Unlike my initial airy-fairy mirror split, this episode didn’t feel like a mystical revelation.
Content warning: disordered eating
The first time I left my body, I was 15. It was revelatory. For no particular reason, I looked in the mirror and suddenly was meeting someone for the first time. It inspired me, with my adolescent faux-profundity, to write a poem about the illusory nature of the self.
Then things got…creepy.
It went from spiritual revelation to identity fragmentation. I became more and more conscious of the split between the image and the self it represented. I’d decide to move my hand and marvel that it moved in response to a mere thought. I wondered why my thoughts could control Suzy’s body and nobody else’s. I wondered how I even had access to Suzy’s thoughts. As I floated further and further away from Suzy, I felt invasive for even knowing she existed. I felt like a fraud for masquerading as her.
Then I felt misunderstood for being seen as her. I hated her.
I feel the same sickening severance when I look at a picture and think, “Who’s that ugly girl in the front?” only to realize it’s me. The same sensation occurs when I hear my own recorded voice, when I wonder why I see the world through my own eyes and nobody else’s. You may say—and I understand it feels obvious—because they’re your eyes. But they’re mine only because I see through them, because an optic nerve connects them to my brain — and what makes that brain mine? This feels like a similarly disturbing problem.
My brain is usually too tired to think about itself, but when it does, I feel like a snake eating its tail, so wound up it can’t escape its own belly, so thick from self-consumption that it chokes.
My childhood fantasies of the future always contained the hidden assumption that one day? I would leave my body. Sometimes my future self was a Maybelline model with luscious lips flanked by equally model-esque man-candy. Later, I envisioned myself as one of the giants of poststructuralist philosophy, sitting around a table with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Rolande Barthes—anachronistically—all at once.
I did not become a supermodel, and I did not become a French man.
I developed a devalued and objectified body unfit for a philosopher. Seeking an exit route, I grew so airy and detached, I felt my mind might expand like a balloon and float into space. Maybe it already had. I could be going about my daily routine without consciousness—like a very advanced robot. For all I knew, I was already floating in space, connected via some wireless network to my body, perceiving its immediate surroundings only by collecting data from its sensory organs.
For a while I forgot I needed to eat, or perhaps convinced myself I didn’t need to. My mind had no idea what my body wanted and that was fine with me. I didn’t want to associate myself with something as base and material as food. My body felt too heavy to express my inner ethereality. This asceticism bears similarities to anorexia mirabilis, a condition different from, but debatably a precursor to, anorexia nervosa, which afflicted several medieval holy women.
Saint Margaret of Cortona, who died of starvation in 1297, wrote:
“I have no intention of making peace between my body and my soul … allow me to tame my body by not altering my diet; I will not stop for the rest of my life, until there is no more life left.”
Saint Catherine of Siena claimed that she did not need food because she ate at the Banquet of God; she was above embodied existence. She renounced all carnal pleasures and had visions of marrying Jesus with a ring made of his foreskin, which some might say resulted from sexual repression, just as some might say her mystical visions were starvation-induced hallucinations.
But what I find more interesting is the possibility that it worked the other way around: She didn’t want food or sex because whatever satisfaction she could get from them paled in comparison to the fulfillment she got from her inner spiritual life.
My body felt too heavy to express my inner ethereality.
The main difference I see is that the out-of-body experiences of St. Catherine consisted of self-discovery whereas I discovered a non-self. Rather than saying “this is what I am — an ethereal soul!” I felt as though my mind had no identity inherently coupled with my body.
It could attach itself to anyone or anything, a parasite surviving off its host. I couldn’t help but think of Voldemort on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, feeding off his body until he gained the power to grow a body of his own. Perhaps my image of myself as a male poststructuralist philosopher came from this belief that my mind would eventually sprout a body to better fit its self-conception. But could a mind sans a physical body ever express itself? Maybe not.
Still, I can’t help but wonder whether, if I lived in a body less fraught, less subjugated by my mind — in other words, less female — the task would feel less impossible.
One account of disembodiment that sounds more akin to my experience came from Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memory of Anorexia and Bulimia:
“I suddenly felt a split in my brain: I didn’t recognize her. I divided into two: the self in my head and the girl in the mirror. It was a strange, not unpleasant feeling of disorientation, disassociation. I began to return to the mirror often, to see if I could get that feeling back. If I sat very still and thought: Not me-not me-not me over and over, I could retrieve the feeling of being two girls, staring at each other through the glass of the mirror. I didn’t know then that I would eventually have that feeling all the time. Ego and image. Body and brain.”
Like Hornbacher’s, my mind-body splitting was the precursor to an eating disorder, an auxiliary self that took up residence in my mind when I was 15, the age I first left my body.
Carolyn Costin, a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, articulates this phenomenon in The Eating Disorder Sourcebook: “Eating disorder symptoms are the behavioral component of a separate, split-off self, or what I have come to call the ‘eating disorder self.’ This self has a special set of needs, behaviors, feelings, and perceptions, all of which are dissociated from the individual’s core or what I call ‘healthy self.’”
I (the observer, the mind, the eating disorder self) stifled and silenced the other voice, “my” own, until I (the observed, the body, the healthy self) became a mere body used to fulfill my sadistic desires, or perhaps masochistic ones; it is hard for someone split in two to tell the difference. But I don’t think this sadomasochist was the only voice in me, or else its pleasures would have been fulfilled and it/I would have been happy. I imagine another voice calling out to me as I walked through the halls of my high school, a voice within my gut that grew softer as I floated away and away from “my” body.
