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A generation of shrinking girls

Why don't we care more about the eating disorders epidemic?

We are in a crisis, and it would be taken more seriously if weren’t happening mostly to women. Eating disorder admissions have almost doubled in six years, and parents and patients speak of agonies trying to find treatment that even approaches adequate. All over the country, all over the world, women and girls are starving themselves, sometimes to death. What are we going to do about it?

It’s eating disorder awareness week right now, which means that yet again the papers will be full of concern-trolling pieces wondering what could possibly be setting these silly young ladies on their courses to slow suicide  - accompanied by lavish pictures of nubile and underdressed waifs posing for stock photos, and a few handwaving platitudes about how girls really need to work on their ‘body image’ and possibly stop reading all these magazines. We can also expect invasive first-person accounts with before-and-after images and fascinating details of exactly what the survivor did and did not eat, with weights and stats, gory stories of when and how they finally collapsed. When I was a teenage anorexic well on my way to hospital, I’d read that shit for tips. As Hadley Freeman pointed out, “the problem with anorexia is that it’s so photogenic”, raw crack for the media- economy of misogyny. A lot of this ‘awareness’ seems to help us understand eating disorders in the way that a subscription to Nuts will help you understand sex, to whit: not at all. 

Because it’s getting worse. NHS figures showed that admissions for conditions including anorexia and bulimia reached 13,885 between April 2016 and 2017, including almost two thousand girls under 18 admitted with severe anorexia. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Twenty per cent will die of the disease, and less than half recover fully. And that’s just the start. It is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and 89 per cent of those people are women and girls. It’s not just a matter of survival here. It’s about years spent in pointless, painful self-torture, wasting your time and energy and ruining your health. Candida Crewe, in her memoir Eating Myself, calls it "the everywoman disease". We know this is happening, and we seem more or less comfortable with it. 

Yes, we do. Nobody else seems to want to say it, so I will. if eating disorders were a disease associated with men, rather than women, they would be taken more seriously and treatment would be funded properly. No, I’m going to going to go further here: I think that on some level, self-starvation and preoccupation with thinness, with body image and with self-denial has been so normalised in our society for women that you can't help picking up on the suggestion that these girls had the right idea, they just took it "too far". We tell girls they’re not allowed to take up space in the world and then we’re confused when they start starving themselves. We raise our young people in a culture absolutely obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and then we wonder why they want to take back some of that control in private, violent acts of passive-aggressive defiance.  As Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, ‘“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” 

The open and candid praise girls get for slowly murdering themselves in public is in direct proportion to the amount of shame and stigma heaped on perfectly healthy women who happen to be even slightly overweight. I’m don’t think it’s overstepping to suggest that there’s a coincidence here. And I’m not speaking in airy abstractions: there is solid workplace data backing up the fact that women are penalised financially and socially for gaining weight, and rewarded for losing it - far more so than men. One study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in the autumn of 2010 showed that  “very thin” women earned approximately $22,000 more than their average weight counterparts, whereas being just 13lb overweight severely damaged a woman’s chances of promotion and job security. A more recent study revealed that just 15 per cent of hiring managers, when shown photographs of women of different weights, would consider hiring the heaviest for a position of responsibility. Statistics like these illuminate what almost every woman knows in her bones: that the world wants her smaller, thinner, that the world wants her to want less, to be less. 

It’s not just in the workplace - unless we’re honest and admit that women and girls are expected to be at work on the great unpaid internship of female acceptability every waking hour of our lives. I am reluctant to talk about my personal experience here, because I don’t want to play into that anodyne, alienated single-survivor narrative that is so common when we talk about eating disorders. Nonetheless, last year I had a mini-relapse, falling into bad old habits as a way of wresting back control of my life in the middle of a pile-up of first world problems. My close friends and family, noticing how much weight I had lost, were quietly concerned. Everyone else was thrilled for me. I felt frail and sick and sad, and I was rewarded for that. I spent some of the time playing rebound pinball with men, and every single one of them was obsessed with my sudden thinness. One would not stop counting my ribs. Another tried to guess my weight during sex  - and underestimated by 20lb, because apparently men don’t know the first thing about how the bodies they fixate on actually operate. 

