Nervosa

So, as you know, Jill put up an interesting post about ED and obesity, and I wanted to reply.

I had an eating disorder for a little over five years. I exercised compulsively. I starved myself. I binged and purged (by the time I was nearly through, my tolerance for food was so low that a normal meal constituted a binge, and any food on my stomach nauseated me). I abused laxatives and caffeine.

While I was thin, I was never skeletal. Although there were days I did not eat at all, and days on which I consumed a few hundred calories, I never suffered cardiac arrest or kidney failure or any of the other massive destabilizations by which eating-disorder sufferers are threatened. I looked good: slender, strong, and very much in control of my health. A little pale, a little anxious, a little wired, but well.

People with eating-disorders can be painfully thin; at the extremes of anorexia nervosa, they always are. Some people with eating disorders are overweight, and some are at normal weight. Some people with eating disorders look absolutely perfect; there’s even a new term to describe someone who’s unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating: orthorexia.

Eating disorders can kill you; the fatality rate for anorexia is estimated at twenty-five percent. They can ruin your health permanently or for years into the future of recovery. Those dangers are significant, and I don’t want to sound as though I ignore them.

But an eating disorder is not exactly about eating or not eating. The severity of an eating disorder cannot be measured either by the degree of starvation or its attendant dangers.

An eating disorder is about hating oneself so much that one is compelled to embark on a program of self-punishment and self-erasure. A person with an eating disorder decides that she and her life are inadequate. She fixes on her body as a site of that inadequacy. She will fix her body, control her body, perfect her body, and thereby fix, control, and perfect everything else. There are several theories for this choice; I agree with all of them.

Feminist theorists argue that women are more likely to become obsessed with their bodies because they are already taught to see them as all-important. This would seem to make sense, given that eating disorders are even more prevalent among people of both genders whose bodies are a big part of their lives: athletes, dancers. There is also the issue of potential: a woman, particularly a young woman, might feel that her body is the only thing she has any sovereignty over. There is also the bodily resonance of some of the stressors: adolescence, sexuality and sexual abuse.

There are twin additional components to this choice that are particularly appealing to people who hate themselves. First of all, the substitute goal must be an irrational one. It cannot actually have anything to do with making one feel better about oneself, or making one’s life more interesting, or accessing sources of joy and comfort. An eating disorder is a stressful, time-consuming, alienating project. It is a secret that divides you from everyone around you. It makes you paranoid and irritable. It saps your energy and your hope. It will damage your life, and thereby give you something else to punish yourself for. Corollary to that, there is a wide wide swath of territory between what you shouldn’t force your body to do and what you cannot force your body to do. One can remain stable at death’s door for years and years.

Second, starvation is agonizing. It is one of the worst punishments you can inflict on your body, because your body was not meant to starve. We are animals, and animals must eat. Every instinct that drives us drives us to fix ourselves, to avoid hunger. And when you go hungry, your body gets extremely nervous. It wants a meal. It wants you to go out and get it food right now. When you refuse it, it will start to plead, and whine, and finally to scream. It will go crazy with desperation with you inside it, and it will not let you relax or think until you relieve its need. I lived with that blaring internal alarm for five years. Gnawing hunger.

That was the point. It wasn’t about being thin. It wasn’t about being well or unwell. It wasn’t about avoiding fat. I was cultivating misery when I starved myself, just as when I ate to nausea or ran to exhaustion. Anorexia nervosa is not inverted obesity, not a different direction of carelessness. The abused body is a symbol and a tool, not merely an object.


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16 Responses to Nervosa

  1. MaggieMay says:

    This is a powerful post. Thanks for talking about the issue in this way; I know I recognize a lot of myself (and my past eating disorder) in your words.

  2. Thomas says:

    Powerful writing.

    I’ve long thought that the dynamics of anorexia nervosa (and the demographics) relate more closely to self-injury than to any other food-related behavior. Piny, do you think that’s right?

  3. Jill says:

    Fantastic post, piny. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. piny says:

    Fantastic post, piny. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    Thanks, and thank you for bringing the subject up.

  5. whimsy says:

    I’ve long thought that the dynamics of anorexia nervosa (and the demographics) relate more closely to self-injury than to any other food-related behavior.

