Tuesday, June 6, 2017

I'm the ghost in your machine

"An eating disorder is, at the most basic level, a bundle of deadly contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power. A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength. A wish to prove that you need nothing, that you have no human hungers, which turns on itself and becomes a searing need for the hunger itself...it is a protest against cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women."
I finished Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher in the middle of last August and I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book for months. This was one of the most difficult books I've ever read because of how close it hits home: I'm only a year younger than Marya was when she published her brutally honest and Pulitizer Prize-nominated memoir, and as much as Wasted is a visceral and chilling account of Marya's eating disorders, it's also a painful reminder of all the pressures young women like myself have to deal with just to feel okay about existing as we are. 

On a theoretical level, I'm fascinated by the dichotomy of hunger and satiation and the spectrum in between. Hunger, especially female hunger, is often defined by its inverse because there's something particularly offensive about a woman with an appetite, sometimes for food and sometimes for power or sex or love. The good woman is always satisfied by what she is given because if you want less you will always be given enough; the great woman rejects her desires completely because if you want nothing at all you are overcoming human nature itself—even if doing so will kill you.

The celebration of women who can somehow transcend their hunger compared to the vilification of women who are voracious is by no means a modern phenomenon: in classical literature from over two millennia ago, the Greeks valorized σωφροσύνηself-controlto the point where Phaedra in Euripides Hippolytus starving herself to death so she doesn't give in to her love for Hippolytus is venerated, while Pandora in Hesiod's Theogony is reviled by mankind because she all she does is sit at home and consume the fruits of man's labors. And in the contemporary western world, wellhave you ever seen women's magazine covers

Hunger is fundamentally a physiological signal to your body that you need to eat; it causes physical pain when denied and for most people, denying or rejecting food when you're hungry feels wrong in a human sense–a crime against nature, the body, the soul, the self. But for some, the ability to "overcome" the primal instinct of hunger can become both a literal and a symbolic demonstration of power and control over the body. In the mind of someone who sees this power struggle, to succumb to that desire is a sign of weakness; they must deny it in order to be in control. Marya puts it like this:
"...you've split yourself in two. One part is the part you're trying to killthe weak self, the body. One part is the part you're trying to becomethe powerful self, the mind. This is not psychosis, this splitting. It is the history of Western culture made manifest. Your ability to withstand pain is your claim to fame. It is ascetic, holy. It is self-control. It is masochism."
Her account of the dichotomy between mind and body and how withstanding the pain of hunger to become better makes sense in some deeply embedded cultural framework. The damnation of women who eat is in our myths and religion and fairy tales when you look for it: if only Persephone didn't eat Hades' pomegranate seeds; if only Eve didn't eat the apple; if only Rapunzel's mother didn't eat the lettuce from the witch's backyard. It's in our media because insecurity sells; I don't even need to be telling you about how pervasive thin culture is because I know you've read or at least heard about those diet tricks and bikini bods and what clothes we should wear to look skinnier. And so the shame and guilt at our existence is perpetuated: "Women use their obsession with weight and food as a point of connection with one another, a commonality even between strangers...we talk ad nauseam about the fact that we don't like our bodies."

Although this is by far the most annotated book I've ever marked up myself, I don't know if I would recommend Wasted or not. This memoir haunted me for weeks because of how much I saw myself relating to her anecdotes and social commentary; even though I've never had an eating disorder, I couldn't stop thinking about just how easily I could see myself succumbing to this mindset if I wasn't naturally thin and received a slightly different upbringing than the one I had. I couldn't not notice the dangerous cocktail of my own neuroses that plague me every once in a while: my personal desire for self-control, pursuit of high-stress environments, anxiety over [nonexistent, improbable, healthy] weight gain, and weird relationship with food and "deserving" to eat. While I've never committed physical violence to myself it scared me how I could imagine it were me. 

Marya is critical but not flat-out accusatory of any and all of the factors that led to her eating disorders. While she contends that the combination of a thinness-obsessed culture, unhealthy relationships with food within her family, a high-pressure school environment, and personal neuroses were all factors that led to her disordered eating, she balances clinical facts and statistics with anecdotal speculation in a way where it seems like she's not quite sure what the source is herself. 

As much as we might want an easy, end-all answer on who or what we can blame as if that will lead us to an easy, end-all solution to eating disorders in general, Marya avoids universalizing her experiences and prescribing a solution because the only truth she can speak to is her own story: this is what happened to me, this is my story, this is what I lived through. The differences between how you and I and every woman deal with desire and appearance and self-esteem and everything in between are infinite; perhaps the most we can ever ask of anyone trying to make sense of it all is by learning through lived experiences so that we can become more conscious and understanding.

xoxo, vivian

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