A Pair Of Eyes And A Brain: Self-Care With Ana Cecilia Alvarez
by Fariha Roísín
Ana reached out to me after the first self-care post Sara and I wrote late last year. She said that she was moved by what I had said about bodies — about our society’s obsession with thinness, and the applause we give for desiring, and maintaining, being skinny. I had struggled with that my whole life after mimicking my sister’s eating disorder, and I resented that I didn’t have a healthy attitude towards my body; I hated myself for hating myself.
In this self-care post we talk about a lot of things, but mainly we discuss the continuous back and forth between one’s body. Ana’s discontent with her corporeal self has, at times, has manifested in her desire to not have a tangible self because what represents her doesn’t reflect the vision she has of herself in her head. In both our minds we are thinner, maybe whiter; the fleshy parts are just excesses of our indulgence, but they are not of us.
These self-care posts are to remind us that being happy with yourself takes a certain kind of presence, and kindness — but it also takes discipline to accept your flaws. The reality is self hate fuels self care, and thus the former is the more important and vital conversation to be had. To look at yourself and be happy is at times impossible — which is why talking with Ana, and finding solace in her experience (one that so greatly mirrored mine) was a deeply resonant and cathartic experience for me. She made me feel less alone.
Firstly, what’s your sign? I need to know!
I’m a Gemini, lunar Leo, rising Aries. I have more Leo in me than anything else: in Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.
Whoa, the mane! Okay, now we can move on to self-care.
I feel that there’s a very strong disconnect between how women think about their bodies versus how they speak about their bodies. I had dysentery last year and I lost a bunch of weight and I was so excited! Then, afterwards, I was talking to my sister (who had anorexia for many years) about it, and I mentioned how weird I felt about being so overjoyed about losing weight and she said that so much of her illness was about control. She didn’t have control over her day-to-day life for a myriad of reasons, but she did have agency over her body, and how she looked. Which really triggered something inside of me. How do you feel about your body?
Sometimes I don’t feel my body…I was talking recently to a friend about how we relate to each other’s bodies. I remember at one point saying: “Some moments, I feel that all I am is just a pair of eyes and a brain.” I like to forget about the rest of my flesh.
What do you mean about forgetting yourself?
I mean forgetting my more corporeal obligations. For me, that mostly means forgetting to sleep. I just won’t listen to my body. My body tells me that I’m exhausted; my body tells me that I need to rest. That’s how I’ve often related to myself, wishing that my body wasn’t so — wishing that I could just forget about it. When I was at my thinnest, I’ve felt perversely pleased with my body. Then, I went on this extreme switch — I tend towards extremes — where I ceded control and I gained weight. I wanted to forget my body then. I felt trapped in it. I felt like it was just pounds and pounds of flesh that didn’t belong to me.
Is it more you’re unhappy with your body, or that you just don’t want a body?
I never really have a sense of “loving” or “hating” my body. I often just don’t know what to do with it. At my sickest, I stopped recognizing myself. In the last few years, there were moments when I couldn’t recognize it as my own, as the body I had grown up in. I felt trapped but also cheated, in a way.
When you’re thinking of your body, when you’re thinking of your ideal self, or what you project into the world — what do you look like?
I don’t know, yet, still, who I am or what I want. And I’m not too worried. I think for the first time I am excited by the creativity of uncertainty.
I think I realized that a lot of what was “ideal” for me (through conditioning) were things that I couldn’t be — like, “I want to be 5”8 and really, really thin and blah blah blah.”
Right, and we talked about this as a person who is of color, but also passes — how is your body legible? And to whom? I use to feel magnanimous about owning to my whiteness. I wouldn’t for example, partake in activities or spaces specifically made for people of color at my school, because I felt I had always been treated white.
Recently, I’ve started to pay more attention to the ways I deny my ethnicity. My “owning up to” my privilege was also tied up in denial of the ways in which I am not white. It felt easier for me to think: “Everyone treats me as white, so all the ways in which I’m not white won’t manifest.” But they did “manifest”in my body — like in my thighs, in my height, in my hips. There’s a moment when I look at white women and realize , “Fuck, I’m never going to look like that.” The changes in my body forced me to figure out how to be a white Latina, how to be an immigrant, how to deal with the fact that I only really have white friends. I started reaching out to other women of color, as a woman of color, and claiming a relationship. Before I felt very incapable of doing that, I would have felt disingenuous. As a foreigner, I felt so foreign to my body.
Right. the disconnect exists because your mind feels white. That is what’s also perpetuated through things like “Stuff White People Do” — which is just what some people, like me, do. I remember flipping through that book at 18 being like, “But this is me?” and feeling both confused and proud of my “whiteness.” I’ve always glorified the “white” parts of me, emphasizing those parts of myself because I felt more white than anything else. It was really hard in Australia because there’s so much erasure of people of color. But when I realized I needed to appreciate that I was relevant as a person of color, that my experience as a person of color had value, that I revolutionized my life.
Okay, so this is kind of something completely off-topic, but I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve realized that I treat my sexual experiences with men very differently than I do when I’m with women, and I wanted to explore that with you. Is that something similar for you?
