I wasn’t exactly clear why I was moving to Argentina; I just knew that I had to. As I think about the series of events that led me there, an episode in a London art gallery comes to mind. Standing in front of an impressionistic piece, I found myself mesmorised by the rural scene it portrayed as I experienced an unfamiliar feeling (peace) accompanied by a deep yearning for spaciousness. London suddenly felt cramped and depressing. I wanted freedom. Looking back, the thing that I really sought was inner spaciousness but that was a concept so foreign to me that I suppose the Universe had to work its way up to that. And so we began with Argentina.
The year was 2005 and I was 25 years old. Already divorced from my first husband and spunky as hell, I had spent the previous year working a tedious temp job in order to put together some cash. It was a miserable time full of bitterness and confusion, one-night stands and embarrassing drunken episodes. As autumn rolled around I packed a huge suitcase, said a perfunctory farewell to my poor parents and told everyone that I would be gone for several years.
The first few weeks were thrilling. Buenos Aires felt seductive and exotic as I threw myself into Spanish lessons, new friends and eating my body weight in beef. But then, of course, the uneasiness returned. Confusion, dismay, depression; it was all so familiar.
The darkness began to crystalize around the issue of body image. On a treadmill at the local gym, I was setting the timer when a man on the machine next to mine leaned over to say: “No, you have to run for more than twenty minutes if you want to lose weight.” Feeling shocked and offended, I turned to him to ask if he thought that I needed to. He simply shrugged and kept on running. Two days later I was at a restaurant when a different man offered me a warning that my lunch would make me fat (it was a salad). A week after that, trying to buy a new pair of gym shorts, I discovered that I was not my usual “small” but had suddenly become a “medium”.
Did I mention that I was a size four?
Wanting to understand what was going on, I began to do some research and discovered that Argentina had the second highest levels of eating disorders in the world (Japan being number one). Clothing brands in Buenos Aires didn’t want “fat girls” to wear their clothes and had stopped making the larger sizes, prompting the local government to pass a law forcing them to do so. In response to this the manufacturers had simply started to sew “medium” labels into clothes that used to be a size small.
“See!” said my mind. “You’re not fat. And you’re not crazy either; they are! This situation is due to a societal problem, which you – and all women – are the victims of. Thus, you have the right to feel angry at the system and even at the individual men who make you feel wrong for just being you. This is further evidence of how capitalism fucks up people’s lives and makes them unhappy.”
I had expected this new information to make me feel better but it did not. Instead I felt lonely and inadequate and so I ate all of the steaks and all of the gelato and, for the first but not the last time in my life, became what I considered to be overweight. Buenos Aires quickly morphed into my new prison. Between the deep depression and the crappy Spanish, my chances of getting work as a journalist (the original plan) seemed remote and so I sat in coffee shops, reading books in English as my bank account dwindled. At night I would cry, ruminate or scream into a pillow, trying to convince myself that I wasn’t a failure.
One day, wandering through the cobbled streets of San Telmo, I happened across a bookshop that I could have sworn hadn’t been there the week before. Inside were rickety shelves and piles of randomly stacked books that seemed abandoned to fate. A layer of dust covered everything. Moving to a shelf that claimed to be about “women” I reached to grab something and felt another volume – which had been hidden from view – jostling my hand, almost as if it wanted to be plucked from its home. As I slid it off the shelf a bird flew out from behind it and disappeared out of the open doorway.
What the fuck.
I looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed this extraordinary event but I was the only one in sight. Looking down at the volume in my hands I found it to be “The Feminine Mystique”, a feminist classic from the second wave that I’m sure mum probably offered and I probably rejected several years earlier. I groaned; this was not my thing. I was a socialist, not a feminist. Feminists were winy and annoying and ugly, and I didn’t want to be associated with any of that.
But the bird.
I mean, I was as rational as the next person and so obviously I didn’t believe in signs. But dude…the fucking bird. It made me feel…I dunno, it made me feel something that I couldn’t identify and chose not to explore. And so, trying not to think too hard about it all, I simply bought the damn book.
As a good socialist it had never previously occurred to me that anything could be explained outside of an economic or political framework and so those feminist writings (and the psychology books that they led me to) were a revelation. Chain-smoking Marlborough Reds and pounding cappuccinos, I discovered that emotions and other things “inside” a person were a thing; a thing that you could study, a thing that you could use to explain other things, a thing that mattered. Sitting in a puddle of my own suffering, I felt a kind of relief; this was a type of knowledge that was more than “interesting”. This knowledge was relevant and applicable to my own life; it might actually help me. Abandoning any thoughts of staying in Argentina, I immediately applied to a Masters programme in social psychology and planned my move back to London.
Argentina was an opportunity to discover that changing my location wasn’t going to fix anything. That lesson didn’t really sink in however and so I mainly embraced it as a chance to hate myself for “fucking up.” The anger was deep - I had started yet another thing I couldn’t finish - clear evidence that I didn’t know how to adult. The self-hatred, and the impotence it derived from, felt so toxic that I would do anything to make it stop; blaming Argentinian men and the sexist society they stood for was my easiest way out. “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault, you fucker” is a classic coping technique that almost every human out there has engaged in at some point. Most of us still resort to it when we’re not paying enough attention.
My eight month foray in South America was also a perfect example of the chaotic, confusing duality of the “awakening” process: the Universe took my dysfunctional reaction to the situation and used it to propel me forwards. Thus, my anger became the fuel for a passionate love affair with social psychology that, though still largely an intellectual pursuit, was also a step towards something else. It was a shift in perspective that would eventually lead to a crack in my mind-driven life.