Why do we desire to die so much?
Because we desire to say so much.
— Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing
[…] when the scriptures say that “they were both naked, and were not ashamed,” this means that they were unaware of their nudity, just like children.
— Giorgio Agamben, Nudities
The anorexics are always, you feel, politely losing the game.
— Hilary Mantel, “Some girls want out”
CHILDHOOD is the kingdom of magic. In this world, the child speaks with people and creatures visible only to her eyes. She spends days, weeks, years inside her own, warm dream. Here she is Queen, she is Princess, she is Creator of her own strange, feral universe.
She wears her cape to the dinner table where she talks to her peas. She sings while she drinks her lemonade, answers her siblings and parents in a secret language. When she leaves the table, dragging her felt bear with her, having barely touched her food, no one says a word. She is immune; they have given her the gift of this immunity from the “real” world and its rules and regulations. For now, she is allowed to exist inside the incubator of her own mind’s making. She is happy.
But there is a line. When the child reaches the edge of childhood, when her body begins to change, she’ll be expected to turn her focus toward others and toward her own appearance. What was once an integral part of who she was — daydreaming, playing outdoors, speaking in a secret tongue with secret friends — will now be considered amiss.
It is at this very point, that girls who stop eating, stop eating.
Anorexia is a language. The anorexic is a symbol. Anorexia is a type of magic. Doctors believe it is biological. Society believes it is societal, caused by magazines and fashion. Psychologists and psychiatrists believe it is the result of a dysfunctional family, an overbearing mother. Anorexia is none of these and all of these and much, much more. It is a desire to return one’s self back to the Eden of girlhood. You can see this in the eating disorder wards where grown women carry stuffed animals in their arms as they walk from room to room, and since starvation can result in amenorrhea, the ceasing of menses, the desire becomes manifest. Anorexic women also tend to gravitate to the wearing of children’s clothing. Obsession with candy, especially children’s candy, is another form of this regression, as are the childlike haircuts and overall demeanors of women in the throes of the disease. Anorexia is the attempt to compress, to reduce, radically, to turn the noise off. One theory is that the illness is a reaction to the overwhelming abundance of choices. One’s life shrinks down to one simple line of thought: feeding the body. Everything else falls away. The anorexic, by becoming one with the suffering, disables and radicalizes herself. Here, one is reminded of Simone Weil, the French philosopher, writer, mystic, activist, and, of course, anorexic. She died surrounded by doctors and nurses, in a sanitarium, speaking in a kind of childlike glossolalia. She died, repeating, in a stupor, a litany of the foods her mother made for her during her girlhood: French bread and butter, soup, mashed potatoes, roast lamb, thick cream, and fruit tarts. But the materiality of those images should not distract from Weil’s true project. She was on a spirtual quest; her mysticism and her politics met in an act of radical reduction.
For the anorexic, life becomes simple, again. The child makes very few decisions, the rest made by her parents. The child decides only what she will or will not eat. It is this simple, childlike control that the anorexic holds on to for dear life. Regardless of how hungry her body is, how overpowering her appetite is, or how many people beg or threaten her that she must, she cannot. All of life’s decisions become compressed down to this one small equation, this one small fight.
It is not a fight that is easy to read. Emma Woolf’s An Apple a Day (2013), subtitled “A memoir of love and recovery from anorexia,” is less a memoir than it is a series of vignettes meant to jump-start her attempt to gain weight. Woolf (related to Virginia Woolf) has determined to “quit anorexia” because she and her boyfriend want to have a baby. Woolf pitched a column chronicling her path from underweight to what she calls an “ideal weight” of 115 pounds (although that is too low even to show up on the National Institute of Health’s BMI chart for Woolf’s 5’7”). As with reality shows like The Biggest Loser or Extreme Weight Loss, the inspiration is public accountability. But the trouble with this scenario is the premise: that an anorexic can will herself out of anorexia, and that the discipline at this mental illness’s center, if a sufferer wants, can simply be repurposed to produce health.
