The Thoughts That Almost Killed Us: On Emmeline Clein’s “Dead Weight”

By Leah MandelApril 6, 2024

The Thoughts That Almost Killed Us: On Emmeline Clein’s “Dead Weight”

Dead Weight: Essays on Hunger and Harm by Emmeline Clein

SHALLOW HAL IS PLAYING on the TV at my usual bar. Everyone here is in their thirties, so we don’t need a plot summary—we remember. The protagonist Hal (Jack Black) is so superficial that he needs literal hypnosis to look past women’s exteriors. It works: Hal meets Rosemary, and where everyone else sees a large blonde woman, Hal sees Gwyneth Paltrow. Jokes about consumption and Rosemary’s heft ensue. The visual incongruence between Paltrow and her 300-pound counterpart (Paltrow, in a fat suit, and a body double who, as recently as last year, disclosed that she subsequently “hated [her] body the way [she] was supposed to” and went on to endure not only an eating disorder but also a botched gastric surgery) is meant to be funny; the movie, fairly ironically, intended to moralize that appearance isn’t everything.

I was 10 years old in 2001, the year I saw Shallow Hal in theaters. It didn’t take the brain of an adult to get the message: love of food was gross to the point of being comical, and thinness a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for even interior beauty. “No wonder,” I say to the friend sitting next to me, over two decades later on a Monday night in Brooklyn, “we all have body image issues.” He asks if I’ve ever seen Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). I conjure images of Alexandra Holden’s Mary Johanson, the anorexic former pageant winner who spends most of the film between the pink sheets of a hospital bed, where her illness becomes as much of a joke as the weight of Gwyneth’s Rosemary. The characters linger in my mind long after the conversation has moved on: the “two” Rosemarys, pitted against each other in cruel contrast; Mary, emaciated and still wearing her tiara.

I’m not sure I’d have thought so much about these fictional women if I hadn’t recently read Emmeline Clein’s debut essay collection, Dead Weight (2024). At once sweeping and incisive, Clein’s book positions eating disorders within histories of capitalism, technology, popular culture, and social media. The story she spins hasn’t simply stuck in my mind; it’s caused a reconsideration of language—the words I and the people around me use as we talk about our bodies, our relationships to food and movement. Leaning across the bar to read a page, a different friend describes the extreme diets he endured as a member of his high school wrestling team. Over our drinks, yet another friend and I discuss every comment we remember being made about our respective weights. Passing my stoop and noting the book’s bright cover and subtitle, Essays on Hunger and Harm, a neighbor informs me that she’s terrified by the potential repercussions of everything she consumes. Even the most casual, overheard conversations suddenly prompt deconstruction: out to dinner, I grow indignant listening to two guys say, “Good for him,” and, “Probably the Ozempic,” in reference to actor Jesse Plemons’s recent weight loss. What do you mean, “Good for him”? Are we really still talking this way?

We are. Clein has hit upon the zeitgeist—glucose trackers have become a status symbol; the popularity of gourmand perfumes reflects renewed diet culture; “body checking” is trending on TikTok; the pseudoscientific supplement industry is expected to grow from its $48.8 billion value; every day, an earnest or sardonic eating disorder–related tweet goes viral; and accounts like @simoneweilfooddiary and posts displaying “girl dinner” as a bowl of pink bows pop up, insistently, on my Instagram discover page. In Dead Weight, Clein traces her own constellations of eating disorder media and influences. In response, I’ve been connecting the points of my own—which are, ultimately, all of ours.

The 13 chapters, or essays, that make up Clein’s book are intensely researched and brutally intelligent. While I remained rapt through nearly all of the copious information that situates (mostly) young women’s hunger-adjacent self-harm within a larger, insidious system, it’s in the moments during which Clein peeks through as our guide—at once a vulnerable, self-proclaimed “sister” and an investigative mastermind—that Dead Weight proves imperative. Unlike previous volumes on shelf after shelf of eating disorder literature, this isn’t the kind of dry study you’d find on JSTOR—nor is it a harrowing memoir in the vein of Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (1997) or Susan Burton’s Empty (2020). It’s somewhere in between, something striking and arrestingly different. “Being my own sexy, sad icon started getting dangerous, so I’m trying this instead,” Clein declares in the prologue, itself one of the book’s most affecting essays. “I am writing this for and through all the girls who died sororal deaths. I am trying to harmonize with a ghost choir.”

It’s the first of many times Clein will tell us she’s trying, and the repetition only makes me trust her more. (One chapter ends with a request, “Let me keep trying:”—the colon a gesticulation signifying the ongoingness of both the issue at hand and Clein’s attempts at articulation.) It’s clear that this is a full-body-and-mind effort for Clein, and reiteration imparts urgency: it’s there in her compassionate, cerebral tone.

