Yesterday I found a blog called "Does Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder?" This... disturbs me. Greatly.

I know I've written before about how I can't relate to a lot of girl-pop (and even young feminist!) literature, because basically all of it is predicated on the assumption that every woman hates her body. They mean well, but that's about all you can say for them. A lot of the pop stuff gives diet and exercise advice, which is generally stupid and not helpful, but at least not intentionally malicious; most of the feminist stuff preaches size/body acceptance, which is better but often has problems remaining all-inclusive rather than slipping into 'real women have curves' (so boyishly-built women and transladies who haven't had surgery or horomones aren't 'real'?) territory. It all presumes that the default state for woman is thinking that her corpus is a hideous blob, courtesy the evil bloodthirsty media, and that everyone is struggling desperately towards the goal of self-love. 

It took me a long while to pinpoint what I thought was wrong with this. I am all in favor of encouraging people to understand that they are worthwhile as they are, regardless of whether or how they might or might not want to transform themselves in the future. The problem is that both sides are so fixated on their message -- slave and deny until you look perfect! quiet your inner critic until you realize you are perfect now! -- that they allow for no possibility that you are not starting from their default position. It's not just that they ignore that a woman might well have some self-image issues but none having to do with her appearance; it's that they assume that anyone who claims not to have any body image issues is lying or in denial. You just get, "Suuuuuuuuuuure, whatever you say," and a big wink, as they assume that you are part of the not-so-secret club of people who think they are too hideous for life. It reminds me very much of the "repressed memories" fad in psychology, where telling one of the proponents that you didn't have any repressed memories only got the answer that obviously they were so horrible they were super-secret double-dog-dare-ya repressed, and you had to dig harder.

(It's also widely recognized that continually striving for a physical ideal that cannot safely be attained, if at all, is a bad idea, but for some reason few people seem to notice that striving for an emotional ideal that cannot safely be attained, if at all, is an equally terrible one. No one achieves perfect unconditional self-love, and no one is completely immune to what other people think of them, yet these are both flaunted as the One True Way to rid yourself of body-image woes. Kate at Eat The Damn Cake is so far the only person I've seen put forth the idea that it's all right to be disappointed that you don't look exactly the way you want. It doesn't matter if you feel inadequate that you don't look like Giselle Bundschen, or that you haven't attained the serenity of Siddhartha -- either way you're letting your feelings about your appearance dictate whether you get to be happy.)

The whole thesis of DrStacyNY's book unsettles me horribly. Are we really to the point where we need to ask if everyone in a population is pathological? Are we really to the point where a clinical psychologist could seriously believe that 100% of the people in a given population are in desperate need of her help? It seems borderline insane to me. And obstructively arrogant. Like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, whose panacea is to squirt Windex on everything, except much, much more dangerous.

What you're doing here is telling a whole lot of people who were muddling along in their ordinary lives, naïvely assuming that they weren't sick just because they didn't have any symptoms, that they are in fact in dire peril, and need to be fixed ASAP. Sounds head-bangingly familiar to me, and probably to anyone who's ever taken an advertising psychology class. American women didn't shave their armpits until the 1920s, you know -- the razor manufacturers got a few haute couture types by getting designers to use the look in a seasonal show, but it didn't become widespread until some bright soul got the idea to advertise razors for it as if everyone already knew they had to. It was "common knowledge" that nobody actually knew, but everyone assumed everyone else did, and went along with it.

Going from hairy pits to shaving is a pretty benignly annoying thing, as far as new norms go. It beats the hell out of arsenic face powder, for example. Worrying people that every thought they have about food is wrong is not a benignly annoying thing. And I think, actually, I am in an unusually good position to understand this. 

Number one, I don't have an eating disorder, or not the kind she's using as her baseline at any rate. I tend to not eat during times of stress, but it has nothing at all to do with food or weight. I don't know what I weigh, in fact, because I've never gotten around to buying a scale, and probably never will. Food is food, and aside from a few things I avoid because they give me headaches or I don't like the taste, I will eat basically anything that I can get a fork into faster than it can run away from me. I lose weight because things that set me off also fuck my GI tract over -- it's more akin to the horrible things I hear about acid reflux or irritable bowel syndrome or even morning sickness than anything like the disordered food obsession she outlines in her thesis. I hork things back up, but not on purpose, and in fact generally despite my best efforts to keep it down. It's not bulimia, it's not orthorexia, it's not intolerance or an allergy, and it's definitely not anorexia nervosa. I'm just catastrophically neurotic sometimes.

BUT. Number two, I also have extensive experience with the kind of tailspin you fall into when someone consistently convinces you that whatever you think is going on is totally wrong. I was THE smart kid in my first elementary school. They made a huge fuss over me that I'll outline one of these days, but suffice it to say, I was one of those weird little genius aliens who used to get irritated that there was no one else in the fourth grade who wanted to talk to me about particles with fractional spin and strange attractors. This did not make me a popular little moppet, and I spent most of my time alone in a corner, with Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen Hawking. 

