Exploring the art of prose


On Possessing a Body by Lotte Mitchell Reford

Image shows an open drawer filled with tattoo ink, photographed in black and white; title card for 2022 Creative Nonfiction Award winner, "On Possessing a Body," by Lotte Mitchell Reford.

Lotte Mitchell Reford’s “On Possessing a Body” is one of three winners of the 2022 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, guest judged by Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

“On Possessing a Body” is an essay about a ravaging eating disorder, about the eeriness and history of a body dragged through years of caretaking and disregard, but it’s unlike any essay on the subject I’ve read. Its sentences and connections are surprising, and its lyric experimentation flawless. “The scent of formaldehyde makes medical students and morticians hungry. They cut so carefully into bodies and the bodies are meat.” Sentences later, the connection lands: “‘Formaldehyde really does make you hungry; it was once used as an appetite enhancing treatment for anorexia nervosa.’” It is an artful essay, singular, gorgeous, and layered, giving voice to the particular horrors that can come from being trapped in a body, and speaking on what it takes to establish a new relationship to it.  —Ingrid Rojas Contreras


Content Warning—disordered eating



At night, I find myself lying in bed near bursting with memory, as if something gone could still rip through me and flower.

And yes I let myself get hungrier. It feels impossible to have so much behind me and yet most of it ahead. On TV, Stacey Dooley said of, I think, a cheerfully pointed cream horn, that looks like my tits in my twenties, and I thought, my tits still look like that, and I glanced down and they did not.

If the thing that burst through me flowered I think it would smell too sweet, like rot. Like one of those bell-shaped flowers insects flock to for food, fall into and drown.

The scent of formaldehyde makes medical students and morticians hungry. They cut so carefully into bodies and the bodies are meat. I had a flatmate at university who, after his first session working with cadavers, told us all it was like tinned tuna as he shoveled chips and cheese into his grey face.

On a web page hosted by Ohio University, ‘Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Anatomy,’ an unnamed author claims: ‘Formaldehyde really does make you hungry; it was once used as an appetite enhancing treatment for anorexia nervosa.’



I was thirteen and chugging warm salt water from a pint glass – this is why there is a content warning for this essay, the practical how-to of the first time you make yourself puke, no nasty fingers, or just a little tickle. I have given this information and arguably that is wrong of me, but it is freely available. I went straight from Neopets to pro-ana forums in one half of one faked sick day in a single-computer household.

Did you know vaginas can be fat? The pubic mound, bulging. Labia majora swollen between orange-peel-dimpled flesh. The excess. And above all that, no hip bones sticking out kitchen-knife sharp. A muffin top, it is, in 2004.

This was me of course.

My stomach wasn’t slung between my hips like a tight sail. There was no gap of light, tinned peach slice, between my thighs when the sun was behind me on a summer night. No knuckles up my back white like clotted milk.

Most of the avatars on the site were backs, and they were so beautiful. Scooped shoulder blades. Pearled spines. Ribs like a cradle.

This Morning was on while I was heaving in the little downstairs bathroom with the broken toilet seat. Avocado tiles, black accents. Crumbled Art Deco. Mop and bucket. This Morning was still Phil and Fern when Phil was straight and Fern was fat.

All of this has been returning to me.

I mean, I am beginning to remember the beginning, not the bit where I was all but a lost cause. Those are snippets I already carry; the night there was a rainbow ring around the moon and I threw handfuls of vomit out a window. Stealing tinned food because the calories were exact, every step home an effort, the thunk of remembering who I was and what I was doing to myself after oblivion wore off – silver foil, brown smoke. Double-stacked pills. Bathroom tiles. Doc Martens removed in abandoned buildings, floorboards like porridge. Walking home barefoot. Gold of dying streetlights on dirty toes.

I remember bags and bags of tangerines. I remember pulling at my stomach like bread dough.

It is all trying so hard to come up and through. I don’t know if it will find a way. Or if I should let it? But maybe it’s not a pitcher plant. Maybe it’s more like kudzu. Seeded at some point to keep things together and never ever going away.



I begin to neglect work, the paid kind. I can see it, but through frosted glass.

