Alex Williams penned a salacious piece in today’s New York Times centered around the “weight anxiety” experienced by girls leading up to Spring Break. That we are, for “sufferers of eating disorders,” moving into “the most dangerous time of year.”
Self-denial and restraint in America? Now that’s dangerous – to our way of life.
Setting aside that the backdrop of alcohol abuse over Spring Break dwarfs any danger of starving oneself into a bikini, I should start by saying that I understand anorexia nervosa can be debilitating and dangerous for those affected by it. Just as I sympathize with people in plane crashes or victims of pit viper bites and lightning burns.
So, I do not intend herein to dismiss the pain and tragedy of the rare individuals and families truly affected; my aim here is to show the disparity between perception and reality.
A few years ago, Cornell University professor Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote that we must “consider the ways in which different societies create their own symptom repertoires and how the changing cultural context gives meaning to a ‘symptom’ such as non-eating.” For sure. Our cultural views on this matter could not be more schizophrenic. The primary threat posed by anorexia is as a dramatic affront to our cherished, biggie-sized way of life.
Xanga’s chief executive, John Hiler, is quoted in the Times article saying it is their corporate policy to delete any “pro anorexia” groups from the system. While that’s certainly their prerogative, they don’t appear to have the same policy about food or alcohol abuse (apparently the “food slut club” and “alcohol is my friend” group do not similarly offend Hiler’s sensibilities). Since these two unquestionably pose dramatically more risk to their participants, this corporate policy represents irrational, institutionalized stupidity.
My personal offhand estimate had been that we might lose about 100 Americans annually to anorexia. My research this morning showed that I was not far off – a 2001 study by the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology of every American death for the most recently available five year period showed only 724 people with anorexia as a causal factor – 145 per year. Christina Hoff-Sommers, in her research for the book Who Stole Feminism, came up with a number below half that. In a presentation to the International Congress of Psychology, one expert (Dr. Paul Hewitt) estimated a death rate for anorexia of 6.6 per 100,000 deaths. Even if you assume that sufferers outnumber deaths by a few orders of magnitude, it would still seem that all objective evidence shows the health impact on Americans from anorexia is statistically nil. Now, I know that doesn’t make for very good shock journalism, but it doesn’t change the uncomfortable fact that it’s true.
More Americans die from obesity-related illness in two hours than die from anorexia in a year. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third are obese. About ten million Americans have “clinically severe obesity” – and ambulance manufacturers are producing new “bariatric ambulances” that can support patients several hundred pounds overweight. Las Vegas, the first city to purchase the units, said that they had handled 75 calls in the past six months involving patients approaching or exceeding 500 pounds. Yet, when we speak of disordered eating, we still don’t seem to be referring to ourselves.
I know several girls whom others consider “anorexic” because they are very lean and don’t have emblematic American appetites. They are in fact not anorexic; but they are more cautious about their intake than most. They are vibrant, healthy, and adequately nourished; they can even run a couple of miles at a good pace. And that’s much more than most Americans can say.
So, please, ladies – the girl who has the body the rest of you wish you had is not anorexic. The girl who delicately refuses the eighteen-ounce wedge of deep-fried cheesecake the rest of you dive into after dinner is not anorexic. The girl who is obsessed with fitting back into those size 1 jeans is not anorexic. She’s just thinner than you, knows how to say no to herself, and it makes you jealous.
And parents – please realize that it is the countercultural idea of self-control and self-denial, backed by the occasional dramatic image, that catalyzes enough fear for us to think anorexia poses some threat to our youth. Much like the War On Some Drugs, however – the threat it poses is to our way of thinking, not our health. It is far, far more dangerous to let your spoiled kids eat what they want.
More broadly, the idea of anorexia threatens our view of our bodies, our consumption-obsessed culture, and our deeply held personal ideas about how much nourishment we “need” (read: “deserve.”) Perpetuating the myth of anorexia helps us demonize denial as some kind of blasphemy, rather than looking at our own dinner plates or in the mirror and asking: am I fat? (Probable answer: yes.)
The moral outrage against the ghost of anorexia is intellectually puddle-deep; it is similar to so many other moral panics of our generation. It hardly represents a statistical blip on our health-care radar – but it’s a dramatic affront to our way of living – and that’s far more dangerous than any 500 calorie-a-day diet could ever be.