When I was young, my mother was obsessed with her house looking perfect. Flawless. She’d fawn over the houses pictured in My Home and Garden and sigh “Why can’t I ever have anything nice?” It eventually became her catch-phrase. I tried to remind her that the houses in the pictures were not real, no one actually lived in them, but she didn't listen. She’d buy pretty candles that would never be lit. She didn’t want them looking used. I used to give her no end of grief about it all. I couldn’t stand the candles with their white wicks and the good towels that we were not meant to use. I couldn't stand the glasses kept in the cupboard for “one day when we have a nice kitchen”. This waiting, this planning for the perfect day on which life would be perfect and so one could use the perfect glasses and the perfect towels.
I used to wonder when this day would come, this perfect day. Would it sneak up on us? Would we know it was coming? Or would it be instant. Would a bell go off and then the good stuff would come out of its glory box?
I had a feeling that the perfect day would never come. If something happens too gradually do you even know it’s there, or are you too busy looking ahead to what “perfect” will mean tomorrow? Is anything ever perfect enough?
I had a friend when I was nine called Ella. Ella’s mother was even more obsessed with perfection than mine. She’d be so concerned about perfection that they had two lots of towels. The show towels, three in the same shade of blue, pink or red, lined up neatly on the towel wrack. No one used these towels. Ever. They were the show towels. Guests were forgiven for mistakenly drying their hands on them but as kids we were not. If we dared touch them we got in trouble. At bath time we were required to get a towel out of the linen cupboard. These were the old show towels that had been faded in the sun after years of being on show.
Ella’s mother was also equally as obsessed with Ella being perfect too. She was the only nine year old I have ever met who had a perm (it was the 80's).
As I look around my messy house and gaze down at my shabby trackpants, known as my writing pants, I find it hard to believe that I too was once dangerously obsessed with perfection.
As a kid I was never skinny. I was never obese but I was never scrawny in the way a lot of kids naturally are. I had a belly, which was regularly pointed out by an alarming amount of adults, including my own parents. I vividly recall staring in a mirror when I was six declaring that I was fat. I wasn’t. Sure my tummy stuck out but all I really needed was some postural alignment treatment.
I grew up feeling fat. Though I was never even overweight on the BMI. I’m sure that if you grow up feeling fat in your mind, it totally messes with how you behave around food. I am sure that if I had never been made to feel overweight I would have had a much healthier relationship with food. The fact that I was told to “lay off the lollies” only made me want them more. And I think if you are raised with a strong basis of self esteem you are far less likely to harm yourself with food.
At 63 kgs and 162cms I was a healthy teenage girl, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes when you are an extension of someone else’s bigger picture of perfection they want to you be better. To be perfect. Because if you are perfect, it makes them feel perfect too. They can't help but tell you that you need to change.
When I went to Drama school at 19 I was suddenly surrounded by tiny dancers and beautiful people. Suddenly I started comparing myself to them. I realised I had put on a bit of weight since highschool and compared to the ballet dancers I looked gigantic. Instead of focusing on my craft, I was focusing on my appearance. A tiny seed was sprouting inside my mind. I wanted to look good. I wanted to look just as good if not better than everyone else. I wanted to look perfect!
After six months of acting training, which consisted of at least two hours of cardio/movement a day, I had lost about six kgs. People started commenting and complimenting me. It felt good. To be honest though, I hadn’t really changed much about my diet. I started to wonder how much weight I would lose if I stopped eating so much. So I did.
I started exercising even more. I’d power walk to class every day, do an hour and a half movement class, do a full days acting training, then power walk for another half hour and then usually go for a run at home. The night was finished off with a series of stomach crunches. All of this was done on a meagre amount food. On a “good day” this would consist of: half a cup of muesli with skim milk, a small tin of tuna with five small low fat rice crackers and a bit of chicken and green salad for dinner. I thought about food all the time and I was constantly hungry. But I was heading in to the 50kg area! I was almost perfect!
I had colds all the time. And they weren’t just little sniffles, they were nasty snot heavy, body aching, fluey colds. I’d get coldsores too. It was a constant fear. If there was anything worse than being fat it was having herpes on your mouth. For some reason I never put together the fact that eating nothing and exercising all the time was causing me to get sick so much. To me if I could ignore the hunger pains and soldier on, it meant I was strong, that I would succeed. After all isn’t success just about perseverance?
