I was thirteen when I first began starving myself, but you’ve heard stories like mine before. Like genital mutilation and date rape, anorexia has had its recurring moments in the spotlight, an issue sensational enough for TV movies and the serious columns in women’s magazines, and a problem too ingrained within our culture to go away any time soon. Anorexia is old news and in many ways anti-feminist. Anorectics, after all, are among the most obvious slaves to the evil manipulations of media imagery, knowingly killing themselves to obtain the impossible ideal portrayed by models and celebrities. It’s sad, yes, but come on already and break free of the chains! Celebrate your powerful, womanly curves! Eat something!
If only it were that simple.
Anorexia is an issue that has been glossed over again and again. The easy answer is the surface one – she feels bad about her body because our media-fueled culture has made her feel that way. To solve this problem, we need to: a. make her feel better about herself; b. change the ideal portrayed in the media; and/or c. teach her not care about media images in the first place. All of these are very nice ideas and have led to girl power messages and bans on Barbie dolls that may or may not have a positive effect on the psyches of little girls. But they do not address the underlying issues of power and control that make anorexia so pervasive and difficult to overcome.
My story as an anorectic does not begin with a picture in a fashion magazine. My story begins with my mother, who for a summer in college consumed only one meal a day, consisting of peanut butter crackers and a can of Diet Coke. When she passed out and was hospitalized, she received a diagnosis of “symptoms,” a label similar to female hysteria in both its vagueness and its particularity. By the time she sat by my hospital bed thirty-five years later, the medical community had a name for the disorder but still little understanding of how to make me well besides IVs of nutrients, the command to eat more, and sessions with therapists, which I refused to attend.
But, no, the story has to go back further. We need to include my mother as a seventh grader, wearing a size extra-small girdle that squeezed her tiny body so tightly that she became light headed and, in the middle of class, had to run to the bathroom and take the girdle off. We have to see her doubled over in the stall, her head between her knees as she takes deep, full breaths and feels not relief but failure and humiliation because she cannot be the good girl that she is supposed to be.
The definition of “good” has changed over time, but the pressure on women to be “good” has not abated. We are supposed to be intelligent, determined, focused, strong, emotionally available, successful in our careers, successful in our relationships, sensitive to the needs of others, aware of the problems at home and the problems of the world. We are supposed to be both leaders and followers, knowing how take charge but also when to step back. We are supposed to put our careers, family, and friends first. We are supposed to be the best, at everything, and anything less than the best means failure, and when we fail, we become the opposite of “good.” We are “bad,” and badness carries with it shame.
Shame and the female body are intrinsically linked; we are taught from a young age that our bodies and physical urges have the potential to cause our downfall. My mother was raised in the 1950s, when good girls did not have sex. Today good girls do have sex, but not too much of it. A thin line exists between being sexually empowered and a slut. In my college classrooms, I have led my students in discussions about double standards, asking them to switch the genders of the characters in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. When they do so, their view of the relationship power dynamics does a complete turn around, as does their assignment of blame. They have difficulty seeing a woman as the dominating sexual figure and have trouble imagining a man as the sexual victim. The world, in their eyes, just does not work that way.
But a good girl is not a victim. Instead she guards her body, keeping predators at bay. She is in control of her physical self, just like she is in control of her mental and emotional self. But unlike her success at school or work or her many unique and interesting talents, her physical self is readily on display. It’s the first impression she makes, the best outward signifier that she is good.
To this discussion of good and bad, we must add, of course, the obsession with food and weight loss that permeates our culture. Foods have been ascribed moral values. An apple is good. A cookie is bad. A good girl orders a salad, and a bad girl gets the fries. This value system is so ingrained that we barely give it, and its implications, a second thought.
I stopped eating when I lost control of my emotional self. My family was breaking up, and I had no idea what to do with my sadness, confusion, and anger. Home had become a frightening place, and there was nothing that I could do to stop the turmoil that I was witnessing. However, I could control what I put into my mouth. The hunger that I felt was soothing in the same way other forms of self-mutilation are soothing; my private physical pain allowed me to express and handle my emotional pain. And soon I discovered that not eating came with external rewards, too – as I lost weight, I received praise for my appearance, which became more and more aligned with the feminine ideal of a tiny waist, narrow but round hips, rib bones that showed. I was dieting, a good girl act, and even as my weight plummeted to dangerous lows, I still detected a degree of admiration in the warnings I received. The week before I was hospitalized, I had my senior pictures taken and the photographer could not get over my “perfect” figure. My mother did not know what to do. She understood that I had a problem, but that problem was difficult to define. When exactly did dieting go too far? What was the point at which good turned into bad? With her own body issues, passed down to her from a long line of women striving for perfection inside a culture that had them cast in passive roles, she had no clear marker of when to step in.
After my hospital stay at the age of seventeen, I recovered. I then relapsed three times at various intervals over the next twelve years. Intellectually I understand my struggles, and I become angry at the way this need for control – for goodness – leads me to hurt my body. I am angry that the societal ideal of the female shape is one that is thin, helpless, and weak, to the point of being desexualized. This ideal undeniably impacts the way we view our bodies and how we treat them. But the issue goes so much deeper than a glossy perfume ad or a model sashaying down the runway, and fixing it will be a longer, messier process than simply repeating the rhetoric that every body is beautiful.
Photographic Images by Adrian Buckmaster ©2010
Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s work has appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Word Riot, Joyland, Brooklyn The Borough, and the anthology Gravity Fiction, among other publications. She received an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and teaches writing at Eugene Lang College and College of Staten Island. You can find out more at www.courtneymauk.com.