The Anorexic Grotesque
A topic that I have tried to push in our class discussions quite a bit, and which never really seems to take hold, is the topic of anorexia as categorically the same type of grotesque as obesity. Indeed, the similarities between anorexia and obesity in feminist dialogue, religion, and especially the medical profession swing between nearly indistinguishable to binary opposition, yet are always inexorably linked
While men are expected to display characteristics of strength, individuality, determination, dominance and achievement, women are cherished for being submissive, gentle, accommodating, and agreeable. Therefore, their sphere of control is not meant to encompass others, especially men, but rather, they are expected to be in full control of themselves. (Just think of the connotations behind a “woman who is making a spectacle of herself” or “losing grip”). This is a way of thinking firmly rooted in religious history, and our first point of comparison; an obese women is seen as “The Whore”. It is assumed she lacks mental control over her body, not only in food but also in sex. In this, she is both primitive, takes up too much space, and is thus a threatening “consumer of men” and civilized society. On the other hand, anorexic women are considered “The Madonna”; women whose mind controls their bodies, who submit to cultural beauty ideals, and are the ideal Puritans in their self-denial. Women who suffer from anorexia are often considered hard workers who excel academically and in their careers. Despite this control, she is not seen as a threat to male power, mostly because she is physically weak and adheres to beauty ideals, furthermore a woman in control of herself is less likely to “lose it” or “let herself go”, and is thus kept in her social place.
While I hate to create such a black and white comparison between the characterization of anorexia and obesity, it is important to understand that these binary differences exist within the same comparative framework. While religion and feminist discourse provide a good basis for the way these opposites are created within similar standards, it is even more interesting to see how the medical profession supports, rather than combats the underlying concepts of female body identity. First, both anorexia and obesity are characterized as diseases, both psychological and physical. Here, scientists create very defined and clear boundaries between what is normal and what is not (the BMI scale, for example). By doing this, we have a clear system, ordained by the religion we call medicine to tell women whether or not they are, in fact, diseased. While most women struggle with their weight, body image, and diet in one way or the other it is assumed that there is a fine line to be crossed between “normal” dieting behavior and that which becomes a disease (again, often based simply on weight) or “normal” fatness to full blown obesity. Here too, women are balancing on a fine line between expectations and disease. Medical professionals create this unnatural line by expounding the “virtues” (hint. hint. Puritanism) of diet and exercise in order to combat the sinful overweight person who will be punished (with high blood pressure etc.) for their weight. Indeed, any serious pro-ana anorexic needs only to visit an obesity website to get themselves some “helpful hints” on how to lose those inches.
The truly grotesque connection between these two types of women is their physical display in so-called medical texts, documentaries and even television shows. Often they are shown naked, nearly naked and/or faceless. This “medical discourse” is a dehumanizing tactic, which serves two core purposes. First, it places high value on the body of the women, rather her person (often with the excuse of anonymity or personal shame). Second, and even more disturbing is that this categorization of differing physical status as “disease” takes the blame for unhealthy body standards away from society as a whole (the viewer, reader, producer, cameraman, editor etc. etc. of any women’s magazine or weight loss and dieting television show), and makes it something that is naturally occurring.
In the end, it is important to understand that not just the fat woman, but also the skinny one has an important place in feminist and grotesque discourse. Why then was anorexia not included in our course syllabus? And more importantly why did discussions on anorexia never really take off in class? Is it because the obese are easier to condemn (Why are they? ) or because a fat woman is a threat to male dominance? Or is it in fact because our blind faith in the medical profession ahs lead us to believe that fat women have crossed that line into disease by choice, rather than by the sick chance we associate with anorexia?
 “Photo Therapist Ellen Fisher-Turk works with women who suffer from eating disorders. [in this case anorexia and bulimia]. As women like this forty-six-year-old are photographed almost naked, “their emotional defenses are stripped away along with their clothing,” says Fisher-Turk. “When they look at the photos, they can see their denial and their defenses, which is what keeps an eating disorder going.” Our Bodies, Ourselves (38)
Whithead, Kelly and Tim Kurz. “Saints, sinners and standards of femininity: discursive constructions of anorexia nervosa and obesity in women’s magazines” Journal of Gender Studies. Vol 17, no. 4. Dec. 2008: 345-358. Web. Jan. 2012.