Mariana told me I looked grey. She told me that all I talked about was food. I thought she was just being unsupportive. Everyone else told me I looked good. And I guess I did. I was looking more and more the part of the famous actress, which was what I wanted to be right? Who cares if I was too poisoned by perfectionism to even enjoy it!
Trouble was, I was too hungry to focus in class. My tutors noticed it, but they probably just thought I was a bit dim. I was also so hungry that I was regularly very emotional. I’d get mad or upset very easily. This is not so good when you are likely to be told very bluntly if your performance isn’t up to snuff. If I was ever told anything negative about my acting, I’d always assume it was actually because I was still too fat. So I’d eat less and exercise more.
Though when you are afflicted by the disease of Perfectionism, thin is not enough. You don't just want to look thin you want to look perfect. If I wasn't starving myself, reading about food and exercising, I was getting my hair done, exfoliating, removing all hair from my body, slathering myself with lotions to lift and firm my skin and even obsessing over the scar on my bellybutton where a navel ring had once resided. Perfectionism is a full time job. I was exhausted.
Because I looked good (thinner) people didn’t really realise that I actually wasn’t very well. They thought I was super healthy because I watched what I ate and exercised a lot. But inside I was very sick. All I thought about all the time was my weight and my appearance. I placed all of my personal value on how I looked. I felt like looking good and being thin was the most important thing in the world. The thing I feared more than anything was the idea of gaining weight. What would people say? How shameful it would be if I got fat again. This is when I started to become very afraid of food.
I was thinking about food so much that all I wanted to do was eat. I wanted to buy five million chocolate bars and eat them all! I remember once going to the supermarket and staring that the pick and mix lollies section for about 15 minutes. Just looking. I could dare buy any, becasue dear god I probably would’ve eaten my meagre weight in candy! I once saw a girl on the bus eating a mars bar. I couldn’t believe her audacity. How dare she eat that in front of me! I started to redirect this feeling into something that would make me feel better. The fact that she was eating that food made her weak not me. Just wait, I’d think, she’ll get fat.
At some point in the madness I started dating a boy. He wasn’t an overly smart or nice boy but he was a boy, and a boy liking me meant that I looked good. And as that was my only sense of value in the world, it was a good thing.
Food comes hand in hand with socialising. It is hard to be in a social situation without food. Inevitably you end up eating things you normally wouldn’t, especially if you are obsessed with eating nothing. But because this boy liked me it felt ok to drop my guard. I even started to trust him.
A few months later he broke up with me. Probably because I only talked about food! I was a mess. A total mess. I cried for days. Funnily though, I hadn’t liked him that much, what hurt was that all I could think was that he’d broken up with me because I wasn’t thin enough. He’d broken up with me because I wasn’t perfect enough.
It was after eating a chocolate brownie at a café with my drama school friends that I found myself vomiting in the toilets. That is where something in my head clicked: This is not normal. This is not healthy. And this is not perfect at all. If perfection was what I was going for, I am totally off the mark. My friends are all laughing out there, enjoying their brownies and I am in here throwing mine up. This is not good.
I wish I could say that I got better over night but realistically I didn’t. It took time. I went through a crazy journey of food wars. I binged and I starved and I questioned my judgement constantly. I complained to everyone about how I’d gained weight. I even once burst into tears when a friend offered me a pineapple lump. Why? Because I was terrified I would eat one and then want the whole bag. I starved and I drank. It was mayhem.
Then I went to a councillor at the Drama School. He was pretty good. I talked through all kinds of issues and realised that my food related issues were to do with love. Fear that no one would love me if I was fat and the realisation that I didn’t love myself enough.
At the time I didn’t think the counselling had made an obvious difference but it had. The next year of my life was fantastic! I was single and I loved it. I felt amazing but I was definitely less skinny than I had been. As the years have gone by I have definitely gotten fatter and I have definitely gotten happier. The old saying 'fat and happy' is true to some extent!
I still on occasion hear myself thinking things like ‘When I’m at my ideal weight, I’ll buy myself nice clothes’ or ‘When I look my best, I’ll let myself buy some nice make-up’. As soon as I’ve had these thoughts I try to remind myself that I am fine, now. I am enough, now. I am not an unfinished work in progress, like a half constructed building. I am done. I am fully functional how I am. I am constantly evolving, but the me I am today is the me I am today and that is fine.
Perfection is boring. It’s sterile. And the road to perfection is much the same. Just give up on perfect and be. Live. Light the candles. Use the nice towels. Taste the crème-brulee. Live.