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Laurie Penny: our disgusting appetite for anorexia chic

The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.

Another day, another dainty dead girl. The premature passing of the French model Isabelle Caro from complications due to anorexia nervosa is as tragic as it is unsurprising. Caro, 28, was the face of the world-famous Nolita campaign, a poster project designed to show dieting teenagers the horrific effects of anorexia on the body.

After the campaign, Caro briefly became the darling of the shock press. Modelling contracts poured in, as did talk-show appearances and a book deal for her short, painful autobiography, The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Get Fat. Being the "face" of anorexia won Caro fame, praise and attention - everything she had ever craved. Everything apart from life and health.

When Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1990, she observed that the rising epidemic of serious eating disorders, which affect an estimated 3 per cent of young women in the developed world, was passing under the radar of the global press. Twenty years later, anorexia has become a global obsession.

One can hardly open a newspaper without reading another gushing interview with a teenager battling the disease, or turn on the television without seeing another gruesome documentary blithely illustrated with pictures of pouting, half-naked waifs, featured just before speculation over what Victoria Beckham didn't have for breakfast. The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.

The anorexia industry, for which poor Caro was briefly the mascot, is cynical idolatry masquerading as public concern in order to sell magazines. The anorexic has become the famished saint of late-capitalist femininity: beautiful, vulnerable and prepared to risk everything to conform to society's standards. Hers is a self-defeating rebellion against the sexist surveillance of patriarchal culture.

Thinspiration

Over two decades of gory "awareness raising", real public understanding of eating disorders has barely improved. Nor have treatment standards - more than 50 per cent of anorexics never recover. The poster campaign in which Caro was involved backfired spectacularly because it was based on the assumption that anorexic women starve themselves to look more "beautiful", rather than because of any deeper trauma.

Naked pictures of her still appear on "pro-anorexia" websites, which are designed to give "thinspiration" to self-starvers. As the anorexia industry expands, people with less glamorous but equally destructive disorders such as bulimia nervosa and compulsive overeating are deliberately ignored - as are the many sufferers who happen to be male, poor, non-white or simply unphotogenic.

As a former anorexia sufferer, I have been approached to write the woeful story of my teenage illness, not once, but several times. I refused because the nation's bookstores are already overflowing with sob stories stuffed with grisly details of vomiting techniques. When I was sick, I used to read those books for weight-loss tips.

In a society where anxiety about consumption has become the defining collective neurosis, it is, perhaps, inevitable that the image of the anorexic should fascinate us. We are perplexed by the self-starver's ability to transcend the needs of the flesh and, at the same time, compelled by it. More importantly, the fashion for anorexia taps into an increasingly popular loathing for female flesh - and fear of female flesh is fear of female power.


One thing is for sure: the anorexia industry has little to do with concern for women's welfare. If we truly want to protect young women from the siren song of self-starvation, it's not enough to persuade them that "skinny isn't beautiful" - we must communicate the conviction that all women deserve to take up space, to nourish ourselves, and to be large and imperfect and unashamedly powerful.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

CREDIT: CREATIVE COMMONS
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A group of men united only by sport was once my idea of hell. What changed?

It struck me, during the course of our team’s annual pre-season dinner, how much I like my team-mates. 

To the cricket team’s annual pre-season dinner. Although I’ve been playing for them for ten years or so, I’ve never been to one of these. This is because when I say “I’ve been playing for them for etc…” you’re probably not getting the right picture. What I mean is: I have played ten matches for them, and last year not at all, with a highest score of 22, and an average of 10.17. If you think that’s unimpressive, it’s a lot better than when I was a schoolboy, and I am just 26th placed out of 50 people who have played ten or more matches for them. Last year I was 25th, I see. Well, I’m going to have to do something about that.

The idea is that if I go to the dinner this time, it will inspire me to get in shape and play a game or two this season. I almost invariably enjoy it when I do, especially the time I was in a record-breaking tenth-wicket partnership of 72 while batting with a broken hand. (Well, finger. But a finger’s a part of the hand, isn’t it? Even the little finger.) I suppose there are times when I don’t enjoy it so much, such as when it’s raining hard enough for the cows in neighbouring fields to sit under a tree, but not hard enough to send us back to the pavilion or, better still, the pub, and the opposition are clouting us all over the ground despite the weather, and if we’d batted first – we never bat first, in my (limited) experience – the other lot would have polished us off about an hour ago, and we could now all be cosily inside the pavilion or, as I said earlier, even better, the pub. Then again, the team is called the Rain Men, so what did I expect?

So signing up for games involves considering a number of factors: some kind of mystic calculation about what the weather will be like, an assessment of how far away the ground is (we’re a nomadic team, so we don’t have one of our own), and how fit I think I’m going to be on the day. That’s the troublesome part. There is, of course, the melancholy of coming back, aching and knackered, at what is usually well after nine in the evening on a Sunday, lugging a cricket bag, like someone who has not been able to let go of his childhood and is out after his bedtime.

The fitness, as I said, is problematic. I got slightly out of puff going for a pee between the second and third paragraphs of this column, so I think there is going to be a lot of tedious spadework in store for me. My dumb-bells are in East Finchley, which I don’t go to, although as my cricket stuff is there too I suppose I’m going to have to bite that bullet sooner or later. If I eschew the dumb-bells then there will always be the floor, gravity, and push-ups. There will always be stairs, somewhere, I can run up and down, while I have the use of my legs. While there is an earth I can walk upon, I can walk upon it. The upper body strength, so I can pick up a cricket bat without falling over, is the thing to aim for, but right now the main goal is to be able to get out of bed and go to the loo without getting winded.

Anyway, the dinner. I decided that I’d walk to the restaurant. This was largely because the restaurant is about 200 yards from where I am holed up at the moment. There is, literally, only one restaurant closer to me. I walked a bit more than 200 yards because I had to swing by Sainsbury’s to pick up a couple of bottles of wine (the McGuigan’s Reserve Cab Sauv at £6.50 a bot, special offer, being the sedative of choice these days), as the restaurant is unlicensed. We met at the pub first, of course.

It struck me, during the course of the evening, how much I like my team-mates. I am by no means the oldest, so many of them are rich in wisdom and experience. (Amazingly, the team won more games last season than it has in its history, but that might have been because I hadn’t played for them.) Two of the people I am particularly fond of couldn’t make it, but at least I got to have A Long Rant About Life In General with Marcus Berkmann, author of two extremely amusing books about the team (Rain Men and Zimmer Men), as well as the greatest book about Star Trek ever written (Set Phasers to Stun).

Imagine: a long table sat at by a group of about 15 men, united only by a sport. It would once have been my idea of hell. So why is it not now? Is it because I actually like these guys? They’re not the typical idea of a cricket club gang, I have to say that. And we do, admittedly, talk about cricket a fair amount. But still. (I even liked I—, who gave up smoking and then had a rush of blood to the head last year and sent a round-robin email to the team saying how much he hated A—, one of our most lovable players. I— couldn’t make it to the dinner, largely on the grounds of not having been invited.) Or am I that lonely? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war