When I was 13, I decided I would become anorexic. By devoting myself to the illness, I believed I could morph from an emotionally confused adolescent into the anorexic girls I had seen on Oprah who were, by contrast, models of self-regulation. I read everything I could find about eating disorders — from Steven Levenkron’s fictional The Best Little Girl in the World, in which the anorexic character is unflappably disciplined, to the best-selling memoir Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, whose 202-calorie-a-day diet plan is routinely emulated. Armed with my acquired knowledge, I eventually succeeded, and over the next eight years of my life, I was hospitalized four times.
My journey into anorexia is becoming less atypical as the disease itself has changed enormously over the past decade. Today, no teenage girl needs to be told what anorexia is — it’s the constant subject of memoirs, young-adult novels, Lifetime movies and episodes of Dr. Phil. Stories about Mary-Kate Olsen, Demi Moore or the latest celebrity to be admitted to rehab for anorexia are a regular tabloid feature. But the explosion of awareness has become a double-edged sword. The number of people hospitalized for eating disorders has risen 24%, from 2000 to 2009, about the same length of time that Eating Disorders Awareness Week has been a mainstay on high school and college campuses since 2001. The pro-anorexia, or “pro-ana,” movement also emerged in 2001, leading to a profusion of websites to help ambitious anorexics.
When I doggedly pursued anorexia, I considered myself an anomaly, an ersatz case. But after being admitted to the hospital, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one who had sought out anorexia. A number of my fellow patients in treatment attested to having read memoirs prior to their illness and becoming enamored with the idea. One of my roommates had also read Hornbacher’s Wasted and was inspired. “I was on vacation with my parents, so I couldn’t do anything, but I took notes,” she told me. Other inpatients talked about entering starvation pacts with like-minded friends, or actively competing to see who could eat the least. Like me, they had fallen in love with the symbolism of anorexia and then found themselves unable to easily reverse their destructive habits. I began to think there might not be a big distinction between a “real” anorexic and a person like me who had willed herself to get it.
In today’s vocabulary, before I got really sick, I would have been called what is now known as a “wannarexic.” The Internet provides an outlet for wannarexics to post “thin-spirational” pictures of emaciated models, trade dieting tips or vent their frustration about their bodies. “Real” anorexics and the medical establishment alike decry these girls as attention seekers making a farce of a serious illness, which is an underestimation of the real pain they’re in as well as the dangers inherent in flirting with disordered eating habits. Though we don’t know yet the full biological mechanisms behind starvation, we do know that underfeeding in any human can lead to anorexic thought patterns and behaviors, which in turn can become their own addiction. The emotional attachment to eating disorders is then often strengthened at treatment centers, where patients pick up tips from one another about how to lose more weight and trick clinicians into thinking they’re eating properly.
I believe that so many young women want to be anorexic because our society has communicated not the horrible consequences of eating disorders, but what might seem to be the benefits of them, namely, that they make you skinny and special. We need to change the vocabulary we use and the tone we invoke when we discuss anorexia, refusing to employ it as shorthand for “fragile and interesting.” We also need to staunchly refuse to include what could be interpreted as prescriptive materials in narrative accounts, namely daily calorie intake, exercise routines and lowest weights of active anorexics. Finally, we need to give more attention to studying the efficacy of home-based treatment programs like the Maudsley method, which trains parents and family members to oversee the care of anorexics, so that sufferers don’t wind up in an endless cycle of hospitalizations. It’s important that we begin to examine all these factors of suggestion and reinforcement and intervene with girls who are experimenting with disordered eating. If we don’t, they can easily end up like I once was: sick, miserable and desperate to recover from an illness that I once wanted so badly.