'How To Be Hungry', by Em Meller

CW: eating disorders

I am obsessed with a video. It’s the most beautiful ice-skating video in existence, of Adam Rippon executing a near-perfect routine. His spins are precise and elegant, his sequined leotard glints down the curves of his body, thick threads of muscle twisting over through the air. He leaves small scars in the floor each time he lands, where the ice chips into tiny white piles beneath his blade. This is the important part: a moment where the camera lingers on Rippon’s face just before he starts his routine. If you watch closely, you can pinpoint the second his face transforms from flesh to steel. I slow the video down by 1.5 seconds. His eyebrows lower, his eyes go solid – a chemical process. ‘Hungry,’ the commentator says, ‘is the way to describe Adam Rippon right now.’

I see how hunger invades every cell. How his body goes sheer, delicate, sinewy. From that moment, every movement – every muscle in his thigh, and calf, and finger – is controlled. It’s like we are watching a projection of Rippon cast from his own head over the ice. A rare unity with no space between them. Rippon wants this, and the force of his desire perfects every muscle fibre.

We think desire = empty. We think it implies a space to be filled. I know it as a different feeling, a kind of energy instead of a hole. No, that’s not exactly it either, because I have desired the emptiness itself. Sometimes it’s wanting that reveals the emptiness. It is motivating, it seeks heat. The emptiness is what allows desire to grow inside, unbroken. Something like: desire / emptiness = energy.

Hunger conceptualised as resistance to being complacent (a Lacanian hunger): ‘for the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction if I were fucking’. This hunger is a defence against the false belief that we are fucking when we are only talking, which would ruin any species chances of survival. It protects us from not doing enough. I remember that feeling – satiety, not food, as the real enemy.

But I have not been hungry in over two years. Now the sensation is just like any other knowledge faded into my body – breaking a finger, burns, tooth extraction. I know how hunger affects a body, and so does my body, but I don’t exactly remember the pain. There are anecdotes: I was scared – horror-film terrified – of sourdough bread. I got heart palpitations when walking near bakeries, and I cried whenever someone brought a loaf into the house. One Sunday, I ran the City 2 Surf then played a 90-minute soccer match where we had no reserves. I had blisters so bad I couldn’t walk for three days. On the fourth, I went to the gym.

There were the strange places I cried in: a Thai restaurant, into a bowl of squid-ink linguine, a hip minimalist coffee shop after accidentally consuming whole milk instead of skim (poor barista, such a pretty Rosetta). There was the time I threw a tub of ice cream in the bin and fished it out, twice, whispering “seven-second rule”. I laugh now – it’s okay to laugh – in retrospect, it is funny. In an essay about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007), Blake Butler listed the general symptoms perfectly: ‘I get anxious in social situations, have a tenuous interest in sex, am victim to violent mood swings, methodically plan meals I never cook, and keep myself awake watching cooking videos online’.

The saddest part is I’ve never tried so hard at anything else. I dropped maths before the HSC, but I was a beast at calorie-based arithmetic. Like Eloise Grills wrote in her Meanjin article, ‘Counting calories. Counting wrinkles. Counting kilos. I’ve never been much at maths but keeping a leger of all these things comes easily to me’. Part of getting better was letting go of that kind of rigidity. The hardcore morning routines and lemon water before bed routines, the self-flagellating 12-hour days like gym-work-gym-study, the alarms and timers and scales. Because that kind of discipline requires dissociation, the kind I relied on while starving: an almost total refusal to inhabit my body. But without the numbers, pegs I used to hang up my day, I am just wading deeper and deeper into uncertainty. I am filling out my body, fleshy and warm. I am feeling my feelings. They are melodramatic and boring, like the time I ripped a plot for a radio play off my wall and flung myself to the bed, crying. “It’s hopeless”, I wailed (it wasn’t). “You don’t understand,” I screamed at my boyfriend (he didn’t). It’s hard to invest so much in such soft things. There is no guaranteed return.

This is the problem: desire and that destructive hunger feel the same in my body, and I don’t know how to untangle them. Sometimes, quietly, I think hunger = good art. I don’t want physical hunger – that would be reckless (I was lucky enough to get out the first time, mostly okay). I want a hunger that is about getting more solid instead of disappearing. I miss the singularity of vision, the intense desire to succeed. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017), Roxane Gay writes: ‘The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires’. From where I’m sitting, Adam Rippon’s hunger looks close. It’s the kind I have tried to move towards, and so far, mostly failed at.

