I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we all know (or rather, as I’m about to explore, think we know) about eating disorders. There are a couple images that spring to mind. One, perhaps a very thin young woman, most likely with bones protruding, staring at herself in the mirror – the reflection in the mirror is of a much larger woman. Another, Cassie from Skins, proclaiming “I didn’t eat for two days so that I could be lovely!” or maybe that South Park episode with the “Bulimia: twice the taste, and no calories!” The image of the bulimic is probably faceless, because she’s slumped over a toilet. And yes, these images are gendered.
These are images that, even after over a decade of some kind of disordered eating, still spring to my mind too, when I think of eating disorders. There’s something grotesque yet fascinating about watching or imagining an unknown individual fight what was once inherent and natural, fight impulses and deemed rationalities, live in constant paradox – think of how much we like to indulge in the ‘other’, watching Life on the Dole, Embarrassing Bodies, Supersize Me or Biggest Loser. When I’m single I watch romcoms; when I used to fast I’d watch the cooking channel. It’s this image of eating disorders (and when I say eating disorders I mean anorexia and bulimia – how often do we thinking immediately of Binge Eating Disorder or EDNOS?) that helps perpetuate myths about them, reduce help-seeking, glorify certain aspects but stigmatise others, and overall, just makes everything so downright confusing. Not to mention, such images prey on an individual’s own understanding of what they’re going through, which ultimately effects identity, health, and [I would argue] tightens the hold of an eating disorder.
Are eating disorders about the body? About weight and numbers, counting calories and fat content? Are they about control? Are they purely biological, are some people genetically predisposed to a disorder? Is the body just the artefact and the metrics a tool for something bigger? Do they only effect women, and white young women at that? Are they feminist or anti-feminist; is it wrong to project political ideals upon a diagnosable, medical condition that can kill? Are they biological conditions, psychiatric conditions, or symptomatic of society; can they be all of the aforementioned? For all the research that has been done on eating disorders – clinical and non-clinical – we have very few answers. What I find The Worst about this isn’t that we have no answers, it’s how researchers have gone about looking for information.