Are Anorexia Memoirs Irresponsibly Training Women In How To Develop An Eating Disorder?

I'm not down with framing this as a problem -- because if it's a problem, it needs a solution, and what is the solution if not tell other writers of memoirs about eating disorders to be less forthcoming with their stories?
Publish date:
November 19, 2013
eating disorders, Memoirs, anorexia

In my many years of writing about body politics and specifically fat stuff, I’ve heard many, many times that what I do is dangerous, that I’m “glorifying” obesity when we should really be heaping MORE shame on fat people because inevitable death alone and in unbearable excruciating pain with only the tragic memories of a wasted life to keep you company as your candle slowly sputters and winks out, blah blah blabbity blah.

I’m not actually exaggerating! I’m also not the only one -- just a few weeks ago, a dude on Twitter read one of Marianne’s contributions here and felt the need to tell her, out of CARING, I’m sure, that she would die “alone and in pain.” I’ve also recently heard from strangers that I already have the diabetes, that I will climb any hill if there’s a Dairy Queen at the top, that I am personally responsible for everyone else’s health insurance premiums being high, and that I will be dead by 30.

(My actual doctor who looks at my real-life blood disagrees; MAYBE if it’s an Orange Julius; turns out I have the worst superpower ever; I’m already 36 so HA HA ON YOU POOP FACE.)

When people accuse me of “glorifying” obesity (or occasionally “glamorizing” it, which makes me feel like Miss Piggy), what they’re really saying is, “You’re making this sort of thing look non-shameful and suggesting that fat people do not have to hate -- or even change -- their bodies unless they want to, and that might give them license to feel OK about themselves and that’s bad because [insert arbitrary crap about health, the survival of the human race, the safety of commercial air travel, the availability of donuts for everyone else, PANIC PANIC PANIC etc].”

Honestly, I’d prefer that superpower if I had it, but I don’t, so all I’m really doing whenever I’m glorifying obesity is just talking about my life without mentioning the compulsory “Of course, I really ought to lose a few pounds,” because I don’t care to do so.

It’s true that sharing an experience, particularly an experience that is stigmatized, can give it legitimacy for some folks. Speaking it aloud can take some of the shame and humiliation away, and in a general sense, this is a positive, healing experience for many -- not to mention a window into a different perspective for readers who have never been in the author’s shoes. Whether it also inspires folks to actually follow suit and mimic what they’ve read? That’s a less easily answered question.

Am I making other people want to be fat, just by talking about it? That seems unlikely, given that there are still a lot of significant social downsides to fattery, ones that can't be fully counteracted just by adopting a positive attitude. If I'm doing anything, I'm making fat bodies more real, instead of temporary shells that must be shed to uncover the "correct" body underneath. Happily, I don't need to specifically advocate for obesity as a superior lifestyle choice in order to kill a little bit of the stigma and shame associated with life in a fat body. It's not so black and white as all that.

Last Friday, The Cut asked if anorexia memoirs are really just how-to books for those already suffering from -- or likely to develop -- an eating disorder. The question was inspired by Kelsey Osgood’s recently-published memoir, “How To Disappear Completely,” in which the author calls out first-person eating-disorder literature for having given her tips in how to advance her own anorexia.

Specifically, Osgood names Marya Hornbacher’s memoir “Wasted” as of particular importance as a source of inspiration, in more ways than one:

The first and most basic case Osgood makes against the conventional anorexia story (whether it’s a memoir, a blog post, or a group-therapy confession) is that such accounts rely on numbers and rules — which are basically the raw materials of an eating disorder. What passes for stark honesty to the unpracticed reader (82 pounds, 320 calories a day) registers with the budding anorexic as a series of goals and guidelines. “I incorporated some of Hornbacher’s tricks into my own weight-loss repertoire,” writes Osgood. Therefore, How to Disappear Completely avoids lists of safe foods and exercise regimens, refuses to tally low weights and calorie counts.

