a first step, 2008:
I am sixteen and it is late at night and I am walking away from a large high school house party. The party was too busy, hundreds of teenagers crammed into a small town house drinking boxed wine and alco-pops. The friends I arrived with have gone, one of them so drunk they’ve been taken to hospital to get their stomach pumped. When the police arrive to shut the party down there is a clamorous scramble to get away, as if anyone could be arrested just for having been there. This is how and why I am walking along an empty main road in an industrial section of the Gold Coast, a strip of road lined with mechanics, pawn shops, and wholesalers unopened to the public.
I am walking when I hear someone running, and there is a shout and I am struck and pushed to the ground. Two guys—perhaps my age, perhaps older—are kicking me and yelling homophobic slurs. I make no effort to retaliate or defend myself, instead hyperventilating and pleading them to stop. Then, there is degradation. I am made to kiss their shoed feet, to apologise to them. They ask me to tell them that I am disgusting and I do. I’m made to lay face down in the dirt and count to one hundred or face more violence. I get to thirty before I sprint away, them yelling and laughing behind me, running until I am crouched and hidden behind a collection of wheelie bins, calling my mum to drive me home.
I come away reasonably unscathed: a black eye, a swollen jaw, bruises. To anyone who asks I say was drunk and tripped, raising eyes from my parents and laughs from friends. When recalling the night I stumble over the details of my fiction, over embellish and make inconsistencies. When asked how I got home I say that mostly I walked.
another step, 2013:
The first time I faint from under-eating I am in Brisbane and walking to work. Normally I get the bus but on this day the air is dryer, unseasonable for the city’s relentless humidity, and the forty minute journey mostly is down hill. My head is throbbing and I assume it is because I am hungover. I am a twenty one year old university student living in a share house and am hungover more often than not.
Halfway to work, on the path of a quiet street, I get light-headed, my vision blurs, and I blackout. When I come too I’m on the ground and there’s a bump on the back of my head. No one else is on the street, no one has seen me fall. I sit quietly for a minute, continue on my way, and tell no one.
(a quick step/sojourn backward:
I started fasting as a way to lose weight when I was eleven because I was fat, and was taught by my dad’s girlfriend that being fat made you a bad person. As she managed her own weight-loss, she managed mine too. Don’t snack. Steam food, don’t fry. If you use a teaspoon instead of a fork to eat you’ll trick yourself into being full. Soon enough I was throwing away my own school lunches; doing one hundred crunches before bed and another hundred when I woke up; checking my reflection for any and every possible change in shape; hiding a set of scales in my room. )
But surprisingly, after ten years of fluctuating but steady fasting, fainting on the side of the road is the first time I feel like my body is telling me I’m doing something wrong. It’s a warning I should heed, but don’t. Instead, it gives me a sense of autonomy—an unwilling exhaustion of the body that somehow makes me feel like I’m exerting control. Later, I will faint again and often: alone and in front of others, in bedrooms, kitchens, laneways, and backyards. Each time I will bring my hand to a new bump on the back of my skull and it will feel like another act of violence.
a side step:
“The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, it bears their imprint, is formed within the crucible of social life; only later, and with some uncertainty, do I lay claim to my body as my own, if, in fact, I ever do.” —Judith Butler, Precarious Life
If bodies are both the vulnerable site of violence and the possible agent of it, what then to the violence done to oneself? I am finding it harder to differentiate between being forced to say “I am disgusting” by strangers under duress at sixteen and the way I have willingly told it to myself for most of my life. Both are acts of violence: systemic and social.
It’s something I’ve internalised, sure. What is environmental seeps outside in. But where in the body does anything we internalise sit? Where or how does that violence inside course, mutate, seethe? If I took a pair of kitchen scissors to my skin like I did when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, could I cut it out?
a further step, 2017:
It is 11.30pm and I walk two blocks from my house in East Melbourne to a convenience store so I can buy cigarettes. I’ve lived in Melbourne for three months and it’s been taxing: I’ve moved house four times already and am about to move a fifth; fallen in and out of a relationship with my best friend; eaten erratically; felt incapacitated in ways I am still unable to articulate.
I’ve been awake until early morning most nights, so 11.30pm feels like twilight. East Melbourne is a quiet suburb, seemingly reserved for wealthy old people—all groomed and gated terraces save for a private hospital. At night the streets are normally empty. As I walk home from the convenience store a bronze ute drives along the opposite side of the road. It slows until it matches my pace and inside four men stare at me, breaking eye contact only occasionally to exchange glances with each other. I’m intimidated, as I’m supposed to be, and very scared. I survey the street and every window is dark.
The ute loudly speeds off and I relax a little. But it’s sped off only to quickly u-turn and head back toward me. I walk quickly but know that I am still too far from home to walk there uninterrupted. The ute pulls up behind me and I hear doors open and there is yelling. I begin to sprint home, swearing under my breath. I duck off the street into a back alley, trip over a cobblestone but don’t fall. I get to the back entrance of my house, unsure if I’ve been followed. I fumble with my keys, struggling with the lock, and make my way inside.
For the next week I’m erratic, constantly nervous with the sense that something bad is about to happen. I stop eating other than socially, and even then only eating enough to have it go unnoticed. My bedroom sits in the bottom corner of a three-storey terrace and I go to great lengths to avoid seeing my housemates. I monitor the sound of footsteps to leave my room for the bathroom, use the back gate rather than the front door. Not because I don’t like them, but talking to anyone other than close friends worries me.
Back to Judith Butler: “The body has its invariably public dimension.” Its easy to think of bodies as political: bodies that migrate, bodies that are colonised, bodies that populate faltering natural ecosystems. But on a micro level, whenever we enter public space, or any space, rather, our bodies succumb to the politics of that space—our actions and vulnerabilities are dictated by it. The space your body is in and your body itself are not separate, one becomes a quality of the other.
And I know that my body is safer than others: because it is a white body, because it is a cisgendered body, because it is a man’s body. But still, the times I have felt unsafe, face down in the dirt or fumbling for keys, I carry around with me now. Its a quality of my body that is irrevocable, an ongoing violence. Not feeding it doesn’t make it go away. There is no undoing bodily violence, but, there are steps toward.
James Butler is a writer and bookseller based in Melbourne.