Posts Tagged ‘self-starvation’

Isabelle Caro, dead at 28: she weighed 56 pounds

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve had a policy for quite a while now of not writing about books or movies which are bad. It takes time to write a blog, to write about something awful seems counterproductive: after all, ignoring it is the best way to defeat a book or movie. Finally, you get no thanks, especially from the author. But every once in a while I come across something which seems to me harmful, and when it’s presented as doing good for those it hurts who are themselves at serious risk for pain, suffering from cruelty, or, a lesser thing but still worth saying something about, seriously misleading about some aspect of scholarship I care about, then I do write.

Kate Chisholm’s My Hungry Hell has been touted as seriously conveying the experience of anorexia empathetically and explaining it because 1) she suffered the condition, and 2) (it’s implied) is so smart. She may have experienced anorexia for a time, but her book is a unacknowledged full frontal attack on “anorexic” girls as “bad” (a word she uses for anorexic people over and over again,” causing great trouble to their (presented as) ever well-meaning and concerned family and friends, perverse, seeking and gaining power over others and attention, and if she parrots the correct theories she’s read in some good books, she has no grasp of the meaning of the words she so blithely throws around.

Her book has this use: if you can read past her hostility and stupidity, her condescension to “social isolates” she shows how hard life is for such people, partly because they are misunderstood and disliked. And her inability to understand the particulars of this condition makes her talk about it in terms appropriate to depression, autism, schizophrenia so what she reveals can help many people suffering from the world’s reactive distancing of themselves as least insofar as a truthful description of emotional pain endured alone can.

To begin with, the book is a muddle. There’s no clear argument. I have a hard time critiquing it because of this. There is nothing put before you which step-by-step you could accept or refute or qualify. The book goes round and round. There is also this barrier that she presents herself as having been anorexic and I do not doubt she was. So when she accuses (it’s unacknowledged remember) anorexics of all I outlined above, with a litany of phrases about her own “shameful” behavior and statements (typical of her: “I could never accept what I had done”) one has a hard time saying she is obdurate, cruel, unthinking, unknowing. One sign she does not identify and never did with anorexic girls is how refers to “them” as “they.” It’s never us, we, and only “I” when she is regaling us with the trouble she caused and the bad treatments she got because (forsooth) her condition was so puzzling. She may have endured long spells of dieting to the point that she weighed under 70 pounds, but she speaks as an outsider with little sympathy for women.

She does repeat at the opening what she’s read in Palazzoli (Self-Starvation, a book about how families play an important role in the formation of anorexia in a girl), Mantel’s Girls Want Out (Mantel writes of how girls naturally become anorexic as part of a contradictory highly pressured group of social constructs), and psychiatry (the girl is afraid of sex as it is today experienced by women in our heterosexual — and I would say violent — society). But clearly she doesn’t believe any of it for real. Families mean well and if they are too close to help, if “something goes wrong,” that’s not because they are further harming the girl, are using her or adversarial in any way. No, she is taking advantage of remaining dependent on them in her self-induced isolation, twisting herself into them like some screw based on their weaknesses. She’s the anti-social one all by herself; her behavior is not something that is partly a reaction to how she’s been reacted to as a girl who looks a certain way, comes from a certain class or race, has a sensitive nature.

She’s withering about girls or people who “can’t cope with life.” This phrase is endlessly repeated without any specifics or explanation. You might as well as say “can’t cope with walixes” for any explanation this offers. Where is there a description of how hard it is to get a job, to get through an interview, to network; how aggressive and abrasive and hard is the world of heterosexual sex; how group life is cliquish. We are told “teasing” is natural and “fun” (when it comes from families & friends [!]). Money is never mentioned except to say her parents spent it like water on her. (May still do, or a husband or someone else, for in her little resume, she is not credited with a regular job, only freelance journalism which would not provide her with an upper middle class life without some other resource.)

Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: the sort of book Chisholm disdains (see comments)

Finally, she dismisses the idea that the girls is reacting against cruel pressures with a disdainful paragraph against “feminists.” (A bad word in her vocabulary; used in this book as she does in her book on Fanny Burney where she describes Margaret Doody and Julia Epstein’s books as “if you must talk in this ridiculous way”.) No it’s an eternal condition. The researches into medieval nuns of the kind Mantel uses or Carolyn Walker Byrom has been so careful to present, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women provide ammunition to say this is an eternal universal, something totally opposed to what Byrom shows. Byrom has a long full chapter on how women are pushed into being those who provide food, into being, food and another on anorexics in history and today; Dava Sobel (Galileo’s Daughter) shows how nunneries were often deeply poverty-stricken and the starving of nuns as a religious penance saved the society and their families who dumped them there money. NO. It’s an eternal twist in girls, some crazed drive which goes wrong. So don’t look to society no no.

That this is an unempathetic attack is seen in her way of characterizing anorexics online sites: no understanding whatsoever. They are simply dangerous. She implies they ought to be shut down; the girls are not really in contact with one another. (As a journalist who is part of the published coteries of the world she does all she can to dismiss contacts people have on the Net as utterly unreal, useless. Another is how she retreats from her position (right) that institutional force-feeding is cruel and does not get to the heart of the problem (the mechanism which causes the eating disorder), but then says for some it works. And oh yes young men get this too (I don’t doubt she’d say young men get raped nearly equally with young women if pushed).

The implication this is eternal and takes the same form repeatedly is partly refuted by a death of a model who began this to get employment. Have a look at Cate Blanchett’s arms lately or Nicole Kidman or Rachel Weisz or Carey Mulligan. They are skeletal.

Take a real look at her arms and the thinness of her body

Look at the leading heroines of movies and plays: they are usually 20 years younger than the men they play against as their own age, and frail in comparison. Blanchett and Kidman may be able to control herself not to go into a spiral of absolute non-eating and then death but not everyone can. We can call them semi-anorexics or women seriously at risk for falling into the condition.

She is aware that most anorexia is triggered by some final incident — though no where does she tell us who tormented her or how. I had a girl student in one of my classes who I recognized as anorexic and she told me of how it began in athletics. The woman coach would put up photos of them and show their thigh and make fun of any fat on their thighs. That’s what began it with her. She determined on a diet in order not be humiliated again. My anorexia (for I was fully anorexic between the ages of 16 and 21, weighing 78 pounds most of the time — I’m 5 feet 2 inches). But Chisholm does not say these triggers are humiliations, which are usually repeated enough to drive the girl to diet in the first place.

Her anorexia does not seem to have gone on for any time before her family aggressively intervened and paid for price-y psychiatry, institutions and group therapies not available to most people. She’s a politically conservative person in her other writings and concerned to uphold the established order, so that’s she over it, she exorcises the fiend or “it. “It” seems to be something now outside her though she does have the occasional ominous grumble about how hard she has to work to keep “it” at bay.

True enough. When I was no longer fully anorexic, at age 22 or 23 for many years afterward I still watched my weight fiercely, would eat only a limited number of foods, and until today I have fears I will be fat and don’t have an accurate body image of myself quite. This description of how one has to work at keeping “the thing” at bay shows where if you can read past her hostility and stupidity, the book is of use. Where it’s good is in the parallels of other disorders & seeing girls again and again present in the same helpless and isolated way. Chisholm of herself only says what went wrong was she didn’t want to teach and was pushed into it, and shows herself put into institutions and made worse by them, coming out to be isolated again (like a prisoner from a jail), taking menial jobs, spending her time thinking about how not to eat and avoiding facing the reality of her unhappiness. Her book reveals the difficulties of breaking out of once you move into isolation.

Even here she is to be read with care, for she repeats over and over how this condition makes the girl powerful (hilarious this) and is an attention-grabber. Not in my experience necessarily. In my experience the girl is often ignored and/or snubbed because no one in the family knows what to do or they are angry at her for being ill — chimpanzees will ferociously attack other chimps who are disabled lest they “catch” this state. Luckily on my WWTTA list, Aneilka reacted to my first description of this book as probably “wrong” because surely such a condition (starving, weakening yourself, making yourself unable to sit down to a meal with others) makes a girl powerless, helpless and throws her into the control of others (as she often can’t find a job due to her looks and need to cope with not eating most of the time).

