A friend of mine posted this image to Facebook earlier, with the admirably restrained aside ‘Well, why not? Most of us underweight people love a good pastry.’ The lady in question is naturally skinny – she always has been – and is I suspect somewhat annoyed with the repeated assumption she must be ED. My somewhat less restrained response was one of such fury that I spent an entire train journey (which should have gone on book reviews for a deadline TOMORROW, mygod) writing this.
So, what is wrong with that image/statement and the kind of thinking it represents? Let us count the ways.
1) It is deeply shitty to make assumptions about people based on their body type. Assuming skinny people are anorexic is the equivalent of assuming fat people are lazy and slovenly. Some people are just naturally thin. It’s extremely problematic and profoundly damaging that popular culture lionises that body type to the exclusion of more abundant ones, and this needs to be rectified, but that doesn’t mean that every thin person is thus by dysfunction, or even by conscious and determined choice. Sometimes it’s just genetics. I’m lucky, in that I have the kind of body type that means that post-recovery I’m still mostly perceived as slender, and that makes accepting eating and living and embodiment a lot easier. If I didn’t swim every day, I’d still be a UK8, assuming that the rest of my noticeably petite family are anything to go by. I’m still considerably squishier than the friend who posted the link. I’ve had bulimic friends who were close to death without acquiring the emaciation of the latter stages of anorexia. Bulimia can kill you without significant weight loss due to electrolyte malfuckery. MAKING ASSUMPTIONS IS A DICK MOVE. The people asking the speaker about the pastries they sell without assuming they’re ED are a) being polite and non-dickish, b) probably hungry and simply seeking information from the most obvious source and c) expecting the person serving them to, um, do their job.
2) Having an eating disorder doesn’t absolve you of adult responsibilities, whether professional or personal. It’s a bummer, because a lot of the time eating disorders are pretty absorbing and make everything feel a bit sturm und drang and life and death, but really, everyone has their shit, and yours is no more important and special than anyone else’s, and we all have to get on with the world. The speaker works in a place where pastries are sold. It is their job to know about the things they’re selling, if not from personal experience, from talking to colleagues or other customers. Asking your server/waiter for a recommendation isn’t even necessarily personal, it’s the equivalent of saying ‘hey, person who works in this store! Tell me about the things you sell!’ ED or otherwise, the server has a responsibility to answer.the.fucking.question because it is their job.
3) Every person with an eating disorder is different. People with a single diagnosis – eg., anorexia nervosa – can have vastly differing behaviours and rituals and hangups around food. Lots of anorexics do work with food. It’s a recognised thing. Sometimes people with anorexia develop a particular focus on preparing and providing food for others. Or they develop an addiction to food porn or recipe books. Such people might actively enjoy having the chance to recommend someone a pastry. As aforementioned, eating disorders do tend to make you self-absorbed, but to assume that everyone with your particular condition or broad category of symptoms must feel the same as you about everything AND THAT PEOPLE WITH WHOM YOU HAVE NEVER COMMUNICATED MUST AUTOMATICALLY SOMEHOW KNOW HOW YOU, PRECISELY, FEEL AND RESPOND ACCORDINGLY is the height of arrogance.
4) The idea that having an eating disorder makes you a magic special snowflake who deserves to be treated with kid gloves – let alone whose precise habits and hangups should be immediately obvious to all and instantly recognised as special and important and serious by other people who are just trying to go through their day and be nice – is precisely the kind of self-important bollocks that gives ED sufferers a bad name. Well, admittedly we also have a bad name because of the self-destruction and because Western culture is really fucked up about eating and embodiment and so there’s this weird vindictive resentment/admiration thing going on, but bear with me here. Having an eating disorder, even visibly, doesn’t make you special. Many many people have invisible eating disorders. Probably even some of those people asking the speaker here for pastry recommendations. Contemporary culture has problematized eating and embodiment, particularly for women, to such an extent that in many circles across cultural backgrounds those without disordered eating in some sense are in the minority. (Susan Bordo and Susie Orbach have done good accessible work on this.) Having an eating disorder doesn’t make you special. Eating disorders are, when you come down to it, pretty fucking banal. Counting bites and spitting mouthfuls and crawling curled around your hunger into bed. Yes, starvation keeps you at a destabilised, flying pitch of crazy a lot of the time and everything feels deadly important, and it’s difficult not to let that leak out into egotism. But you have to bloody try, because otherwise you’re just a self-absorbed crazy twat, the same as any self-absorbed crazy twat who weighs a bit more, and in neither case do you have the right to expect everyone whom you encounter to recognise the superior gravity of your situation and treat you differently. We’re all just people, trying to get by.
5) Along with the responsibilities you don’t get to discard just because you’re ED come the responsibilities to a) recognise the humanity of others and behave towards them with consideration and b) communicate your needs. The people asking you for advice, speaker, have inner lives just like yours, although they may be less immediately conflicted, and you have no right to demand their immediate consideration without offering yours in return. If you want people to treat you differently because of your particular crazy, you – like all of us – have the responsibility to communicate that effectively. If you’re really prepared to take the consequences – given that an inability to talk about or recommend the food you’re serving might be considered to render you unsuitable for your job, which is pretty shit but is the logical corollary of the kind of thinking you present – then you need to talk to your boss, not insinuate that people asking you to do said job are somehow being insensitive and inappropriate. You cannot blame people for failing to accommodate needs you never communicated. Without communication, you might just be a thin person who likes pastries. (Who exist, by the way.)
Having an eating disorder is a shitty, horrible, crazy experience, especially if you have to be around food all the time and it triggers you. Eating disorders trap you in your head and in your pain and in your unacceptable self and it’s horrible. But blaming other people for not psychically knowing what you need and assuming the right to be treated specially is not the way forward. Owning your shit, wrestling your demons, trying to engage with others in a meaningful way, maybe. But not this kind of bullshit. The fury, obviously, comes because I have been that person, and now I don’t get to be – but I’m better for me and better for others this way, and I don’t cut anyone slack for expecting other people to shelter them from their crazy. We all have it. It’s how you deal that counts.