Disappearing Acts

Both Jill and piny at Feministe have very powerful things to say about anorexia nervosa. (References to “anorexia” below are all specific to “anorexia nervosa.”)

Let’s start by honoring piny for telling his story; it’s brave to make these things public, and it makes a difference.

Jill is taking issue with an especially stupid piece on anorexia that doesn’t deserve another link. As too often happens, some man with no credentials is blathering on about how maybe anorexia is bad, but you know, “self-denial and restraint” are good, and America(n women) could use more of them. Jill carves him a new one, which is well-deserved.

Buried in her quotes from his article, however, is a very interesting insight from an academic. “A few years ago, Cornell University professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote that we must “consider the ways in which different societies create their own symptom repertoires and how the changing cultural context gives meaning to a ’symptom’ such as non-eating.” He goes on to describe anorexia as a (basically welcome) threat to large portions and supersized fries.

And this takes us to piny’s comments:

An eating disorder is not exactly about eating or not eating. The severity of an eating disorder cannot be measured either by the degree of starvation or its attendant dangers.

An eating disorder is about hating oneself so much that one is compelled to embark on a program of self-punishment and self-erasure. A person with an eating disorder decides that she and her life are inadequate. She fixes on her body as a site of that inadequacy. She will fix her body, control her body, perfect her body, and thereby fix, control, and perfect everything else.

Read the whole essay. Piny goes on to talk about some theories about why this is so, very eloquently. What we say is related, but not identical.

Female self-hatred is as old as the patriarchy, which is old indeed. The self-hatred of the oppressed may be even older. How this self-hatred plays out is what changes with cultural context. We constantly barrage women with negative messages about their bodies; we train our kindergarten girls to have body image issues; we photoshop our models into an obscene and bizarre level of thin-nness; some of our men take it upon themselves to get their girlfriends to lose weight. All of this creates very fertile soil for a focus for women, especially young women, to express their self-hatred.

In other times, women did this in different ways. What leaps immediately to mind is the Victorian era, which glorified dead and dying women, as can be seen in paintings like this one and this one. This led to a cultural epidemic of women’s illnesses, from “the vapors” to “neurasthenia,” which resulted in keeping oneself interestingly pale and weak, and thus attractive to the men of the time. Yes, women died of this pattern, just as they die of anorexia. (Jill points out that anorexia is “a disease of the wealthy.” So were the Victorian diseases. People struggling for day-to-day food, clothing, and shelter are perhaps equally susceptible to self-hatred, but without a certain amount of leisure time and luxury, that self-hatred does not take these forms.)

We agree with piny, it’s not about being thin, and it has to be an irrational goal. He nails it when he says, “Second, starvation is agonizing. It is one of the worst punishments you can inflict on your body, because your body was not meant to starve.” Combine that with the social pressure and you create an absolutely perfect way to express internalized self-hatred.

Jill has a perfect set of last words on the topic (and oh, do we wish they were the last words on the topic):

I’ve had enough of the cult of female martyrdom, and I feel no need to let other people tell me that I should feel guilty for enjoying pleasures like food and sex. I own a vibrator, I use birth control, and I make myself steak au poivre and drink good red wine every Friday night. These things bring me far more pleasure than skinny thighs or blood on my wedding-night bedsheets.

<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/body+image" rel="tag nofollow">body image</a><br /> feminism<br /> fat<br /> anorexia<br /> anorexia nervosa<br /> eating disorders<br /> Victorian women<br /> women<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Impolitic" rel="tag nofollow">Body Impolitic</a><br />

2 thoughts on “Disappearing Acts

  1. A nitpick: Anorexia isn’t only a disease of wealth–I know of a couple of women who had what I’d call a poverty variant. They didn’t eat because they felt other people should get the food. I agree that these days anorexia (and of course, bulimia) are related to there being a lot of food around.

    Could you expand on how Victorian women died of trying to look ill?

  2. Nancy,

    Like lots of other people with societally imposed diseases, mostly these women made themselves quite ill–sometimes permanently. We found the two pictures of the dying women farily quickly, and there are also lots of pictures of languishing ill women.

    Some of the medical treatments, such as mercury, did kill some people. And, of course, if you languish on your couch, your muscles atrophy and if you are in isolation so does your mind. Charlotte Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a good example. The treatments for “neurasthenia” could literally drive you mad.

    There used to be a good review of The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery up at Powell’s that also discussed the symptom repertoire of those times.

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