In The Ministry of Thin (2014), Woolf explores food, body, weight, and dieting in a book that is neither memoir nor journalistic account. Most of its research was done on the internet, and its myopia is similar to that found in An Apple a Day — Woolf, stuck within the disease, announces she is out. Marya Hornbacher wrote a scorching memoir from the underworld of anorexia and bulimia in Wasted (1998; new edition 2014), in which she chronicled her experience from within the storm of her eating disorder This brings the experience to the fore, making it come alive, communicating its power. Woolf, in comparison, professes to be recovered and is not, thus eternalizing a pathology rather than understanding the struggle. Caroline Knapp’s marvelous Appetites (2004), a memoir/nonfiction hybrid, chronicles her own anorexia and disordered eating in relation to our culture’s ideas about body image and women. What sets this apart from Woolf’s is Knapp’s awareness of where she was when she wrote the book. Anorexia is a strange creature, the worm of its thoughts morphing and changing, often without our ever noticing.
I believe that I will always be anorexic. But if I deal with it head-on, then I will no longer be within its maw. It can always manifest again, come back to life. When I am tired or overwhelmed, I still want to run or, conversely, stay in bed and eat a box of pastries. I don’t, but such thoughts haunt me when my defenses are down. And yet I still strive for clarity, for precision of thought, to be able to name and articulate the illness and its many manifestations, to recognize its political and spiritual dimensions. Woolf refuses hospitalization because, “What could be more dangerous for anorexics than to compare their own body and food intake with other anorexics? This is why I believe that these groups can do more harm than good.” Instead, she writes away on her column. Here, she claims to make real friends:
Despite my antipathy to group therapy, I do have friends with eating disorders. I “met” some amazing people on the BBC Health message boards (now sadly defunct), most of whom I’m still in contact with. But although I feel I know them — Sunray and Hannah and Kitty and Vics — I’ve never met them and I don’t want to. […] We couldn’t have become that close if we knew each other in person. Anorexia just doesn’t work like that. With anorexia, you triumph when others gain weight and you don’t.
Here, I wonder, again, about the unidentified “we” and the lack of self-awareness, the inability to recognize where she is as she is writing, still deep in the throes of the illness, denying its very meaning.
The Ministry of Thin is an odd hodgepodge, a kind of uncensored rant on various topics loosely related to women and body image that also seems unaware of the writing in academia as well as in the general public, from Hilde Bruch and Steven Levenkron in the 1970s through Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Bodies, Kim Chernin’s The Hungry Self and The Obsession, Aimee Liu’s Solitaire and Gaining, and Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.
Anorexia is a way of playing God, of becoming the person you never were. Recovery from anorexia is quite the opposite. The anorexic changes her body into a symbol, thinking, wrongly, that this symbol will be recognized universally for what it represents to her. But only others in her tribe truly understand what the symbol refers to. Others mistake her thin ravished frame for a desire to be beautiful, to be liked. They see it as a sign of weakness and conformity. We live in a culture that worships power. We are taught in school that the goal is to achieve, is to race ahead. Those who opt out either because they aren’t allowed within the system or simply because they reject the entire enterprise are deemed losers. The anorexic is a loser. She sides with the powerless.
As Hilary Mantel wrote in her brilliant and succinct review essay “Some girls want out” in the London Review of Books (March 4, 2004):
Not every young woman wants to take the world up on this offer. It is possible that there is a certain personality structure which has always been problematical for women, and which is as difficult to live with today as it ever was — a type which is withdrawn, thoughtful, reserved, self-contained and judgmental, naturally more cerebral than emotional.
