Monday, December 19, 2005

Your Body Image is Your Responsibility

Kate Taylor has a great article in Slate today on the subject of anorexia and its causes. A recent Newsweek feature has detailed the genetic factors that contribute to anorexia, and caused a bit of a stir, because it is so emphatic about the genetic factors that cause anorexia. I haven't read the article myself, but from what I've heard, it's a heavily nature-based argument, meant to subvert the nurture one that says that anorexia is caused by images of thin women proliferated and glorified in the media.

Haven't we been over this before? A genetic factor in the development of disease does not mean behavior and culture do not contribute to it.

Of course there is a genetic influence on who becomes anorexic. Starving oneself is really difficult as well as unhealthy. Given the very real glorification of thinness in America, you'd think that anorexics would be a dime a dozen if it were a simple matter of low-self esteem and poor body image. Anorexia requires obsessive and highly-controlled behavior unseen in most people. I can't be the only one who hardly raised an eyebrow when I heard that anorexia arises in people whose families have a history of obsessive and compulsive behavior.

Taylor says,

Interestingly, the most incisive interpretations of anorexia often fail to stick in the public consciousness. Two doctors who treated anorexics in Toronto in the 1930s left behind a remarkably astute description of the type: "Most of them are intelligent, some to a marked degree; all are highly sensitive," they wrote. "Usually they are impulsive, willful, introspective, and emotionally unstable." Then, refuting the cliché that anorexics are ruled by insecurity, the doctors suggested instead that they're driven by positive desires: "They have a strong desire for prominence and dominance."

Take this into consideration, and it's not surprising that obsessive behavior is chanelled into an arena which is going to bring success: looks. If thin is pretty, and pretty is successful, a success-obsessed, prominence-desiring obsessive compulsive is going to be thin.

Taylor then addresses another aspect of the common wisdom about anorexia:

From my own experience (I first had the disease when I was 10) and those of other people I've talked to, this last observation is one of the most important—and least acknowledged. It's easier to see anorexics as victims, whether of social forces or biology, than to imagine that they derive pleasant sensations from their behavior. But they do. The disease often makes them feel special and unique. Until we discard the victim model and admit that anorexia, though destructive, often fulfills a deep personal need, we can't begin to investigate what makes a person vulnerable to it. Evidence that anorexia now affects an unexpectedly wide range of people provides an impetus for a new, more complex theory of the illness. But any such theory must acknowledge the willful aspect of anorexia, instead of trying to turn the disease into something as random and involuntary as a cold.

My reaction to this is more complex, because I think it's a little heartless to say that anorexics aren't victims. They may be somewhat culpable in their sickness - I think we all know they're not automatons obeying every dictate of their genes and the media - but this doesn't make them less sick or less a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Inheriting compulsive tendencies and living in a country that glorifies thinness is an unfortunate lot to have. But, just as inheriting genes that predispose a person to heart disease and living in a fast food world make life tough, it doesn't mean you are any less capable of getting on a treadmill.

What doesn't help matters at all are the two ways in which we talk about anorexics. There's the hateful skinny-bitch-who-starves-herself-to-make-me-jealous comment and the pitious poor-victim-of-media comment, and you'll often hear both come from the same people at different times. Which is it? Hate or pity?

The hateful side has to stem almost entirely from jealousy. She's starving herself to make me jealous, and it's working. If you find yourself thinking this, please stop. Anorexia is not a pathology of which to be jealous, and allowing yourself to be dragged down by envy of it only helps tighten the stranglehold that unrealistic body images have on the throat of American female body image.

The pity side seems better-placed, but let's not forget that anorexia isn't the product of a patriarchal conspiracy theory (I'm looking at you, Naomi Wolf), and it's not like the weather: it has to be made to happen.

