In another time and place

Laura's recent post on the paradigm shift that's occuring in the ED world, and similarities with the germ theory of disease, got me thinking. My background is in biochemistry and infectious disease, and I worked in tuberculosis control for a while after graduating with my master's of public health. The germ that caused tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) was one of the first disease-causing germs to be formally identified, all the way back in the 1880s.

During the 19th century, TB was almost de rigeur. People, among them the poet Lord Byron, but especially young, upper class females, would kind of cultivate the wasted, pale look of TB patients. It was considered almost a romantic disease- aside from the fact that you probably were coughing up blood everywhere, were dropping scads of weight, and were tortured with night sweats. But make no mistake, TB was still on the fashionable side of things, and the experience of a TB sufferer was quite romanticized.

It sounds silly, doesn't it? That someone would want to get tuberculosis*? That they would desire a deadly disease? That TB would be almost like...oh, I don't know...a lifestyle?

Catch my drift?

That's the paradigm shift that I'm hoping for: that one day, we will look back on all of the I-want-to-be-anorexic, the please-teach-me-to-be-ana, the EDs-are-a-lifestyle, the I-need-to-choose-to-get-better groups and movements and identities and all of that and wonder why in the hell anyone would want a deadly but treatable disease like an eating disorder.

*Although, I must add that the weight loss factor still makes TB somewhat appealing to some people. On the list of one of the most all-time, utterly horrific comments I have ever heard: I was listening to a case presentation by a public health nurse, who joked about the TB patient's dramatic, rapid weight loss caused by TB: "wouldn't we all like that?" Never mind that the patient faced almost a full year of antibiotics that could fry her liver.

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Anon Mom said...

So, it is a cultural history that our society has been ... consumed with/by "consumption," in one way or another, whether by disease itself, material greed, poor self-regulation, or various forms of personal and cutural psychic immersion/obsession. Good analogy.

Carrie Arnold said...

Brilliant! I didn't even think of the "consumption" pun. Hats off to you!

sarah-j said...

Hi Carrie, this post is so interesting.

Can I ask you a personal question? Your masters degree and your job sound so interesting. Is that the kind of thing that someone would do in order to be a science writer? I really wish I had done something similar. I do social science and I really like it but it seems like you get to kind of fuse both the social and the scientific and work with both. I wish I was trained in something more practical than just social theory. I don't know why I'm writing all this, I'm sorry.

My background in sociology led me for a while to see EDs as almost completely socially constructed. I still believe that there exists a culture of disrespect for womens' bodies and that many young females are socialised into hating their own body- and that this does increase the likelihood of developing an ED. But research and the still relatively new experience of listening to my own body have made the interconnectedness of mind and body clear and logical to me now. A paradigm shift in relation to EDs, which moved away from a mind/body dualism and which improved the effectiveness of their treatment would indeed be fantastic and hopefully will occur.

The days when eating disorders were mystified and blamed on families etc will be consigned to history. Perhaps in the future there will be museums to show how treatment of the illness evolved and the insanity of social attitudes that encouraged women to hate their bodies.

Carrie Arnold said...


Right up until about a month before I applied to the science writing program, I was intending to get my PhD in epidemiology. I was in the process of preparing an application to the University of Michigan to study disaster mental health (my background in infectious disease also led me to work in emergency preparedness), and then I realized that I found too many science-y things interesting to commit. And then I had a total mental collapse and realized that I was ready for something completely different. So the MPH had nothing to do with the science writing bit. It's been absolutely invaluable and I don't regret it one bit, but most of my classmates had a basic undergrad degree and then went into science writing.

And I do think EDs have a social context, absolutely. Any disease does. I don't blog about it as much, in part because I feel it's covered more than adequately elsewhere, and in part because I do believe biology is much more important than is currently being discussed. But body hatred is toxic, whether or not it contributes to eating disorders. Sadly, most girls and women hate their bodies, but very few have EDs. And that's where biology comes in.

Also, as you can kind of see by my discussion, I look at things from a biological perspective. It's how I was trained.

And you identified another wonderful paradigm shift I'd like to see: the day when we accept everyone's body just the way it is.

Octavia UK Girl said...
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plueddti said...

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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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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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