    I can only speak for myself here, but I have stages of intense depression; the two things that always occur during those stages are self-injury and anorexia. Self-injury does not always mean anorexia, but anorexia always means self-injury, generally expressed in cutting.

    So yeah, Thomas, I’d say in a lot of cases, that’s exactly what happens.

    The demographics agree, too. Although this was not my situation, thank God, a lot of the time anorexic girls do so because of sexual abuse, to have something about their body they can control; self-injurers do the same. People with anorexia often have an obsessive disorder; some self-injurers tend towards the same kind of disorder. (Although that usually involves something like trichomania, rather than cutting or burning.)

    This is something I’ve researched extensively, so sorry to go on about it. But I think Thomas has a very good point — not only is anorexia often connected to self-injury, I think anorexia is self-injury.

  6. slyvie says:

    i really appreciate this post 1) because it resonates with my own personal experience with eating disorders and 2) because it provides complex reasons for the origins of the behavior that rise above the simplistic Naomi Wolf=eating disorders happen because women want to be thin like models.That never made sense to me. I was already thin, what I wanted to be was less- less present (which starvation achieves both physically and mentally) and less visible.

  7. Frumious B. says:

    There is now evidence that anorexia may have a genetic component. This is a new finding, and the implications for the individual have not been worked out yet.

  8. Sally says:

    This is a really great post. And I have nothing to add to it at the moment!

  9. Erin says:

    I’ll just echo the above sentiments and say that this post describes well what I’ve tried to explain to people about the profound feelings of inadequancy and how those feelings manifest themselves physically, and just found that my words were lacking, that I couldn’t get people to understand. Eating disorders are so often not at all about food or thinness in the simplistic ways they are usually described.

  10. Krapsnart says:

    This is indeed a great post, but I do have something to add: eating disorders can be defined more broadly than “conditions that make one starve oneself.” My eating disorder didn’t make me thin, it made me fat. I had a brief foray into bulimia when I was 20, but mostly I ate compulsively without purging, and I gained ten pounds a year for five years during my adolescence.

    There was talk in my family of divorce if the women got fat. Pictures of an 800-pound woman being forklifted out of her house were waved in my face with dire warnings that this would happen to me if I didn’t stop eating. I came home to an empty house every day and was told that the emptiness was my fault, so I ate to try to fill the emptiness in my heart. I would stuff huge handfuls of dry cereal into my mouth, being careful never to finish the box so that it looked like nothing was wrong. When I lived on my own, I’d eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s at a sitting.

    The fat was a way of hiding from relationships, from having people show sexual interest in me, from feeling attractive. Eventually I was browbeaten into going to one of those expensive diet companies and racking up huge credit card bills for their proprietary food. I did lose weight, but I still felt like shit, and the weight came right back on when I quit going.

    Eventually I lost weight when I went on antidepressants. I felt better and I looked better. I stopped taking them a few years ago because I wanted to get pregnant, and eventually went back up to my highest weight ever, 170 pounds (I’m 5’4″). After I miscarried in 2004, I decided to get in shape, and I started lifting weights. After a year at the gym, I weighed 157 — exactly the same as I had when I started (and, oddly enough, when I started that corporate diet plan in 1990), but I’d gone down two clothing sizes. I felt (and feel) healthier than I ever did at my lowest adult weight of 142.

    How I feel about my body now seems to change by the day, especially since I’m pregnant now (14 weeks). I haven’t been on a scale since before I conceived. But the issue of food doesn’t consume me the way it once did. It wasn’t until I gave myself permission to eat the food I’d forbidden myself that my eating disorder seemed to resolve itself. As soon as I decided it was okay to eat the whole pint of ice cream at a time, I wanted only a few spoonfuls. Now, ice cream can sit for months until we throw it out because it’s so freezer-burned.

    I know (and piny’s excellent post helps make crystal clear) that anorexia nervosa and other denial-based eating disorders is very different from, and far more dangerous than, compulsive eating. But feeling driven to shovel food into one’s mouth and then hating oneself for having done so is psychologically devastating as well. I know.

    Jill, thanks for raising the issue.