The crappy thing about mental illness is that even when it makes it harder for you to make good decisions, you still have to do it. Stagnating in victimhood is tempting, but it's not responsible and not acceptable. Wallowing in self-pity over your big tummy is bad for you, and it's bad for everyone else. I think we should know by now that neither the market nor the media is going to help us out here - we have to fix our body image problems ourselves, and against adversity. Ads with somewhat real-sized women in them are actually selling "skin-firming" cream. Girls, Inc. is selling you boosted self-esteem to get you to buy overpriced dolls.

We know better, so let's not hide behind our victimhood to create more victims.


Anonymous said...

The disease often makes them feel special and unique. Until we discard the victim model and admit that anorexia, though destructive, often fulfills a deep personal need, we can't begin to investigate what makes a person vulnerable to it.

I think this betrays a deep misunderstanding of mental illness in general. Mental illness doesn't make you do things for no reason: mental illness wildly unbalances the factors that go into judging whether they should do something. Obsessive-compulsives don't count matchsticks because they are compelled to by some outside force to count matchsticks: they count matchsticks because not counting matchsticks causes them unbearable anxiety.

We don't blame obsessive-compulsives who count matchsticks for their matchstick-counting behavior because there's no benefit to matchstick-counting. There is no cultural norm that promotes counting matchsticks. There is a cultural norm which promotes unhealthy thinness. So we get the sense, a really dysfunctional sense, that anorexia is somehow "cheating" -- that starving yourself to be thin is, in the beauty race, the equivalent of steroids.

Just because your disease has a positive side-effect doesn't make it not a disease. Equally applying the same ass-backward standard that we apply to anorexia would just go to show how absolutely absurd it is (e.g. "Quit whining about your sickle-cell anemia: Jesus, you'd think you'd be happy, being immune to malaria and everything.")

-- ACS

Sara E Anderson said...

I dig, but there's also that thing where you know you're depressed and you know you should get help, but you don't. People who know they need help and have the means to get it - but don't get it - have a certain amount of culpability in their illness. That doesn't make it any easier to get help, but it's awfully counterproductive to ignore the role one has to play in their own recovery where it is possible.

Anonymous said...

I think there's some finer distinction that needs to be made. Anorexia or depression or what-have-you is not your fault. You did not do anything to deserve it. You are being driven by impulses beyond your control.

Getting treatment for anorexia, or depression, or the flu, is your responsibility. While I'm hesitant to say 'fault', because 'fault' implies that your behavior is hurting someone else in a more-or-less direct way, it's pretty clear that no one else is going to get, or respond to, treatment for you*.

-- ACS

* One of my social-service catch-phrases that's reasonably good at shutting whining chemically-dependent or mentally ill clients up is, "You're right. That's not your fault. But it is your responsibility to deal with."

drumgurl said...

"You're right. That's not your fault. But it is your responsibility to deal with."


Although I do want to point out that the thinness promoted by the media is not unhealthy for everyone. Some people are naturally super-thin, and perfectly healthy that way.

Also... who decides what size a "real" woman is?

Anonymous said...

Also... who decides what size a "real" woman is?

I think we can all agree that it's the media that's most qualified to make that decision.

-- ACS

Sara E Anderson said...

My test for what the size of a "real woman" is:

Are you female?
Do you exist?

Then you are the size of a "real woman."

drumgurl said...

Okay, then what's with the "Ads with somewhat real-sized women" comment?

I guess I should have asked what qualifies as "somewhat real".

I do agree that the media sells a very narrow image of beauty. I'm not disagreeing with that point at all.

Sara E Anderson said...

The ads I was referring to were the Dove ads that had women of a range of sizes standing around in their underpants. I'm not one of those people who gets all excited about the fat goddess inside all of us or anything - I realize people come in a variety of shapes, and just because I'm curvy doesn't mean you need to be. This isn't reflected in the media, of course. According to the media, you're either very thin, or more rarely, very fat and jolly. Either way, the only body shape option that's given as acceptable is the thin type, and that's not most people. We all know that most people aren't thin, and that making yourself thin isn't an important part of making yourself a good person. So, my ultimate point was that you and everyone else know better than to beat yourselves up about your weight, and that means everyone needs to stop. I know better than to beat myself up, so I should really stop it.