I believe this to be true—that hurting ourselves can be protection—but I don’t know how to talk about it, how to reconcile self-destruction with self-care. Audrey Wollen, an artist in Los Angeles, argues that publicly enacting the sadness and self-destruction of women is a politically radical act. On the theorization of female pain—what she calls “Sad Girl Theory”—she says:
Sad Girl Theory proposes that the sadness of girls should be recognized as an act of resistance. Political protest is usually defined in masculine terms – as something external and often violent, a demonstration in the streets, a riot, an occupation of space. But I think that this limited spectrum of activism excludes a whole history of girls who have used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination. Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives.
I am hesitant to say that I wanted my illness to be seen and felt by others; to be witnessed. But I did. I wanted to be witnessed, and I couldn’t hide the physical markers anyway. My friends watched me dissipate into a version of myself so small they could only meet my eyes. In return I avoided my own eyes in mirrors but took endless selfies of my bruised knees and elbows after derby practice and, once, of the glorious rib-eye bruise that spread over the crest of my shoulder. Selfies as documentation / selfies as reassurance that it looked as bad as it felt / selfies as self-preservation / selfies as signifier. As part of a generation of young feminists targeted by corporate campaigns that promote a narrow brand of celebratory “self-love feminism,” I wanted my transparency to be resistance.
It seems unavoidable to mention the British-American poet Sylvia Plath in discussions about female pain. One summer during my undergrad I received a research grant to study biographical and academic representations of Plath. Unsurprisingly, these academic and coffee-table books are full of snap judgments, armchair psychoanalysis, and wildly inappropriate instances of writers claiming to know and reveal the “real” story of Plath, her “true” self. I read nearly every book and article on Plath available to me that summer. In Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder, there’s an entire chapter, titled “Sylvia’s Appearance,” devoted to testimonies about Plath’s eating habits and looks by acquaintances who knew her over that summer. In 2013, critic Terry Castle wrote that Plath is a “sensation still (sometimes) among bulimic female undergraduates.”
I quote this line in a poem of mine that I’ve been reading for a couple years. When I read it in front of an audience, I often raise my hand as I say “bulimic female undergraduates,” as if to indicate I belong to the club, and this is funny and uncomfortable and poignant. I still don’t know why I do it. Accounts of Plath’s disordered eating are contradictory, and I certainly didn’t scan her work for evidence of the disease, nor do I think her focus on female pain has to do with starvation; more so on purity and sterility—it seems to me she wanted to think about wars, the earth dying, how children wake up like clocks. Still, the critics read every poem looking for bulimia, an affair, incest; their retrospective armchair diagnoses of trauma solidifying the perceived darkness and hysteria and embarrassing excesses of her “confessions.” When I joined derby, we were just learning and training; it wasn’t time to choose names or teams or to aestheticize ourselves as players. Still, my derby name had been chosen years before: Sylvia Wrath.
In “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” writer Leslie Jamison explores the various ways in which female pain is dismissed, how those dismissals are dismissed, and how complex aestheticization of pain is both powerful and harmful. Jamison states:
I find myself in a bind. I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the “hurting woman” is a cliché but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.
When I had bouts of clarity during my illness, I realized I didn’t want to be another young female writer with disordered eating, who turns their pain into poetry, who uses their framing to paint that pain as desirable, beautiful, tragic. But I also realized I had been shamed into thinking that this was an old wound I was embodying, an old and hysterical role that everyone found embarrassing. Anorexia nervosa. Nervosa. Even the word fits. I was so nervous, panicked, flighty.
Sometimes we hurt ourselves in order to protect ourselves: what I mean is that my expression of my illness—the selfies, tweets, and conversations, my body that could not hide—felt like a radical act, like I was using my body to protest the conditions that had brought me to that point. I have to be clear: instead of continuing to endure unchecked abuse in places that should have been safe, instead of repressing mental illness and severe anxiety by becoming stoic and robotic, I enacted that pain. For the first time in my life, I let that pain consume me. In many ways it felt like an exorcism, a way to protect myself by publicly showing that things were wrong. I hurt to endure and persist.
I can’t promote what I did as radical self-care to others—that’s irresponsible—but I promote radical reframing of our own pain. I tell this story this way—this almost-roller-derby-grrrl story, this almost-didn’t-turn-out-okay story, this female-fragility-as-resistance story, this knot story—because I refuse to frame pain, illness, weakness, in terms of delicate fragility, in terms of women’s bodies being victims to their internal suffering. I can tell you how beautiful I was at times, how hollowed out and lithe; I can tell you how grotesque I was, how my closest friend and watcher of my body would stick her hands through the gap between my waist and the waistband of my pants with this look on her face, like, are you seeing this?
It is so rare for a woman to publicly control the story of her emaciated body. I know my framing can be read as just another aestheticization, another appropriation, another narcissism. I know the ways my illness manifested as an extremely thin body is itself a kind of privilege within illness. By narrativizing my body and my experience as radical or subversive, am I playing into the same trope of idealizing the ill body that narrativizes of beautiful fragility do? Am I over-theorizing in order to avoid how I truly felt at times: that sometimes I couldn’t help it, that sometimes the bones were beautiful because I’ve always been told they were beautiful, that I wanted everyone on Instagram to see them because I’ve been taught to collect conventional attractiveness as capital?
But I don’t want to frame it like that, with that identifiable and desirable fragility of the ill female body. I can’t leave it like that. And the knots aren’t the right story either; I can still feel myself untangling. I tell this story instead:
Every Monday night, I am strapping on oversized knee pads, spitting out my mouthguard between bouts, eating shit when I need to, watching my friends eat shit when they need to. When my teammate hits the ground I don’t stop to help her up, because if I do it’ll hurt our team more in the long run, it’d make us lose the jam. By the time I stop feeling guilty for not turning back she’s already up again and I’ve already circled around the track to come up behind her, and all of a sudden we were as we were before, rolling side by side, but with a new story about eating shit on the community centre floor.