I started using ugly words on the off-chance that they would be affecting enough for people to take me seriously. From an aesthetic perspective, “anxiety,” “depression,” and “anorexia” aren’t so unpleasant sounding at all, but negative connotation robs each of its euphony. Harmless little letters, when fitted together in certain assemblages, will stop people cold in their tracks; “anorexia” makes noise, attracts attention, but it is an attention which may quickly turn to revulsion or fear. From the age of twelve, I have used the terms “self-conscious” and “over-analytical” to describe my preoccupation with how I am perceived by others, each loaded with an air of self-deprecation and admission of personal failure; but I will no longer allow the nuances of my condition to be marginalized by adolescent language. I have never been the self-conscious teenager that my family wanted me to be, the one whose normal “growing pains” would disappear with maturity; “just give it a few years,” they said, “your skin will clear up and no one will care how popular you are in high school.”
An eating disorder, like a new lover, will infatuate, consume and, then, alienate. It begins with a want of passion, anything — but food — to fill the lack of motivation, of inspiration, of an attainable goal. It takes up space [so that you don’t have to], crowding out every painful remembrance; abandonment, loneliness, failure. Your internal dialogue will go something like this: 1c. cheerios (100 calories) + ½ c. skim milk (45 calories) + 2 egg whites (30 calories) = 175 calories. At first, the freedom will empower; released from the bonds of depression and anxiety and delivered to a state of pure elation, your hands will, for once, hold the reins of your happiness. You will lose weight, receive attention, bask in the sensation of personal validation. I am remarkable. I am worthy of love. I deserve to be praised. The moment you realize that you have fallen too deeply, after the honeymoon phase has ended, evolved into a parasitic love affair of two partners so tightly intertwined that one cannot be distinguished from the other, it will be too late. Your personal identity will have been long forsaken to a newfound sense of self, one defined by your relationship to another – someone, something –
far greater than you.
There will be no one left to remind you of the person you once were. Not after: “Sorry I have to leave [my own surprise party] so soon, I have to get up early [to go to the gym]” and “Sorry, I know you offered to make dinner, but I already ate [so I wouldn’t have to eat anything that I hadn’t prepared myself].” By the time your self-loathing comes back around, you will have burned all of your bridges to spend time with Ana. She is the worst kind of lover: controlling, attention-seeking, deceptive, the kind you can’t bring home to Mom & Dad. And, if you do, they’ll blame you. For choosing her. For falling prey to her charms. For lacking the courage to pack up your things, walk out the door, and end it.
In contemporary culture, the “natural beauty” of woman has been affirmed by popular consensus; her image saturates every form of mass media: print, broadcast, electronic; she is the spokes-model of aesthetic pleasure, the muse of visual artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers. As a subject, the “beautiful woman” exists in the public domain and, therefore, the use and manipulation of her image cannot be regulated; she is a marketing tool, deconstructed and rebuilt to sell, juxtaposed with the tagline: “She is beautiful. Don’t you want to be beautiful too?” The abundant representation of female beauty may easily be misconstrued as empowerment for women, but by reducing them to an amalgamation of hair, skin, and bone, they become no more valuable than living mannequins.
Most women walk into a department store with the understanding that display mannequins and sales catalog models are paid (or made from plastic) to sell the clothes off of their backs. What women do not know, and the patriarchy and its institutions will never tell them, is that we are being sold, what Naomi Wolf terms, “the beauty myth,” the notion that physical appearance defines women’s worth. The contemporary backlash against feminism uses images of female beauty as a weapon against women’s advancement; by promoting the gaunt, youthful model as the arbiter of successful womanhood,” the media encourages women to embody a prototype which reinforces the most oppressive stereotypes used against them: frailty and innocence.
In The Body Politic, Abra Fortune Chernik, a recovering anorexic, reflects: “I had grown into a silent, hungry young woman. And society preferred me this way: hungry, fragile, crazy” (132). Little girls don’t dream of growing up to be strong, independent women anymore, they dream of remaining little girls forever. Flat chested. Narrow-Hipped. Small. The ideal woman is constructed by the male gaze for male pleasure. If women are smaller than men, they can be overpowered, raped, and physically or sexually abused. If women are smaller than men, they can be excluded from traditionally male fields which require “hard labor.” If women are smaller than men, gender difference, not social inequality, becomes the source of our oppression.
Dominant groups benefit from perpetuating myths of difference, from creating a polarization between themselves and those they oppress. Gender differences, whether they have basis in reality or are socially constructed, have been and will continue to be used by men to justify the privileges they have over women, and, as long as gender differences appear obvious, the majority of the population will continue to read social inequality as biological destiny. The re-emergence of gender essentialism in the 1980s was not coincidental; in the previous decade, women had “gained legal and reproductive rights, pursued higher education, entered the trades and professions,” and successfully blurred the line between the separate spheres. Women’s progress posed a threat to traditional values and male privilege, requiring the dissemination of a message which would remind them of gender role expectations. However, because the old feminine ideologies, “myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity,” could no longer control women as they once had, the media was forced to reinvent its rhetoric (The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf). The new “myth of difference” would emphasize the most stark, biologically incontestable difference between men and women: physical appearance.