Sunday, 1 March 2009

Anorexia Porn

I've always known I have it in me to write books, and that writing feminist books would not be an unrealistic goal. Something I've always thought about is writing a middlebrow self-help manual on how women can get on with their lives in a patriarchal world (because I'll admit it, I often think that people who spend a huge amount of time writing long tracts of feminist ranting need to get a life - sometimes the most rebellious and empowering thing you can do is to stick two fingers up at the patriarchy and simply get on with your life), and it's still something I might do one day, but lately I've been thinking about something else: the possibility of writing a book about something that I find sinister, creepy and disturbing in the extreme: anorexia porn.

No, not porn sites featuring anorexia sufferers (although these of course do exist). I'm talking about the grim obsession that the media seems to have with anorexia. Last fortnight's issue of Private Eye:

FAT TEENAGER WHO DIES TRAGICALLY DOESN'T GET HER PICTURE IN EVERY NEWSPAPER


There was no shock whatsoever today after a fat teenager who died suddenly this week didn't get her picture in any newspaper.

"If only this poor overweight girl had died of a slimming disease, then we'd have felt duty-bound by the scale of the tragedy to run loads of photos of her in skimpy tops to salivate over," said all newspaper editors.

- Private Eye, issue 1229, p22


Gawd, I love Private Eye. Ian and his team have brought into the open something that's bugged me for years: why this complete obsession with anorexia?

It's a rare women's magazine that doesn't carry an anorexia feature. The "I thought THIS *insert lurid picture of protruding ribs* was FAT" coverline is almost as ubiquitous as "How to please a man in bed", "How to have the best orgasms", "How to lose 10lbs" and "SHOES! We have pictures of SHOES YOU CAN'T AFFORD!"

Here are the rules for an anorexia story:

  • Photos. There must be photos.
  • There must also be statistics: height and weight at heaviest and lowest points, and preferably in between too.*
  • The disease (and I remind you that this is a severe mental illness with a higher death toll than any other) is presented as vanity gone too far.
  • The victim suffers or claims to suffer** from severe dysmorphia, believing she is fat.
  • The whole thing is presented as simply an extreme form of the dieting and self-hating rituals that a lot of young women go through and that these magazines actively encourage.
  • At some point during her recovery, the victim must get a man who will help her on the road to health and make her realise that she is beautiful and not at all fat.

    Susie Orbach argues quite convincingly that compulsive eating is the opposite side of the same coin as anorexia, so why are women's magazines not lavishly illustrated with photos of women who have eaten themselves into morbid obesity? Or whose bingeing has led them to die of gastric rupture from constant vomiting? Compulsive eating and bulimia (basically the same horribly distressing and dangerous illness but for one minor detail, the presence or absence of self-induced vomiting) just aren't seen as glamorous.

    Having suffered from anorexia is seen almost as a badge of honour. Watch a woman tell another woman she's suffered from anorexia in the past: 50% of the time you'll get either sympathy or a "whoah, you're mental" look, but the other 50% of the time her eyes will glaze over in barely-concealed admiration. Those are the women who devour these stories. Why do they devour them? Why the demand?

    The problems as a direct result of such media coverage are as follows:

  • People thinking that anorexia is a diet gone too far which can be solved by telling the victim that they are not fat
  • Because anorexia is presented as a mere extension of "normal" body hatred, it's seen as something that affects only young women and adolescent girls. Tell that to male sufferers, older female sufferers or the parents of children struggling with the problem.
  • People thinking that anorexia sufferers' bodies, much like fat people's and conventionally-attractive women's, are fair game for public consumption, that it's okay to stare as much as you like and say whatever you want. Essentially, anorexics are presented as freak show acts that exist for public amusement. Hooray - now I have an excuse to link to The Boy With An Arse for a Face
  • People thinking that unless you look as if you're about to drop dead, you can't be anorexic. This one is particularly dangerous: most anorexics refuse treatment, and so intervention by friends and family is paramount. Experts unanimously agree that the later treatment is started, the grimmer the sufferer's chances of recovery. If the friends and family of an anorexic wait until she "looks anorexic" before dragging her to a doctor, it may be too late to avoid permanent physical and mental damage.
  • Essentially, it's completely voyeuristic, offering freak shows of these women whilst glossing over their actual problems.

    So yes, I want to write a book on anorexia porn, exploring the phenomenon of this public obsession with the illness. It reveals so much of the creepy way that a lot of women tend to view other womens' bodies.

    *Websites that help people recover from eating disorders generally have a complete ban on users posting information about their height/weight/BMI because some sufferers find it "triggering"
    **FACT: If you've got an obvious problem, the quickest way of stopping people from asking awkward questions is to tell them what they want to hear
  • 4 comments:

    Hannah said...

    Great post. I definitely agree with what you've said about the negative effects of 'true life' anorexia stories. All too often newspapers give off the impression that a woman who has suffered from it or even died from it was merely taking vanity and an obsession with looking like celebrities too far, trivialising it in the process.

    I think the other problem with a lot of newspapers/magazines is also that they're so obsessed with telling the tragic stories of conventionally attractive, privileged young women the the equally tragic story of a young woman who is for example overweight, or from a working class background is usually ignored completely. I've lost count of the amount of 'She grew up in a stable, middle class family and was set to go to Oxford. So what drove *insert name here* to STARVE herself to death?!' Pretty + middle class + mental illness = a goldmine for certain publications. It IS an obsession.

    The Empress said...

    "Having suffered from anorexia is seen almost as a badge of honour. Watch a woman tell another woman she's suffered from anorexia in the past: 50% of the time her eyes will glaze over in barely-concealed admiration."

    Abso-bloody-lutely. And it's sickening. I had a little school reunion recently with some girls from my boarding house. It was all jolly good fun: cava, giggles and gossip, until one woman, O, turned up. She started telling us about her unhappy days in the first year of uni (we didn't ask). About how studying history was sooo stressful (we didn't care) and much more difficult than anything we'd elected to study (we didn't agree).
    She then topped the whole thing off with "and, you know, my flatmates and I all went a little bit anorexic for a while 'cos of the stress" etc etc until we gagged her with her own pashmina.

    "WENT A LITTLE ANOREXIC FOR A WHILE"?!?! Jesus, it's a disease, not a holiday camp you visit for a couple of months! And she really did say it like it was something to be proud of: "I'm so clever, I stopped eating as much, yay me!" And the other women there looked at her, and nodded sagely, and then all chipped in with "ooh yes, me too, I stopped eating for an entire 42 HOURS!! ZOMG!11! ROFFLE!!" They were treating it like an affliction you can catch, use to get a bit thinner and fish for attention with, and then discard before it gets dangerous. A bit like a curable STD. They didn't realise that, generally, once you have an eating disorder, it stays with you for the rest of your life. You're never truly cured. Like reformed alcoholics, who know that just one drink could make them fall off the wagon.

    Anyway, great post, very interesting and though-provoking. The memories of the people I went to school with fill me with rage sometimes though...

    The Urban Feminist said...

    "Pretty + middle class + mental illness = a goldmine for certain publications"

    Hannah, you totally have a point here.

    Actually, something I'd like to see more of would be a subversive version of this, something like, "She grew up in an unstable, abusive family, and was told from a young age that she was ugly, stupid and would never amount to anything. So what drove *insert name here* to TURN INTO A FUNCTIONAL HUMAN BEING?!"

    I'm sure there are a lot of stories like this out there.

    The Urban Feminist said...

    Come to think of it, there are quite a few stories like this out there. Usually in the books aisle of Tescos, with sad-looking children on the cover and titles such as, "Daddy, no!"