The self-hating mindset, if not the medical condition, of anorexia is frighteningly common, argues Katie Muller
About a month ago, I started chewing gum. The mouth moves, the taste buds are tickled and the satisfaction of chewing can be prolonged for up to an hour. Best of all, it is not food, it does not fill, or fatten, in fact it doesn’t affect the flatness of my stomach at all. It serves only to quell my desire to eat, a desire that I consistently repress. I have anorexia nervosa, and chewing gum is just one of the ways I survive a day of deprivation.
I began cutting down my intake when I was 14, because I couldn’t bear to weigh 55 kilograms. I knew about anorexia, but I also knew about feminism. I had friends who didn’t shave their legs, knew no-one who dieted, had parents who swapped the nurturing/breadwinning roles continuously. I kept my ‘dieting’ a secret, for fear that I would be ridiculed by the food-loving, non-makeup wearing, girls-can-too women I knew, but I also denied flatly, to myself, that I had any kind of eating disorder. In contrast, I thought the fat was the problem. I thought I was sorting myself out.
In my 14 year-old head, ‘anorexia’ was a nasty label, reserved for those horror stories I read about in magazines. “How anorexia ruined my life,” goes the title and the ghost of a girl peers out of the pages to prove her point. I feel unnerved by these pictures because they are clearly meant to shock, rather than promote true understanding. I refused to consider myself anorexic at that time, because I was convinced I would be treated like a circus-freak. I could join the bearded woman and the pretty one who gets sawn in half and people would take their small children to point and shriek at us in sordid delight.
In hindsight I realise that my expectations were misguided. I wouldn’t have been a circus freak until I started resembling the skeletal pirates from The Curse of the Black Pearl. Until then, far from becoming a freak, I was unmistakably doing what was expected of a young woman: orchestrating her own self-deprivation, casting herself as inferior and taking the role of the submissive female to new levels of absurdity. Strong women are a threat. Anorexia is especially convenient to those in positions of power (and keen to keep it that way) because it seems to provide women sufferers with a do-it-yourself kit for female oppression. How very convenient indeed. In fact, let’s market this kit, it’ll be the next big one.
So, I am getting slightly carried away. Nobody is directly marketing anorexia, but I think we are teetering close to that. If it were not a classified mental disorder I shudder to think that it would be even more highly promoted. There is a dieting industry that makes billions from persuading women that the only direction to go on a scale is down. Thin is still in, no matter if curvy women are occasionally featured in magazines. And if the media isn’t pro-skinny, it certainly never promotes weight gain. I have never, in all my life seen an advertisement for weight gain. As far as I am concerned, the hypocrisy of a magazine that claims to support curvy women by showing images of them, but is full of advice about diets, stick-thin models and adverts condemning fat, is appalling. This hypocrisy demonstrates the difficulty that women’s magazines face in trying to discuss serious women’s issues, despite being financially dependent on demoralizing advertising that perpetuates the myth that women must strive for youth, slimness and essentially flawlessness in order to be acceptable.
The most frightening thing to me, about the extent to which the beauty myth (read The Beauty Myth by Noami Wolf) brainwashes and oppresses women is that I know that there are countless women who are more enslaved by it, more addicted to its false promises, more dependent on its superficial rewards, than I ever was. And most of them are not anorexic. The process of recovering from anorexia involves both physical and psychological healing. The sad thing is that, quite often, only physical healing (or weight gain) is attended to and thus the deeper issues behind the anorexia are left to linger and poison the woman in other ways. Quite often, the only affect of weight gain is that the anorexia becomes invisible. While the site of a severely anorexic women is alarming, and retrieving such a body from the brink of self-destruction is a great achievement, I would like to argue that in its invisible form anorexia becomes actually more tragic, more desperate and also a far more serious epidemic. A severe anorexic looks ill, their frailty is obvious and the sickness in their minds is expressed by the sickness of their bodies. When anorexia becomes invisible, or at any rate less visible, it should not be presumed that the sickness in the mind that caused the illness, was necessarily defeated.
