"Starving silences who you really are."
December 10, 2015 8:37 AM   Subscribe

There Once Was a Girl. A work of criticism and of memoir on the false narratives surrounding anorexia in life and literature.
(Some may find the descriptions in this essay disturbing or triggering.)
posted by zarq (9 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure this article is just fine; I read quite a bit of it, but it's a really long piece. If you don't have the time, the author links to a better and shorter article with the same basic point about the literature of anorexia. Here, from the New Yorker.
posted by kozad at 9:04 AM on December 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm still processing Waldman's article, which rang fairly true to me. But I also agree that there's probably no good way to write about anorexia, and nobody wants to read a couple of thousand words about how anorexia made me annoying and boring. And I also wonder how her sister feels about her publishing that article.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:22 AM on December 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I also wonder how her sister feels about her publishing that article.

A sense of sororal competition thrums through this piece; Katy Waldman spends a lot of words defining who she is not in relation to what her sister is. I personally wonder how much of the competition is one-sided, how much of it is reflected (where each sister defines themself by how they're not like the other), and how much is covertly or overtly encouraged by their parents.
posted by sobell at 10:25 AM on December 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

nobody wants to read a couple of thousand words about how anorexia made me annoying and boring

And yet nobody writes about say, AIDS, by describing how it leaves you waifish, frail, and pure. But we still write about AIDS. We don't typically write about illnesses in a way that paints the sufferers as more virtuous than the general population, except with cancer and anorexia. I've been mostly better for awhile, but some of the language used in this sort of thing is intensely triggering, for me. I had a hard time reading this. But I'm glad, because this was new to me:
Anorexics, even recovered ones, do not have well-functioning insulae. Their brain scans reveal lower connectivity and slower processing speeds in the region; researchers Ken Nunn and Bryan Lask hypothesize that people suffering from anorexia are less intuitive about the moment-to-moment state of their bodies and feelings. Maybe it takes these individuals a few extra hours to realize how exhausted they are and finally go to bed. Or they won’t notice that a conversation has stressed them out until their jaws start to ache from clenching.
Excuse me while I go flail uselessly that it turns out there's a name for the part of my brain that's always stupid. I managed to start making myself eat anyway but have never been able to get over the periods of finding food unbearably disgusting. This makes it sound like I probably won't get over that part, but somehow it still seems more tolerable if I know it's just another weird brain quirk.
posted by Sequence at 10:40 AM on December 10, 2015 [14 favorites]

I had a hard time reading this article because so much of it rang so true.

I suffered from what I desperately wanted to be anorexia mirabilis, a particularly Christian strain of anorexia for a practicing Jew, but nevertheless, I wanted to be an ascetic. I wanted to deny the flesh and genuinely thought my life would have more meaning and more worth were I to deny my earthly nature. Unfortunately, I was not a "successful" anorexic, and so I tortured myself further by binging, because I could not help myself and purging, because I hated myself for being so weak. I told no one because my successes were not to be shared (sin of pride) and my failures were humiliating reminders of how human I actually was. I didn't get help until after I got married and couldn't hide my purging from my husband. I still struggle with the desire to detach from worldly things, though, thankfully, I no longer struggle with the desire to purge.

“I don’t want it to end.”

This was such a throw away line, and yet I feel like it was an essential artery to my eating disorder. I didn't want the eating disorder to end because I was so attached to it as a coping mechanism and I didn't know how I would survive without it. I also didn't want the food, the ability to eat, to end because once satiated, I wanted to be that way forever.

I wonder - and of course I fear - what my insula would tell a researcher about me.

Also, no one talks about AIDS leaving you frail and pure because you "had to have done something terrible to have gotten it." With AIDS, the narrative was that the healthy and debauched body is now getting what it deserved as punishment for its sins.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:02 AM on December 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, Sequence, I was fascinated by that bit, too. I definitely have some sensory processing issues, and I've always wondered if and how they were related to my eating disorder. I actually think that's way more interesting than the stuff about images of anorexia in literature.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:32 AM on December 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

One of the things I found frustrating about the article was the mischaracterization of The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block. I will be the first person to admit that Block's writing is problematic AF, but The Hanged Man is [spoiler] told from the perspective of a girl whose eating disorder was triggered by sexual abuse, which was a popular narrative/thesis about what caused eating disorders at the time the book was published. Readers were not supposed to see the protagonist's childlike appearance and "purity" as a positive trait, but rather as a reflection of how her sexualization from a young age has screwed her up.

Again, this isn't to excuse Block's writing on the whole, but to point out how her reading of that particular book missed the point.
posted by pxe2000 at 1:40 PM on December 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I found this article powerful, and brave, in a way that most anorexia "confessions" or narratives (including those I've authored myself, whether publicly or just the story I tell myself about my own disease) are not. Admitting to the parts of this illness that we are most deeply ashamed and frightened of (the bingeing, the purging, the studying, the competitiveness, the overwhelming *desire* for the disease itself, the WANTING of the narrative of heroic anorexia and the constant failure for it to materialize in your own life, in your own body), all these were things that rang so, so true for me, but that I've never seen confessed so openly before, precisely because the Sad, Beautiful, Damaged, Waif story that Waldman identifies is so appealing (to anorexics, to everyone) and so prevalent. The sense of failure that I experienced over and over again when I was sick - for never quite being that Child of Light, that tiny, vulnerable, attractive Creature that is so reverently and fetishisticly held up as what Anorexia IS - was paradoxically one of the strongest perpetuating forces of my experience of the disease: I WANTED to be that broken piece of glass/girl, yet I was not and could not ever seem to be, and so I wanted it MORE. Not just the body, not just the thinness and the purity and the fading away, but the disease itself. So much of my experience of this disease involved feeling somehow like a fraud, feeling like I wasn't worthy of the diagnosis because I was not ever quite (physically, emotionally, intellectually, creatively) a Waif, and was thus always being driven to try harder, to be less, to restrict more, because - despite what everyone told me - I didn't quite have "it" yet (the disease, the image, the clarity). So much of my anorexia was, as Waldman says, "a choice, but not a choice", something at once embarrassingly, humiliatingly, ashamedly conscious, as well as compulsive, cultivated as well as despised and endured.
That was the hardest part of recovery: letting go of the intense WANTING of the disease, the desire for it. Obviously this is not everyone's experience, and it's not the whole story (the biological factors are very real) but it certainly was the part of my experience that seared the deepest, and the part that felt (and feels) the most shameful.

So yeah, this piece articulated a lot of that for me, much of which still feels humiliating and false. I'm glad Waldman was able to write this, reading it was very hard.
posted by Dorinda at 1:51 PM on December 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

I am probably the opposite of anorexic, and yet there are ways that Waldman writes about food, about the desire to be a certain kind of girl, that hit very hard for me. I've never starved myself. I've never purged. And yet that ideal girl/woman, the one with thin wrists and ankles who forgets to eat, who is cerebral and ethereal and definitely not of the body because there is so little of her body - she's there in my head, she's there next to me in the mirror looking sorrowfully at my fat self, the expression on her face asking why I can't be more like her. And I not-so-secretly want to be like her, wish I could be even as I know I never will be. Even as I know that is not a good way to be.

nobody wants to read a couple of thousand words about how anorexia made me annoying and boring
Not true. Waldman's article was long, yes, but I was fascinated from the start.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:55 PM on December 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

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