The Winners are Dead: Contextualizing Eating Disorders

By | January 5, 2011

NB: Y’all know I never do trigger warnings, but since I know recovery can be a bitch, I am laying one out this time: this post discusses eating disorders and pro-ana/thinspiration.

“Fat people are often supported in hating their bodies, in starving themselves, in engaging in unsafe exercise and in seeking out weight loss by any means necessary. A thin person who does these things is considered mentally ill. A fat person who does these things is redeemed by them. This is why our culture has no concept of a fat person who also has an eating disorder. If you’re fat, it’s not an ED — it’s a lifestyle change.”
The above paragraph from my post on Monday has been making the rounds on Tumblr.

I could have predicted it. Sometimes I think 90% of my writing is just packing peanuts cushioning one really solid and meaningful quote, and I have to write in all that other stuff to deliver the important bit in a single cohesive piece. Though I am hardly the first person to express the paradox described above, it makes me happy to see folks absorbing it and passing it along. This is one of those ideas that is invisible until the moment someone points it out to you. After that, it become obvious, inescapable; it cannot be unseen. It’s an a-ha moment, a click, a revelation. So it’s not a surprise to me that folks would respond to it.

And it’s not even a surprise, really, that it should also find its way onto a thinspiration or pro-anorexia feed. Or two, or more, by now, perhaps. For those unfamiliar with the notion, pro-anorexia (often shortened to pro-ana) is an ideology that believes eating disorders to be a legitimate lifestyle choice and not necessarily damaging. Though the shorthand specifies anorexia, it is generally applied to any eating-disordered behavior. Lazy thinkers will often attempt to link fat acceptance communities with pro-ana ones as equally irresponsible and dangerous movements. It might seem like a neat and tidy thing, to build a spectrum with extreme fatness and extreme thinness on either end, in a perfectly-balanced analogy. The problem is that anorexia (and other EDs) is a behavior, not a body type, and fat acceptance does not systematically advocate for overeating, which would be necessary for the analogy to work. That said, what pro-ana groups do share with fat acceptance communities is finding beauty in body shapes considered ugly by conventional standards, as well as a desire for full bodily autonomy, unrestrained by well-meaning interlopers. But there the similarities end.

If the comments to Monday’s post have revealed anything, it is that eating disorders are complex and convoluted, in spite of widespread assumptions about EDs being the exclusive province of skinny teenaged white girls from comfortable socio-economic backgrounds. These assumptions work to minimize the reality that most of us who grow up female in American culture will first learn disordered eating patterns far younger than we’d like to admit, and that this is a problem across race, class, gender, and age. It is a cultural problem. It is a social problem. It is a problem we all face, at one time or another, whether it happens to us or to someone we know.

As animals we eat — we need to eat. Food, like oxygen, is required for our survival. We cannot ever get away from that. It’s a need we’ll never overcome, an urge we’ll never escape. We eat. Our bodies drive us to eat even against our will. We can make a stand and defend it ferociously — I am disciplined, and I will not eat anymore. Or I will eat barely anything at all. Or I will eat only when I have consciously decided that it is acceptable for me to eat, and then I will eat what I have consciously decided is permissible for me to ingest, in an amount that looks appropriate to whatever intellectual standard I have devised.  I will not allow my petty physical urges to rule me. But we will always need to eat.

Self-induced starvation may be a symptom of an eating disorder, but it is not just that, nor is it a funhouse-mirror distortion of “healthy” habits. It is an accurate reflection of our culture around eating and food. We feel its pressure everywhere we go. It touches every one of us, this compulsion toward control, this unwillingness to trust our hunger, to have faith in the ability of our bodies to govern themselves, and to live in concert with our needs. Our bodies are anarchists (we think)! Our bodies are out to destroy us, by accumulating fat we don’t want, by putting it in places we’d rather it not go, by constantly demanding food, care, attention, nourishment, energy that we can’t spare. Our bodies are wild horses to be broken, to be saddled and bridled and worn down. Our nature is chaotic and not to be trusted. Managing this requires constant vigilance, and never “letting go” — never ever can you “let yourself go”. While our bodies are demanding food, our culture is educating us on the terrible dangers of allowing our needs and desires take their own course, and on the moral implications of failing to keep them in check.

