In which other people’s psychological experience is not your casual symbolism

So a couple of people I love and respect have posted this article this morning. It’s a relatively decent article about self-loathing and measuring yourself according to flawed and impossible criteria that ensure you’re always going to lose and hate yourself. Unfortunately, fairly early on this line appears, and the article proceeded to lose me forever:

It’s [in context, professional or personal achievement] about finally, finally being good enough. Being the best. It’s the new anorexia (and also the old anorexia).

Which is so much bollocks in so many ways I don’t even know where to start.

Okay, fuck that, I do know where to start, and it is this:

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from my own experience and from the last decade of studying and writing about and talking to people about anorexia and eating disorders it is that they mean and represent profoundly different things to different people.

Both ‘the old anorexia’ and, I suspect, ‘the new anorexia’ are multivalent and complex and cover a vast range of sociocultural and personal and psychological and gender-relevant dissatisfactions and traumas and torments. Fuck you author (Nicki Lee, whoever that may be) for denying and erasing all aspects of that real lived thing which don’t apply to your point here. For some people anorexia is about trying to be ‘the best’; for many others it’s about trying to be ‘good enough’; and for many other people it is neither or both or not conscious or simply the only way they know how to survive in the world or prompted by other deep-seated personal or psychological drive that may be tangentally-related-if-you-squint-a-bit to those concepts and impulses. But the only way to impose sufficient unity of motivation to validate your shitty and ill-thought-out symbolism is to render every aspect of anorexia and it’s lived experience so reductive it’s meaningless.

Even if you’ve suffered from anorexia yourself, you STILL don’t get to say what it means to other people, still less use it as a throwaway line as if there was some sort of agreed cultural universal psychological motivation going on. There isn’t. Anorexia (and other eating disorders) are a language, not a message. They’re a common language, because we live in a culture that tells us (particularly if we’re women) that our bodies are externalisations of ourselves and some kind of index of our personal cultural worth (women should be pretty, slim is good, fat is bad, lose weight and ‘be yourself, only better!’) and that hands us dieting and exercise as means of being a better person, but that doesn’t mean we’re all trying to say the same thing. [1]

Besides, appropriating the language of other people’s often-fatal psychological trauma for your own rhetorical ends is a dick move. ‘The new anorexia’ is a crass and stupid and destructive way to sum up anyone’s (valid!) experience of self-loathing, and it’s also pretty inaccurate. Yes, the article makes some fairly relatable points about the pressures we put on ourselves, but that it needs to ride roughshod over millions of people’s lived psychological traumas to draw attention to its fairly basic points is hardly an endorsement of its reasoning or its rhetorical skill.
[1] A major part of my PhD was picking apart huge epistemological distinctions between how people experienced their bodies in the early modern period and how we experience them today. This was partly to do with humoural theory and Galenic medicine as opposed to modern medical understanding, and partly to do with religious concepts of identity and soul vs. flesh and emotions as physically present and all the rest of it (and also massively complex), but one of the interesting things was the extent to which early modern people could regard their bodies as a tool for achieving various spiritual or physical goals (childbirth, labour, combat) whereas we are encouraged to see our bodies as an end product, a thing to be worked on or towards. Thus eating disorders are a culture-bound, modern phenomenon and even early modern women who starved themselves experienced and conceptualised their behaviour in a very different way.

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About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Likes rabbits, old houses with big windows and John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. Needs more sleep.
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