So many people just don't get what it means, to want and need to starve yourself. Why on earth should they? Yet anorexia seems strangely appealing as a subject of media jokes, or magazine gossip, or off-the-cuff comments from acquaintances: ‘She's been looking really anorexic lately'. As someone with anorexia and as someone recovered from it, the myths and misconceptions surrounding the illness have surprised me with their prevalence - they used to upset and infuriate me, now I can better understand them. So here I want to describe, and dissolve, the major anorexia myths:
Myth 1: Being really thin equals having anorexia.
You can be thin for all sorts of reasons: a virus that's made you throw up; a terminal illness; chain-smoking or using speed or cocaine; being a long-distance runner; being in mourning, etc. etc. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between these people and anorexics, but there are some clues to look out for if you want to identify the latter:
a) Wearing lots of layers of thick clothing on a warm summer's day, and seeming to think it normal. (You're never warm when you have anorexia; you dream of heat almost as desperately as you do of food, and you watch winter coming with dread.)
b) Taking excessive interest in food, whether gazing in at the cakes in the baker's window as you pass, or eyeing up people's shopping baskets or their restaurant choices.
c) Looking secretive and/or detached from the rest of the world. Nothing much matters except your own life, especially when you can next eat, and especially keeping that eating absolutely private to the point of mystery.
d) Having no energy at all for more than the essentials. If you're walking, say, you might walk fast, but all your concentration will need to go into it; smiling is an effort; you don't even remember that you ever used to really laugh.
Myth 2: Anorexics don't feel hungry.
Of course they do. They're only human, however much they like to pretend otherwise. Hunger is the point, after a while: it's the great tormentor and the great addictive high. You'll say you're not hungry ad nauseam, but it's an excuse that wears thin when you're staring with eyes sunken into a skeletal head at the biscuit on someone else's plate, of which you've just been offered one, and refused. (‘I've already eaten / just had a big lunch, thanks', is the other implausible stand-by.)
Myth 3: Anorexics don't like food.
This is similar to Myth 2, but leads to different assumptions. In general, anorexics love eating as much as they love being hungry. The eating, too, becomes the point: eating can only be as perfect as it should be if you're hungry enough, if it's late enough, if you've prepared the food meticulously according to your own immovable rules, if you eat it at the right speed, in the right order, without any danger of interruption. Only then has the day's hunger not been in vain, and the day held one small—or immense—pleasure after all the waiting.
Me eating Easter bunny, sent to my mother to reassure her I was still eating enough
This is why anorexics never ‘break the rules' as a dieter might. If they start to, the affliction becomes binge-eating, or bulimia. (A note on terminology: the self-help books and the therapists say not to call people with anorexia ‘anorexics', since it identifies the person with the illness. I will, sometimes, for brevity's sake, and because that's so much how it feels from the inside: you are all of this stuff that you do, which everyone else calls ‘sick'.)
Myth 4: Anorexics look in the mirror and see a fat person.
Of course they don't. They're not stupid, however much they might give the impression of being so. You look in the mirror and see your ribs with their thinly stretched coating of papery skin; you see every hump of the spine if you bend over; you see the elbows thicker than the arms above them, and the dark hole between the bee-stings where your breasts might have been.
You see all this, but what you care about will be some tiny, specific aspect of your body that has always to be more and more pared away: the inner thighs must be more and more fleshless, say; or you have to be able to encompass your wrist with the other hand with more and more empty space to spare; or, as for me, your tummy has to be flatter and flatter, more and more concave, less and less like a tummy at all, in fact. Anorexia isn't body dysmorphia; the focus on minutiae is what lets you look in the mirror and still be spurred on further in your quest for a bodily ideal that involves thinness. (When something does force you to see the whole, it can be shocking: one of the steps in my progress towards ‘saying no' to starvation was trying on a ball gown in a changing room and seeing the Dachau contours of my spindle arms and scrawny neck and bony bust emerging from the rich chocolately shot silk of a dress I could never wear without horrifying anyone who saw me, nor could ever have any occasion to wear, since I never went out of an evening, because I needed all the evening hours for my bleak lonely routines of drinking and eating. It made me cry.)
Myth 5: Being thin is all that matters to an anorexic.
It might seem to contradict the previous myth, but being thin is in fact often only a minor matter compared to everything else that drives you. As I said in reply to a comment last week, control is probably at the centre of it all: thinness is simply an effect, a demonstration to yourself and to others. Control of food and eating might be the most obvious anorexic behaviour, but the control illusion stretches its tentacles into all the rest of life: you have complete control over how much you work, say, and when; how much you spend; how many people you spend time with, how often, and in what context. And all of these things, being so controlled, shrink and shrink away as your body does, till going out for a drink on a Saturday night is as impossible as stopping work before your head is spinning, or spending anything without entering into your little expenses book, or going to bed before five in the morning, or not having the next day and week and month planned into nothingness. The whole constellation of ideals that clusters around the concept of control validates and reinforces all this: control equals strength, strength equals denial, denial equals simplicity, simplicity equals purity, purity equals perfection, perfection equals perfect control.
In fact, it's the ultimate illusion: you're completely under the control of the twisted ideals and the routines that suffocate you, and make you inhuman.
Keeping warm by the barbecue, staying ‘pure' and ‘in control' by not eating
Purity and self-denial and simplicity and perfection are all equally inhuman. Gradually you lose your grip on what it means to live, and you delight in this (as much as you can delight in anything), because of that shining, unassailable edifice of ideals in your thin and tired and blotchy-skinned head.
Next week I'll talk more about how ‘life' is when you live it according to this illusory set of unspoken rules.