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Hospitalisation of young people with eating disorders is rising – but don't blame selfie culture

Don't trivialise the problem of eating disorders by citing social media as the source.

Over the past three years, hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders have doubled. What’s more, we seem to all know who to blame: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. An eating disorder might be a complex mental disorder, but it’s nothing that Pinterest can’t control.

Blaming social media – as though the medium is itself the message – is certainly convenient. The current rise in ED admissions tallies with a rise in the sharing of weight loss selfies and “thinspirational” images online. Whatever the root cause of an eating disorder, it becomes an obsession that requires constant “feeding,” something for which pictures of emaciation are ideal. As Dr Carolyn Nahman, a consultant psychiatrist who treats people with disordered eating, points out, “with one click of a button, very vulnerable young people are able to access 10,000 images of “perfect-looking” people, which places them under a lot of pressure.”  

All of this is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, headlines such as “Desire for the ‘ideal body’ puts more teenagers in hospital” and “Social media and selfies blamed for anorexia surge” seem to me to come dangerously close to trivialising eating disorders by suggesting that vanity, superficiality and self-obsession lie at their core. If only eating disorder sufferers spent less time online! Why can’t they just read a good book instead? The implication is that it is only to be expected that danger will flourish in online spaces, hence it is up to the vulnerable to stay away (after all, as some cynical part of me reflects, they didn’t have all this when I was anorexic. Back in the 1980s, you only got the odd Woman’s Own special on Lena Zavaroni or Karen Carpenter, and thought yourself lucky).

Amidst all the handwringing about online influences, one thing which goes largely unspoken is the gendered nature of the problem. The vast majority of those being hospitalised are young women; are we to presume this is coincidental? Or that young women are more susceptible to “thinspiration” due to some innate lack of critical awareness and sophistication? We know – and the images illusrating the current news reports reinforce this – that most “thinspiring” images will be of women, not men. We know that when headlines mention the “ideal body” the one word missing, but understood by all, is “female.” What we are dealing with is not some big, bad network of harmful images spewing out from nowhere; it’s a part of the cultural language we use to describe and prescribe womanhood. Social media has provided a particular outlet for this, while also becoming a place where further manifestations of it thrive.

Online culture has not been kind to women, but then neither is the world at large. Our greater ability to share spaces and communicate with others ought to make us more open and tolerant, and in some ways it has, but not when it comes to beliefs about what women are and how women should look. On the contrary, these beliefs have become more and more limiting, while at the same time a new vocabulary has sprung up – reframing ideas of gender, bodies and ownership – which seeks to persuade us that the opposite is true. Girls are lucky; girls can be whatever they want to be, just as long as it’s this. The term “body shaming” is increasingly used to dismiss all criticism of restrictive messages regarding the female form. You have a choice, don’t you? Is this really suffering, or just self-expression? (And isn’t self-expression – the expression of a self set apart from the body – all there really is?)

In many ways the “alienation meets passive performance” of an eating disorder is perfectly in tune with contemporary neoliberal ideas about the ways in which women can access power and “be themselves.” It is not easy to go without food when food is plentiful. Self-imposed starvation requires an aggressive division of one’s own constituent parts. The arbitrary line we draw between body and mind becomes a wall of iron. Rituals must be developed, mantras uttered, pictures viewed, all in order to keep the beast at bay. The hungry body cannot be associated with the thinking self; on the contrary, one is pitched against the other. That there is no real distinction – that thought and flesh cannot be separated in the consideration of a self – is a greedy, impermissible notion. For the anorexia sufferer – and those who seek to emulate her – there can be no unity and no hope.

And yet this separation is not inconsistent with modern thinking, at least as far as the female body is concerned. Yes, we in the West live in a period of over-consumption. Yes, many will have responded to yesterday’s headlines by arguing that obesity ought to be of far greater concern than emaciation. But this is to ignore the fact that over-consumption relates not just to food or to material goods, but to bodies. Right now female flesh is offered up on a plate, anywhere and everywhere, and we cannot even call it oppression because we are taught that a female body is not a self, nor even part of one. It is a product, our product, to be plucked, shaved, starved, sliced, rented out and sold.

In an age when we are all supposed to be our own brands – You PLC – young women are meant to think themselves fortunate to have such a product at their disposal. The moment puberty hits it’s straight to market. No one need strap us in corsets; we’ll do it ourselves , in grateful recognition of all we are permitted to be. We will follow the rule: “be yourself, as long as it’s a disembodied one.” So our liberated, ethereal self carves the rest of us into pieces: face, lips, breasts, vagina, thigh gap (we even count the pieces that are not really there).

It should not surprise us that some of us say no, negotiating our own separation on different terms. Not everyone wants to go to on sale. Perhaps some of us stop eating because we do not want to be consumed.

What is especially heartbreaking about the rise in admissions for eating disorders is fact that for most sufferers, hospitalisation is a last resort. It will not offer any miracle cure. Emergency refeeding demands long-term peace of mind as payment for short-term physical recuperation. Therapy groups become breeding grounds for toxic friendships built on envy. Words spoken on the inside have no meaning once you are back outside, your body returned to the same old system as before. No carer, no matter how willing or wise, can enable you to rid your physical form of all the values ascribed to it, ones which you have tried so hard to reject. At best they can teach you a form of submission, or even consent. The alternative is deadly.

Young women are taught what their bodies are – how to mould them, manipulate them, offer them up for approval – long before they have the chance to simply be at one with them. Unlike male bodies, physical entities which occupy space, our bodies are ideas, desires, shapes to be copied or remodelled at will, or so we’re led to believe. We are told our liberation lies in owning them, not being them, but then we find that a product cannot ever really own itself.  What harms us – that which makes us deprive ourselves and shrink away from the inside out – is not some abstract evil floating in cyperspace. It is human and it is political. It is made of flesh and blood. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.