The Misfit Marketing Strumpet
I have known this girl all my life. She was not the kind to get all screwed up, with anything. She was so good at high school: studious, diligent, polite to everyone, and great at math. She continued on to be a successful grown up working in schwanky advertising agencies, strutting around in high boots, with plenty of friends and never seemingly lacking in love. That’s how it looked on the outside. On the inside she carried a secret fear — that underneath it all lay an unlovable fat girl who could bust out at any time. She did everything to squash that fat girl down.
That girl is me, Angela Barnett. Writer. Mother. Body Image Advocate. Kiwi. Founder of this place.
As a Gemini I found the process of interviewing myself very satisfying… especially as I put on a blonde wig to ask the questions.
Do you like your body?
Crikey, do we have to start with the hard questions. Can’t we start with my age?
OK. Give us your stats then.
42. 2 children. Over 24 stamps on my passport.
Do you ever joke about bulimia?
I wish more of us bulimics could joke about it. Russell Brand can. We listened to this great story in the car the other day, called Holes by Louis Sachar, where seven dysfunctional boys created nicknames for each other: Magnet, X-Ray, Squid, Barfbag, Armpit, Caveman and Zero. After listening to it, my children adopted Armpit for my husband and Barfbag for me. It makes me laugh every time they say it because, at four and six, they have no idea how appropriate Barfbag is.
Can I call you Barfbag?
I see you already are.
When did your barfing start?
First year of University. I was 19-years-old. I thought I had found the best trick in the world, eating whatever I wanted and vomiting it up; no more pathetic dieting. I had also left home for the first time and discovered the delights of having no curfew. University was all about letting go and I did a lot of binge drinking which, sometimes, also led to vomiting.
So much. It silenced me for years. It’s very easy to keep bulimia a secret because you never get really skinny, well I didn’t anyway. I could never bring up one tidy little meal so my binges lasted hours and hours and I always ended up putting on weight—the cruel irony of this eating disorder—which frustrated me, which started more spirals. Plus it seemed so insane; eating loads of food in secrecy only to get rid of it, and it’s vomiting, one of the stinkiest bodily functions around. I know some bulimics pop laxatives, thank god I didn’t do that as well but I definitely messed up my digestive system.
How did you feel back then?
There’s nothing sexy about bulimia. I always wished my addiction was a bit cooler, like cocaine—so I cracked jokes about weird eating disorder types to put people off my scent and tried to eat like a normal human being in front of others (although I’m sure I failed at this). Bulimics are incognito as successful people; we have to be to function and we carry our shame like a shield. I certainly never felt sexy unless I had drunk a bottle of wine. So to answer your first question, I like my body now, at 42, more than I did at 24, even though, there’s more reasons to like it less, what with childbirth and breastfeeding but I don’t fret about my body anymore. I think somehow, by not being mean to my body it’s more beautiful. I make sure I do one nice thing for my body every day.
Tell me about that fat and unlovable fear?
Growing up I was a chubby child who loved food. This didn’t concern me until I was dumped by a boy, at 12, because I wasn’t slim enough. Apparently he watched me attempt the high jump and was embarrassed of my, no doubt, very entertaining flops. Instead of hating him, I hated myself. And that darn high jump. Not long afterwards, we shifted towns and I rode my bicycle to school every day and the chubbiness just dropped off. A year later I went back to my old school and that boyfriend who dumped me—I still remember his name, Raymond Henderson—begged me to be his girlfriend for the day. Being a math girl I put it into an equation. Lovable = skinny. I spent the next 18 years obsessing over that equation.
How did you deal with guilt?
I built up strong walls around me pretending to be way cooler than I felt and I was particularly good at being unreliable, aloof and alone. I was never a clingy girlfriend, or friend, because I never knew when I would need to trot off for a few hours and hide away. I used to binge at work so while I was sitting in the office at 10 pm scoffing crisps I was also getting work done. Still the diligent girl. But every morning I woke up as me. Disordered. Guilty. So I worked, smoked, drank and ate until I couldn’t feel it anymore.
When did it show up the most?
When I felt hurt, lonely, sad, lost, fearful, rejected, angry, pissed off, deserted, let down, forsaken, disappointed, anxious, stressed, unhappy, shattered, jealous, envious, wounded, worried, worked up, hung over.