Pro-anorexia does not read to me as an inscrutable horror — pro-anorexia makes perfect sense in the context in which we all live and eat. We live in a pro-anoretic culture. Enormously popular shows like The Biggest Loser (and its multitudes of weight-loss reality-TV offspring) reward those who cast all caution to the wind in a single-minded effort to be thin. The news media reminds us daily — literally daily! — to flee from fatness in screaming terror and to embrace lifelong dieting patterns and broken relationships with our bodies, all in the name of health. While individual ED sufferers have individual circumstances, eating disorders at large are the wages of a culture that works diligently to build an uncrossable chasm between our intellectual selves and our physical selves. They are the product of overwhelming pressure to meticulously defend our bodies against our own needs. This pressure breaks us, in the head. It takes the normal impulses for eating and hunger and shatters them into a thousand unrecognizable pieces.

When I say that pro-anorexia makes sense, I am not advocating for anorexia, nor for any disordered eating patterns. I would no sooner advocate for starvation than I would for compulsive overeating. In fact, I feel roughly the same way about pro-ED behaviors as I do about weight-loss surgery — I think they are a bad idea. I think they are deeply harmful. I refuse to listen to others promote them, and I do not allow them to be promoted in the tiny cultural spaces I control, such as this blog. But I also understand that people will take that path, and I do not shun, shame, or ostracize those who do. It’s a difficult and complicated world, too much so to shut out those folks who might benefit from a little compassion.

Our reaction, socially, to eating disorders tends to be one of fear and disgust. But this is what we’ve wrought — this is our own work, whether we support it directly by participating in diet culture, or whether we allow it to take place by passively remaining silent. We are responsible. How dare we recoil in pathologizing horror from our own reflection? By making eating disorders shameful, we isolate the very people who are in greatest need of support.

In response to Monday’s post, reader Holly commented, in part:

“Having an eating disorder is an isolating, disorienting, often terrifying experience. And while ultimately I can only speak for myself, I am comfortable assuming that being fat amplifies many aspects of this experience. Being fat with an eating disorder means being forced, again and again, to confront the fact that society hates you when you are at precisely your most vulnerable. Being fat with an eating disorder means being denied treatment, being denied empathy. It means waving your hands in the air, begging for a life preserver, and getting a “thumbs up” instead. For me, it’s meant a line of therapists and doctors declaring that I must have Binge Eating Disorder before one word about food had passed my lips, yet dismissing me completely when I admitted to restricting and purging. It’s meant being medically hospitalized with rock-bottom potassium levels and an arrhythmia after purging 10-15 times a day for months on end – bankrupting myself and practically failing out of college – yet being told 2 days later on the ED unit that I was “all set to go home in a couple of days.” It’s meant losing half of my body weight and receiving only compliments, not once being asked how or why. It’s meant losing my gallbladder after a crippling attack of pancreatitis, and being asked by the ER doctor if I was an alcoholic, not whether I had recently lost a large amount of weight. It’s meant being referred to Weight Watchers minutes after telling a new doctor about my history. It’s meant knowing, from the beginning, that I was in a good position to “get away with it” because no one suspects the fat girl. It has played a huge role in keeping me sick.”

A culture that supports weight loss by any means necessary is a culture that supports eating disorders. It is a culture that supports the sickening and weakening of us all, in the name of improving our health, the very thing that we sacrifice. It instructs us either to succeed or be destroyed by the effort.

To some extent, eating disorders are a compulsive urge to control the uncontrollable — one might as well try to lasso the ocean. At a certain point, past denying, past deprivation, we don’t have intellectual control over our bodies any longer. No matter how hard we try, no matter how fierce our conviction. We don’t have control. The only way to win the fight with our bodies is to die. The winners are the ones who are dead. They are the ones who have triumphed, decisively, over the needs of their bodies, forever.

We can heal by coming to accept that surviving in concert with our bodies and our needs — our valid, justifiable, legitimate needs — is the healthiest way to live. But ultimately, the cure is to fix our culture, to repair the toxic world in which we all live. Changing culture sounds like a huge and impossible task but it’s not, and in a world that is beginning to encourage parents to put their infants on diets, something has to be done. We can’t go on starving ourselves, and starving each other, and expect anyone to survive.


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