Warning for discussion of disordered eating/self-harm
There are myriad reasons Physical is a tough watch, but the thing I keep coming back to the most is the relationship between Sheila (Rose Byrne) and Greta (Dierdre Friel). Their dynamic reminds me of a friendship in my past. From the outside, Sheila is put together, slim and pretty and energetic, while Greta sees herself as a mess, a failure, a fat person undeserving of love, respect, and attention because she is all of these (negatively perceived) things. When I was a teenager, after puberty hit and I went from stringy kid to overweight teen, I had all of those Greta-like thoughts about myself, and I had a friend named Courtney who was put together, slim and pretty and energetic, and who, even at 12, 13, 14, I understood people wanted to be around, wanted to please, simply because she was beautiful. People treated Courtney differently—better—and she was thin and pretty, and I was not, so that must be it. If I could be thin and pretty like Courtney, then people would treat me better, too.
In my memory, Courtney is still a major presence, 25 years later, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Her mother was a beauty queen, and you could tell just by looking at Courtney. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, it was that she was poised and had a seemingly endless supply of cultivated talents, and in hindsight, I can see the pressure put on her to be a picture-perfect daughter, and how it connects to everything that happened. We went to the same summer camp, so I only saw Courtney a few weeks every year, which meant that it was a fresh shock every year as I saw Courtney and reminded myself that yes, she DOES look like that, you DIDN’T imagine it (this was long before the internet and email and Instagram made long distance friendships easier). But because I only saw Courtney a handful of weeks every year, I never really SAW Courtney. At least, not until it was too late.
In my memory, we were in the showers alone, but it was midday and there must have been a lot of other girls around. All I remember, though, is that Courtney and I were standing on a bench, looking at ourselves in the mirror over the sinks. We had inter-camp competition that afternoon, so were dressed for soccer, and Courtney had her shirt rolled up, exposing her midriff. I marveled at her six pack. A six pack! At fourteen! How did she do it?! I’d been doing exercises from a book I ordered from the back of a Sassy magazine—Sassy, the magazine that sold grrl power AND diet books—but all I had to show for it was a slightly smaller roll of soft flesh around my middle. As we stood there, Courtney began cataloguing her body. My thighs are touching, she said, gripping her slim leg and squeezing so hard the skin turned white, then red. They’re touching. Her thighs, what is now called a “thigh gap”, were inches apart. I could have fit my whole hand in the void and never touched her. I didn’t even know what to say. I’d just been admiring her toned abs and she completely derailed me with the thigh thing. They’re fine, I replied. You look great. You’re perfect.
Years later, I learned the term “body dysmorphia” and flashed back to Courtney fretting about her thighs touching. I connected that term to Courtney’s list of imaginary faults, from her touching thighs to her fat ass—it wasn’t—to her flabby stomach—she had a six pack—to her saggy arms—they were perfectly toned. She couldn’t see herself, I realized. She was literally incapable of seeing herself as she really was, she only saw the distorted version of herself some gremlin in her brain told her was there. Over the years, other things about Courtney clicked into place. Summer camp was active by design, but Courtney packed her schedule with physical activities, even her leisure periods were devoted to things like power walking and dance class. She never, ever rested, she was always doing some activity. I loaded my schedule with stuff like “jet skis” and “dockside fun”, and skivved off as much faux-work as I could, but that just made me feel worse, because if I wanted to look like Courtney—and oh god, I DID—I should probably be running and dancing and climbing and volleyball-ing and swimming as much as Courtney. It never occurred to me that Courtney was doing too much. That she didn’t love sports, that sports were a cover for what was really happening, which is that she had an eating disorder. Courtney eventually missed a term at camp because she had to be hospitalized to treat anorexia nervosa.
