The Sticking Point

I don’t know if you have ever heard of the Bodies exhibition. 

It is an exhibition of real human bodies – dissected, plastificated – which has been touring the world for years now, and I visited it when it happened to be in Madrid, Spain. It was astonishing; human anatomy as I had never seen it. Maps of blood vessels and arteries, stiffened and displayed between slabs of clear acrylic. Skeletons in motion. Muscles, lungs, and other organs exposed to my curious eyes in a way that seemed slightly indecent. I kept having to remind myself that once upon a time these were people, real people. They had lived and loved and laughed and died and somehow they had ended up here, frozen forever in a frisbee-throwing pose or sliced into sections for intrigued spectators. A modern side-show.

Although I was much younger then, I still remember the black fabric-draped tent in one corner of the hall. A sign by the doorway warned those with sensitive dispositions to turn away. I passed the sign with barely a glance and entered into a long, narrow, spotlit room with numerous glass containers forming a line down the centre. Each glass container held one unborn human, from visible embryo to fully-formed baby. A sign on the wall explained that each specimen had been donated after a miscarriage. The room was sombre and silent, and I remember feeling a wave of sadness for the parents, and the amount of potential happiness and life that had died only to be preserved forever in these glass canisters.

I walked along the rows, reading the signs and looking at these unborn babies. The first few look like tadpoles. Then indistinct shapes with clouded eyes. Then embryos that looked like they might become baby rabbits. As I continued down the row of glass canisters I could see the development, the growth, the unfolding of a new human. The last one looked just like a newborn baby. It had hair, and fingernails. It floated, suspended in the solution, and the circumstances that had led to me standing there, looking this unborn boy in the face struck me as both grotesque and strangely serene, fascinating and utterly depressing.

I tell you all this because I want you to appreciate that I understand what is at stake. I am not ignorant of the facts. I am not blind to the sadness of the situation. I know what an unborn baby looks like; I have seen it with my own eyes.

********************************************************************************

In 1983, in an Ireland where abortion was already illegal, a constitutional subsection was voted in giving the unborn an equal right to life to the pregnant woman carrying it. This was intended to safeguard the unborn against any possible ramifications of the Roe vs Wade ruling across the pond. Making abortions extra illegal seemed important in a Catholic Ireland where people still could not buy condoms without a prescription*.

One week from now, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.

The no campaign has, as you can probably imagine, been extremely organised and well-funded. Their message is simple, and blunt, and effective: if you vote no, you are saving  babies. If you vote yes, you are paving the way to eugenics, and voting for the mass murder of innocents. They mention the decreased number of people born with disabilities in societies with legalised abortion. They discuss ‘contraceptive abortions’ borne solely of convenience. They talk of babies yawning and sucking their thumbs in the womb. They speak of women who have had abortions and later regretted it. 

The yes campaign for this referendum has been scattered, divided, and comparatively disorganised. I don’t think this is a problem with the campaign, as much as it is a problem with the issue at hand; there are many different reasons why people might vote yes, and not all of them mesh well with others.

Some will vote yes because they agree with the idea of legal abortion being accessible.

Some will vote yes because they trust women to make the best decision for themselves and their situation.

Some will vote yes because they find it hypocritical that Ireland continues to outlaw abortion*, while legalising travel to the UK for the same purpose.

Some will vote yes because they think it inhumane that a couple dealing with a fatal foetal abnormality must travel abroad if they want an early termination.

Some will vote yes because they don’t want anyone else – or they themselves – to become the next Savita.

Some will vote yes because they think rape victims should not have to carry a resulting pregnancy against their will.

Some will vote yes because they believe the lives of living, loving, thinking, breathing adult women should not be equal in value to that of ‘the unborn,’ because ‘the unborn’ is very vague; is that the unborn, newly fertilised egg? Is it the unborn embryo, bean-sized, dependent on the mother? Is it the 25-week old unborn baby? Is it all of the above? If it is not, then where is the line? The placement of that line is controversial and, depending on the individual, can be based on personal, religious or scientific reasons.

Some will vote yes for all of the above reasons, and some for a combination of only some of the above.

“We can’t focus on the hard cases,” is something I’ve heard often in the run-up to this referendum. “Not when 95% of abortions are not hard cases. Not when most abortions are done for the sake of convenience.”

I have feelings about this perception that women are getting abortions the same way they’d get their nails done. I have feelings about it, but for me it’s not the main issue.

The sticking point, for me, is this:

What if I’m that woman?

What if my wanted, yearned for, unborn baby is diagnosed with some awful condition that means that although I might carry it to term, he or she will die, suffering, within seconds, minutes, hours of being born? What if I have to endure nine months of well-meaning questions from strangers, each kindly remark about an impossible future cutting through me like a knife through my soul? What if I want an abortion to save my unborn baby (and yes, myself) the suffering? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have to fly to England, where I would then – like so many other women – have to make decisions about where to go, where to stay, and what to do so far from home with the remains of my very much wanted, heartrendingly loved child?

