It's arrogant to say anorexia is a personal choice rather than a mental illness

A response to Rachel Cusk's New Statesman article "The anorexic statement".

In November 2010, almost exactly two years ago today, a 28-year-old French model called Isabelle Caro died from complications arising from anorexia. A few years before, in 2007, she had risen to increased prominence after appearing in an advertising campaign to raise awareness of eating disorders within her field. Stick-thin, with vertebrae clearly on show, she stared straight out of the billboards that lined Italian cities and were later (controversially) banned. The image was undoubtedly shocking; some even found it outright traumatic. Its accompanying message - "No Anorexia" - made a clear statement about the fashion industry when it was pushed out to the Italian public during fashion week.

If you’re looking for an "anorexic statement", then Caro’s is as close as you can get. She suffered from the disease from early adolescence, and she spoke about being in its grips as a personal struggle. She talked publicly of how she wished to be rid of the crushing mental illness, right up until the two months before her death. The "No Anorexia" campaign was about drawing attention to the downright ugliness of a body destroyed by an anorexic life, the ironic lack of glamour in an illness that pervaded industries priding themselves on allure and desirability. And these reasons are why, for many, Rachel Cusk’s recent article on anorexia in this magazine hurt so much.

Does every woman’s body make a statement? Cusk thinks it does. She claims that the anorexic state "returns the woman to the universality of a child", a pre-pubescent state wherein she doesn’t have to think about menstruation or lactation or childbirth or sex. She paints the sufferer of anorexia as a narcissistic martyr of the modern age, obsessed with her image, privileged enough to impose an illness upon herself, sitting "screaming about a spoonful of peas" while other people just get on with the practicalities. Needless to say, sufferers and former sufferers of the disease, as well as their loved ones, didn’t take kindly to this reductive and convenient analysis.

Why is such an analysis convenient? Precisely because mental illness is infuriatingly inconvenient in its individuality and nuance. Treatments and causes are varied and often inexplicable. Personalities are, by their nature, all very different. By positing an "anorexic type", Cusk makes the problem of anorexia wonderfully simple: it’s just a "sickness of the modern age" manifested in a certain type of defective personality. If they’d stop indulging themselves for one pea-eating second, or experienced some real type of hardship, then they’d snap out of it once and for all, right? If Isabelle Caro had really sat down and thought about it, then she could have saved herself the massive setback of dying during her anti-anorexia campaign.

Even aside from all of this offensive hypothesising, it’s strange enough that Cusk maintains throughout her article the idea that women speak with their bodies, but men don’t. She talks about periods and childbirth as physical states to escape from as if men are beings wholly removed from such concerns (because blood is a problem, but semen is supposedly totally cool.) And feminists have fought for a long time to remove the basic assumption that women are "naturally decorative", "speaking" through their bodies alone, expressing their complaints about society by getting thinner and a little bit childlike, while men are naturally intellectual, objective, and altogether more adult. We suppose that the last fifty years of feminist thought have passed Cusk by, as well as the fact that male sufferers of anorexia exist, unfortunately, in substantial numbers. 

Indeed, Cusk appears to have done little research about the illness, instead relying on verbose rhetoric. At one point in her dense treatise, she implies that anorexics of craving visibility. The "anorexic statement", as she so coldly calls it, seeks attention. And yet, so many sufferers speak of wanting to disappear. This does not compute. Cusk speaks with the authoritative and detached voice of a scientist, but she is no scientist. Her overwrought prose serves to raise her essay up to the status of literature, concealing her crass generalisations beneath "sophisticated prose". And yet, it is lacking in any of the perception or insight associated with that term. Her continual use of "the anorexic" throughout the essay makes her seem emotionless and removed, and she seems to forget that this is a disease that affects real people, not simply medical cases whose motives must be dissected and speculated upon in florid prose.

Anorexia is a complex, awful, terrifying disease, the causes for which are a constant topic for research by medical professionals. Its causes do not fit neatly into a single tick-box, and thus lumping all its sufferers together into one group is supremely unhelpful. As a commenter who had reached recovery noted beneath the original article, "no book or article that I read has ever explained how I got there". To presume a statement on the part of another belies supreme arrogance. Cusk has projected that "statement" onto women and girls who are suffering from a life-threatening illness, women and girls whose friends and family may be reading Cusk’s words in between hospital visits. That she should imply that mental illness is a choice is verging on the unforgiveable as far as anyone who’s ever suffered one is concerned.

At one point in the piece, Rachel Cusk refers to the male gaze. She blames what she calls "the preponderance of male values", and yet there she is, judging these women’s bodies, projecting her agenda, her pseudo-psychoanalysis onto them. In other words, it is not their bodies speaking. It is not their story. Isobel Caro’s "anorexic statement" was just that because she, the sufferer made it, and no one else. In light of this, we should be aware that the only statement that Cusk is making in her article is applies to herself.

The advertising campaign featuring French actress and anorexia sufferer Isabelle Caro. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.