I am not the first person to think about the relationship between art and hunger. Kafka wrote The Hunger Artist in 1922, telling the story of a starving man who fasts for forty days at a time. His hunger is the reason why he’s a great showman, but it’s also killing him. The hunger artist knows ‘how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world’. Much easier than eating, engaging. Much easier, for someone like him, than living.

Hunger reminds us of our proximity to the animal world. It releases impulses we’d prefer to control. Every cell in my body used to conspire to make me eat. Ghrelin flooded my veins and my brain would wander to food over and over, like a perverse meditation. But after a while, something strange would start to happen. The animal in my stomach, growling and scrolling through pictures of three-cheese pizzas, would quieten down. I’d get lethargic and want to lie down, but the hunger stopped hurting. It became easier to avoid the question of food than keep trying to eat perfectly.

The thing about avoidance as a method of control is that it fails. Things get chaotic quickly: empty boxes, empty bank accounts, a barista who is now also crying. Energy consumption through eating is one of the ways that the natural and human worlds maintain order. Animals eat plants and other animals, they get energy, they continue to live. Raymond Tallis wrote in Hunger (The Art of Living) (2008):

The maintenance of the order seen in living matter costs energy. A living organism may, at one level, be seen as a device for securing energy exchanges with the nearest parts of the rest of the universe, on terms favourable to itself.

What does it mean to refuse to engage in that exchange of energy, to lie down in your cage? For the hunger artist, it meant being replaced with a panther, a sleek creature with a real appetite. An animal that eats everything he is thrown happily, relishes the raw meat. But is physical hunger just a refusal to engage with a social order that requires us to eat? If anything, I wanted to participate more fully, become more absorbed by the world. I think that’s the same for so many that I watched fight harder and harder for things, for a life they wanted, even at the lowest points of their illness.

I think there is something else at play. For me, the hunger always felt like protection. It was a tool for punishing myself for complacency, sure, but it was also a way of keeping my appetite intact. Hunger isn’t about food, but about a gap, as Tallis says, ‘between the state we are in and the state we would like to be in’. This is the emptiness I know. Tallis goes on to say, ‘The art of living consists in great part in managing your hungers so that they do not destroy your own or anyone else’s happiness’. There must have been a time I felt my desire was under threat, when I could see it splinter in shards at my feet. So I doubled down on physical appetite to entrap myself. I wrapped it around my body like a cage.

Living = hunger / pain management. The equation seems simple, but the practice is not. I have tried simply switching out my hungers – from being food-based to being art-based. But my feelings don’t understand my clever plan. These are the kinds of things my nervous system will confuse: waking at 7 AM to write / waking at 7 AM to sprint; rejection letters / weighted scales; editing and editing and editing early drafts / changing rooms with an infinity of mirrors, reflecting back rolls on and on; hunger ten minutes before lunch / hunger three days and counting; creating / dissipating; necessary / unnecessary hardening (my sex tape); hunger / hungers.

My hungers feel the same because they are the same, holding dually desire and self-destruction. Kafka himself was starving to death as he edited his story, like Chris Kraus starved and Paul Aster starved and so many of my favourite writers, the writers I’ve quoted in this essay, starved. That might suggest that there is no way to achieve my aesthetic goals without the destructive kind of hunger. Except, I don’t think that’s true. Maybe it’s more that my ‘near-miss’ experiences with disordered eating are so common (even cliched, especially for a white girl from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, let’s be honest) that their prevalence in literature has nothing to do with good art. Writers are probably just more willing to overshare. It’s a mistake to think creativity is inherently self-destructive. Alternative reading on art and hunger: Adam Rippon was injured before he carried out the perfect routine in the video. Before the commentator called him “hungry”. Was his accident the catalyst that made him hungry, or did it cause the injury? Maybe the only trick is separation. To recognise the nuances in pain. Good pain / bad pain. Bad pain / good pain.

New goals: I want to eat a slice of thick, buttered sourdough bread. And I want to let my hunger grow, delicate and shimmery as ice.

Em Meller writes non-fiction and poetry which appear in places like Scum, The Lifted Brow and Voiceworks. Her essay ‘Blueprint for a Theory of the Teen Girl’s Best Friend’ is longlisted for the 2018 TLB and non/fictionLab Experimental Nonfiction Prize.