And what if I am raped? It doesn’t matter by who. An old friend. A man in a dark alleyway. A relative. A stranger with a knife at my throat. I am raped and now I am pregnant. I am already struggling to cope with this awful thing that has happened to me, and now I am pregnant with a daily reminder. Crying, I confide in you. I tell you that I can’t do this. That I’m not mentally strong enough. That perhaps I can overcome sexual assault but I cannot overcome it if I have to carry within my body the result of this rape for the better part of a year. Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have no choice?

And what if I am diagnosed with cancer, and I am pregnant, and I want to live? What if my doctor tells me that because I am not at imminent, immediate risk of dying, they will have to work around my pregnancy, give me treatment that is less effective, but also less likely to kill my unborn baby? What if they tell me that early, aggressive treatment will cure me but that I cannot access this treatment unless I get a termination abroad? Because my life is equal to that of my ten-week old developing foetus, they cannot harm it any more than they can intentionally harm me. Never mind that inaction will indirectly harm me. Legally, their hands are tied. I must be dying, and not only dying in a long-term manner; I must be dying enough to warrant intervention. What if the time it takes me to carry this pregnancy to term is the time the cancer needs to become terminal? What if I don’t want to take that risk? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I not have a say? 

I have spoken about this to people who are thinking of voting no, and they pat me on the arm and say, in what is meant to be a reassuring tone of voice, “Stop worrying about these things. They almost definitely will never happen to you. The chances are so, so small. These “hard cases” only happen to about 1000 women every year.” And every time I hear this I feel frustrated and upset that I have not managed to communicate my point effectively. 

I’m not worried that it will happen to me.

It’s not about me.

It’s about you.

It’s about you, and how you would react to my being in these situations. It’s about how you would feel if it were someone you know. It’s about whether the needle on your moral compass starts to shake with uncertainty if that one ‘hard case’ is you, or your mother, or your sister, or your best friend, or your cousin, or your daughter. If I become a “hard case” – or, God forbid, you – what does it matter to either of us how many other people are trapped in this same private hell? What does it matter if it is five? Or fifty? Or a hundred? Or a thousand?

It’s about the women that this is happening to right now along the length and breadth of the country. As I am to my friends and family, those women are to others. They are loved. They have people around them who are impacted by their joys and sorrows. Their tragedies unfurl like drops of ink in water, dispersing and turning everything around them a shade darker.

It’s about why the statistics and percentages and numbers of ‘hard cases’ don’t make a difference to me. I don’t think there should even be one couple crying, leaving the ashes of their baby in Liverpool because they can’t afford to courier the remains home. I don’t think there should even be one victim of rape forced to sacrifice their health – mental or physical or both – to carry the resulting unwanted pregnancy to term. They should have the choice to do what they feel is best for their lives.  We should have the compassion to allow them to make that choice.

In one week, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether we should remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.

I will be voting yes.

*Condoms and other forms of contraception were fully illegal until 1980, and then legal only with a prescription until as late as 1985. 

**Abortion currently carries a 14 year prison sentence.

Dealing With Disordered Eating

When I turned five, I lost my appetite.

I don’t mean that I lost it after a particularly nauseating meal only to regain it when confronted with a slice of cake. I don’t mean that I carelessly misplaced it behind a bush somewhere, only to find it again five hours later during a fortuitous game of hide and seek. I mean that one day I went to bed after eating my dinner, and the next morning I woke up without any hint of my appetite. It had simply packed up and left in the night. It hadn’t left a note of explanation, or been prompted by anything that I can think of. It was just… gone.

My issue with the lack of appetite first started with my packed lunches; white bread sandwiches with butter and salami bulging hideously from their cling film wrappers. I would pull each sandwich out of my bag as if it were contaminated, examine it from all angles, and then stuff the indecently solid mass between my bellybutton and the waistband of my tartan kilt, or squeeze it past the wristband of my jumper, giving my forearm an offputtingly lumpy appearance. Then, over lunch, as if I were on a covert mission, I would pass by the large bin poised to catch chocolate wrappers and empty crisp packets from screaming children, and I would dump my sandwich into the black plastic abyss. The moment the sandwich disappeared, I would heave a sigh of relief and run off to play under the sprawling chestnut trees.

It escalated.

If I couldn’t reach the bins – which were often too close to the watchful gaze of our teachers – I would fling the offending sandwiches across the school wall*, or bury them at the foot of a tree.

Slowly, my refusal to eat spread to all meals.