  11. kristied says:

    Good post. too many people think that anorexia and bulimia are only about being fat or thin. For many women, it is a punishment they inflict on themselve. It is about control many times. It is something we have control over unlike most things in our lives. For most of high school and the first few years of college i would go for periods of time with little to no eating, followed by periods of normal to binge eating. I also exercised to excess. I looked normal. thin, but muscular. no one really knew i had a problem. i still battle it sometimes. when life gets stressful, i instictively revert to limiting my food intake. I am controlling my environment i guess. My family knows now and when they see me going thru a tough time, they help me to keep up good eating habits since it is so easy to fall back on bad habits. Good post, Good work here.

  12. c. says:

    Excellent post. Reading it, I felt like I was reading about myself. I was so lucky to recover after only two years, but the havoc that that period reaked on my life still remains. I don’t know if I will ever not have body issues again. I also appreciate the post about eating disorders that don’t make you thin. After I was anorexic for a period, my body rebelled and I started binging. I would then starve myself again. This roller coaster was horrible – probably the most horrible thing I’ve ever experienced. I was literally out of my mind trying to control my eating. Once I started binging I lost all sense of comfort that the restricting used to bring.

    One thing I want to address is the effect of getting better. Instead of being praised for overcoming my eating disorder (which I’m really frikkin’ proud of), I was shamed by my peers and my family for gaining weight. I went from underweight to overweight and then obese very quickly. I really believe that’s because I messed up my metabolism by starving myself. In all the time I’ve been obese, I’ve gotten so much more grief than I ever got when I was tiny and sickly. That makes me so MAD. As an obese woman I may face health risks but as an active anorexic I was on the road to death. At least now I’m taking part in my life and I’m not just a zombie who focuses all her energy on denying herself food. Sometimes it just feels like people say that ED’s are bad, but they really only mean it if you’re fat. Everyone loves a skinny girl, no matter how she got there.

  13. Lizard says:

    Everyone loves a skinny girl, no matter how she got there.

    Twisted and totally true. There’s one component of the eating-disorder phenomenon that I don’t see addressed much: 30 or 40 years ago, most anorexics and bulimics had never heard of anorexia or bulimia, and believed that they had stumbled upon a secret, special way of achieving thinness, superiority, control, etc. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find an ED sufferer who isn’t fully aware of her (or his) disorder as a disorder. Kids don’t just identify themselves as wanting to be thin, they want to be anorexic.

    To me, that’s a huge difference. A generation or two ago, these disorders were a pretty deliberate attempt at isolation; now, especially in teenagers, they’re more likely to be an attempt to gain membership into an elite society, one that earns its cachet through the “virtues” of self-abnegation and self-restraint. Our society has always loved thin women who are skilled in the art of self-denial; the recent fascination with the culture of victimhood and “extreme” anything has only made the anorexic’s quest that much more marketable.

    I was anorexic between the ages of perhaps 15 and 19, and at some level, I knew exactly what I was doing. When I began to fear that I could no longer excel in the academic and artistic areas I’d previously ruled, I realized semi-consciously that there was a plan B available that would likely earn me even more attention and admiration and support; god knows I’d seen it work in other girls at my intense prep school. Indeed, dropping 25 pounds won me entry into the inner sanctum of all my favorite mentors, distracted me temporarily from the other stuff I hated about myself, made me feel profound in a way that English papers never had. Everybody loved the skinny girl.

    If I sound cynical, I suppose I am. I have no wish to return to that lifestyle, and 12 years out, I doubt I ever will. But it makes me sad to realize that I’ve never felt more valued than I did when I was starving to death. Is that what women have to do to get noticed? I still wish someone had had the balls to say to me, “I love you when you’re sick, but I’ll love you more when you’re healthy; I value you not for what you have suffered, but for all the things you can offer to the world when you’re brave enough to believe that self-desctruction isn’t among them.”

  14. nubian says:

    thanks for this posting.

  15. Keenie says:

    I understand the point you are making, but there seems to be, even in the language of it, the need to distance yourself from the fat.

    Anorexia nervosa is not inverted obesity…

    No, it’s not. But it isn’t a suffering contest. There are control issues, psychological and physical suffering that go along with being fat (obese, whatever) as well. It isn’t and it IS about the fat.

    The abused body is a symbol and a tool, not merely an object.

    This goes for obesity too. Fat girls have the added shame of being on the wrong side of the ‘Everybody loves a skinny girl’, and a walking neon sign of your inner problems.

    I hope this doesn’t sound quite so bitter. It’s late.

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