I’m much better now, in part because I have much more agency and power over my own life than I did when I first fell ill at 15 - something that I’ve noticed is rather less attractive to many millennial men than visible ribs. I decided to put that agency to work and take better care of myself, even though I really didn’t want to, because these days I actually have rather a lot to live for, and a lot to write, and a lot to do that can’t be done weak and hungry and half-alive. I stopped pretending that I was "just being healthy" and took a more holistic view of what health means in time to avoid any long-term damage. I was lucky. Not everyone is that lucky. People in acute crisis - like me when I was much younger and much, much sicker - need in-patient hospital treatment. Hospital treatment that far too many people with eating disorders never get, or never get enough of, because our mental health care system is being systematically exsanguinated just when we need it more than ever.

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How are we meant to love and care for our bodies when the world at large does the opposite? Yes, teaching women and girls to love and look after their bodies is still a radical proposal in a society that both anticipates and profits from our self-hatred.  But individual journeys of self-love can only take us so far when the problem is structural. The problem is sexism. 

And the response is gaslighting. We raise girls under a hailstorm of images of unattainable perfection, we subject them to a relentless show-and-tell demonstration of exactly what they have to lose by not looking a certain way, we imply constantly that whatever else they grow up to be will be of no value if they do not also conform to an image of beauty which is literally too narrow for a human body to breathe in, we make them pay day in and day out for simply existing in a body that is female or queer - and then when they develop eating disorders we shrug and say: gee golly, these silly girls, why don’t they just eat a sandwich? 

Telling the women and girls of the 21st century that they have a problem with body image is a little like telling a stab wound victim that they have a problem with blood leakage. Yes, we know. And we know it’s probably our fault, we were weak and frivolous for letting ourselves get stabbed, and if we were stronger we would be able to knot up our arteries through sheer force of will and stop the bleeding, but in the meantime would it be possible, if you’d be so good, to help patch us up before we go out hunting for some justice? 

I am really goddamn angry about this. That was something I would have found hard to say when I was in the throes of eating disorder hell; so often it’s just another way to deal with anger that feels too dangerous to express, turning it inwards against your body, controlling all the hungers for the things you’re told you’re not allowed to want, like food or a fuck or a bit of goddamn respect or a safe place in a world or just to rage out for a bit, which is why eating disorders often strike young women in particular. Boys are more likely to act out, for a number of reasons. Girls act in. But fuck it - I am angry. I am angry at a government that refuses to care for the young people of this country on so many levels, that destroys any hope of a secure future, shuts them out of education and secure housing, demands that they fight one another for the scraps left to them on a burning planet and then defunds the public mental health services that might save them from self-immolation when it all gets too much.

I am angry at this culture that is so afraid of female flesh, of female hunger, of women who wanting anything at all beyond what they’re told to be grateful for, that it is still teaching girl-children that to make themselves smaller, slice themselves down, shrink their bodies and starve down their ambition until they take up less space in the world.

I am angry at how comfortable this society seems to be with girls who punish and neglect their own bodies - even and especially under the banner of a health-obsession. I am angry at how much time and energy the utterly brilliant upcoming generation still seems to be wasting on hating themselves and hurting their bodies, just like we did only rather more efficiently. I am not angry with them. I’m angry at the rest of us for not taking better care of them. And I am angriest of all at how normalised this has become. 

For eating disorder awareness week, I would like to make everyone aware that eating disorders are serious, political and an utter indictment on the relentlessly sexist, homophobic and brutally competitive world we are forcing our kids to grow up in. The kids are already aware; some of the adults seem to have forgotten.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, I would like to use my platform here as a survivor and a feminist who has no interest in patronising you or mincing words to say - trust me, this will solve nothing. This is a giant waste of your time and energy, and your time and energy are precious. The world cannot do without them. Please seek help, if help is available, and try to take better care of yourself if you can. 


The world that really and truly loves and appreciates you for who you are and what you can become, the world that wants you to take up as much space as you need, that wants you to feed your body and your spirit, that celebrates your desires and cherishes your imperfections - that world may not yet exist everywhere, which is why we need you to help us create it. And you can’t do that properly if you’re not taking basic care of your body, or if you’re spending all day obsessing over what you do or don’t put into it. We need you. All of you. We need you exactly as hungry and angry and messy as you are. 

If you would like more information on dealing with an eating disorder, visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk

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