A New Kind of Anorexia Memoir?

When I sat down to read Kelsey Osgood’s How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, I was more than a little excited. I had read a review of the book in the New Yorker and was interested in how Osgood was going to critique the modern anorexia memoir and provide a corrective alternative. I was elated that finally, maybe I could read an anorexia memoir and not be triggered.

Yeah… that wasn’t really how things happened.

There were parts of Osgood’s memoir with which I found myself nodding in agreement. Anorexia memoirs often glamorize and romanticize the disease and have a sort of aesthetic appeal that veers on a perceived fulfillment of a spiritual or cultural ideal (classic memoir that does this = Hornbacher’s Wasted). That is problematic. As Osgood argues, an un-addressed but problematic part of these memoirs is that they are too graphic. They describe too many showing clavicles, too many weigh-ins, too many calorie counts. As Osgood asserts, these memoirs can serve as guideposts for sickness or even how-to guides. Finally, someone to expose how, “The writers know they’re up at the invisible podium to speak out about their journey to the brink of death (oh, yeah, and back).” Osgood speaks of learning how to be anorexic through books like Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted and is also critical of books like Thin (also a documentary) by Lauren Greenfield.

I have shared similar issues with anorexia memoirs. I have read these memoirs throughout my journey with an eating disorder, albeit for different reasons. In times of relapse, I have felt compelled to pour over every anorexia memoir in my local library, in the same way that I would also gravitate towards calorie/ diet-oriented tabloid covers. I would absent-mindedly pour through this rhetoric, my eyes barely absorbing the words, but absorbing the material fulfilled some “fix” or satisfied some compulsion. During these periods of time, I was magnetized to all covers involving DIET in all caps and books whispering tales of people who have suffered from anorexia. I remember reading Wasted during a particularly bad period of my life. I don’t know what I wanted to get out of the book. I think I wanted to feel something… beauty, pain, remorse, guilt… anything to remind me of what this disease really was doing to me, anything besides numbness. The book definitely gave me a reality check, but I don’t know if it was a good one.

In times of doing better, I have also read anorexia memoirs because I am a very meaning-focused, introspective person who is always trying to understand my experiences. A few years ago, I casually mentioned to my then-therapist that I had ordered Wintergirls and Wasted on Amazon, and she responded with an immediate, “No, no, no, you absolutely should not be reading that right now.” I would scoff at her, “Yes I can, I am in a good place, I will be fine.” I just wanted to understand, I told her. I wanted to make make meaning out of what I went through, I wanted to feel something about it. I would read it without being triggered, I was fine. Of course, my therapist was right. I would emerge from these dark, aesthetic, triggering memoirs in a daze, and it might take me between hours and days to re-orient myself to the reality of recovery.

Osgood says that she “will write a book about anorexia without ever once recording someone’s weight.” She also writes, “The only way to understand anorexia… is to examine and then devalue its currency. It’s to strip it bare of its beautiful language and its glamorous, deathly aura.” I was totally on board with this. I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say.

And yet… I read this memoir scratching my head, because I saw how embedded the glamorization of anorexia was in her narrative. Even though she does not use specific weights, Osgood does mention specific behaviors, especially behaviors done in a residential treatment setting, which can be just as harmful as recording weights. In Osgood’s memoir, anorexia is still on this cultural pedestal, and she uses literary techniques to enforce a sense of drama and “misery,” the exact thing she is supposed to be critiquing.

I had a visceral personal reaction to Osgood’s portrayal of anorexia, a reaction equivalent to what I experienced when I read books like Wasted. The whisper of never being sick enough, the author constantly trying to prove herself, the “I’ll get there, I’ll show them,” the dance of anorexia descending lower and lower and darker and darker spoke to something so raw inside of me. I felt this sense of competitiveness, a sick sense of comparison and camaraderie from Osgood’s narratives of her experiences with others in treatment. While her writing was amazing, I noticed something unhealthy was stirred inside of me. The memoir was not devaluing anorexia’s currency. Most of her narrative was very pro-anorexia, and then, at the end, “Oh yeah, and then I came back. I don’t deal with it anymore.” How does that differ so much from Wasted? If Wasted was a major instigator of the pro-ana movement, does Osgood realize that while her work might outwardly critique such memoirs, it is actually in danger of having the same effect?