I had no peers in my cohort, none of the teachers seemed at all inclined to explain to me what was actually going on ("They have no idea what you're talking about. They think you sound insane. I have no idea what you're talking about, but I trust that you've gotten it from a book with myriad footnotes, so I'll take it on faith that you're bright." Some of you may be young enough that you probably still needed to hear that), and I'm the eldest not just in my immediate family, but in the entire generation on both sides. This meant that, practically speaking, the only person I had to look up to, social-skills-wise, was my mother. And my mother had somehow gotten the idea lodged very solidly into her head that I was going to be her tiny ivory tower academic. Clearly, the tragic price of my genius was that it applied to everything but people. The gods giveth and the gods taketh away, or something like that.

I realize now that my mother has been kiting reality checks her entire life, but when you're ten you have no way to even know that that's a valid hypothesis. I freely admit that I figure people out via cryptanalysis, which is the same way I've always figured everything out. I have my suspicions about how much of the "Ari doesn't get people," thing was projection on her part, but it doesn't really matter -- the point was, until I aged into college and moved the fuck out of that house, I was dead convinced that everything I thought about people was always wrong. Always. Any time I thought I had any clue what was going on, I immediately dissected it on the assumption that it was incorrect, and that the real situation was anything but what I thought it was. 

You, reading this blog, know that this is total horsefeathers. Consider how much sense I generally make now, and picture what would happen if I discarded every last scrap of that on the grounds that it was bad data. You cannot begin to imagine the sorts of trouble I got myself into. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but a clock that was set wrong to start with is going to be wrong 100% of the time. There are a small handful of people who have known me since I was fifteen, and still speak to me -- fuck if I know why.

My point is, when someone whom you perceive to have valid authority on such matters looks at something you do that you thought was hunky-dory and getting totally reasonable results, and tells you, "life -- ur doin it rong," it has the potential to fuck you up far, far worse than any mistake you'd have made on your own. If you spend long enough telling a woman who doesn't have any kind of food hangups that the fact that she doesn't think she has food hangups is a sign that she has such massive food hangups that her brain has just wrapped around to zero again and decided that lunatic eating patterns are perfectly normal, she will eventually question whether you're right. And if you keep it up, over and over and over and over, you will wind up proving your hypothesis the hard way, by forcing completely ordinary fucking people, who were coping quite decently until you came along, to overthink their lack of overthinking to the point where you will give them an actual goddamn eating disorder. You can literally drive people crazy with this. Believe me, I know.

You do not flunk life if you do not look like a movie star. You do not flunk life if you do not exercise religiously three times a week for exactly 30 minutes, with your heart rate carefully raised to the optimum level. You do not flunk life if you hate broccoli. You do not flunk life if you do not think of yourself as a perfect goddess all the time. You do not flunk life because you have not magically achieved satori after reading a few self-help books. You also do not flunk life if you use other people as mirrors every once in a while. Sometimes, you are going to care what other people think of you. Sometimes you are going to care a whole lot. Other times, not so much. Whether you care or not, it's still your choice whether to act on anything they say, which is the important part. You do not flunk life because someone else's magical lifestyle paradigm does not make you happy, and you drop it like it's hot. There really are very, very few ways to genuinely flunk life.

It is okay to be restless and wish that parts of yourself were otherwise. It's a part of human nature to wonder what it might be like to be someone other than yourself sometimes, or if the world were other than it is. It's the ability to even conceive of such a thing that gives us such diverse traits as logic and empathy. To the best of my knowledge, animals have not developed the subjunctive verb mood. Although, to be fair, I haven't personally asked the dolphins -- I'm mostly going off the rats here, who skip straight from "I detect foods in the area!" to "FOODS ARE FOR ME" without any kind of stopover at "Could I possibly be detecting foods that belong to someone else?", apparently unable to formulate the idea of a world in which there exists a comestible which will not eventually be fed to them.

Comments

  1. I would have assumed that a work titled "Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder" would be about how society pathologizes normal behavior. Like how half-starved humans have a hardwired response of extreme hunger and constant thinking about food, yet in dieters -- who are half-starved! -- this gets pathologized as greed, lack of moral fiber, and obsessiveness.

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    1. I would have too, but she makes it pretty clear what her thesis is. From her About bar on the side: "My contention is that every woman has an eating disorder-- not necessarily anorexia or bulimia per se, but a fixation on food/ weight/shape that is unhealthy, unwanted, and undying."

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  2. Thank you for this post. I teach nutrition and I concerned about the number of students who have problems with their body image. The number has increased since I started teaching 10 years ago.

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    1. I think it's just as destructive to assume that everyone hates themselves as it is to assume everyone wants to look the same. I hope you're assuring them that there's nothing wrong with them if they feel good about themselves even when everyone assumes the opposite. There's a lot wrong when you tell someone, "No, I think I'm fine as I am," and they all go, "OMG, you liar, nobody does that."

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