...Osgood’s analysis goes beyond the questions of practical advice or waifish imagery. In her telling, anorexia’s competitive mentality makes hearing anyone else’s story an invigorating opportunity for comparison... Even for recovering anorexics, “the narrative toward rock bottom is more often than not a ‘war story’ told to impress the listener.” So Hornbacher writes, “Line up four apples and think about how you’d feel after a few days of eating that and nothing else” with what sounds a lot like pride.

I mean, certainly people already inclined toward an eating disorder might use such memoirs as instruction manuals, although I’m not certain that the best fix is, as Osgood suggests, to simply leave out the details of workout routines and pounds lost and how much food eaten at what time and what foods are “safe.” It is certainly the writer’s prerogative to leave out these finer points, but once you feel compelled to explain WHY you’ve left them out, it can stop coming across like a simple narrative choice and read more like finger-wagging -- in other words, if we are not writing about how we are the most brilliant anorexic ever, then we can write about how our anorexia memoir is so much better and more responsible than everyone else’s anorexia memoir.

Some people will read detail-riddled anorexia memoirs and take them as a challenge, that's not in question. That said, I'm not down with framing this as an author's problem -- because if it's a problem, it needs a solution, and what is the solution if not to tell other writers on eating disorders to be less forthcoming with their stories. How does that help? I refuse to believe that there is anything intrinsically dangerous about sharing the details of anorexic behavior; indeed, doing so may help a friend or family member recognize it in someone they love, and it may help a person struggling to hide her disorder to feel less horrifically alone. And even if sharing these experiences is risky, what's the alternative? More shame?

Of course, the question of whether it is possibly dangerous to transmit this information -- even in the recollections of a now-reformed survivor -- is most often leveled at women.

Think about it: nobody seems to make similar allegations -- or at least not with such brow-furrowing concern -- about memoirs written by men. Admittedly, memoirs specifically recounting eating disorders are not a common subject amongst male authors, but addiction memoirs are, and guy-penned tales of high-functioning (or not functioning at all) alcoholism and drug abuse could just as easily be reframed as how-to manuals for the narrow slice of their readers who might want to use them in that way.

Yet all this handwringing -- and it's been going on for years -- over similarly self-destructive eating-disorder memoirs (not to mention ED communities online where people discuss their experiences) seems to be focused primarily on women. Why?

Maybe it's because women are culturally assumed to be less likely to think critically about such things, and more likely to make choices already made by other women -- this is the basis for all those arguments about eating disorders, or even just disordered eating patterns, being "contagious,” after all. Men, on the other hand, get to think for themselves, and make bad or risky or otherwise unhealthy decisions that come from their brains, apparently untouched by the social and cultural pressures around them. Women are expected to follow the flock; even men who do what everyone else is doing are doing it because they want to, and not because anyone suggested it to them.

Hence, we get a lot of overblown conversations about the dangers of anorexia memoirs and how they're hurting our daughters. (Paternalism much?)

I read Marya Hornbacher’s “Wasted” very soon after it was published, myself; I was a senior in college at the time, and still in the early stages of exploring new ways of thinking about bodies, novel approaches that turned the spotlight on a fat-hating culture as a source of problems, rather than on my own personal fat body. “Wasted” shaped part of that early thinking, as it was the first time I’d read an account of an eating disorder in the person’s own words -- instead of from some distant composite-character omniscience like “The Best Little Girl in the World” -- another oft-cited anorexia training manual.

It was also the first time I really understood how a cultural fear of fat could be extrapolated into a form of chronic self-injury in the name of self control -- and Hornbacher's descriptions of how she lived were an important part of that. It remains an important and profoundly memorable book, and while I can certainly see how some would read it for so-called “thinspiration,” I worry that criticizing the book in this way skirts awfully close to blaming Hornbacher -- or others like her -- for creating or worsening eating disorders in her readers, simply by telling her story, a story that has likely helped as many, or more, people than it ever harmed. I worry that this argument might create a chilling effect in the honesty of these stories, that it will reinforce existing stigma and shame and keep the secret lives of anorexics -- and other eating-disordered people -- hidden in the dark.

But what do you think? Are anorexia memoirs that relay all the gruesome details of their disorder a valid form of catharsis for their storytellers, are they thinly veiled one-upmanship in competition with every other anorexic person in the world -- or something in between?