“Body Images” by Kayleigh Hughes

Body Images

*content warning: eating disorders, body dysmorphia

The Google Image search for “Egon Schiele self-portrait” lingers among my browser tabs. Working in Austria primarily from 1907 to his death in 1928, Schiele inked dozens if not hundreds of self-portraits. In them, he is often naked, his body dark and twisted and his brow low. On my laptop screen he looks sick. The line of his skeleton is jagged, his watercolors burnt. The paper looks rusted, heated, mauled by pen and paint. He painted women, too, or girls, really. Usually poor, usually starved, often prostitutes. 

When I was a teenager, I was an artist. In painting and drawing classes I learned hundreds of names, people to model one’s work after. I chose Schiele and Alberto Giacometti over all the others, and maybe that choice alone should have told me there was something unhealthy about my taste in bodily aesthetics. But could I really know? I was just a young person with a buzzing mind and ravenous eyes and self-hatred in my heart. 

A European sculptor working in the first half of the 20th century, Giacometti focused primarily on what are ostensibly depictions of humans. The long, pulled-taffy bronze figures look like they are melting upward, disintegrating into the sky. Their torsos winnow, bodily isthmuses. In Sartre’s words, they are “always mediating between nothingness and being.” Giacometti was obsessive in his work and it showed. Critic Tony Dokoupil called him a “restless perfectionist.”

As a teenage artist, I wouldn’t let my boyfriend touch my belly. He could touch anywhere else he liked, but the belly, which was not flat and not hard, was off-limits. I drew a lot of self-portraits at that time, but only of my face and shoulders. I couldn’t bear to confront the rest of me with a pencil. Even so, my self-portraits are almost gruesome in their specificity, each shadow, line, and divot given equal import, resulting in drawing upon drawing of an unusually haggard young girl, fresh and round in life but made bloated and weary on the page.

I also liked to do line drawings of trees, and I preferred them without leaves, just twisted branches I could shape by drawing not the branches themselves but the negative space between them. My favorite trees were and remain birches. My body does not look like a birch. It does not look like a Giacometti statue or a Schiele drawing. It is defined by itself, its own topography, not shaped by the negative space around it. Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t have a silhouette at all, it just rises and falls and spreads out for eternity. 

Ways I have described myself: a balloon with a smile painted on it. A clay sculpture that someone got bored with and left unfinished. Just a building made of stacked bricks of fat. An undercooked sugar cookie, pale and wide.

During my junior year of high school, I made a print in art class of an elongated genderless blob figure with the words “I’m so heavy” dancing alongside it—sort of Gumby by way of Matisse, a globular, royal blue portrait of undiagnosed depression and dysmorphia. My art teacher thought it was a send-up of the faux-spiritualism in classic psych-rock. I don’t think he considered that the message I was trying to convey was literal, that I felt weighed down by the heaviness, the hugeness of my body. Or what I thought was my body. Pictures of me from that time betray my slimness, but I couldn’t see it, couldn’t feel myself as I objectively was. I did not know what the 17-year-old belly I was so afraid of looked like, as I do not know what my 31-year-old belly looks like. 

Recently I was scrolling YouTube when I came across a pop-science video nugget about body dysmorphia. Those with the disorder, the featured scientists posited, literally see the world differently—specifically, they see people differently. 

These scientists have determined that people without body dysmorphia process the patterns in other people’s faces in a consistent manner. The scientists can anticipate, with a fair degree of success, the path most people’s eyes will follow when confronted with a new face. To demonstrate, a subject sits with the requisite cords-and-plugs contraption wired to their head, images of unfamiliar faces flashing in front of them while a computer tracks their eye movements. The video viewer is shown the results: a photograph of a face with dots and lines tracing a clumsy question mark from the left to the right eye, down to the nose and then the mouth. 

The eye movements of people with body dysmorphia, however, turn out photographs of faces that look like they’ve been scribbled on aggressively and with no guiding principle. The dysmorphic’s vision is distorted, exaggerating certain features, disregarding others. They—we—quite literally cannot trust what we see. 

When someone tells me “don’t worry, no one notices” about any of my physical flaws, it is beyond my ability to believe them because I do notice, to a degree that has been scientifically documented as both skewed and excessive. And not just in myself. This is probably the worst part. It’s everyone. My point of view lacks the standard physiological generosity of those without body dysmorphia. I see all your flaws. But I still never hate you as much as I hate me. 

Giacometti admitted to both compulsion and revulsion in his creative process. Or, most accurately, a compulsion to create what revolted him: “I began to work from memory…but wanting to create from memory what I had seen, to my terror the sculptures became smaller and smaller, yet their dimensions revolted me, and tirelessly I began again, only to end several months later at the same point. Often they became so tiny that with one touch of my knife they disappeared into dust.”

I have many least favorite body parts, but recently the number one spot has been held by my neck flap, my dewlap, if you will. That pale flab of fatty skin that tents from my chin to my neck is hereditary; for probably two decades now I have feared I would develop one like my mother’s. I think of what Giacometti or Schiele would do with my neck-chin. How would they depict me? Would Giacometti find my dewlap revolting? Or would he be more revolted by his impulse to disappear it? He would sculpt me until I turned to dust and then be terrified. But I would be satisfied, finally, by what I was. Maybe Schiele would find I looked more like the space around his rangy models than I did a subject myself. A background of nothingness becomes full, corporeal. 

Why did Giacometti and Schiele choose to make their art the way they did? Why bring into being so many slender silhouettes, so many figures defined as much by what is absent from them as by what is present in them? Perhaps their gaze itself is dysmorphic. I can’t know if either of them experienced body dysmorphia, but it’s clear by what they created that they saw something different. Did I love their work so much because it was a manifestation of what my eyes did already?