I get eczema in the crooks of my elbows – I had it as a child sometimes. It must be unhealthy to live backwards like this but in some other age a rotten tooth or a breech birth may well have killed me by now anyway; at least I am here to turn my head at all.

Recently, I took a walk into the past in my own city but I found only mediocre public art and a tightness in my chest. Sad hedgerows trying at some kind of labyrinth. A large metal elephant I had somehow forgotten. A restaurant I interviewed at once and never heard back from. Cold pakora in the grass. An abundance of fox shit my dog bathed in.

I think of Janus – on coins, above doorways. Not just one life backwards and forwards, but many. Every poor bastard’s. Then again, that’s the problem, isn’t it. All the options. The late night and early morning cab rides. That curve on the motorway on the way to the airport in the dark – held hand. Silence. Some near-stranger’s curls. The slip of a new version of wet against a hip. A gasp. Spilled sangria. Teeth on teeth.

There are the decisions on signing leases, on what to eat for breakfast or crucially to not eat, water on a single own-brand Weetabix, that accusing moon, weights in your underwear, blood in the toilet, skin in the water, stitches, a beer on the plane, tit pics, just cum on my back, just fingers in the tub, just head back in the petals, just carry on even though it hurts, sure hold my face down, shiver at a bus stop, and every time you knew you would never feel something so raw and wet and sticky again – you knew you would never feel so broken bone so wooden spoon amputation so gut punch.

And yet.

And yet, here I am in the dark typing notes on my phone for a memoir. Stranded. No ripcord, no rope. A little bit feral. A little bit paddling backwards round the lazy river. A little bit sniffing for chum in the chlorinated water.



My tattoo artist asks me what plastic surgery I would get if I could get any kind of plastic surgery.

I say secret botox. Like, just casual botox. Stop ageing before it really kicks in. In this third hour of tattooing, I am brought an iced coffee from next door. The studio is all women and enbies. I like your stripy shorts. I like your neck tattoo. I like the easy patter of the room.

We talk about acrylic versus gel nails. We talk about why some people wear full white outfits to a tattoo appointment. We talk about IUDs. How the horror – utter horror – of getting them in and out is way worse than a couple hours of needles. How they say don’t look when there’s blood and put a wet sanitary towel on your head. How they say, you might feel a pressure.

Tummy tuck, my tattoo artist says. If I could afford it, I would get a tummy tuck.

A minor but notable detail: She is beautiful. I am in awe. She has two kids and says really that didn’t hurt so much either. At least your body is supposed to do it. We both shift uncomfortably, aware of the little Ts of plastic sitting inside us.

She says my skin is great to tattoo, hers is too. Maybe it’s thin? Or thick?

We talk about our dogs, about children and when they become funny, become mean, become aware of, become made aware of their own bodies – her daughter got leggings for her eighth birthday and Grandma told her she was lucky she had a good big butt because it made the leggings fit right.

My mother still says, are you going to eat all of that?, when I fill a plate.

I still reach, in the dark, for a hand that will bruise me.

I still don’t ask for a name before one of us ends up smashed against a wall.

I once read an essay by a mortuary technician who described a body emptied.

Every organ removed, weighed, and sent away to be sliced up and tested.

To be an empty vessel! To be a dark red cave! A walnut shell! Meat!



There is no way to go back to the beginning. To where it starts. There is no beginning.

I say, if there were a plastic surgery to just lose a general fifteen pounds, I’d do that one. My tattoo artist says, that’s ridiculous, you don’t need that.

Alright then, I say. The tummy tuck, seven grand and weeks off work and she’s self-employed. So am I. Who has the time. Who would look after her kids? Who wants to be cut full in half and yanked back together? She says yes. She says, I know. She says, just… if.

I think of the cream horn tits. The spines like strings of pearls. I think of becoming a walnut shell.

My tattoo artist told her daughter on her eighth birthday that the leggings looked great because they were great leggings – Frozen-themed, obviously.

My tattoo artist tells me tramp stamps are back. Maybe we should call them something different now – probably we should. Lower-back tattoos. She touches me as gently as she can until she reaches my chest, and then she has to push down and pull taut don’t breathe. She apologises. She doesn’t need to.

