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Laurie Penny: our disgusting appetite for anorexia chic

The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.

Another day, another dainty dead girl. The premature passing of the French model Isabelle Caro from complications due to anorexia nervosa is as tragic as it is unsurprising. Caro, 28, was the face of the world-famous Nolita campaign, a poster project designed to show dieting teenagers the horrific effects of anorexia on the body.

After the campaign, Caro briefly became the darling of the shock press. Modelling contracts poured in, as did talk-show appearances and a book deal for her short, painful autobiography, The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Get Fat. Being the "face" of anorexia won Caro fame, praise and attention - everything she had ever craved. Everything apart from life and health.

When Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1990, she observed that the rising epidemic of serious eating disorders, which affect an estimated 3 per cent of young women in the developed world, was passing under the radar of the global press. Twenty years later, anorexia has become a global obsession.

One can hardly open a newspaper without reading another gushing interview with a teenager battling the disease, or turn on the television without seeing another gruesome documentary blithely illustrated with pictures of pouting, half-naked waifs, featured just before speculation over what Victoria Beckham didn't have for breakfast. The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.

The anorexia industry, for which poor Caro was briefly the mascot, is cynical idolatry masquerading as public concern in order to sell magazines. The anorexic has become the famished saint of late-capitalist femininity: beautiful, vulnerable and prepared to risk everything to conform to society's standards. Hers is a self-defeating rebellion against the sexist surveillance of patriarchal culture.

Thinspiration

Over two decades of gory "awareness raising", real public understanding of eating disorders has barely improved. Nor have treatment standards - more than 50 per cent of anorexics never recover. The poster campaign in which Caro was involved backfired spectacularly because it was based on the assumption that anorexic women starve themselves to look more "beautiful", rather than because of any deeper trauma.

Naked pictures of her still appear on "pro-anorexia" websites, which are designed to give "thinspiration" to self-starvers. As the anorexia industry expands, people with less glamorous but equally destructive disorders such as bulimia nervosa and compulsive overeating are deliberately ignored - as are the many sufferers who happen to be male, poor, non-white or simply unphotogenic.

As a former anorexia sufferer, I have been approached to write the woeful story of my teenage illness, not once, but several times. I refused because the nation's bookstores are already overflowing with sob stories stuffed with grisly details of vomiting techniques. When I was sick, I used to read those books for weight-loss tips.

In a society where anxiety about consumption has become the defining collective neurosis, it is, perhaps, inevitable that the image of the anorexic should fascinate us. We are perplexed by the self-starver's ability to transcend the needs of the flesh and, at the same time, compelled by it. More importantly, the fashion for anorexia taps into an increasingly popular loathing for female flesh - and fear of female flesh is fear of female power.


One thing is for sure: the anorexia industry has little to do with concern for women's welfare. If we truly want to protect young women from the siren song of self-starvation, it's not enough to persuade them that "skinny isn't beautiful" - we must communicate the conviction that all women deserve to take up space, to nourish ourselves, and to be large and imperfect and unashamedly powerful.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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