At home, dinnertime became a stubborn standoff. My mother insisted I couldn’t leave the table until I was finished eating everything on my plate, and although I was desperate to get away from the kitchen table, this could take literal hours. It would get dark, the food would get cold, and I would still be sitting at the table kicking my toes against the chair legs, staring glumly at the wall as I chewed.

It escalated further.

Soon it wasn’t just sandwiches but entire lunches that were disappearing. Yogurts. Bananas. Chocolate bars. Cartons of juice. My mother, desperate for some control over my eating, told me I had better eat everything she gave me for lunch, and I, just as desperate, grew sloppy with my sandwich elimination schemes.

My teachers, in particular an eagle-eyed woman called Susan, started to suspect something.

One day, she kept me back and questioned me gently – although it felt like an interrogation at the time – as to whether I just didn’t like what I was getting for lunch. I burst into tears. She must have felt completely out of her depth. Carefully peeling the slices of salami off the buttered bread, she stacked them in a neat pile while suggesting that I ask my mother to make me something else for lunch. I nodded dumbly.

“You have to eat something. I’m afraid I can’t let you out to play until you’ve eaten the buttered bread. See? All the salami is gone.”

I’m sure this was said with kindness and concern, but to me it sounded threatening. I stared at the pale slabs of buttered bread, my eyes boring holes into the indented circles in the butter. I looked up at Susan with a sudden surge of hatred. Didn’t she know that it was too late? That the pungent smell of salami would have infiltrated the butter? That the salami might as well still be there? Just the smell of it turned my stomach. I pulled at the crust, rolling the tiny pieces between my fingers, stalling for time. Then I slowly lifted the bread to my lips and took a tiny, mouse-like bite.

Susan sat opposite me for the entire hour and watched as I tried to eat while choking on tears.

That evening I did as Susan had suggested. It went badly. I continued to get salami sandwiches for lunch. Susan continued to keep me in at lunchtime. One day she sat opposite me as I struggled through another miserable sandwich, scraped of all salami slices. She watched me as I chewed with what must have been an expression of pained disgust. Baffled, she asked, “Did you not talk to your mother about the salami sandwiches?” I nodded dumbly. Speechless, she leaned back and said nothing more for the hour that we sat there together.

She quickly became my greatest enemy. Not only did she keep me in during lunchtime and force me to eat my food, but one day, presumably looking for resolution, she did something unforgivable.

She called my mother.

I won’t go into the ramifications of that call except that from then on my eating became more problematic. No meal or food was manageable. I don’t remember ever feeling a single pang of hunger. I remember sitting chewing with my head resting in my hand, elbow on the table, during my fourth hour of dinner, thinking, “I could be happy if I just didn’t have to eat.”

It was as if my body had decided eating was a revolting, useless exercise that we should have nothing to do with, and my every sense rallied behind this effort. My tastebuds enjoyed nothing. The smell of food made me nauseous. The moment food appeared on a plate in front of me, I shut down. The act of eating was unbearable. No food tempted me. I would chew the same tiny bite of food for fifteen minutes or more. I would chew until I had practically ground it down to a molecular level, and even so, swallowing was a challenge. I would have to take a sip from my glass, creating a truly disgusting watery slop that I would only then be able to choke down.

My mother, panicked by this bizarre behaviour in her five year old, tackled it by trying to terrify me into normal eating habits. She did indeed terrify me, but instead of being scared straight, my behaviour turned more desperate. I turned into a feral squirrel of a child, hiding my food anywhere I thought might give me a few days of peace. As I was only five and my critical reasoning skills were yet to develop (some would argue they still haven’t come in), this led to disastrous decisions on my part.

I became obsessed with getting rid of any food put in front of me. I developed an unusual skill set; every time I walked into a room in which I had to eat, I scanned every corner of it, mentally cataloguing any potential hiding places. Ideally I would hide food in my napkin, excuse myself while hiding it in my hand, and flush it down the toilet. This clean and tidy method worked for a while until some small traitorous green bean emerged from its hiding place in the U-bend at an inopportune moment, ratting me out and bringing the full wrath of my mother down on my head.

From then on, it became a matter of survival. My mother escalated her efforts to force me into eating. I escalated my efforts to wiggle out it.

Mealtimes were battlezones. I would cry silently from beginning to end. In tortured whispers I would beg my father to eat food from my plate when my mothers’ back was turned, and he, distressed by my distress, would wolf down large portions of my dinners in an attempt to defuse the situation.