The times I really see myself are through the eyes of a lover or a friend; someone who recognizes me…I don’t think I’ve realized how that’s changed between men and women, I’ve always been a little afraid that being intimate with another woman’s body would surface my own insecurities. But I think I find being around other female bodies calming. Sometimes I go the Russian Baths, and I see bodies that in my mind would be “undesirable,” but I desire them.
You’re so right. There are a few things that have helped me accept my body, like men being obsessed with parts of my bodies I hate — like my big ass — which has allowed me to accept myself. Being in states of undress with women, seeing their bodies and feeling attracted to them, sometimes sleeping with them or sometimes not, has allowed me to accept my body, also.
I’ve been thinking lately about the distance between how one feels, internally, versus how they project themselves, about the possible disconnect between those two. I feel like I’ve abandoned any sense of clarity, both for who I am and what I want, but often my friends will be like — “Are you kidding me? You’re so certain!” I only feel certain in discursive moments when I’m talking to someone and I articulate something honest, and it lands on them and they respond in an equally affecting way. That’s when I feel most capable, most legible.
This is a side note but there’s this really beautiful passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, where he talks about the soul and the body. There’s this passage where Tereza describes what it’s like to fall in love with a man, and she uses this metaphor where her body is a ship and her soul is the crew, rising up to the deck of her self. That’s the kind of moment I mean, where my soul rushes up and I am seen, and people see me. But then all of a sudden my soul rushes back to my bowels and my body is just a shell of a thing, again. I think people think I’m a very confident person, when in fact I’m not.
That’s a survival thing, too. Protecting yourself. I’m like 95% a lonely person and 5% super social and “on.”
My “on” moments, like that 5%, are when I’m seducing someone.
Why do you think that is?
I’ve often chalked it up to my Gemini-ness. When I was younger, I didn’t want to identify with a sign thats marked with disingenuous, or a character that lacks conviction. But now I have come to be curious about my multiplicity.
So what does self-care mean to you?
Self-care is saying no, particularly in a refusal to work. I notice an ascetic relationship to work, a sense that in order to do good work you have to not listen to yourself; working more then you have to; forgoing sleep, in my case, to get work done, this almost Protestant work ethic that equates hard work with moral integrity. I am suspicious of that kind of discipline.
When I think of Simone Weil I think of her absolute discipline. I always read her ascetic monk-like routine with her body as a form of self-hate, but when you read someone like Chris Kraus, there’s this admiration that comes with it, which I find misplaced. I think women don’t really want to talk about how obsessed they are with being thin, so they abstract it by making it into a philosophical thing, because then no one will question it.
I react really strongly to pro-Ana bullshit, I hesitate to question the ways that it is intellectual interesting. Aspirational asceticism that equates denying your body with achieving near perfection has been, for me, so harmful. I took a medieval art class and I wrote about female sanctity, and a lot of female saints activated their holiness through starvation; by forgetting their bodies, they nourished their spirit. To me that seems so alienating. I already feel divorced from my body; I don’t want to promote an ideal that pairs self-sacrifice with high achievement.
I think women often sublimate these things. Like my sister is now a raw vegan. She often tells me how much she loves it. But I think it’s really just about her being dishonest. I think in general there’s no transparency with women’s bodies because there’s not a lot of honesty. Like, we as a society have intellectualized things, like anorexia, that are actually a disease. It’s disturbing to me.
It was making me sick. It was really encouraging when I read your column for the first time and I reached out. We should honestly be able to say: this shit is fucked!
What are some of the things that you had to unlearn with your own body?
I had to unlearn my proclivity for control and abandon. I had to unlearn policing myself. I had to unlearn my perceived whiteness. I had to unlearn other’s expectations. That’s something I’m always unlearning, not to give other people so much credence and power over my own thoughts.
How do you self-care?
Giving myself an hour of a day. In that hour I’m going to say no to everyone else. I’ll go swimming, or I’ll go to the Russian Baths with a friend. Just letting go of all that buzzy shit and falling into a puddle. Saying no to all responsibilities. Moisturizing myself, touching myself in places I normally wouldn’t, like my hips, my ass, my thighs; these fleshy parts that at times I wished I could wish away.
When I was younger I’d always feel like if I didn’t moisturize parts of my body that I didn’t like, that they’d just fall away, and so part of my self-care has been to touch myself in places that I don’t necessarily like. So, I get it, it’s powerful.
Just basically touching yourself. And being naked. Fucking someone regularly has helped a lot.
Just accepting that you’re a person, that’s complicated. I read once about a mother allowing her child to be upset and how important it was for her to recognize that sadness, for her child, was as a valuable emotion than happiness.
Wait, is it The Drama of The Gifted Child? It says that one way parents fuck up their children is by not recognizing that their pain is valid. Being okay with not being okay is so important.
Right? That’s the sweet spot for all of us. Something you said earlier really resonated with me: I can look at these women and they are not the ideal, but I can still find them desirable. I think about that and then I look at myself and think: What? Can I allow myself to think that I’m attractive? I feel like I’m obsessed with the idea of beauty because it’s always been a thing that I’ve questioned.
Ok, If someone came to you with all these problems that we’re discussing, what would you say to them?
(laughs) Hm. I’d say: “Feel shitty.” It’s okay to not feel great all the time.
Fariha Roísín is a writer living on Earth.