That this compassion is deftly interwoven with such scrupulous research is at once a testament to Clein’s storytelling powers and an insistence that we take this seriously. Because taking eating disorders and young girls seriously isn’t the tendency of most. Nor is respecting the intelligence and complexity of those struggling—as Clein does unwaveringly, both implicitly and explicitly, throughout her book. In the prologue, for instance, she offers “an aside,” explaining,

I’m just talking to my sisters now: […] I know how much it hurts, the hunger and the misunderstanding and the things they write about you, and I know how smart you are. […] Other books have been condescending or too cautious or adversarial, but what I want is to level with you, to sit cross-legged and talk about the thoughts that almost killed us.

Reviewing feminist philosopher Kate Manne’s Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia (2024), Clein argues that even those who bully act “out of the terror and shame instilled in girls as soon as they become self-aware in this country.” A Dazed piece on continuous glucose monitors suggests that the CGM trend is indicative of an increasing, exaggerated individualism—that the more we self-surveil, the farther we get from each other. Dead Weight protests this distancing. It calls for a closer look: not at ourselves necessarily, but at a broader, unwell “we”; at us as a society. It entreats us to share with each other, as Clein so powerfully does on the page.


In a 2013 review, critic Alice Gregory suggested that “[w]hen it comes to writing about anorexia, the only truly radical move, as far as I can tell, would be to show clearly just how profoundly boring it is—not sad or prurient or overdetermined.” Here, I’m going to borrow Clein’s proclivity for verbal acrobatics (which are generally agile, only occasionally tipping into clumsiness) and say she does just that. By which I mean that Clein has sifted through heaps of “boring” studies as part of her larger project to bore—in the sense of “pierce or perforate”—through the cultures of shame and silence surrounding eating disorders.

Clein contextualizes eating disorders within economic, political, and technological paradigms, highlighting the racism and classism inherent in their mechanics. In doing so, she gestures from our current landscape to those of ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, the Victorian era, and back again. Clein focuses mostly on the mid-1800s—a period she calls the “dawn of data.” It was then, she explains, that Adolphe Quetelet came up with what we know as the body mass index (BMI), a metric still in pervasive use by the medical and weight loss industries. One can draw myriad parallels between the era’s insistence on the benefits of technological advances—as well as its reframing of what labor, childhood, and even time itself meant—and our contemporary 21st-century concerns and fixations. Though Clein doesn’t mention this explicitly, the period also saw the invention, by German chemist Justus von Liebig, of the silvering process that made mirrors affordable and widely available (predictably, these were subsequently popularized by the bourgeoisie); dramatic expansion in imperialist and colonialist projects; and the rise of microscopy as a common hobby. Victorian literature was generally disgusted by women’s hunger: Charles Dickens portrayed young, doomed, waifish girls, while Emily Brontë and Christina Rossetti cemented the trope of the diaphanous poetess wasting away oh so intellectually. Is it any surprise that women today feel forced to be small? Centuries of increasingly granular and unsympathetic gazes have taught us to squeeze it in, to pull our tummies tight.

Not only does Clein assemble myriad moving parts within each essay; she also fits the essays themselves together so that each forms a component of a huge and startling superstructure. “What’s Your Number?” chronicles the 19th-century “cult of self-quantification,” wherein “scientists were founding ever more disciplines devoted to categorizing and evaluating bodies, imagining people as machines as predictable as the ones rapidly producing novel consumer items.” The observation shrewdly calls back to “Anatomical Remodeling of the Heart,” a chapter centered on Big Tech and Big Pharma in which Clein writes acerbically that “[n]estled between bloody intestines are our darkest desires, which aren’t really that dark at all. They’re bright, really, downright futuristic.” That essay’s reference to Clueless’s Cher Horowitz feeling “like a heifer” alludes, in turn, to “Red Virgin, Red Heifer”—which itself weaves Simone Weil in with the Torah, Saint Augustine and “slimy desires,” and the dichotomy of saintly asceticism and “[s]lutty girls sucking and spewing from their dual slits.” These religious connotations are echoed in “Too Far: Glowing Girls and Virtuous Illness,” which connects notions of purity and morality derived from “the digestive health craze of the late 1800s” to orthorexia and the so-called “wellness” discourse championed by, among others, Gwyneth Paltrow. (Bearing this in mind, it doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence that the empress of Goop played Rosemary, or that Drop Dead Gorgeous’s angelic anorexic was named Mary.)

There are moments where the book gets bogged down by a glut of information. The sheer density of relevant content verges on crushing and, periodically, tempts one to skim. Clein seems well aware of this: “But let’s get back to the fun stuff, the smirks and wordplay,” she writes at one point, attempting to mitigate potential cognitive overwhelm. “Remember, I was going to tell you a joke?” Calling explicit attention to her process, making puns, and shaping many multifaceted metaphors—these are all canny rhetorical moves. They might also be read as defense mechanisms. Understandably, disclosing profound hurt can drive you to make the occasional quip—to take the edge off, keep people listening when you think you could be verging on too much. In Dead Weight, this compulsion occasionally risks undermining Clein’s otherwise solid authority. Mostly, though, her words tumble gracefully; on the whole, she sticks the landing.