Osgood’s understanding of anorexia is predicated on certain assumptions: that anorexia (or the desire for anorexia- “wannarexia”) can be learned and reinforced through memoirs and “recovery” rhetoric and that anorexia is a cultural ideal that others aspire to attain.

I would agree that some memoirs, especially Hornbacher’s notorious Wasted, give too many details and can be harmful for people who want to emulate her (or any) author’s experience with anorexia. The whole pro-ana movement is real and destructive. However, I don’t agree with Osgood’s conclusions in how to address the problem. In fact, I was startled to find them harsh and off base. She asserts that in “theorizing, eradication of stigma, and spreading awareness… we are still instructing our youths how to starve and we are making it look good.” Perhaps awareness and stigma movements can portray anorexia in a positive light, a “better” alternative to less culturally accepted outlets such as drug addiction or cutting, but is it necessary to throw out the baby with the bath water? Are eradicating stigma and awareness of eating disorder inherently maladaptive? Maybe what we should be doing is finding more creative and more constructive ways of telling others about eating disorders.

For me, reducing stigma and speaking out about my struggles has been empowering and has helped me combat shame. Unlike Osgood, I never believed that anorexia was a cultural ideal, something that made me proud. In fact, for years, I was too ashamed to admit that I had an eating disorder. It wasn’t until I had met others who shared my struggles when I was able to put a label on what I had been experiencing. The anorexia label helped me feel less like an alien. I never knew anything about an eating disorder until I was forced into therapy by my mom after exhibiting symptoms of anorexia at age 13. Even then, I thought the concept of anorexia was complete bullshit created by people who wanted me fat. Just because sharing tips of the trade is a problem doesn’t mean that people with eating disorders should go into their shells and isolate from narrating their struggles and seeking support. There is an abuse of the anorexia rhetoric available to the public, but why does it follow that all recovery-oriented rhetoric focused on reducing stigma and spreading awareness should be eliminated?

What rhetoric needs to be eliminated is that which presents a certain “ideal” of anorexia and specific tips of how to attain that ideal. Osgood’s narrative critiques this ideal but imposes her own ideal of sorts into the text anyway.  Osgood’s narrative is a very narrow, strict, ideal of anorexia that can be harmful for readers. Her book still sets her own experience as a “gold standard,” when in reality, many people with eating disorders are not hospitalized multiple times, or reach a dangerous point with severe physical symptoms, nor do they pride themselves on how sick they are. Osgood is critiquing something she is also perpetuating.

Even more destructive is Osgood’s beliefs of how we should address the issue at hand, “Perhaps what we need to do is actually restore some of the myths about anorexia, namely, that it’s a problem of vanity, or resurrect some of the stigma that surrounds it, in hopes that we move away from radically accepting it.” I don’t see how producing more stigma and enforcing stereotypes are going to help anything. Personally, I have enough self-stigma and shame attached to my eating disorder that I would rather not have people walking around thinking that I developed my eating disorder because of vanity. I developed my eating disorder because of a lot of complicated factors, most importantly that I wanted to disappear. Vanity had little to do with it, and when you are deep in the thrust of an eating disorder, that matters less and less (at least, it did for me).

I think her statement that we are “canonizing” people with anorexia is an exaggeration, and a harmful one at that. In my experience, I have been ridiculed by the way that I look and have been shamed in food-related situations. Anorexia is still culturally inappropriate and a mark of disgust. Even the thin-adoring media will post tabloid covers with pictures of people who have crossed the threshold of being too thin or anorexic, and those bodies are looked at in disgust.  Are people with anorexia really being canonized, or are they put on display to be publicly ridiculed, like freaks at a freak show? It depends on the person, the community, and the context. Maybe a little, or neither, of both. I think more research must be conducted on the topic before such bold conclusions of “canonization” can be made. (Side note: stigma based on people who are a normal weight, overweight, or obese is also destructive and real, but I am going to leave fat shaming for another post… or two… or three and focus only on anorexia for the purposes of this post).