Anorexia nervosa appears to me to be a kind of rebellion against the status quo, a form of protest. These girls and women affected tend to be introverted, over-thinkers, overly sensitive. Anorexic behavior doesn’t only have to do with food and eating but becomes, over time, a way of thinking, a way of life. It becomes, for the chronic anorexic, a philosophy. The anorexic can be socially awkward and intense and wear oversized clothes and no makeup, while the shadow anorexic wears skinny jeans and lipstick. The desire here is to fit in, to conform to the culture’s ideal (think Victoria Beckam or Rachel Zoe). The anorexic withdraws into herself, she refuses to use her power; she sides with the Other, while the shadow anorexic is powerful, is a leader, outspoken. I arrived for my hospitalization in the eating disorder wing with a fringe haircut, black leather boots, a pair of Sta-Prest men’s slacks, an old vintage Rolling Stones T-shirt, and a men’s leather belt with a silver Mack truck buckle. I was told by my doctors and the counselors on the wing that these clothes were part of my “disease.” I was given “girls’ clothes”: tight-fitting cotton clothing in pink. The face of recovery is the face of conformity. To be recovered means to conform to the straight, white, suburban female ideal. Anorexics are told they must return to “normal.” But what if one was never “normal” (gender conformist) to begin with?
For the anorexic, anorexia is the experience of homelessness, of not belonging here, in this world. A lifetime of anorexia will render the anorexic jobless, possibly homeless, and certainly physically and perhaps also mentally disabled. It is also a means to align one’s self with the outsider, wanderer, as this is who the anorexic feels most akin to. It is a shrinking back away from one’s power. Agamben writes in Nudities: “Though marked by Original Sin, children, insofar as they do not perceive their nudity, dwell in a sort of limbo.” The anorexic lives, too, in a sort of limbo. She is alive, and yet, she is not. A sleepwalker, she is awake, but barely. Survivors speak of their time ill, later, and cannot recall what happened. It is as if they were put to sleep, and then as if magically were awoken.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, there is a belief that alcoholism is a “three-fold illness.” What they mean by this is that alcoholism is a spiritual, mental, and physical malady. In order to fully recover, one needs to address all three of these components of the illness. I’d say the same thing about anorexia. It isn’t, in the end, about food. Food is a mere symptom. If one remains dangerously underweight, one cannot recover, but the anorexic must also address the mental and spiritual components. In the end, anorexia is perhaps most profoundly a desire to return to a state of grace, a desire to move away from the current norms of our culture, with its worship of power in its endless forms, and toward a more complex, nuanced way of understanding the world and one another. What I am saying is that anorexia is, in essence, a spiritual malady — it is a desire to somehow “fix” the emptiness one feels, a turning away from this world.
The modern-day anorexic is seeped in magic, living inside a world of ritual. Counting calories, portions, hours, minutes, inches, and pounds are spiritual exercises, and like all spiritual exercises, they function as actions and as intricate signs and symbols, beneath which exists belief. Anorexia is belief seeping out from itself.
Anorexia is an attempt to erase one’s self, to turn down the intensity. It is a survival tactic, an attempt to make of one’s life a tabula rasa — to return one’s self to childhood, to the magical kingdom where, there, the anorexic can be who she truly is. In the Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat’s film Women Without Men, a film about four different women during the British- and US-backed coup in 1953 that removed the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, one of the four is an anorexic prostitute named Zarin. In the film Zarin does not speak. Her only language is her body. When she performs her job as a prostitute, she hallucinates; fleeing into the Other world of phantasm, she retreats into the kingdom of childhood. In this case, magic is her only power. It is what keeps her alive.
This shouldn’t have to be the case. There should be no such thing as eating disorders, no such thing as anorexia. There should be space made for the smart girls, the odd girls, the not naturally charismatic, the ones who live inside their minds, and the intense, those given to outbursts of ideas or thought. If we don’t do this, if we don’t allow and encourage our girls to engage in the life of the mind, we will continue to see this epidemic. These girls will continue to believe that they cannot exist as they are, that they must change and conform into someone they are not: someone lighter, someone funnier, someone less serious. Until we can accept our girls and women as strong and wild, fierce and smart, until we allow girls and women to be who they truly are, they will continue to try to find a way to return to a world where they can exist, not whole or healthy, but at least a world that allows them their own voice — however strange or wild.