пʼятниця, 22 жовтня 2010 р.

Anorexia and today's world

I spent a fortnight on a Greek island last month with my boyfriend, and while I was there felt a splendid simplicity: the routines of breakfast on the terrace with the sun already hot, doing a little academic work, cycling to the beach for a swim, lunch in the shade, a nap on the sofa in the shuttered cool, another swim before sunset, and dinner on the terrace looking out over the sea, made life seem unimaginably calm and beautiful. Walking round half-naked, eating local produce, and entertaining myself with some Joseph Conrad and the beauty of the landscape, I was especially struck by the distance I felt from all the anxieties that modern society induces. Partly that was just the solitude: spending all day only with the person one loves creates a great contentment. But it was also the freedom from advertising, from overstocked supermarkets, from overworked people, from a crowded gym fostering exercise obsessions, from modern life.
Reflecting on modern society from a distance

In general I live quite secludedly, not watching television (except the occasional HBO drama) or reading magazines or exposing myself to much of the franticness that often passes for entertainment, but still I felt a great difference, being there. It made me reflect on the nature of this world that has grown up around us in the way it has, and on the ferry back from Naxos to mainland Greece, in between a mind-numbingly protracted game of battleships and a lunch of very un-Greek burger and chips, I had some thoughts about Western society and its relation to anorexia, and to eating disorders and obsessive mental disorders more generally.
The first thing that struck me was the many irreconcilable oppositions that structure our ideals of body and hence self. For both men and women, there are two extremes of physical perfection promoted to us as desirable: for women, the ‘fashion' ideal versus the ‘soft porn' ideal, that is stick thinness versus busty curves; for men, the ‘fashion' ideal versus the bodybuilding one (see Polly Vernon on how men are ‘subject to increasingly proscriptive and exaggerated notions on the physical ideal'). In each case, the fashion-dominant ideal is historically much newer, but holds increasing sway over the other. The woman's hourglass figure and the man's macho build are still powerful models, but androgynous emaciation seems to be ever more influential a template. Most human beings, of course, fall naturally somewhere in between these two types of ‘perfection': a woman may have curvaceous breasts, but also the wide hips that go with them; a man may have rippling pecs but also some fat round the waist.
                               Catwalk and glamour models: what lies in between?
 
The very point of most of the pictures of the human body that we see published in magazines and on billboards is to induce a mixture of aspiration and self-loathing at the perfection imposed on the real-life model by makeup, camera angles, and airbrushing (see GQ editor Dylan Jones on the ubiquity of these procedures, with reference to Kate Winslet's thighs). The very contours of impossibly slim thighs or an implausibly flat tummy are designed to make us at once dream and despair, and lap up the impossibility because it's what we've come to believe we desire. Body dysmorphia is, of course, made more prevalent by such techniques, which create a gaping gulf between the people we see in photographs and those we see and are in the real world.

So insistent and insidious are the advertised ideals that it is almost impossible to accept, these days, that one's body is simply a certain shape and will remain that way - and that that is OK. Of course, physical self-improvement has a long history, from corsetry and wigs to lead skin whiteners and Chinese foot-binding, but the methods available are becoming more sophisticated and profoundly effective. Consumerist principles already dictate how we view our careers and our relationships (see Hara Estroff Marano on how ‘we firmly believe that freedom of choice will lead to fulfillment' and how ‘free-market values' ‘seep into our private lives'). In essence, if it doesn't completely satisfy me, I have the right to exchange it for a new one. And this model now extends also to our attitudes regarding our own flesh and blood: if my breasts are too small or my hips too large, I will have them altered to fit my current ideal - or the one which society has imposed on me (though that caveat usually goes unacknowledged).

The pathological nature of all these impulses to physical picking and choosing is that our bodies don't actually have to do anything any more. Once upon a time, men had to be strong to provide for their women, and women had to have breasts and hips to give birth and nurture their offspring, but today we can avoid the pain of childbirth with elective C-sections and stroll to the corner shop whenever we feel peckish. Now bodies just have to look a certain way, rather than needing to fulfill any physical function. My boyfriend has encouraged me to take up weight-lifting, and yesterday in the gym I got a thrill from squatting 55 kg; but it was an essentially superfluous achievement, something that would once have been useful but now is merely a source of pleasure.

I sometimes feel a gentle longing to see society pushed back into a state where the problem is finding enough food rather than resisting eating too much; where work means growing crops and milking cows rather than slumping over a PC with Facebook on the next Firefox tab. I know that nostalgia is a pernicious sort of illusion, and that a global-warming induced apocalypse wouldn't simply bring out the best in people, but I do believe it would do away with a great slew of the mental illnesses that are so rife these days. I remember first seeing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth at the cinema with my mother, when I was very ill, and being plunged into a great and lasting dread of the global disaster that it presented as inevitable, and crying myself to sleep at the thought of how badly I would cope once society did break down. My mother has always liked apocalyptic thinking - she made boxes of provisions in the cellar in preparation for the Millennium bug that was meant to make the West crumble; then the Millennium stores turned into bird-flu stores and then into global-warming stores. She always said how well I'd do in a crisis on a grand scale, because I was so used to hunger and going without - but I knew that my hunger was possible for me only because it was a choice, only because it was the exception, only because I could put an end to it at any moment I chose - but never did choose to.

I knew that if the world as we knew it ended and I was still anorexic, I'd be crippled by anger at myself, by regret and by the deepest imaginable sadness that I'd insisted on refusing to eat when there was enough. When I then did start to eat more again, a couple of years later, I cried too, because it felt so beautiful and so awful that any food I wanted was there, waiting for me, and that I could choose anything I wanted to make myself better again: an unholy privilege, to say no to food for so many years, and then to have it all there for the taking as soon as I got over that perversion born, at least in part, of over-privilege.


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