Unlike my initial airy-fairy mirror split, this episode didn’t feel like a mystical revelation. It felt like the debilitating self-consciousness and self-objectification characteristic of this condition. I am not just talking about the condition of disordered eating; I am talking about the condition of being a woman. I am talking about internalizing an outsider’s image of my body until my face feels like a mask — all decoration, no sensation. I am talking about sensing that I can’t occupy the word “I” and thus becoming “you” to myself.
When I say “I,” I’m not sure whose words I’m using or who I’m referring to, but I’m sure that the speaker and the object of speech are not the same, and the words that define me are not my own. I cannot speak without splitting. Each “I” is a line drawn between me and the self I speak of. Each eye stares back at the other. Each act of speech masks me with another face, and through this mask I look down on my body in scorn, or at best, alienation.
“Given the coupling of mind with maleness and the body with femaleness and given philosophy’s own self-understanding as a conceptual enterprise, it follows that women and femininity are problematized as knowing philosophical subjects and as knowable epistemic subjects,” Elizabeth Grosz writes in Volatile Bodies.
Women are defined by materiality, men by mindedness. This is to say not that women are earthly, but that Earth has been made womanly; it is not to say that men are Godly, but that God has been made male. So many things have been imbued with references to men and women that we can’t speak of everyday concepts — presence and lack, hardness and softness, ether and earth — without speaking of gender. Man created God in his own image, and God created the world. It follows from this syllogism that man created the world in his own image.
I am not just talking about the condition of disordered eating; I am talking about the condition of being a woman.
Just as St. Catherine of Siena configured her soul as a transcendent substance trapped in the confines of Mother Earth and her body, I am a masculine-coded mind trapped in feminine matter/mother, both from the Latin root mater.
I’ve chided myself for behaving as if the Cartesian illusion of mind-body separation is more than an illusion. I should know better, I think; I’ve studied the neural mechanisms of thought and emotion, the embodiment of cognition, the situatedness of knowledge, and how Descartes screwed us all over with the mind-body duality. Yet while I know this separation is merely symbolic, I can’t think away my own experience, an experience driven by symbolic distinctions: mind vs. matter, male vs. female. Our culture’s conflict between mind and body is raging inside me.
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, entry into language requires an extra step for women: the adoption of a male perspective, a perspective outside her own body, looking at her own head through eyes foreign yet all too familiar to her. To accomplish this, language relegates her to the object of an action, or at best she is written as a subject in the passive voice. It is said that women are more empathetic, that women spend more time considering what men think than vice versa, that women have more understanding of the male mind than men do of the female mind.
That’s because our culture has no concept of a female mind. If there is one, I leave it on the ground every time I float outside my body to think about it. Lacan famously stated that le femme n’existe pas; there is no such thing as a woman. I believe I am a woman until I catch myself uttering such a statement, and once again, the “I” who steps outside my head, sizes me up, and classifies me as a woman with impossible certainty is not the “I” who is a woman.
After years of therapy and months in treatment centers, the only way I’ve managed to maintain my recovery has been to forget that the woman I observe and classify is, by most definitions, me. Disembodiment can be your worst enemy and your best friend if you take it far enough. When I ate foods I’d deemed too meaty and fatty and fleshy, I convinced myself it wasn’t really me eating; it was just a body that happened to be attached to me.
When I couldn’t bear the weight I acquired in recovery, I told myself my body was just a temporary vessel for an everlasting soul anyway. When I finally got my period back, I reminded myself it was only by chance that my soul was born into a menstruating vehicle.
When I felt defeated by the regrowth of curves I’d resolved to remove since they transformed me from a human into a piece of meat, I made extra effort to use the vocabulary of the male intellectuals I admired so I could catch people off guard with discussions of postmodern theory before they had the chance to peg me as a potential conquest.
Le femme n’existe pas; there is no such thing as a woman.
My mind is a magician, making the body invisible while chattering at the audience so they don’t notice it’s still there. This defense may have even spawned the essay you’re reading — though my body’s having the last laugh now, because this piece is from and about it.
The split is inevitable, necessary, even: without detaching from and observing our bodies, we would not be self-aware. There are just more and less unhealthy ways to deal with the detachment. Freud contended that the world’s greatest artists channeled physical desires into intellectual pursuits. Like solid matter evaporating into weightless gas, this is called sublimation. He deemed it the only successful defense mechanism. My immediate reaction is to agree; I’m happy this way, I think. But which “I” is saying this? What would the other “I” say if she could speak? Where is she? Asleep until thinking-I wakes her with a kiss? Trapped in a cave with Antigone and all the other traitors of the male I?
Luce Irigaray claims that since language is fit only for a masculine subject, women must speak a different language to connect to their own bodies. But that can’t happen if there’s no woman in the first place, and as empowering as it is to hear about vaginas engulfing penises, it isn’t making me feel more embodied. So I’ve tried yoga, but every time I get down on the mat, I know it’s just a matter of time before I start sublimating. What comes down must go up. Everyone’s in downward dog and I’m in la-la land trying to solve the problem of induction. Any bit of mind left on the ground gets so engrossed in the movements that it merges with the body and loses consciousness.
Irigaray says women defy language because they’re so close to themselves, and one needs distance from something to speak of it. As I write, I approach the object of inquiry, myself, but I will never reach it. If I arrive at my destination, I will have to abandon it. By the time I reach myself, there will be no self to reach. There will be no “I;” I will be too close to speak.
The sentence implodes, subject and object meld together, and the split disappears. I cannot speak without splitting into the self that speaks and the self that’s spoken of. So I float off the page, and in the distance I see a girl with a face.
It is a pretty face, but I take no pride in it; it is not mine. The most it is good for is to represent me so that I can float further and not be bothered. If I don’t become a Frenchman, I’ll get back to you when I get back to my body.