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.