Statistics claim that approximately 10% of people are anorexic, most of them women. If we presume that this information is based on diagnosis and thus ignores all those with ‘invisible’ anorexia, I would venture to say that the number of women who suffer from the mental agony of such a disorder, is far, far higher. I would go further, perhaps into the realms of generalisation (not ideal, but forgive me), to say that this internal, invisible anorexia is actually state of mind that affects all women to some extent.
The woman who counts calories, day in and day out, never allowing herself to take more than a mouthful of dessert, once a week, if that.
The woman who goes running every morning for five miles. No, she doesn’t enjoy it. But it must be done, she cannot ‘let herself go’.
The woman who feels compelled to throw up when she feels that she has over-indulged.
The woman who doesn’t feel comfortable eating ravenously in public, because it is ‘unladylike’.
Even the woman who prepares lunch and supper for her family every day. She may eat the food too, but really it was prepared for them.
The woman who looks at herself sideways in the mirror and criticizes her body for being ‘wrong’. Everyday, ritualistically.
The woman who cannot face herself in the morning, until she has her make-up on.
The woman who weighs herself daily.
The woman who eats and eats and eats. And never feels full, never feels satisfied.
None of the above women are anorexic, but I assure you that if I were recovered, I would not want to be plagued by any of those worries. I am not sure that being that way would be any kind of recovery at all, in fact. I dream of free-eating. That I could listen to my body and not the voice in my head that says: “Only fruit this morning, five grapes, yes that’s all you’re getting. It’s all you can afford.” I want to escape the guilt of eating. “You STUFFED yourself last night, disgusting girl. An egg and a slice of bread and an apple! if you go on like that you’ll turn into a giant slug. Today you’ll do better, no snacking whatsoever, no dessert, no second helpings. OK?”
I don’t want to restrict myself at all. Does that sound like too high a demand? It isn’t.
Without restrictions, I would stop when I felt full, not when I felt I should be full. These days I feel full if I eat a handful of currents one at a time. I think that is fullness, it feels like fullness. But I know that it isn’t. That is bullshit that has been used to wash my brain out. To keep me down, confirm my weakness, increase my dependency and worst of all, dilute my sense of self-worth.
An anorexic weighs 75% of her healthy body weight. She has a fear of gaining weight, makes constant efforts to lose weight and ceases to menstruate. This is one end of a spectrum. On the other side is the compulsive eater. Physically, women in these two categories could not be more different, but psychologically I suspect there are strong ties between them, and probably all women. This common characteristic I would best describe as a hole. Imagine a hole inside you, aching and gaping. Perhaps you do not need to imagine it, perhaps it is already there. Perhaps you try to fill it, with treats, with possessions, with food. Although you sense that it is love you need to fill the whole and that little else will do. Perhaps you cannot stop trying to fill the hole, cannot stop eating, even though the fullness feels terribly unfulfilling and doesn’t last anyway.
That is one side of the coin. Even I, who have the anorexic’s do-it-yourself deprivation kit, cannot stop eating once in a while. The cookie batter, the chocolate icing, all that is forbidden and bad, I eat. Not the cabbage though, I never overeat the cabbage. I wonder why I try to fill the hole only with forbidden fruits. They feel so deeply satisfying at first, but have no lasting substance. I know I cannot fill the hole with food. I know that women are told they can fill the holes inside them, by striving for beauty, by wearing nice clothes, by nourishing their skin (but not their souls). This is what they are told, but it is as far from the truth as I am from ‘free eating’. While some women try to fill the hole by eating compulsively, anorexics try to avoid the question of the hole altogether by denying its existence. “Shut it out, shut everyone out. There is nothing to be done about that gaping hole, so don’t try to fix it, just ignore it.” Who knows which one is a more painful approach? What is certain is that neither attitude should be necessary, as there should be no need for a hole at all.
What is this I am demanding? Such high demands I make. I have been indoctrinated into believing that I do not deserve that fulfillment, despite the women’s liberation I was spoon-fed from birth.
Maybe men have the hole too, but I would venture to guess that if they do, they have us to fill it for them. We give ourselves up so easily.