by Elissa Washuta
Instant Future Books, 50 pages
reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch
Originally released as an E-book by Instant Future in 2015, essayist Elissa Washuta’s Starvation Mode is now reborn in corporeal chapbook form. At 50 pages, it can be read in one sitting, and I recommend this approach for best absorption of its nutrients. Nutrients, numbers, rules—Washuta is constantly searching for a calculus that will solve the problem of what goes into the body: “I would like to return to a time before it got so hard to eat,” she writes in the chapbook’s opening, “but eating has always been the hardest work I’ve ever had to do.”
For some readers, such words may kindle curiosity, a chance to peek into someone else’s affliction. Others will burn with instant recognition. I fall squarely into the second camp. I grew up reading my grandmother’s copies of Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal, fascinated by the image of womanhood they presented. These magazines imagine their reader as a straight, middle-class woman with a nuclear family, and it’s assumed that her post-childbirth body is the site of an endless struggle against weight gain. The body needs to be managed in the same way that linens need to be washed and the Thanksgiving turkey brined. These magazines didn’t talk explicitly about sex, so the idea of maintaining a slim figure seemed more of an aesthetic question, part of keeping an attractive home. Messy rooms and tummy bulges both indicated a slovenly moral character. The women around me, blood relations and teachers, imparted the message that being on a diet was the natural state of affairs, that hunger is not a signal to eat but the sensation of victory. When I got old enough to purchase my own copies of Seventeen, then Glamour and Elle and Vogue, the message was the same, although in the 2000s often cloaked in language of being “your best self” and “body confidence” and “eating clean.”
Part 1 of Starvation Mode, structured like one of these women’s lifestyle magazines gone haywire, enumerates a series of 36 rules, some of which sound ripped from glossy pages (11 – Don’t eat before bed; 21 – Focus your eating upon low caloric density foods) and some that show how quickly rule-making becomes a pathology (22 – If you eliminate foods from your diet, one by one, you’ll be a smaller person for it). The rules are chronological. As a picky child, the narrator finds that eating ham is “too much like chewing on a human.” A teen, she learns from her boyfriend that sharing indulgent processed foods (which she always buys; the economics of trying to feed oneself are not ignored here) is an expression of love. In her early adult years, she turns a book on the Okinawa diet into her Bible, notebooks of recorded glycemic indices into a grimoire of transformative spells. Alcohol and a bum gallbladder complicate the math. Psychiatric meds suppress hunger, then stoke it.
Beyond its inventive form and vital subject matter, Starvation Mode’s language is rich, startling, and evocative. “The fridge is a cage I fill with bluebirds and neglect to feed them,” she writes of purchasing the expensive and delicate organic produce and meat that comprise a “balanced diet of hope,” later leaving them to rot in favor of English muffins with butter. Graduating from college at a perilously low weight is a moment of dark triumph: “My effort brought me the things I worked for: a hollow face, a 4.0, a wiry neck, summa cum laude, a bundle of tassels and cords to adorn me at commencement, arms like crow’s legs, a heart and brain like a pair of fists, a stomach like a terrapin’s shell with not even a dead thing hiding inside, a swollen liver weeping bile all the way down my boa constrictor intestine.” The animals that appear throughout the imagery call to mind both their misfortune (to be hunted, farmed and consumed, or otherwise destroyed through human greed and carelessness) and their blessing (to eat when they are hungry, ruled by instinct, a reproach to our ridiculous hang-ups).
Washuta knows that it is more comfortable to imagine various food issues as a war against the self than as a power grab but decides to risk reader sympathy anyway: “I was born into the privilege of big-eyed, small-boned beauty. I wanted all of it. If I’d been instructed in amputation by Disney princesses with missing limbs instead of strangled waists, I might have sliced off my own fingers.”