This tendency toward effusion, even excess, is also part of the point. “In a place designed around size, calories, and quantification, where people are taught how to talk about their obsessions with those things, what are they to do but compete over who’s smallest?” asks Clein in “Too Sick to Trust.” She observes that “[i]n the storytelling competition too, concision wins.” In my own life and writing, I often rein it in, shrug off pain with pithiness. The shorter the story, the more placid the tone, the more digestible it is. As women, we’re told we’re “too much”—“[i]t’s just those crazy girls, sick and superficial, at it again”—and that’s partly where the endeavor to shrink and dismiss ourselves emerges. In response, Clein’s prose spills over with figurative language; she constructs a story that can barely be contained within 250-odd pages, refusing diminution of a narrative, linguistic, or personal kind.


“Hunger is a feeling,” Emma told Manny in a 2006 episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. “Thin is a skill.” I was 15 when the episode aired; this line became a mantra. When a pair of Cheap Monday skinny jeans arrived and I could barely squeeze the zipper up, I didn’t blame the brand’s sizing, or the copies of Seventeen that told me stick legs were “in.” I didn’t even blame myself, really, gazing in horror at the teenage tummy I’d only just clocked as a problem. (“The switch is sudden,” writes Clein, “blink and you miss it, head stuck in a book and mouth full, chewing too loudly to hear the announcement.”) And yet it all seemed awfully wrong. I wanted to be flat, without knowing exactly why. “Hunger is a feeling,” I chanted internally, and when depravation didn’t suffice, I tried sticking pens and toothbrushes down my throat.

There are photos of me, at age 23, skinny as hell, that I look at now with alternating sadness and fondness. What I’m trying to say is that, though I’ve done a lot of healing, I haven’t forgotten. I recognize the girl in the frame; in some ways, she’s still me. This is what Clein is trying to tell us too. We’re never really released, but the walls can get softer, it’s possible, and we don’t deserve all that.

Still, more than half a lifetime later, Emma’s words continue to run through my head, recorded somewhere unerasable. Clein points out the contagious nature of eating disorders. “Put a group of girls in a house and you’ll catch the rank scent of vomit soon enough,” she writes in “On Our Knees,” the opening essay, which discusses bulimia, queerness, and Jennifer’s Body (2009). Put a group of girls together and they’ll start coming up with their very own mantras too. “Food doesn’t have beer value, but beer has food value” belonged to one of my college friends, a girl who wouldn’t step off the treadmill for a few days even when she had shin splints. We tossed this line back and forth, over and over among ourselves: on the floor chugging booze without dinner, pregaming house parties we didn’t feel exactly hot enough to attend, brimming with yearning—“the yearning to be looked at, yearned for,” as Clein puts it.

This isn’t the kind of information I’m in the habit of sharing. Generally, I’ve found that people don’t like to talk about these things. Back when I used to offer the knowledge up coolly, the response was usually bug-eyed concern that verged on repulsion—at the words, what they meant, the shrug with which they were conveyed. The blasé manner in which I would disclose that there was once a time when I subsisted largely on Jack Daniels, Xanax, and cocaine; that when my parents finally dragged me to a therapist, she observed that I seemed proud of my self-destruction.

She was right. “The Young-Girl conceives her own existence as a management problem that it is her job to resolve,” Tiqqun’s authors wrote in Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (1999). For me, resolution to the problem of my existence meant the exertion of controlled pain—it meant, in the words of Leslie Jamison, “render[ing] angst articulate.” Looking back, it’s little shock that I poeticized everything. That I quoted Yeats dramatically and repeatedly, because, like so many women before me, I thought my brain should be big and my body small. For her part, Clein characterizes this impulse as a mimicking of the historic, misogynistic “quest to unshackle mind from body,” noting that “the philosopher-kings,” including Plato, Augustine, and Descartes, “needed somewhere to trace their disgusting, desirous urges back to, a vessel for shame and blame.”

Dead Weight espouses no such quests. Instead, Clein has marshaled her considerable powers to unearth and elucidate the reasons we think of ourselves as problems to manage in the first place. In doing so, she calls for unity, not just between mind and body but also between one another, practically imploring us to speak aloud to each other. It’s an invitation I’m not sure I can turn down. In fact, I’m telling you this because I’ve decided to join Clein’s harmony, the living section of her choir—she’s trying, so I’m trying too.

LARB Contributor

Leah Mandel is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Real Life, Majuscule, Creem, The Wall Street Journal, VICE, and NYLON, among other publications.


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