It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week but I can’t help wondering whether we need it at all. I don’t wish to sound cynical, but has there ever been a time when the general public were more eating disorder-aware? We’ve come a long way since the days when anorexia was known only as “the slimmer’s disease that killed Karen Carpenter.” These days most people are aware not just of anorexia, but of bulimia and binge eating disorder, if not also orthorexia and EDNOS. We have become ED-literate, at least in comparison with the not too distant past.
Unsympathetic portrayals of sufferers in both medical literature and popular culture – the anorexic as spoilt and manipulative, the bulimic as gluttonous and sexually insecure – have become thankfully rare. The promotion of very low calorie diets and ultra-thin models continues, but rarely goes unchallenged. Much of our information may be gleaned from unreliable sources – concern-trolling celebrity magazines, humblebrag memoirs, rubber-necking documentaries – but the cultural presence of EDs still makes it easier to talk about them. Things are improving – aren’t they?
Not if one looks at the rise in people, especially young girls, being diagnosed with eating disorders. Between 2003-04 and 2013-14 the number requiring hospitalisation in England increased by 172%, with 90% of those admitted being female. It can be argued that greater awareness will naturally lead to a rise in diagnoses, as more people become aware of the signs. I don’t, however, think that’s the whole story. Other research suggests the mental well-being of teenage girls is declining, with one in six young girls feeling ashamed of her appearance. I find it difficult to believe these things are unrelated.
In a world in which the bodies of women are objectified, exploited, abused – in which the onset of puberty means running a gauntlet of catcalls and sexual harassment – I think we ought to question any drive to mystify the causes of EDs. I understand where the impulse comes from. For far too long anorexia has been dismissed as a symptom of vanity, nothing more than “a diet gone wrong.” There is an understandable urge to make a clear distinction between “women suffering from body image issues and actual eating disorders,” as though any association with the former necessarily trivialises the latter. We want to ensure EDs are taken seriously, in the same way that disorders where the majority of sufferers are male are taken seriously. Thus much of the consciousness raising of the past few years has involved glossing over the role played by gender.
Representatives of the UK eating disorders charity B-eat are keen to stress that “anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of their age, sex or cultural background.” While this is true, the fact that the vast majority of those suffering – and dying – remain female is surely of equal importance. Yet when it comes to discussing the causes, we are told only that “eating disorders are complex and there is no one single reason why someone develops an eating disorder”:
“A whole range of different factors combine such as genetic, psychological, environmental, social and biological influences. A number of risk factors need to combine to increase the likelihood that any one person develops the condition.”
Again, none of this is factually inaccurate. Nevertheless, the vagueness here does more than just open up possibilities. It depoliticises, in much the same way that talking about “gender-based violence” rather than “male violence” depoliticises. It masks what’s really going on.
While late twentieth-century feminist analyses of eating disorders, such as Susie Orbach’s Hunger Strike and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s Fasting Girls, located EDs within the context of gender non-conformity and resistance to the social pressures associated with having a female body, today’s popular discourse on EDs restricts itself to preaching the virtues of “body confidence.” Organisations such as B-eat team up with companies such as Dove and ASOS in what can only be described as a mental health version of pinkwashing. By telling girls which parts of their body they should not be hating, these companies simultaneously draw attention to all the parts which they could hate. It’s the “don’t think of an elephant” mind trick applied to body dysmorphia. No wonder it isn’t working.
When I was first diagnosed with anorexia in the late eighties, most people around me hadn’t heard of it. But neither had they heard of thigh gaps, muffin tops, cankles, selfies, brazillians or designer vaginas (even cellulite was a recent development back then). The growth in eating disorder awareness has been accompanied by a massive diversification in all the ways a girl can learn to hate her growing body. What’s more, the more we talk about eating disorders, the more insipid and diluted our political analysis becomes, until it’s barely there at all. What are we left with? Oh, it’s a shame all these girls are destroying their bodies for entirely unknown reasons. Perhaps if they watched another Dove advert …
God forbid we grant disorders that affect mostly girls any form of coherent, meaningful political analysis. God forbid we think of these illnesses as anything other internal battles taking place outside of any broader social context. God forbid ED campaigners start to talk about porn, or rape culture, or reproductive coercion, or breast binding, or any of the millions of ways in which a pre-pubescent girl might be persuaded that she’d be better off not growing.
Because all of that‘s political, and politics is for boys. Girls should just learn to love their curves.