Part 2 takes the dietary memoir of Part 1 and complicates it further, doubling back in meta-narrative: “I can no longer bear to continue telling this story. This bunch of stuff is not interesting to me. I have been telling slant-truths because I am afraid to divulge too much and turn you against me.” The redemptive arc of a narrator making peace with her body, a conclusion I always mistrust, is refused. Amending the 36 rules, Washuta offers a list of lies told in Part 1. These lies are the conventions of eating disorder stories: that it’s about control, fear of adulthood, an inward-directed mania. Anorexics aren’t trying to be sexy, after-school specials and young adult novels lectured me, because obviously they look disgusting. Washuta lays bare what such moralizing narratives often elide that yes, it is about men. It is about wanting them to want to fuck you. It is watching The Little Mermaid on a loop when you are five and learning so deeply that you cannot unlearn it even when you know better, that the fat sea witch must transform into a slender vixen to compete with Ariel, and that winning or losing is all in who the prince chooses to love. Washuta knows that it is more comfortable to imagine various food issues as a war against the self than as a power grab but decides to risk reader sympathy anyway: “I was born into the privilege of big-eyed, small-boned beauty. I wanted all of it. If I’d been instructed in amputation by Disney princesses with missing limbs instead of strangled waists, I might have sliced off my own fingers.”
And why should it feel threatening to admit this? In part because talking about privilege in general can make people uncomfortable. Pretty privilege and thin privilege also function differently from the privileges of whiteness or maleness or straightness in that they can be lost—
and inevitably will be lost. That precarity lends itself to anxiety and obsession. The fact that people, mostly women, will destroy their own bodies, their sanity, and their bank accounts for the spoils of conventional beauty demonstrates just how hard it is to get someone to relinquish any sort of privilege. Women’s magazines’ shift in terms from thinness and dieting to wellness and self-care can easily serve as a smokescreen for the same unflattering pursuit of power.
Worse than that, it’s power that isn’t power. It can feel like power to draw a man’s eyes to your body, but it’s still power granted by another. What feels like power might really be vulnerability. Washuta puts it in blunt terms: “Too many times, I’d found that there was no magic in the beckoning of my coy glance that pulled someone toward my body; there was only the beacon signaling to a predator that he might succeed in penetrating me in the night, reaching into my drunk vagina, fucking my flesh dry for five hours, or telling my mouth to shut up so he could put his dick in it.” Even when you win, you don’t win. If you eat too many calories, you get fat, but if you don’t eat enough, your body goes into starvation mode, retaining weight out of fear of scarcity.
In the chapbook’s final pages, Washuta offers no easy resolution, but Part 3 bears the subtitle “Reconciliation.” Our narrator finds a place of necessary compromise, embracing the brain as a part of the body that must be fed in order to function. Eating merely to live is not compelling, but eating to think and write is a more solid place to start. “My brain knows nothing without the skin and the tissues encased inside it. I want to help this good flesh do its work.”
Starvation Mode’s narrow focus befits its subject; it is cut down to bone.
My Body is a Book of Rules, Washuta’s full-length 2014 memoir, is a title that could also suit this volume. That longer book is more wide-ranging, a tumult of data and narrative concerning mental health, sexuality, sexual violence, Native identity, and experimental essayistic forms. Starvation Mode’s narrow focus befits its subject; it is cut down to bone. While Washuta never presents her experience as universal or anything other than uniquely her own, it illuminates a predicament in which many women find themselves: when you have worked for years to unlink hunger and eating, what is food for? After that tie is severed, the idea that food is fuel for your body makes as much sense as sex being for only procreation. Food becomes an instrument of pleasure and pain, punishment and reward—addressing anything but literal hunger. The thousands of rule-filled diet books and mantras of lifestyle gurus promise more than weight loss; they offer a path out of this void of confusion and just so happen to profit immensely by dangling dream-thin lifelines. Washuta’s clarity is a welcome alternative.
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has published fiction and non-fiction in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and others. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia. Her website is mcrouch.com.