The first time I was hospitalised for my eating disorder, I met a woman who had signed up for the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation and developed anorexia scarcely six months later. In another hospital, a woman who’d worked in advertising and started drinking green smoothies and detox juices with her colleagues before spiralling into bulimia. Another who’d read magazine articles and health blogs about ‘clean eating’ and ended up restricting her diet to just brown rice, steamed tofu and baby spinach—the same three ingredients in the same quantities, three times every day. In that hospital, whenever clean eating was mentioned, she’d loudly proclaim there’s no dirt in my food! None of these food fads were causal, of course—the etiology of eating disorders is far more complicated than that, and involves any combination of genetics, personality, circumstance, trauma, physical illness, self-esteem—but they’re implicated, they can’t be otherwise, even if only as the catalysts for disparate forces that were already in place, that wreaked such havoc on the lives of these three women, and many other men and women besides them.
I sometimes think that disordered eating belongs on a spectrum, like obsessive-compulsion, like anxiety disorders and mood disorders, where the symptoms and presentations are various and vague, and where ‘normal’ (whatever that might mean) is at one extreme, and debilitation—that complete inability to concentrate, socialise, eat in public, prevent your organs from shutting down and feeding on themselves—at the other. But I sometimes also think that this is too simplistic; that it denies the very real terror, the iron-clad and vice-like rigidity at the heart of anorexia, the thing that saw me, only a few months ago, sobbing and gasping for air on the floor of my kitchen because my housemate had accidentally eaten the cheese I’d deemed safe for me to eat, and I couldn’t figure out what to do instead.
Even so, it’s hard to find anyone, really, who doesn’t overeat or undereat or avoid red meat or white bread, or stock their fridge with huge bunches of celery and kale that they never get around to eating, or accidentally devour an entire box of Tim Tams in one night. So many of us are regulating our intake and our bodies that it no longer seems abnormal to be avoiding at least one thing, or almost evangelically singing the praises of another. It’s a mentality that Joan Jacobs Brumberg, in her history of self-starvation and anorexia Fasting Girls, dates back to the home economics movement of the twenties and thirties, when the management of food was, for women at least, first promoted as a personal responsibility and implicated in the management of the household as a whole. Brumberg writes that the “preoccupation with efficiency in the home was accompanied by an equal concern for efficiency in the body,” and as a part of this concern, being either underweight or overweight was seen as “the result of failing to cook, feed and eat correctly.”
‘Correctly’ is a telling word here. For the first time, Brumberg argues, food and eating were burdened with a moral meaning, began to signify skillfulness, carefulness, even righteousness, a measurable kind of goodness. It’s not surprising that the first dieting and health books, published in this era, used a language of morality and religion—where treats were an indulgence, a temptation, a sin, and keeping to the regime was a penance, a dedication, a transformative act of self-sacrifice, proving moral and spiritual worth.
I have a friend who loves cheese, but every time he eats it he says oh, but I love being bad. Another who says she’s trying to be good when choosing between options on a menu. Another who recently completed a thirty-day vegan challenge after a series of escalating detoxes from coffee, alcohol, dairy, grains. None of these are friends I met in hospitals.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #32. Get your copy here.
Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic from Sydney. Her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction, and her poetry collection Knuckled won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award. She has recently completed a PhD at Western Sydney University’s Writing & Society Research Centre.