Did it ever feel good?
Sadly, yes. Bulimia was my reliable old friend who came over and wailed with me when I was feeling down, and she always brought ice-cream. After she left, I had forgotten what it was that had made me so upset. As long as I didn’t think about what it was doing to me or how messed up it was, it worked in a warped way, for a long time. Like vodka is to an alcoholic, it was my way to cope.
Same! What was your lowest moment?
Missing my best friend’s 29th birthday because I could not get out of the bathroom, and then lying about it. I realized I was letting this thing, what had started off as a desire to be skinny, take over my life. I didn’t feel like the person I was meant to be: lying, hiding, dropping loads of cash on junk food, and cheating everyone. Plus I felt so alone with it, to scared to tell anyone and shatter the illusion they had of me.
Did you tell anyone?
Yes, eventually I confessed to family and some friends once I thought I was over the worst of it. I come from an amazing family full of love. That was the other thing that bothered me: bulimia happened to me. I was meant to be something way better than all screwed up. I used to think of myself as the golden lamb that turned into the black sheep but not anymore. I am all red. And I am not a sheep.
You’re originally from New Zealand right, don’t they have too many sheep there?
Yes. We like to spray paint them.
How are you coping now?
Now that I am here, 12 years on from my last purge, or barf as you seem to like saying, I am no longer in a constant battle with my body. Me and my bod, we’re buds now. Mostly. But I am not perfect. Sometimes I drink too much red wine and wake up feeling awful because I also smoked a cigarette after the third glass. I have done this my whole life. Sometimes I think, screw it, and dive into the yogurt covered cranberries and keep going until my body has to yell STOP by feeling a bit nauseous. Ex-bulimics hate to feel nauseous. Learning to eat for nourishment and pleasure, instead of swallowing fear, has been the biggest challenge of my life. I even cook these days, which surprises my girlfriends. I suspect I have turned my tendency for obsessive-compulsive behavior with food into exercise. I’m still working on this. I am most definitely very unperfect.
How are you with food now?
We are no longer enemies. Phew! I never diet but I still struggle with bossy bread. I do not believe in Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread because that turns into Give Us This Day Our Daily Grief. But that’s OK. I eat plenty of other things and I teach my children to eat all colours of the rainbow every day. I have figured out that what I love to eat and what my body loves to eat can be the same thing and like everyone in California, I have an abnormal crush on kale.
Do you have any tricks to help you?
I never eat standing up. I believe in the power of wanking (my husband tells me to get my own girl word but I haven’t thought of one yet) to stay present in my body. I don’t own scales and go by how I feel, which usually means dark chocolate, every night. My mother told me recently that any respectable woman over the age of 40 should not wear short skirts or shorts. Lately, I’ve been wearing both because I prefer the advice of my Great Aunt Hazel, who at 77, said to me once, “enjoy your body because one day you’ll wake up and wonder where the old lady came from.”
Tell me three things you love about your body.
My clavicles. My bottom. My small boobs.
OK, make it four.
My height – at 5’5” I fit snugly under my husband’s arm. On reflection, Armpit is quite appropriate for him.
What truth have you learned from this?
What started off as a dislike for my body, my exterior self, morphed into a dislike for my inner self. My self esteem hung down around my ankles. In my twenties, underneath my bubbly, confident exterior I was very fragile, which meant I was attractive to assholes, and because I had such a low opinion of myself I thought I deserved to be with them. After running away from shonky relationships and trotting all over the world, I discovered something more devastating: I was the biggest asshole of all. That film, Mean Girls, has got nothing on what I was doing to myself. My biggest lesson was that the only way to be happy, and attract genuine love into my life was to stop being mean to myself. It took me half my life to grasp a new equation: love + love = love³
What’s a Body Image Advocate?
A fancy title. I used to be a marketing strumpet, creating stories for the media. I still write stories but I also give talks to teenage girls about the dangers of comparing their bodies and faces to what they see in the media, and the pressure to be pretty. Initially I was terrified. Would they figure out I used to have terrible body image issues and snigger? I was being far too egotistical. Teens don’t care about me, they care about what I am saying and if it relates to them so I make sure they all leave knowing it’s more important to be pretty fucken smart, funny and creative than just boring old pretty.
No thank you.