I sit cross-legged on my bed in the centre of my room, a squidgy 14-year old scooped into jodhpurs and a t-shirt, still sweaty from my ride, and smelling of horse and hay. I’m neither thin nor fat. Just a little girl growing into an adult body. Posters of Christian Slater that I’ve cut out of Smash Hits magazine are blue-tacked to the walls, their shiny corners show the faint oil-stains which will only continue to grow the longer I leave them up. Mum hates Christian Slater. She thinks his eyebrows are weird. I think this makes me like him more.
My room looks pretty much the same as all my friends’ bedrooms, only, I’ve got a double bed, and I got to paint it myself. It’s a pastel mint green from a can I found in the shed, a leftover that Dad couldn’t throw out (you never know when it might be useful) from one of the previous renovations. Last time we moved, Mum thought we were past all that; a shiny new house that no one had ever lived in, two whole storeys of it, that didn’t need sanding or painting or tiling or extending. I think she wanted to die there.
But now we’re here; the four of us, crammed into another very old, very small, very ugly house on five acres out in the suburbs because I wanted a horse. The cream painted timber cladding is peeling, the green iron roof is sagging, the threadbare carpet is a mottled brown and smells like dirt. It looks like dirt too but it’s ok because dad’s going to build us a new house. At least, he will eventually, he says. He needs to get some more money first. He spent everything they had (and then some) on this place. Someone else wanted to buy the land to develop. I wanted a horse. There was a bidding war and we won. Or, maybe we lost. Because now there’s not enough money.
I don’t think mum understands why he did it. I don’t even know how I know any of this – I’ve never heard them talk about it. Just lots of worried looks from my mother with her watery eyes. And I realise this, too, is all my fault. Not that anyone would say it, nobody ever talks about feelings around here. There’s no shouting, no yelling and no crying. Especially no crying. If you’re going to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about, we were always told. Feelings don’t get you anywhere.
I’m flicking through a copy of Vogue while I wait for dinner. I want to be a fashion designer. It’s the 90s, I’m in Year 10 at an academically selective high school and almost a year younger than everyone else in my grade. No-one’s elected Textile Design since it was compulsory in Year 8. They’re all interested in maths and physics and computer science and other boring subjects. But I want it. I want it desperately and I’ve always been told I can do anything I want. Except that, it turns out.
I press at my thighs while I flick. Press, flick, press, flick. I don’t read much of it; I’m not really the target audience of Vogue. All my friends are reading Dolly, or Cleo, or Cosmo and giggling while they open secret sealed sections before writing down their own questions about sex at our sleep-over parties hoping that one of us will know the answer. I wrap my hands around my right knee, making sure the tips of my thumbs are touching exactly in the middle of my kneecap and my middle fingers touch exactly behind the centre of my knee. I start to slide the little circle up my thigh, all my other fingers splayed outwards so as not to touch the offending flesh – my fingers stop meeting somewhere above mid-thigh. For some reason, this seems unacceptable. I wonder momentarily if it is because my legs are too fat, or if it is because my fingers are too stumpy; your fingers are so short you were almost a mongol, my mother would sometimes say when I couldn’t reach the octaves properly during my piano practice.
Years later, I’ll learn that this behaviour is called body checking, but then, all I know is that the repetitive pressing, touching, measuring and assessing quells a rising anxiety that I’m not yet aware of.
In music class, we sit in the corridor with our groups practicing something. I’m supposed to be playing the clarinet but I’ve had to sit down because I’m feeling light-headed. I’m preoccupied with my legs. I don’t look at my body like my friends look at theirs. Instead, I pretend I am a horse. Or rather, I judge my body as I would evaluate equine conformation. In horse terms, conformation assesses the correctness of a horse’s bone structure, musculature and its body proportions relative to one another. I lean my back against the cold concrete wall, my legs curled out and around beside me, and trace my fingers along my shin bone. I’m not thinking about being thin. I’m not thinking about being pretty. I’m thinking about being perfect.
I can smell food coming to life in the kitchen. Mum’s banging pots and pans and still trying to adjust to the new, tiny space. I keep flicking. It is the peak of the supermodel era and Linda Evangelista doesn’t get out of bed for less than $10, 000 a day. But my girl crush is Claudia Schiffer and I can name all the supermodels. Hell, I can name all the photographers, if you ask.
Press, flick, press, flick.
I turn another page and there she is. All blonde hair, blue eyes, and wide, white teeth, laughing at the camera. She’s wearing an ugly, strapless, yellow-mustard, ruched dress, standing awkwardly against a dull grey background. One hand is propped on her hip, one leg is kicking up behind her, and her other hand is tucked under her chin, pushing it up towards the sky and the camera – and she still looks perfect. Models always stand in the most ridiculous positions, a friend will tell me later when she sees the picture, she looks stupid, why would you want to look like that? But all I can see is that she’s happy. Or at least, she looks happy. Maybe the photographer just told her a joke, maybe she knows how nonsensically she’s posed, because she’s laughing. And isn’t that the universal sign that you’re happy?
I carefully rip the image from the magazine. There’s only an ad for Louis Vuitton on the reverse, so it’s ok, I’m not wrecking it. I get up off my bed and pad over to my dressing table – a little, pine chest of drawers, with a tall mirror on top. When I stand in front of it, I can see my whole body from the knees up. Nothing below my knees is really important anyway. At least, not until later when I realise I have fat ankles.
I slide the ripped edge of the image into the gap between the mirror and the frame, and then align the straight-edge side perfectly perpendicular to the top. I tape it there and decide, in that moment, I will
Look. Like. That.
Every time I want to eat, I will look at the image and remember my goal. Mum calls out that dinner is ready and I wander out through the lounge room into the kitchen where my brother is already waiting at the table.
I’m going on a diet.