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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.