Dear Formerly Fat Person:
You’ve written about being anorexic at more than 300 lbs. I read something in Time today about how campaigns against anorexia sometimes cause anorexics to obtain accidental inspiration for their disorder. What gives?
I think Kelsey Osgood makes a fascinating point here about the reasons that people become anorexic. After I wrote about being unable to lose weight with normal 1500-a-day calorie plans and how the only thing that ever worked for me was dropping down to an all-raspberries and coffee until 7pm diet, I did have a number of what seemed to be young women write to me to ask how this worked out for me. I wondered a little about the ethics of writing about my experience: I thought I’d been helping people realize that this was crazy because it struck me as crazy, but obviously, it didn’t strike me as crazy in the moment when I tried it. Which is exactly what I think Osgood is getting at here. A person in her right mind might look at the emaciated corpse of a 28-year-old Italian model who died of anorexia and think, “Wow, that wasn’t the best idea,” but if you’re contemplating anorexia, you are definitionally not in your right mind. In my case, all I could think about was how gross and disgusting and horrifying I was, and how I needed to stop being that way as soon as I could. Anorexia is a disorder of compulsion, laser-like focus, and exclusion: the whole point is to reduce everything to one thing. So you become pretty good at tuning everything else out, including the people who are trying to reach you. You also become very good at making your critics quiet by turning their criticism into what you need it to be. That’s why it’s such a difficult disease to treat.
As for the ethics of writing about it, I’m not sure I have a good answer. On the one hand, writing about it generally has caused people to recognize the signs and symptoms in their friends, and, as I implied above, the only thing that stops anorexia is the reintroduction of something else into the world you’ve created for yourself besides the fact of not eating. Distraction is what works, the creation of other priorities. Because it’s hard to do other things and starve yourself, you have to choose. Other people can be helpful with this. On the other hand, people who write about their eating disorders and how they manage them do give you ideas, as well as something to do that’s related to your eating disorder. One of the examples in the Osgood article talks about a woman who was on a family vacation, picked up an anorexia memoir, and took notes. I certainly remember doing frequent web searching for advice on how not to eat.
So what to do? This is where I think that there’s a place for fat people to write about their struggles with anorexia. One of the points that Osgood makes is that we glamorize the anorexic: the hypersensitive, brooding soul who is also beautiful by contemporary standards of beauty because on the edge of starvation. We write about their lowest weights and show pictures of them that are categorically and visually similar to the ones that you see in the magazine rack at the drugstore (“Miley Cyrus’s Amazing 25-Day Diet!”) Well, I did manage to lose 75 pounds with my anorexia, but I was still fat and even unhappier afterwards. I also nearly flubbed my chance to go to graduate school by slowing my brain function to a trickle. It didn’t work out for me in a number of highly specific and annoying ways, and I still wasn’t a sensitive, brooding, soul who looked like she was starving herself to death. So take my example and just don’t. If you’re obese and you’re struggling with losing weight, you’re not alone; as I’ve said over and over again, it is nearly impossible to lose weight if you’re obese. This is no reason to feel bad about yourself or to starve yourself down to a slightly more socially acceptable weight. There’s a lot of sense in eating nutritious, fresh food and getting 30 minutes of exercise several times a week, but this probably won’t cause much by way of weight loss and the solution is not to go big or go home. Once you become anorexic, it’s hard to avoid that way of thinking. It’s always background noise, every time you eat, every time you get on a scale. You’ll always and ever more be conscious of having to distract yourself from what you still regard (somewhere in the back of your head) as the laudable goal of not eating. So do yourself a favor and don’t stop eating in the first place. Life shouldn’t be a distraction, but the point.