In Slate, a writer who had anorexia herself contemplates the riddle of anorexia, a disorder that everybody thinks they know the cause of. Perhaps the problem is that people view anorexics as victims, instead of people responding to deep-seated drives in a way that gives them pleasure.
Interestingly, the most incisive interpretations of anorexia often fail to stick in the public consciousness. Two doctors who treated anorexics in Toronto in the 1930s left behind a remarkably astute description of the type: “Most of them are intelligent, some to a marked degree; all are highly sensitive,” they wrote. “Usually they are impulsive, willful, introspective, and emotionally unstable.” Then, refuting the cliché that anorexics are ruled by insecurity, the doctors suggested instead that they’re driven by positive desires: “They have a strong desire for prominence and dominance.”
From my own experience (I first had the disease when I was 10) and those of other people I’ve talked to, this last observation is one of the most important—and least acknowledged. It’s easier to see anorexics as victims, whether of social forces or biology, than to imagine that they derive pleasant sensations from their behavior. But they do. The disease often makes them feel special and unique. Until we discard the victim model and admit that anorexia, though destructive, often fulfills a deep personal need, we can’t begin to investigate what makes a person vulnerable to it. Evidence that anorexia now affects an unexpectedly wide range of people provides an impetus for a new, more complex theory of the illness. But any such theory must acknowledge the willful aspect of anorexia, instead of trying to turn the disease into something as random and involuntary as a cold.
To me, this means that the Pro-Ana culture may be the nascent form of a new kind of sexuality, and one that is created and practiced by firls and women. Kink is, after all, people doing things with their body that aren’t “normal” and may be medically risky. I know people who do play that puts their health at risk (e.g. a woman who receives breast torment, even though she’s prone to cysts in her breasts). They take a calculated risk with their health, like we all do.
If anorexia gives these girls and women pleasure, then perhaps it needs to be viewed in the same light as kink. After all, kink was pathologized when it first appeared, and still is to many people. It was seen as an immature form of proper sexuality, or symptomatic of a culture that conflated sex and violence. Is it sickness if it gives pleasure?
For those of you who are rolling their eyes right now, I’m just speculating about this. I’m hardly an expert on anorexia.