The knowledge that Courtney’s 14-year-old six pack was due to an eating disorder never convinced the gremlin in my own brain that hers wasn’t still the goal, the ideal body. As such, I learned about Courtney’s struggle and never connected it to mine. I thought it was sad, of course, and continued on with my own cycle of disordered eating as if one had nothing to do with the other. Like Sheila in Physical I binge eat, unlike Sheila, I don’t purge. I followed binges with periods of starvation, creating a cycle of lose-and-gain that wrecked my body in my early 20s. Even now, understanding more about my own mental health and my triggers and the harmful behaviors I built up over years, sometimes I get hungry and the gremlin in my brain asks, Doesn’t it feel good? Let it go a little longer. I can’t do things like intermittent fasting because the slope is too slippery, I can’t count calories or commit full-time to vegetarianism—even though, morally and environmentally, I support it—because the gremlin in my brain takes an inch of restriction and runs with it. I’ve actually gotten better at not over-eating than I have at not restricting. For some reason I have yet to therapize (aka, realize in therapy), I am better at processing “you’re full, stop” than I am “you’re hungry, eat”.
Physical obviously brought a lot of this up. Sheila’s inability to see her body as it is reminds me so much of Courtney, Greta’s denigrating comments echo a little too closely the way I have, and sometimes still do, think about myself. The thing that has been plaguing me a lot over the last year, when I went on a lot of walks and took online dance classes just for something to f-cking do every day, is how we talk about health and fitness, the ubiquitous “wellness”, in a world that is supposed to be more body positive and yet still we chase flat tummies and pert asses and toned limbs. I do think there is today a greater acceptance for bodies sized over a six, but there is still an edge to these conversations that, well, thin is best. It’s OKAY if you’re not thin, but you know. Be thin if you can. And that might be a little bit the gremlin in my brain, which has never let go of the image of Courtney, the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen, but it might also be a little bit society, too. We do, after all, still celebrate when women’s bodies “bounce back” after birth, and we love a good weight loss story, even if the person was perfectly healthy all along.
Any time I start down this path, I wonder at what point it becomes concern trolling, and at what point does body positivity give way to shaming? I have a gremlin in my brain, but other people have gremlins, too. Is trading preferred at-home workouts okay, or am I stepping on a landmine, for myself or someone else? I get bored by exercise easily, so I always want to find new classes and programs to try, but then I remember Courtney and her million activities and wonder if “I’m easily bored” is just my excuse to cover up potentially negative behavior, just as I wonder if my interest in baking is really just an excuse to lick the bowl and have cupcakes on hand. I got so good at masking harmful behaviors, I’m still unpicking what is genuine interest and healthy expression and what is covering for the gremlin in my brain. The social media echo chamber doesn’t make it any easier. You can always find someone to reinforce your beliefs, good or bad, and there is no shortage of fitness influencers out there. It’s a whole internet of Courtneys, only they spout positive affirmations while they’re showing you how to obtain a flat tummy and pert ass. Sometimes I long for the “feel the burn” mantras of old exercise videos because the “you’re strong, you’re fierce” mantras of today never make sense to me. If I am really strong and fierce, why would I be trying to fundamentally change my body? If you are truly strong and fierce, what have you to change?
I know that this is a negative feedback loop. It’s just something I’ve been pondering over the last year, when there was nothing to do and nowhere to go and I filled my excess free time with long walks and a rota of at-home exercise. I might always wonder about these things, just as I might always struggle to find true body positivity and self-acceptance and a society that still puts a premium on thin and pretty. I may never be able to fully separate my desire to just be healthy from my (futile) desire to look like Courtney at 14. I know that no matter how Courtney looked, what was going on inside was a nightmare, for her mental and physical well-being. And I know no amount of thin is worth that suffering, even if the gremlin in my brain gets excited when I am hungry. It just sort of bothers me how sharply a show like Physical still resonates. It’s set in the 1980s. It was the 1990s when Courtney, already suffering from anorexia, was encased in the amber of my mind as the most beautiful girl I have or will ever see. It’s 2021 and we still celebrate dramatic weight loss, and the fitness game is still going strong. I think the world is a little bit kinder now than it was then, but watching Physical I find myself thinking…is it?