Shades of Anorexia: it is a mental illness, not a statement

An eating disorder made Lucy Britton "want to disappear". Here, she responds to Rachel Cusk's article on the "anorexic statement".

This is going to be a hard post to write but I’m so upset by Rachel Cusk's article on anorexia in the New Statesman, and the way in which it conveys eating disorders.  In her article, Cusk represents those who suffer from anorexia as attention seekers: people who wish to become highly visible. She also paints anorexia as a purely female phenomenon. At one point she goes so far as to describe an anorexic person as a “68lb tyrant” who seemingly demands someone must feed her as a means of controlling her support team.

I’ve suffered from remitting and relapsing eating disorders since I was 14 years old. A close family member also suffered from a severe eating disorder and almost died as a result. I do not recognise the descriptions provided by Cusk at all.

There are many reasons why people become ill with eating disorders. Sexual assault is one such cause. Many people wish to desexualise themselves and disappear. The last time I was ill two years ago followed a rape and subsequent period of severe ill-health, possibly aggravated by complications with Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. I felt out of control and vulnerable. Not eating was a secret. I did not wish for it to make me more visible. I wanted to disappear. I was not even scared of the thought of dying, highlighting the extent of my desire to just stop existing. It is true that not eating made me feel a sense of achievement.  I had controlled my body, rather than had that control taken away from me as I had experienced. It was fuelled by self-hatred rather than self-promotion as Cusk seems to imply. Palpitations, constantly feeling cold and light-headed, and the inability to sleep were simply the physical manifestations of the pain I felt emotionally.

I was hospitalised in a psychiatric unit. My attitude towards food was not one of calorie counting. I was scared of eating. Food petrified me. It was quite literally a phobia. They wanted me to drink something called Fortisip/ Fortijuice which are incredibly sweet calorie- and nutrition-laden supplement drinks. Because my mind was aware it was the alternative to food I couldn’t face letting it pass my lips. Even passing the dining hall filled me with panic, the smell disgusted me and made me feel nauseous. They wanted me to drink the food replacement drinks in front of them in my room. The idea of them watching me made the whole situation worse.

Eventually, after weeks of wrangling with my care team, my husband convinced them to allow me to drink them in my room alone. I was supposed to drink four bottles a day minimum. At most I managed to drink half a bottle three times a day, I believe this was the equivalent of 300 calories, and I cried after each one. Once they took me to the eating hall to try an apple. I wouldn’t enter until everyone else had left. It was just me and one nurse. The smell from the previous mealtime overwhelmed me. Before the plate with the apple was put in front of me my legs were shaking in uncontrollable terror. I managed with shaking hand to cut a slither of apple. This was the most contact I had had with food in weeks. The feel of it in my mouth was grainy, like sand or powder. After just a few seconds I broke down. I couldn’t go on. Not eating made me feel like a failure. This was not a tantrum, it was panic. It was not petulant or controlling behaviour. I did not demand attention, I deplored attention. It was the manifestation of a traumatised mind.

Of course my story is only one of many. There are numerous reasons why people suffer from eating disorders, and it is by no means gender-specific. The causes and the experiences are many and should not, as Cusk has attempted, be reduced and universalised. The real life experiences of people with eating disorders far exceed Cusk’s monolithic and seemingly psychoanalytical, and overtly poetic, descriptions. Many eating disorder sufferers cannot neatly be compartmentalised as only possessing a simple diagnosis. Categorisation can be anorexia nervosa, bullimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (which means eating disorder not otherwise specified, this could be because the person with the ED suffers from both anorexia and bullimia symptoms or does not fulfill the weight criteria of the anorexia nervosa category). These shades of grey seem to become very lost in Cusk’s representation.

The Minnesota Experiment under controlled conditions studied the effects of malnutrion upon a group of 36 physically and psychologically healthy young men. It was found that many of the symptoms and behaviours which are associated with anorexia and/ or bullimia, such as a preoccupation with food, collecting recipes and a fixation with the eating habits of others; hoarding (which has been seen in anorexia patients); ritualistic behaviour around food (Cusk’s “feed me” springs to mind); bingeing; self-induced vomitting; feelings of guilt and shame; anger; and self-disgust inter alia were the result of malnutrition. Cusk’s poetic descriptions of anorexia may look pretty on the page, but clearly many of the behaviours she sees as resultant from a seemingly petulant, controlling and diva-like mind are infact the psychological symptoms of starvation.

Please do not believe Cusk’s thickly worded and damning descriptions of people with eating disorders. “We” are not one-size fits all. We are not all women. We are not all attention seekers and we do not wish to lash out and harm everyone around us. There are so many nuances it is impossible for Cusk or I to come up with a universal “Anorexia Statement”. Many people with anorexia aren’t trying to say anything at all. I had no message for the world. Anorexia is a mental illness not a “statement”.

For Lucy, even trying to eat an apple had her legs shaking in uncontrollable terror. Photo: By vauvau on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.