While recovering from what I tentatively call an eating disorder – I’m not sure I would have met the clinical definition, but I was starving myself and in the throes of obsession with losing every last bit of body fat possible, so I hesitate to brush it off as a diet – I became entirely preoccupied with the feeling of living inside my body.
I was gaining back the numerous pounds I had lost and it was a horrifying transition. At the end of a long, torturous day, I would unzip my tight pants, expecting to breathe a sigh of relief as my flesh-covered body oozed out from sartorial confines. But the sigh of relief wouldn’t come. I would then realise in ghastly horror that it wasn’t my clothes that were confining me, but rather my skin; I would realise that I would have to spend the night in this same bloated, cramping state; I would realise that perhaps I have to spend my life in the muted agony of living within the confines of a body.
I didn’t know how to move; I was stuck.
I hated walking because of the queasy new feeling of thigh brushing against thigh, the gorgeous gaping space between my legs diminished by normal eating habits. I hated taking the bus because I could feel all the nascent bits of fat on my lower back, hips, and breasts shake with the gritty turbulence. I hated being driven places because I spent the ride in agonising awe of my giant frame, gazing down at the expanse of fatty tissue ballooning across the seat, shrinking back at the curve of a full stomach. I hated moving; I hated existing within a body. I cried constantly, terrified that I would live forever in this awful liminal space of not-fat-enough that I should stop gaining weight – yet viscerally disturbed by my own flesh.
My boyfriend told me I was being silly, that I looked as slender and beautiful as ever. I told him to fuck off, that I wasn’t concerned with my appearance. I was concerned with the fact that I could actively feel my blossoming insides pressing against my too-tight skin, threatening to burst out.
While navigating this recovery phase, I wisely stopped drinking. This was because alcohol was an easy way to forget, an easy way to mindlessly eat regular meals without the feeling of painful pressure mounting inside my body, without any awareness of the profound discomfort right underneath my skin. Needless to say, I didn’t want to rely on alcohol’s induced apathy. Nevertheless, a month into my bodily transformation, I was at a party and drank, a lot. Anaesthetised and numbed to my own prison-of-skin, I ate mountains of sugary pink-rimmed cookies, tiny and glinting, until I vomited heaps of glimmering rosy paste. The anaesthesia was lovely (if ultimately a bit icky), but I knew that this sort of self-inflicted numbness was toxic and not the remedy to my hyper-awareness of my uncomfortable frame.
An anaesthetised life is obviously condemnable; no one wants to drift on autopilot, oblivious to the beauty and poetry that surrounds them. Yet I argue that there is an even more insidious power in what I call “hyperaesthesia” – a phenomenon in which the physicality of beauty is felt all too acutely within the body.
Consider the implications the various meanings of the word ‘aesthetic’:
aesthetics as superficiality, appearance, and beauty;
Aesthetics as a sensibility, à la Aestheticism, the intellectual movement that involves experiencing and enjoying art and beauty; and
aesthetics (as interpreted through its Greek root aisthesthai meaning ‘to perceive’) as the process of perceiving or feeling acutely – the opposite of which is anaesthesia, or numbness.
Hyperaesthesia thus can not only be interpreted as the excessive pursuit of beauty, but also as the excessive attention to the physical feeling of beauty; according to its Greek roots, it is the excessive perception of one’s form. This hypervigilance to one’s own body can be just as toxic as a bodily anaesthesia – and perhaps the merits of mindfulness, of paying close attention to the physical sensations you’re experiencing, can plateau and even diminish at a point.
Hyperaesthesia often stems from an obsession with body image and appearance, a fixation on body parts and the physical sensations of the body. Those who have become hyperaesthetic may find themselves wishing for total bodily anaesthesia, may wish to become merely a brain floating in a jar, may wish to rid themselves of any mindful connection with their own corporeality. I found myself wishing these very things all too often.
Yet all was not as dire as it seemed: the modern mentality around diet and wellness culture is shifting away from restrictive eating and even away from the pseudo-celebratory body positivity movement. The modern mindful eater explores tentative solutions such as intuitive eating and body neutrality with a gentle, generous curiosity. I too began to turn to these healthy anaesthetics as remedies to my hyperaesthetic sensibility.
There is something especially enchanting about the body-neutrality phenomenon, which involves wholly doing away with self-evaluations of your body (pro tip: this is much easier done after throwing out your scale). Body neutrality was a response to the body positivity movement, which itself is a response to the self-hate prescribed by diet culture – basically, body neutrality offers a space in which bodies can simply exist, minus the angst of hating your body or the pressure of loving it.
I was enthralled. I wanted nothing more than to ignore my body; neither loving nor hating it, I could transcend it.
As neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the human body, body neutrality may look something like an anaesthetic sensibility, a cold dismissal of form and beauty. Yet this physical numbness is bliss when it is sought as a remedy to the emotional numbness of hyperaesthesia. Body neutrality is a relief in a culture where unconditional positivity is seen as virtuous, creating a palpable danger of overdoing body-positivity – perhaps even to the point of starving yourself to get your ‘perfect’ frame.
After all, too much focus on your own body – even in celebration – and you might end up floundering in hyperaesthesia.
Learn more about body neutrality at https://www.thecut.com/2017/03/forget-body-positivity-how-about-body-neutrality.html
Learn more about intuitive eating at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/08/opinion/sunday/women-dieting-wellness.html?login=email&auth=login-email