When Ali Francis arrived in Indonesia after years of a difficult relationship with her body, she was determined to learn how to ride ocean waves. But endometriosis made her suspect she had broken part of herself irreversibly. She was doubtful that she and her estranged body could take on the powerful surf that broke over the cliffs. Nevertheless, Ali rose every day to the sounds of crowing roosters for lessons with a tireless instructor who pushed her to confront dangers without and within.   

Ali’s “Letter to a Stranger” takes us on an uncertain discovery of what is reparable and what isn’t, illuminating the simultaneity of strength and struggle. Reading it will leave you with a visceral appreciation of what it means to be in a companionship we can’t forsake: with the very cells and sinews under our skin.

The OA Editors

"I’ve felt estranged from you for a long time. I thought if I could make you into a thing of admiration, then I could feel safe with you. So I fed you cigarettes and wine for a year. Ran until my mouth tasted acrid. Resented you when night after night you wouldn’t let me sleep. Eventually, after envisioning only a half-life ahead of us, something lucid in me recognized that you would never be thin enough; you would always be hungry."

Ali Francis, "To the Estranged Body in Bali"

OA: What was it like to address yourself (your body) in the second person in your essay?

I’ve othered my body for such a long time that it wasn’t a strange thing to do, necessarily. (Coming together is much harder for me!) However, doing so through this more compassionate, reflective lens was extremely cathartic. I don’t know that I’d really forgiven myself for the harm I’ve done to my body until writing this piece. The letter format certainly helped me get to that place—almost like an apology. And now, I’ve weirdly kept that practice up in a different way. This is probably very cheesy to admit on the internet, but now, almost daily, I like to say I love you to my body. It’s a nice, grounding way to appreciate all she does for me.

OA: When you got back from Bali, how did you keep this connection to your body alive?

This is the everlasting question! I think, like any relationship, it’s more about maintenance than a one-and-done fix. The biggest thing surfing taught me—about connecting the “person” inside to the body it inhabits—is to put myself in environments where aesthetic is secondary to function. When I’m able to softly focus on what my body can do, rather than what I look like, I tend to feel more at home inside myself. I prioritize spending time off-the-grid in natural environments, like woods and beaches and lakes, and the resulting perspectives about myself are much more empathetic. I know that superficial solves can often do more harm than good (I am trying to avoid using the term “self care,” which has been thoroughly appropriated by capitalists), but taking a bath, using nice oils, and treating my body are also very powerful ways to sink into its physical reality.

OA: Your essay highlights many dichotomies: to be struggling and strong, to be the body and the sickness. Do you think these conditions will always co-exist? Should we allow them to, instead of striving for the ideal? 

Growing up in outback Australia, women played a supporting role in family life. They tended to be the nurturers, extending themselves for everyone and asking for nothing. That was the definition of a “good woman.” I certainly adopted that mindset—I still struggle to own my needs—and felt like if I was resilient and “low-maintenance,” then I was upholding my place in the order; I was valuable. 

As long as we live in the kind of world where a person’s value is measured via their appearance, I think we will always oscillate between protecting ourselves and perpetuating the problems. It is very, very hard to completely shut out the noise telling us that thinness and beauty are signs of a good, successful, worthy individual—these “sicknesses” are endemic to society, particularly here in the US where the branding phenomenon is so unrelenting. As long as the media keeps commodifying our attention and strengthening these useless, harmful narratives, we won’t be immune to sometimes turning against ourselves. I absolutely believe we need to be gentle and self-forgiving when that happens, as it will, while also redirecting our energy into radically loving ourselves. The “ideal” is not a real thing, but we can fight these negative feelings by accepting them, understanding them, and—not to sound too woo-woo—releasing them so they don’t define us.

OA: Most of your work is in the food world, for magazines such as Bon Appétit. What are you cooking these days?

I’m spending my days in the Catskills. Here, summer has well and truly resigned to fall, and with all the changing leaves, frosty mornings, and long strolls in the woods, I’m favoring cooked foods: roasted butternut and leeks, all the pastas, porridge every morning, and decidedly too many caffeinated drinks. We’re blessed with insanely flavorful and local produce here—so I’m really leaning into that and building meals around whatever ingredients are at their peak.

OA: How has your experience with mental and medical health affected the way you write about food?

My involvement in the food world has been a major healing balm for me. The way I experience and write about food is very celebratory. I see food as both essential to life and an edible art form; across the board, my favorite pieces of art are always the ones that nourish us in some way. Lately, I’ve also been much more cognizant of the ways in which food is, and always has been, political. Not everyone has access to organic, vegan foods—and “wellness” is such an exclusive industry, often something we buy into in lieu of real healthcare. I know what foods make me feel good, but I am very against prescribing what people should and shouldn’t eat; to me that’s such an uninformed perspective to take. I’d rather tell stories about culture and history and identity through food than be up here on my high horse condemning this or that.

OA: What have you been reading recently?

I am always and forever obsessed with Samantha Irby, and her latest essay collection—Wow, No Thank You.—was hilarious and relatable and so relieving to read. I found myself really drawn to bell hooks again this year; All About Love is an essential manifesto for this year of horrors. I basically cried my way through Creatures by Chrissy Van Meter, which perfectly illustrates the fragile bonds we experience with our families and our earth. Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times felt like an addictive snack—I read the whole thing in two days while living on a lake in the Adirondacks. So funny, dry, and weird. And Weather, by Jenny Offill, held a mirror to my current climate anxiety, whilst also offering a resonant glimpse of a woman trying to be everything for everyone.

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Header photo by Linus Nylund.
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