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.
I’ve been working on my dissertation, which is (surprise!) on eating disorders; looking at the online communities that people with eating disorders gravitate to. Of all the literature I’ve reviewed, 6% of it involved active participants. And that includes people just filling out surveys — only three of the studies actually spoke to participants in interview settings, to discuss specifics and ask some deeper and more meaningful questions. Part of this, I’m sure, is due to ethical restrictions – but I’m certain it’s also due to some deep-rooted medical bias. Doctors are the authority, and the eating disordered patient is unruly, unhelpful, and likely is actively fighting against getting “well”. “Well” in terms of an eating disorder means a) weighing a particular number and meeting other metrics implicit of “health” and b) disengaging from those behaviours that make everyone around you so uncomfortable. The other doctor/unruly patient parallel that I find so fascinating is the good girl/submissive/eats her food/recovers versus rebellious/bad girl/doesn’t listen to doctors – which breaks it into a problematic and overly-simplified binary, AND enforces this role of ‘choice’ .. and again, all acting beneath the male, authoritative doctor figure.
There’s one particular instance which exemplifies my directed-at-research anger: part of my initial study for my dissertation involved lurking about on eating disorder community webpages and forums (which, for the record, I ditched very quickly because it felt invasive and unethical and made me very uncomfortable). One of the first threads I came across was entitled “why do you think your eating disorder started?” Ta-da. This was a goldmine. This is a question that researchers mm-and-ahh over excessively, repeating each others points and reiterating them and maybe doing a new study but coming back to those same old points again, and again. It’s very circular. Yet here were four pages of individual accounts and self-reflections. It ranged from childhood abuse to a an anorexic friend at school and another who started a diet and it just went too far (and even then, she reflected on why she’d started the diet in the first place: some internal unhappiness). But this isn’t one answer; and that’s the point. The point is that it’s individual, which makes it so much more complicated and difficult for doctors to deal with – and I genuinely believe that that’s the crux of the entire ‘why does the research seem to kinda suck’ thing. Doctors cannot understand unless they have empathy or personal connection – the same way that your eating disorder-less friends and family can’t. They want to wave a magic wand and make you better and then pretend it never happened. But you cannot localise anorexia within the body; you cannot vaccinate against it, or take antibiotics to fight off the nasty parts.
Even when you fix the biology, the physical repercussions or symptoms of eating disorders, you haven’t necessarily fixed or healed the mind. Not to mention how long-lasting some of the physical repercussions can be – in case the recovering individual was hoping to quickly forget their experience. It’s something that makes eating disorder treatment and recovery processes so complex and multidimensional. Mixes of talking therapies and art therapies, medication, meal plans. It becomes a game of catch-up: weight gain and eating reorientation and improving nutrition, whilst trying to build up emotional and psychological resilience. Recovery is hard. It’s not just about eating more or less, or stopping throwing up, or putting on or losing weight. These are, and I am really being repetitive because I want to drive it home, external and physical symptoms and behaviours and expressions of something that is existing inside the body and mind.
I’ll finish with what I’d like to talk about the rest of EDAW. I’d like to talk about paradoxes – the demonisation and media disgust towards those with eating disorders, whilst continually impressing the value of thinness upon us; the role of control and power; the personality trope associated with EDs (perfectionist, clever) and the perceived irrationality of the disorder (“if I’m so smart and self-aware, why am I doing something that I know is hurting me? Why am I letting myself value it so much?”); in particular regard to online communities, the paradox of being online (i.e. Disembodied) to talk about the body and embodied practices; and, the paradoxes associated with a feminist model and body theories – technically, an individual who denies are medical model, sticks their middle finger up and says “fuck you, I can do what I want with my body”, is a celebrated symbol of feminism .. what changes when the ‘doing what I want with my body’ bit becomes self-starvation or binging/purging or over-exercise? Is anorexia adhering to social and cultural standards, or is it saying fuck you to them? Other paradoxes (honestly, they’re my favourite to talk about) include this current obsession, even worth describing as fetishism, of food and food porn and clean eating. Studies comparing fitspiration to thinspiration have found huge similarities, yet one movement is socially okay and the other isn’t.
Anyway! Stay tuned. This is my current topic of choice. A nifty combination of empirical studies, feminist lit, personal experience (with the pro-ana movement and EDs) – it all makes for good reflection and critical analysis. I have my aged blogs all backed up, one day I’d love to start applying some identity theories to them, and dig deep into little me. What a killer post that would be. But again! I’m off. Thank you day one of EDAW xo