At my slimmest, in a body I briefly achieved many years ago and lost slowly, I remember imagining conversations with Schiele, certain he would have recognized himself in me. At 22, I had finally become bulimic. After years of little things—the pushing away of the boyfriend’s hand, the lessons from my mother about how not to look fat, the panicked calls to the health center about the danger of brownies, the ten thousand hours spent glowering at mirrors—it felt inevitable when I embraced the big thing, the whole enchilada and the puking of it back up.

I remember, months into my new bulimic world, contorting myself as I looked in the mirror, enraged at the way my broad ribcage prevented me from shrinking down to my desired silhouette. I felt a kinship with Schiele, whose loathing for his jutting bones I believed I could sense in the thickness of his line. To me, it was clear that Schiele drew self-portraits in furious desperation. I took from his own quotes what I wanted to. He once said, “Bodies have their own light which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from the outside,” and in that I read a celebration of eating oneself alive and a frustration with what is left.

Rotund bodies are not hard to find in art history, but they spark nothing in me. I could lie and say that the Venus of Willendorf’s bulging stone made me love myself, having read so many times about its function as an icon to admire and arouse. I could wax false-lyrical about how the lush sensuality of Rubens’ fleshy figures inspired me to show my cellulite in public. There is a large audience for that type of writing, that type of thinking. But the truth is when I look at my calves I think of roast hams, and I wish I could carve a clean line along the sides, rip out the viscera, everything except the bone, and then sew it all back up, thin. I have never once liked a depiction of a body like mine. I like depictions of bodies I can never have no matter how much I try to change myself. And I’ve tried. Not yet with a surgical knife, but with fingers down my throat and miles and miles and miles on an empty stomach. 

A friend of mine, a musician, recently sent me lyrics in which she calls the forced vomiting of bulimia an act of “finger fucking” her own throat. I liked that line so much when she sent it to me because I believed it did the near-impossible thing of talking about an eating disorder without glamorizing it. Another friend read this essay and told me they didn’t think that was right, that it was just a punker form of glamor. Even in words I’m not able to see what is true. Could anything have stopped me from doing this?

Eating disorders are egosyntonic. Simply put: when you have the flu you want to get better. When you have an eating disorder you don’t. Your brain gets stupid, thinks self-destruction is self-preservation. For a long time purging was the only activity that could calm the panic attacks I hid from others. Of course, me-in-recovery must remind me-of-the-past that the panic attacks were often prompted by the prospect of eating food I deemed unacceptable.

When I was sick, I never heard a single worried comment about my body, only praise. Yet I don’t have many photographs of myself from the time, and almost no drawings. As much as I lost, I never got to where I wanted to be, never found myself worthy of capturing in full, as a body head to toe.

Why did I let myself gain weight again? Perhaps because one night, after my acid reflux surged and I swallowed the bile that swam in my mouth, I chipped my eroded tooth on a beer bottle and my fear of death inched its way ahead of my fear of fat. Perhaps because a boyfriend heard me throwing up the meal he fed me and said it hurt him that it went to waste. Perhaps it was because I blacked out in my bathroom. Perhaps it was not quite any of these, but what they built up to: me finally revealing to my loved ones the reason why I looked so beautiful and felt so miserable, and them not knowing how to say they wanted to help me get better.

The subsequent few years struggling toward a concept of health I felt ambiguous about at best were almost as messy and gross as the sick era. I saw my body changing and couldn’t tell either when it would stop or if what I was seeing was true. Every food choice came with a new type of deliberation—not is this okay to eat but do I want this, am I able to accept that I deserve it? When exercising, I had to sort out the difference between good pain and bad pain. 

When I was sick and getting sicker, the excess of my body fell away like Giacometti carving his plaster molds. As I’ve gotten better it’s like the process happening in reverse. An artist packing material onto itself, building girth in all directions.

Seven years in, the body of my eating disorder lives in the past, but the brain of it is still right here inside my head. My dysmorphic gaze is as merciless as ever toward a body that’s almost doubled itself. Most of the time I try to just look away. This is the boring part, the routine maintenance. The only goal: to keep not doing the thing. The only means of achieving the goal: keep not doing the thing. It’s no solo finger fuck.

Schiele’s subjects were typically poor, desperate, and sick, working to survive the misery of WWI Europe. Giacometti’s sculptures were similarly influenced by the starvation and pain of Europe leading up to and during WWII. For a long time, I thought the works of both artists simply communicated a fact, that suffering is beautiful. But I’ve realized they’re better looked at as prompting the question, is suffering beautiful? My problem is still that I want to answer yes. My daily salvation is that I continue not to answer the question at all, but to simply ask it more questions in return.

Over my desk sits a print of a pastel drawing. It is a spiritual sibling to my so-heavy print from over a decade ago, but the artist, Jon-Michael Frank, made it many years later and we know nothing about each other. The scribbled torso of a human in royal blue sits within a larger, bulkier orange outline, while words framing the body read, “Help! I can’t get out of myself.” I haven’t wanted to damage the paper before I give it a frame, so I’ve kept it in its plastic sheath since the time of purchase, giving the words a touch of added irony. The piece is not fine art, like Giacometti or Schiele or Rubens, but it’s also not a child’s class project. It is something in between. The sentiment, too, is not calm or resigned or finalized. It is documentation of the act of becoming, capturing the terror of the process.

Kayleigh Hughes is an MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University and comes from Columbus, Ohio. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013. Her literary work, journalism, and criticism have appeared in Catapult, The Establishment, The Austin American-Statesman, Pitchfork, Paste, Consequence of Sound, Loser City, Hothouse, Analecta, and more.

Categorized as Issue Ten