On Thinness

About half of the articles I see on eating disorders are titled "Dying to be Thin." This always irked me, and I started thinking about exactly why.

From the outside, it does seem like sufferers are dying to be thin."I'm not thin enough yet," they say. Or, "I'm not that thin." And perhaps that is what our minds make of the eating disordered experience. Dieting and thinness and virtue are all ideals in Western culture. And we all need to narrate our own experiences. Make it cohere somehow.

As someone who is about a religious as a gnat, framing my eating disorder in spiritual terms is not something that I would ever do. God is not punishing me. He is not trying to make me choose between him and Satan. Praying will not cure me. And I am not starving to get closer to god. I'm just not. I wouldn't say it if I had cancer, and I'm not saying it because I have anorexia.

Yet in the Middle Ages, the "fasting saints" did indeed starve as a means to get closer to god. It was seen as an act of purity and devotion.

Come to think of it, dieting and anorexia are seen like that now. If we stick to our diets, we are being "good." If we eating something we "shouldn't," we have been "bad." And just look at some of the pro-anorexia jargon out there. Purity is a HUGE theme. They have "Prayers to Ana*." Yet fasting is much less a part of organized religion (specifically Christianity) today than it was 500 years ago. The purity is still in a moral and cultural sense, but not as much a religious one.

So thinness is very much about our making sense of the illness. But is it really about the illness?

The more I look at it, the more I'm not so sure. I don't think the "drive for thinness" associated with anorexia is so much an actual drive for thinness. I think it's an intense fear of fatness. If you're scared of being fat, then the obvious solution is to try and be really thin. It's not entirely rational, of course, but there is a kind of screwed-up logic about it. And the terror is intense. I couldn't explain why. I didn't even really get all upset about other people's weights. I judged myself. Period.

Then there's my personal pet peeve about eating disorders being about "control." And like thinness, it sure does seem like it from the outside. Also like thinness, it is more about fear than control. In a way, it's a basic fear of food. If you think food is going to make you fat, and you are deathly scared of fatness, then it makes sense to be scared of food. Many run of the mill dieters are also afraid of being fat (hell, our whole culture is), but people with eating disorders often have a deep underlying anxiety about pretty much everything. I think the fears are stronger, more intense in people with eating disorders. But it's just a theory.

You aren't "dying to be thin." You're afraid of fatness, of your own weight. You aren't "controlling" your food. You're desperately searching for that control, and trying to control your fear of food. You aren't refusing to maintain a normal weight, you are unable to maintain a normal weight.

It's semantics, but it matters.

*I hate hate HATE the word "ana" for anorexia and "mia" for bulimia. It's trivializing. Use the full name or abbreviations like AN or BN. Ana is not a person. It's a brain disease.

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Anne-Marie said...

Very good points. I took a medical anthropology course last semester and did my term paper on the role of religious fasting in anorexia. You're right, in both the fasting saints and modern ED sufferers it's often a pursuit of contemporary cultural ideals, not just a uniform drive for thinness.

I would argue that the goal of a given culture's "perfection" is sometimes just a gateway, it's not always sufficient for the problems to develop. Plenty of people diet without developing EDs, but some people are genetically predisposed to something analogous to endorphin addiction, whether it's triggered by a fad diet, religious fast, etc, that takes the behaviors to a pathological level.

I'm glad you addressed this, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how anorexics perceive thinness, the way you described it as more of a fear of fatness definitely hits home with my own experiences.

Lisa said...

The last full paragraph is excellent. Well said.

Also, did you know that J.C. Penny carries a clothing line called a.n.a? It's pretty innocuous stuff, mostly misses' sportswear, but still.


marcella said...

I agree very much that fear is what can drive this illness. Often, anxiety pre-dates the illness, and often it is still there after recovery.

On the basis of what my daughter has expressed pretty strongly about her own illness, I'd have to disagree with you about what sufferers are afraid of. She was/is afraid of being out of control. http://notthecarefullestofgirls.blogspot.com/2008/05/yes-it-is-about-control.html

This is probably because in her own individual social context, being out of control was/is a real experience, just as a yearning for God was/is a real experience for the religious, and a fear of obesity is being made a real fear the whole western world by doctors and politicians who really should know better.

Just as "thin" is really a metaphor for whatever is considered "good" and "perfect" by an individual, "fat" is a metaphor too for an individual's fears.

J said...

Yes, can we please have a moratorium on the "dying to be thin" headline? It plays into the idea that anorexia is just a diet taken too far.

I disagree, though, that you can make any general statements about what people with anorexia really feel or want. When I was anorexic, I didn't have those feelings of fear that you're describing. It was much more about control for me, connected to a lack of control and success that I felt elsewhere in my life. So I sure did want to be thin -- but that wasn't because thinness itself was my goal, it was because thinness represented so much else.

In either case, though, the important point is that it's not really ABOUT food or thinness.

RioIriri said...

I think that "Dying to be Thin" also trivializes the living hell that people with eating disorders go through.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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