Here is part of my take on this complicated condition: The girl is seeking control (that’s true) by putting people at a distance from her. She shrinks her body in order to fend off male attacks. She has been made understandably afraid she will be ridiculed because she is fat and publicly rejected repeatedly. She is afraid of all the pressures put on her by her family to be thin and super-aggressively popular and successful — part of this is their demand she look fashionable. She is in short afraid and has lost self-esteem and confidence badly. The one area she can control is her body which she has been taught to dislike and to diet and change. What she doesn’t realize is control does not come this way. In fact she is without power and dependent on others to tolerate her and keep her.

Chisholm does show how hard it is for a girl still to get real help, how much suffering the girl is experiencing. She is open about the hostility to the girl, that those around her seek to punish her. Such a girl is an affront to most people. They see her as astonishingly against life. Depressive people are often disliked as a living indictment of society’s infliction of suffering through its social arrangements and customs. They are thriving or okay and don’t want to be told the system is unfair to others without the same genes and background. Force feeding (I’ve always felt) is spiteful behavior. It’s analogous to the way a woman’s vagina is unnecessarily totally shaved when she gives birth. See you brought this on yourself.

Still I’ve never quite understand the special hostility to anorexic girls. The hostility to anorexic girls goes beyond the usual fear depressives and insistence on an appearance of cheer. Unless it be some intuition part of her syndrome is she doesn’t want sex with men on the terms this society offers it? Bynum Walker goes into how societies over and over again insist on defining women as food, as makers of food, cooks, feeders, as sex objects, as nurses, all self-sacrificing mothers. The resentment of girls who will not accept being raped and complain comes from the sense, Who do you think you are? I took it. So women resent the anorexic girl too. She takes the misery of pregnancies, of feeding others. So the girl’s being pushed into this (as Isabelle Caro clearly was) is not sympathized with because they have endure this daily.

I also see in it an addictive personality which can fall into other obsessive patterns: chain smoking, alcoholism, self-injuries. I do not idealize the condition or say it’s a state of being that anyone wants. Such people are to be pitied. I was pitiful myself.

I’ll end on a movie making the rounds just now: Black Swan, a movie which seems to break the taboo against hiding a common way of dealing with stress: self-injuring yourself to get release tension. Like depression, this self-mutilation is anger and pent-up violence felt against others turned against the self and body. I’ve read the depiction of the world of ballet is laughable and this movie does not create sympathy (in the way The King’s Speech does for stammerers).

Kettlewell, Skin Game

I haven’t seen Black Swan so don’t know but would like to cite a book that is genuinely humane about a related condition women and men experience: self-mutilation: Carolyn Kettlewell’s Skin Game. Alas, she has no larger explanation, seems not to have read any general books to explain her suffering to herself, but she does recreate uncannily the inner workings of a mind under stress from rejection and loss of self-esteem, how someone who is different (smarter say) can turn inward to semi-hallucinating compensatory dreams which are now consoling and now self-destructive. The self-destructive leads to the painful acts.

For general explanation of skin games, anorexia, and many other destructive states of mind and body and acts Armando Favazzo’s Under Seige: Self-mutilation and body modification in culture and psychiatry is the best book extant. It should be required reading before going into see Black Swan. He shows that many societies practice self-injury and self-mutilation, bodily harm as part of their rituals. Only those the society does not practice at large are stigmatized. So beheading, torture, circumcision (a slight cut), female genital mutilation (a cruel destruction of a central organ in women), various ordeals to become a man, war, tatoos are accepted if with discomfort and strong attempts at rationales. To see this is to realize the self-injurer is not mad or outside humanity, but rather picking on some area regarded as taboo (fingers, feet, the penis — male transvestites become female by cutting off their penises surgically), and to see how societies at large use violence to release their social tensions and energies of hatred and fear.

Anthony Favazzo, Bodies Under Seige


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