I recently read a couple of articles about anorexia, and they got me thinking about the positioning of eating disorders in the society. First, there is this, from a couple of years ago: tl;dr version is that JK Rowling saved the young actress who plays Luna Lovegood from anorexia by writing to her. Quick disclaimer: I am sure that Ms Rowling meant well, and ultimately she was helpful. What I do have a bit of an issue with is this sentence: “anorexia is destructive, not creative, and the brave thing was not to succumb to it.” And of course sending the girl to a professional would be the right thing, but that’s a whole other issue.
Bravery, see, implies a personal choice. We use it so often to refer to diseases that what was never a question of morality but simple luck somehow morphed into an ethical decision: “he fought cancer so bravely”, “long battle with MS”, etc etc. With the implication that those who died, lost — because they haven’t fought hard enough. And anorexia is a disease, the kind that is not actually recognized as such by the overall societal discourse (despite being a legit DSM diagnosis), and framing it in those terms only contributes to the idea that anorexics choose to starve themselves.
Try it. Try not eating. It is difficult — almost as difficult as not breathing or drinking, because for most people survival takes over and they will eat once their body feels starved. Not so with anorexia nervosa, and it does no one any favors to treat it as some hysterical affectation teenage girls succumb to because they see too many pictures of models. Trivializing mental illness is nothing new, of course, but it seems that it is especially true of mental illness that is thought to affect mostly women.
And thus my second point: anorexia in men seems to be “on the rise”. I question the “on the rise” part because traditionally anorexia has been associated with religious asceticism, primarily in monks. Recently however we so relegated this condition to the lady realm, that some psychologists even feel that the diagnostic criteria for anorexia are gender-biased (that is, loss of a menstrual cycle — a criterion that is obviously absent in men, but nonetheless might make the clinicians more reluctant to diagnose men). So now we even have this repellent term, “manorexia”, to further emphasize that this is a lady thing. Because ladies are the ones who succumb to external pressure to look thin — and we can certainly be excused for thinking that, because women DO exist in a constant state of bodily scrutiny in a society that tells them that their looks are their only worth.
As a result, there is an intense external pressure on women to conform; this is why so many women diet, self-criticize, and live their lives on the ellipticals. Women are pretty much expected to have pathological relationships with their bodies — hence the usual bonding over self-loathing, so frequently spoofed in sitcoms and yogurt commercials, and ritual expressions of guilt over cookie trays. College campuses organize “no fat talk” days to curb the traditional self-shaming. So yes, clearly there is trouble.
And yet, not all of these women — in fact, not even most, not even a great percentage! — develop anorexia. The reasons are similar to why we can all watch sad movies, cry, and yet not have depression. Mental illness is internally driven — anorexia, for example, is often thought to originate from the extreme need to control one’s environment; it’s a response to the internal need (for control), not mere external pressure (to look good). And pretending that these two different problems need to be treated in the same way is destructive — as if we decided to battle depression by banning sad movies.
So yes, let’s put a kibosh on constant body shaming and demand for women to be decorative, occupy little space, and keep their mouth shut. Let’s accept a wider range of beauty. Let’s tell our children that it is indeed brave to maintain a sense of self-worth regardless of what other people say about your appearance. Let’s stop pathologizing female bodies altogether. But also let’s recognize that mental illness is indeed illness, and take it seriously enough encourage those affected to seek professional help. Because, like with any other illness, telling someone to put up a good fight might not be enough. And really, being ill is bad enough without people telling you that you only succumb to it because you are weak.