One fundamental error is Osgood’s idea that anorexia must be seen as either “exciting” or “boring”… that either we glamorize it or portray it as stale and mundane. Why is that our only dichotomy available for anorexia memoirs? I don’t think that exciting vs. boring is a meaningful dichotomy to describe anorexia. In talking about the idea of eating disorder being boring to my therapist, she gave me one of those therapist looks, and said, “Do you really think eating disorders are boring? I think of it more as needless suffering and pain.” I think she’s right. Not just because she’s almost always right (although she often is), but Osgood overlooks this human element of suffering in her portrayal of anorexia. We are not just characters, protagonists, whose lives are either heroic or a sheer failure. We are not a set of literary devices or narratives, nor can we be reduced to learned behaviors, nor can we cut out our early experiences and concentrate (perhaps narcissistically) on the sufferer her or himself. People with anorexia have real struggles and real pain.

Osgood, purposely, does not discuss issues that contributed to her eating disorder, and I think that does a disservice to people who have eating disorders who have been through a lot in their lives. Eating disorders both are and aren’t about the food. Yes, there are real effects of starvation that can spiral, and maybe some people will never learn what exactly contributed to the development of their eating disorders, but others do. I am one of those people who has learned a lot from examining how my eating disorder developed. My recovery involved eating, but it was also so much more than eating. There is so much more to anorexia than the anorexia rat race of competition at meal time. Not discussing those other issues is miscategorizing the nature of the disease.

For me, therapy has not been about cultivating my “special” anorexic persona; it has been about discovering who I am without my eating disorder entirely. When I think of my eating disorder, I think of tragedy, pain, and suffering. I think of all the moments, all the years I missed. All of the years I didn’t feel safe being myself. Recovery was like opening up a world. That world was so much bigger than learning to eat ice cream when out with friends. It was more like a widening of my world. I remember being in treatment and staring at a collage on which I was supposed to draw in response to the prompt, “Who am I?” I just stared at it and asked my therapist, “Can I say that I like coffee? Does that count?” My therapist raised an eyebrow and told me I needed to come up with some other ideas.

When I think of treatment and my personal journey in recovery, I think less about how I learned tips of the trade and more how I saw the brokenness inside of me and inside of my fellow sufferers. I think of the daily pain, crying, and anguish. Osgood avoided discussing her recovery journey in the book, much to my chagrin. It isn’t good, nor does it make sense, to romanticize something that almost killed you and somehow be completely against it by the last page. Her memoir is a very abbreviated, and narrow, view of anorexia, and her conclusions are puzzling. It also leaves gaps about how she made such a wide leap from point A to point B. I finished the book feeling betrayed– as if my emotions were preyed upon—and frustrated by double standards present in her memoir. I did not understand the implications of her critique.

The problem I have is not with Osgood’s argument that memoirs can serve as how-to manuals. That is constructive and provocative. My first major issue is how her subsequent memoir plays into the critique she is making. Second, I take issue with her sweeping and bold conclusions that have the potential for harm. I am all for integrating science writing and memoir, but when conclusions are based on one person’s experience and are not backed up with much scientific rigor, and involve things like dismantling the system of de-stigmatizing and eating disorder awareness, that is an inappropriate use of her platform. Now, if someone wants to design a study that analyzes impact of memoirs on anorexia sufferers, or does a review of the literature on this topic, those would be meaningful next steps in hopes of drawing more accurate conclusions.

All in all, I appreciate Osgood’s attempt at the anorexia memoir that is unique while not being a how-to manual. However, we must go farther. This book leaves me wondering: what would an eating disorder memoir look like that neither paints a romantic glaze on anorexia nor is unrealistically positive or cryptic? What would this anorexia memoir look like that does justice to one’s experiences while not providing specific behaviors or comparisons? Is it possible to have a beautifully written, poignant, moving, inspirational story on anorexia that doesn’t engage in the rat race of the disease?

I don’t know. Someday I’d like to try.