Daniella Isaacs was ‘well’ for a while, but now she just is. Hear Me Raw is her blistering one-woman show about coming out the other side of the cult of clean eating: how it stole her time, her money, her happiness, even her fucking periods, and left her with orange hands and a body that thought it was literally under attack because she’d treated it so badly in trying to treat it ‘right’.
Isaacs is fantastically watchable, not just because she’s funny and honest with bags of charisma, but because she knows how to walk a difficult tightrope and make it look easy. She pulls the whole horrible world of wellness apart in her hands, sometimes literally, to show you how it is all at once awful and compulsive, how like so many addictions it makes you feel terrible and brilliant at the same time, how it’s ridiculous nonsense but needs to be taken absolutely seriously.
One of the most insidious things about clean eating is the idea that it’s about being ‘well’, not thin, and all the weight you lose by cutting most things out is just a side-effect. It’s not about starving yourself: it’s about being good. Isaacs punctures that one so early on and so deftly you can almost feel the whole audience exhale with relief. But then the show goes so much deeper, thinks so much harder, than that.
When I was at uni my housemates used to shout for me if they’d made too much mashed potato and I’d come down and eat it straight out of the pan like a fucked up 19-year-old Bodger and Badger. I liked food and I never worried about my weight, which I took as a sign that my anxious brain had, against all odds, passed over this particular thing, this common neurosis, and left me alone about it. I felt lucky.
Then I got older, and my metabolism changed, and I realised the only reason I’d never thought about my body like that before was because it was thin.
Broadly half of Hear Me Raw is character comedy about lifestyle brands and smoothies and how easy it is to use other people’s neuroses to get a book deal, to help them be ‘well’ like you, even if you feel like fucking shit doing it because your body is starving. It’s well-observed and funny, and Isaacs, who both writes and performs based on personal experience and is an actor by training, commands the room with wit and skill. There’s plenty of ego waiting to be punctured and it’s great fun to watch.
But the more of the real Isaacs we see, the more difficult, brilliant and raw (no pun intended) the show gets. It’s hard to watch. There’s real pain here. They stole years of her fucking life. But what she’s made out of that experience is a remarkable thing that you want to drag people to see, whether they’ve been drawn into the world of yoga and self-denial and matcha or not, because it’s about so much more than clean eating: it’s about the need to control that sits at the heart of most addictions or eating disorders rooted in mental illness, and in that way the show makes a fascinating successor to Caroline Horton’s gorgeous Mess.
More than that, Hear Me Raw digs deep into how the flip-side of being well is being ill. How being in control means controlling everything, and if you’re sick, that means you did it wrong.
There was a cult in the 19th century called the Agapemonites, started by a charismatic religious leader called Henry Prince. Most of the members were wealthy young women. Prince gave them purpose and they gave him money, and the cultists lived together on an estate, and he told them that, amongst lots of other things, following him made them all immortal. The cultists believed they couldn’t die, but obviously, over time, they did die, as people tend to do. So Henry Prince told them that only true believers were immortal. When people died, it just meant they’d never believed enough in the first place.
Wellness is seductive because it offers its adherents absolute control: control over the shape of their body and what they put in it and what happens next, and the belief that as long as you follow the recipes you’re going to live forever, basically. Isn’t that so tempting? To believe that all you have to do is eat the right food in the right order and you’ll never get fucking cancer? That it will never happen to you because you DESERVE to be well.
Wellness is an insidious, victim-blaming culture because, like most victim blaming, it relies on the tempting but ultimately bollocks assumption that we live in a just world: that if bad things happen to other people they must have deserved it, so as long as you’re good, good things will happen to you.
Isaacs shows how tempting it is, especially for anxious brains, to try to control everything – to believe that with the right set of instructions, the right magic spell, the right recipe, you can ward off danger. But she also shows you her understanding, Bambi-legged new, that none of that is true. That life is mess and chaos. That you will get older, your metabolism will change with time and your body will change with time and you will change with time. Your body will grow, and the shape of it will fluctuate, and eventually it will die. And all we can do before then is accept the chaos of life, and surrender to it. Because there’s nothing healthy – nothing well – about trying to retain absolute control.
Hear Me Raw is on at Underbelly until 27th August 2017. Click here for more details.