The tramp stamp means ultra-lowrise. It means hip bones, it means stomachs like slung sails, and no hair. Heroin chic. It means pro-ana, probably on TikTok now. It means pints of salt water, plain popcorn, eating with a teaspoon, chopsticks in the left hand, no thanks I already had dinner. The creatures they could be!

Four hours into tattooing I am out of endorphins. I suck on one lollipop and then another. When I finally get up and look in the mirror, all clingfilm-mummified all streaked with blood and ink and strapped up with white masking tape I feel so real.

Later, on the bus, a man in his sixties makes a face. You youngsters, he says, mutilating yourselves. What’ll you think when you’re as old as me and looking at those. He means stretched out. Slumped. Different. But there is no way to avoid any of it, short of becoming meat.

The body is the body is the body. We do what we can.

I say, They’ll remind me of now.

I think, I hope I will still be touched.

I think, I hope I will still be whole.


LOTTE MITCHELL REFORD is a UK poet currently working on a collection of essays about sickness, starving, and medieval saints. They hold an MFA from Virginia Tech and live and work in Mexico City. Their writing has been published in, amongst other places, Copper Nickel, The Moth, SPAM, New Writing Scotland, and Hobart. Their first poetry pamphlet, and we were so far from the sea of course the hermit crabs were dead, is available from Broken Sleep Books. Find them on Twitter at @LReford.


Featured image by Zach Lee, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

Trauma for trauma’s sake is a curse on writing, or at least on publishing. It sometimes feels like a challenge – I know I can write, but am I being raw enough? Am I mining myself hard enough? Trauma feels like the answer to what is chosen, what is lauded, and what is not. Individual trauma often wins the race, but in a very palpable way community clots around shared trauma. That’s how pro-ana sites work. That’s often how people raised as girls and or perceived as feminine find quiet moments of recognition and solace with one another – You too?

Although this essay is all me, or mostly me, it’s also how I found my way into writing the more complex stories and themes in the book I’m working on about eating disorders through time, nuns starving for Christ, the Minnesota Experiment. It’s all about power. About finding power in tiny spaces, shrinking spaces. In food, and controlling it, and bodies, and controlling them. These have long been the only things many people have been able to hold dominion over. In some ways, this essay is a cipher. Those larger themes exist in the white space within this work. In the cracks. In the leaps, what’s left out, and how memory has been shattered. Oblivion, control, the unrecorded and forgotten, obsession, even religious fervour. How other kinds of obsession can be like a religion. How pain can seem beautiful when you are in the middle of it.

I can’t say I found writing ‘On Possessing a Body’ easy. I’m a poet. I wrote a lot of this piece in my notes app. I collect scraps for my nest and then I arrange them all pretty. But there was a frenzied energy to writing the essay when I finally put it all in one place and began trying to put the pieces together. It was the kind of energy that usually only appears for a day or so when I’m deep in the middle of a project, but this time sustained itself through writing and editing and rewriting. And that in itself was revitalising. Because for me, and for many of us over the last few years, I think, writing has been more not writing than writing. Making this career work (and I use the word career in a loose sense – because there is nothing practical, really, about making art) without already having money is hard. Making it work through a global pandemic, while you still don’t have money, is harder. That’s just a reality. I’m not special.

But we keep doing it anyway. And when things just work, they’re a reminder of a sort. Writing is hard. Occasionally, you get a moment of pure joy from it. Writing when things in the real world are hard is even worse. It feels kind of stupid. But it also lets you live outside yourself, your circumstances, and the reality of what is going on right here right now. And sure, writing about trauma can feel like cashing in a cheque you didn’t earn. But it can also bring something new to what happened. It can expand that protective clot that forms around those cracks in who you are. At its best, it can offer a little bit of healing, I suppose.


LOTTE MITCHELL REFORD is a UK poet currently working on a collection of essays about sickness, starving, and medieval saints. They hold an MFA from Virginia Tech and live and work in Mexico City. Their writing has been published in, amongst other places, Copper Nickel, The Moth, SPAM, New Writing Scotland, and Hobart. Their first poetry pamphlet, and we were so far from the sea of course the hermit crabs were dead, is available from Broken Sleep Books. Find them on Twitter at @LReford.