As a general rule, the adults in my life doubled down on their efforts to get me eating normally again. This consisted of constant supervision; I was no longer allowed to use the bathroom during meals. The intense scrutiny limited my options in terms of disposing of my food, and so now chips, steak, pastries, fish would be crammed into vases, under shelving units, behind washing machines. If I wasn’t sitting at a table I was worrying about the next time I would be sitting at a table. My fear and desperation was all-consuming. I never thought about what would happen when it was discovered, because that was in the future, and I couldn’t afford to worry about the future when I felt strangled with fear and anxiety in the present. I couldn’t eat, and if I couldn’t eat, then the food needed to disappear. It was as simple as that. I would worry about the rest of it at a later date.

Naturally, the “later date” always came sooner than I would have liked. That’s the thing about food; it rots. When it rots, it smells, and when it smells, people go looking for the root cause. It wasn’t a huge leap to consider me the prime suspect in The Mysterious Case of The Custard In The Cupboard, for example, or even The Scandal of The Sandwich in The Saucepan**. Each discovery brought more misery, both to my parents who were disappointed to find I hadn’t consumed whatever it was they had found, and to me personally when I had to deal with the moment of reckoning.

This continued for four years until I was nine years old.

At some point, for some reason, my appetite returned. It strolled back into my life without a hint of shame or compunction. It flung its coat on my caudate, hung its hat on my hippocampus, and cheerfully announced “I’m BACK! What did I miss?”

I remember even less about this than I remember going off food in the first place.

Happily, my appetite has been robust ever since. To this day I don’t know what provoked what was a long and arduous phase for me and everybody around me. It wasn’t triggered by any single event, it didn’t involve any thoughts about body image… it was just a strange switch in my brain suddenly flicked to ‘OFF’ without warning.

And then, eventually, with just as little fanfare flicked back to ‘ON’.

Years later, parents of friends still recount stories of my sitting with a single plate of food for hours on end, amused and confused by what they think of as childhood feeding foibles. I laugh at all the appropriate moments but inside I squirm uncomfortably, wondering if I ever hid food under their sofa or behind their curtain or between books on the bookshelf.

I make a concerted effort now to listen to my appetite; I satisfy cravings without hesitation. I bake and cook and lick the spoon.

I want my appetite to feel fully appreciated so that it never walks out on me again.

 

*The people who lived next door must have been absolutely baffled by the sudden spray of sandwiches dotting their front garden.

**Seven years later I was still finding mummified slivers of steak in old hiding places.

Thoughts On… Breasts

cleavage-when-do-i-get-the-manual

So apparently breasts are back in fashion, according to a moronic article in the New York Post.

This is excellent news, since much like my arms, legs and head, I’ve been foolishly lugging my breasts around for years now without a thought as to whether or not they were popular. I didn’t even realise they had gone out of fashion. I thought they were body parts, not accessories.

My bad.

That being said, for the past few years I have been noticing a distinct scarcity in clothing that caters for my cleavage, so maybe that’s what they mean. Dress shopping – something I’ve had to take part in recently – is an actual nightmare. Brand name dresses were clearly designed with twelve-year old boys’ figures in mind. High street fashion requires me to breathe out and then never breathe in again, otherwise seams are in serious danger of popping. Urban Outfitters in particular seems to cater exclusively for girls with slim figures and breasts the size of mandarins. I know this because I tried on about five dresses there and each of them had a band of fabric fitted in the chest area – presumably for my chest – that was so narrow it covered only the middle, leaving not only underboob but also overboob, which is not a good look for anybody, ever.

Dresses that look demure on other people look indecent on me. Dresses that look slinky on other people are downright unwearable.

Did I mention I hate shopping for dresses?

And it’s not just dresses.

Backless or sheer “tops”, strappy anything with long armholes, bralettes that might as well be stitched together from scraps of tissue paper… the past year has not been kind to anyone with more than a B cup. So maybe some people out there did have a vendetta against large breasts and I just attributed to stupidity what I should have attributed to malice.

My own feelings on my breasts are… mixed.

My mother is not well-endowed, and has always equated my generous cup size with being overweight. Growing up, dressing me was all about minimising them. Anything that made them look smaller or hid them was considered attractive. Anything that emphasized my curves provoked the same reaction I imagine I would have elicited with a casual bit of public nudity. On a Sunday. In a church.

The body-shaming was real in my house.

Anything with even the slightest hint of visible cleavage made me look “fat” and “attention-seeking.” Actual cleavage was “pornographic” and “desperate.” For a long, long time I internalised all this claptrap, nestling it down deep next to a tiny seed of confidence that had yet to sprout.

Today, not only am I more confident in myself, but I also just care more about my own comfort than I care about others’ opinions. I still hear that insidious voice when I wear clothes that expose the indecent fact that I (clutch your rosary beads) have breasts – a slowly-but-surely withering part of me feels uncomfortable and fat and desperate and gross in a way that I know isn’t necessarily rooted in reality – but now I just shut it up with black eyeliner and high heels.

Which is all to say that I for one welcome this fabled return of breasts.

Not that they ever left.