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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Forget the flat caps - this is what Labour voters really look like

Young, educated women are more typical than older, working-class men. 

In announcing the snap election, Theresa May set out her desire to create a “more united” country in the aftermath of last year’s referendum. But as the campaign begins, new YouGov analysis of over 12,000 people shows the demographic dividing lines of British voters.

Although every voter is an individual, this data shows how demographics relate to electoral behaviour. These divides will shape the next few weeks – from the seats the parties target to the key messages they use. Over the course of the campaign we will not just be monitoring the “headline” voting intention numbers, but also the many different types of voters that make up the electorate. 

Class: No longer a good predictor of voting behaviour

“Class” used to be central to understanding British politics. The Conservatives, to all intents and purposes, were the party of the middle class and Labour that of the workers. The dividing lines were so notable that you could predict, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, how someone would vote just by knowing their social grade. For example at the 1992 election the Conservatives led Labour amongst ABC1 (middle class) voters by around 30 percentage points, whilst Labour was leading amongst C2DE (working class) voters by around 10 points.

But today, class would tell you little more about a person’s voting intention that looking at their horoscope or reading their palms. As this campaign starts, the Conservatives hold a 22 per cent lead amongst middle class voters and a 17 per cent lead amongst working class ones.

Age: The new dividing line in British politics

In electoral terms, age is the new class. The starkest way to show this is to note that Labour is 19 per cent ahead when it comes to 18-24 year-olds, and the Conservatives are ahead by 49 per cent among the over 65s. Our analysis suggest that the current tipping point – which is to say the age where voters are more likely to favour the Conservatives over Labour – is 34.

In fact, for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around 8 per cent and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by 6 per cent. This age divide could create further problems for Labour on 8 June. Age is also a big driver of turnout, with older people being far more likely to vote than young people. It’s currently too early to tell the exact impact this could have on the final result.

Gender: The Conservative’s non-existent “women problem”

Before the last election David Cameron was sometimes described as having a “woman problem”. Our research at the time showed this narrative wasn’t quite accurate. While it was true that the Conservativexs were doing slightly better amongst young men than young women, they were also doing slightly better among older women than older men.

However, these two things cancelled each other out meaning that ultimately the Conservatives polled about the same amongst both men and women. Going into the 2017 election women are, if anything, slightly more (three percentage points) likely overall to vote Tory.

Labour has a large gender gap among younger voters. The party receives 42 per cent of the under-40 women’s vote compared to just 32 per cent amongst men of the same age – a gap of nine points. However among older voters this almost disappears completely. When you just look at the over-40s, the gap is just two points – with 21 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men of that age saying they will vote Labour.

With both of the two main now parties performing better amongst women overall, it’s the other parties who are balancing this out by polling better amongst men. Ukip have the support of 2 per cent more men than women, whilst the gender gap is 3 per cent for the Lib Dems. 

Education: The higher the qualification, the higher Labour’s vote share

Alongside age, education has become one of the key electoral demographic dividing lines. We saw it was a huge factor in the EU referendum campaign and, after the last general election, we made sure we accounted for qualifications in our methodology. This election will be no different. While the Conservatives lead amongst all educational groupings, their vote share decrease for every extra qualification a voter has, whilst the Labour and Lib Dem vote share increases.

Amongst those with no formal qualifications, the Conservative lead by 35 per cent. But when it comes to those with a degree, the Tory lead falls to 8 per cent. Education also shapes other parties’ vote shares. Ukip also struggles amongst highly educated voters, polling four times higher amongst those with no formal qualifications compared to those with a degree.

Income: Labour’s tax increase won’t affect many Labour voters

John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, has already made income part of this campaign by labelling those who earn above £70,000 a year as “rich” and hinting they may face tax rises. One of the reasons for the policy might be that the party has very few votes to lose amongst those in this tax bracket.

Amongst those earning over £70,000 a year, Labour is in third place with just 11 per cent support. The Conservatives pick up 60 per cent of this group’s support and the Lib Dems also perform well, getting almost a fifth (19 per cent) of their votes.

But while the Conservatives are still the party of the rich, Labour is no longer the party of the poor. They are 13 per cent behind amongst those with a personal income of under £20,000 a year, although it is worth noting that this group will also include many retired people who will be poor in terms of income but rich in terms of assets.

Chris Curtis is a politics researcher at YouGov. 

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