October 13, 2006

Eating Disorders

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

On an e-mail list, we were recently discussing eating disorders.  One person cited a lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson in which he said “Anorexia is the body language of gnosticism.”  Another responded by saying that, while that might be true, anorexia is also the body language of narcissism.

Wendy Shalit, in A Return to Modesty, links the increase in anorexia to the decline of modesty and the rise in promiscuity.  Girls are  expected to have sex on their dates.  In the media and elsewhere, it’s sex sex sex sex sex.  Guys watch porn with their girlfriends.  Colleges have coed dorms with coed bathrooms.  And girls react by degrading their bodies in a kind of self-loathing which is also an exercise of power and control.

What do we know about anorexia and bulimia?  What is not in dispute is that ninety percent of eating disorder sufferers are women, and that most cases occur at the onset of puberty or when a young woman begins to negotiate with the men who appear in her life.  Having an eating disorder, I would submit, is the only way our culture allows a woman to find order in a sexually chaotic landscape.  In a culture that permits food hang-ups but not sex hang-ups, it’s become the new way for a girl to express her modesty, to restore distance between men and herself (p. 59).

She talks about one woman with an eating disorder who had no problem with casual sex but did have a problem with hugging and being cared for.  That woman in college met other girls, many of them from unstable homes, who would “brag of the careless use of our bodies, our common disdain for the boys or  men.  ‘I didn’t feel a thing,’ we’d say with pride.”  And yet the “dorm bathrooms rarely worked because the pipes were perpetually clogged with vomit” (p. 59).

She quotes an anorexic student: “I think my issue was wanting to control my life” (p. 60).  Another says, “If I was at my ideal weight I’d feel really in control of my life” (p. 60).  Yet another (Drinking: A  Love Story) says, “When I was starving, I couldn’t think about … the fact that I was young and scared and sexually threatened and angry” (pp.  59-60).

Anorexia appears to be a fairly new thing.  Shalit asks: “Why are none of my grandma’s friend anorexic?” (p. 60).  Here’s her answer:

When modesty was given a sanction, woman not only had  the right to say no to a man’s advances, but her good opinion of him was revered.  Today, on the other hand, when our popular culture tells us that women should lust equally to men and feel comfortable about putting their bodies on display in coed bathrooms, on coed beaches — coed everything — women seem to be reporting that they feel only more at the mercy of male desire.  The anorexic disfigures her body to become unwomanly because if she no longer has the right to say “no,” at least she has her body language at her disposal.

So natural modesty has a way of reasserting itself, even in desperate and neurotic fashion (p. 60).

Later, she writes:

A typical specimen of our times is writer Marya Hornbacher, who whittled herself down to 52 pounds to rid herself of “an excess of general intensity.”  Scattered throughout her book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia, are stories of humiliating casual sex, along with these self-criticisms: “Too much fantasy.”  “Too intense and entirely too much.”  “Too emotional, too passionate.”  “Intense.”  “I was tired of being too much, too intense …”  “Beneath the skin I wore … was something horrible, something soft and weak … and tearful and needy.”  “Chaotic, needy softness.”  “The self I’d had, once upon a time, was too much.   Now there was no self at all.”  “If I had been a different sort of person …. less intense …”  Even when she is at a somewhat normal weight, Marya still laments that “I have not become a noticeably less intense person.”  She takes it as a personal failing that, even on Prozac, she has been unable to cure herself of her intensity.

I hear this all the time from women my age, this business of being too intense.  “People say I’m too … intense.”  Head bowed, ashamed.  A quick glance over the shoulder.  Will anyone witness, how intense?  Will they be perhaps arrested?  These are the women who end up on Prozac.  They see their very natures as the problem, and like Marya Hornbacher, they find nowhere to run from themselves.  But women are, generally speaking, intense  creatures. This is not necessarily bad.  Passion comes in handy in the search for romantic love; it is also well suited to motherhood and to the religious life.  But in a cynical culture that trivializes everything transcendent, a woman’s passionate nature will be directed against herself.  As Marya puts it, with her innocent precision: “I felt like yearning was specific to me, and the guilt that it brought was mine alone.”

So she tried to “escape the flesh and, by association, the realm of emotions,” but she succeeded only in sustaining permanent damage to her internal organs.  She contracts infections weekly and can never have children.

But why?  Maybe it is normal for a young woman to be “intense,” and being cavalier is what is strange.  Maybe wanting to forge bonds with others is normal, and it’s cutting ourselves off from enduring attachments that is perverse.  Maybe not having “rejection sensitivity” is what is sick, and invulnerability to loss the real pathology.  If being blase about sex were natural, why would so many women have to be on Prozac in order to carry out what their culture expects of them?

Incidentally, if you’re not sensitive to rejection, doesn’t that also mean you’re indifferent to love? (pp. 169-170).

In short, Shalit appears to be saying that because our culture puts women’s bodies on display and for male desire, values a certain kind of body, and discourages modesty, some girls react to this loss of control over their sexuality and over their bodies with a kind of self-controlling self-hatred. 

Narcissism?  Maybe.  But not in a straight-forward fashion.  The craving to seem beautiful (by which one means “thin”), Shalit is saying, isn’t motivated so much by self-love as by self-loathing.  It’s not “Oh, I look so good.”  It’s “Oh, I look so  ugly.”  Some of that is the product of parents and siblings who tell girls that they’re fat and unhealthy and out of shape and ugly and so forth.  Some of that may be the product of a culture that exalts the slim and despises the fat. 

I suppose you could call that abuse of the body a form of gnosticism.  As another friend pointed out, it does fit together with narcissism.  In a culture of body-worship, some people react with body-hatred.  And some people do terrible things to their bodies, trying to exercise control over them, so that they will find themselves attractive.

I  hasten to add that I have done no study whatsoever in this area.  And I doubt that this is the whole story.  But it does seem to me that Shalit’s attempt to link the relatively recent rise in eating disorders and the relatively recent loss of modesty bears further consideration.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:15 am | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Eating Disorders”

  1. Kata Iwannhn » Books I Enjoyed in 2006 Says:

    […] * Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue.  I blogged about this one earlier this year. […]

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