Still, not everyone turns to anorexia to perfect their bodies - indeed, anorexia is usually about other things as well: about control, or emotional sedation, or other things to which body-image is only an obvious focal point. Most people respond to the excess of cheap, easily available food with anxiety and with dieting, or with plastic surgery. Plastic surgery is the obvious quick fix to body anxieties, but not everyone (yet) has the courage or the cash to undertake it. The cheaper if slower, safer if less dramatic options are exercise and dieting - the latter in particular a commercial paradise: estimates of the annual US revenue from the dieting industry range between $40 billion and $100 billion (see Laura Cummings on how all dieting products are predicated on their failure). Dieting is a much more efficient way, in the short term, of losing body fat than exercise alone: you can eat in two minutes a blueberry muffin that will take you 35 minutes to ‘burn off'. The trouble is that dieting never works in the long run: self-deprivation induces desire, which makes ‘relapse' more and more likely; and each time weight gain happens, loss and gain get easier - each time, instability increases, and the cause of the initial overeating may of course never have been addressed, and if not will surely persist.
The sheer number of people on diets and ‘failing' at them means that those who are perceived to have ‘succeeded' attain an almost mythical status: they can resist despite (in many cases because of) the excess all around; their bodies testify to their perfect resistance. The apparently clearest example of such people are anorexics. But while anorexia may seem the epitome of the successful diet, it is in fact the antithesis of the diet: the point becomes the process not the end-point; breaking the rules is not forbidden, but impossible (otherwise it becomes a different eating disorder: binge-eating or bulimia); society's approval is less meaningful than internal compulsion. The great sanction of all obsession, health (note the rise in the ‘healthy eating disorder' ‘orthorexia') is no longer relevant, and sickness becomes undeniable.
I'm not entirely sure whether non-anorexics are in general truly horrified by the sight of a successful anorexic, and how much this horror is usually mixed with a fascination mixed more or less with envy. I think that especially amongst women, there is almost always some jealousy born of insecurity. When I was ill, I knew that I made people awkward, I was told of many instances of guests writing to my mother after they'd left and saying how ill I looked, and asking her, pointlessly, whether she wasn't terribly worried; but I remember, too, how at the very height of my emaciation (see the 'before' photo of me here), when my mother and her partner held a ‘house-cooling' party in the house of my teenage years, a friend of theirs, a painter, told me how striking I looked, and how she'd love to paint my portrait sometime. She was thin and odd-looking herself, and nothing ever came of it, but still, throughout it all there were enough instances of admiration to make those of simple horror far from the rule. My mother talked in the radio interview we gave recently about going on shopping trips with me, and how despite rationally disapproving of and fearing my excessive thinness, she couldn't help thinking, and saying, when we tried similar things on, how much better they looked on me. Fashionable clothes are designed for the very thin, and difference from the norm is always appealing too.
This isn't quite true, though: the obviously abnormal in other ways - the albino, the blind man, the woman who can't walk - are rarely considered attractive. But fat has become far more offputting to people than extreme thinness, whether or not it springs from illness, mental or physical (the Daily Mail, covering the story of Cheryl Cole's malaria, includes a gloatingly glamorous photo entitled ‘Weight loss: Mrs Cole looked incredibly thin at the Glamour Women Of The Year Awards on June 8'). Thinness is good because fatness carries with it numerous moral and character judgements concerning greed, gluttony, and lack of self-control, and thinness means the opposite of all these, however superficially.
Of course, not all very thin people are anorexics, but there is, today, in the West, no need to be malnourished in a way that results in thinness. Highly calorific food is cheaper than ‘healthier' food, so today's Western poor are often the fattest: whilst a Gallup survey for the first quarter of 2010 shows 26.7% of American adults to be obese, the difference between the highest earners and the lowest income brackets in obesity rates is precisely 10%. And it isn't the richer who are fatter: the lowest earners averaging 31.7% obesity and the highest earners 21.7%. Everything has turned topsy-turvy.
Sitting on a sofa in the lounge on the ferry, I wondered, too, about the anorexic lifestyle and modern life. Solitude, secrecy, immovable routine, are increasingly invalid ways of life in many spheres: the social butterfly, perpetually connected, is both the commonplace and the ideal - hence the rise, I suppose, of ‘pro-ana' websites and the rise of the competitive aspects of anorexia to an overt component of some forms of the illness. Does this mean that what I said about external approval mattering less to the anorexic than internal compulsion does not hold? Is the illness itself responding to cultural influences, not only in its prevalence but in its very essence? Perhaps in the early stages: sharing tips, comparing weight and shape, may be paramount, to begin with. But ultimately, starvation takes over. As severe and prolonged malnourishment sets in, everything else becomes less relevant: one is trapped with the solitary mental mantras of food eaten and to be eaten, trapped with the weakness, the cold, the obsessive checking and weighing behaviours, trapped within depression, within sickness.
It's interesting that most men don't find the anorexic - as commonly publicised in the form of the catwalk model - terribly attractive: men see (even if they don't articulate it to themselves) thinness as sickness of a sort, and therefore as absence of sexual availability, or the potential in evolutionary terms for a sexual, reproductive partner. A woman is rapidly assessed as ‘f***able' or not - and these androgynous creature are not. They are slightly frightening, inhuman-seeming, certainly unwomanly. The ‘glamour model', on the other hand, embodies the feminine, the fertile, the sexually available. The parts of her that represent this - breasts, bum, hips, lips - are accentuated (see another PT blogger on the appeal of breasts); the rest - waists, ankles, wrists, etc. - are diminished to accentuate the former still further. The ideal here also becomes naturally impossible: thin women injected with silicone breasts are common now. Yet those genetically gifted few who attain the ideal naturally are desired by men and admired/envied by women in a simpler (and evolutionarily more direct) way than very thin women are. Women know, after all, what extreme thinness means, how much of a destruction of life it entails, and most, whether through strength or weakness of will, decide to ‘choose life'.