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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear