Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

Posts Tagged ‘eating disorders

NEDA: Eating Disorder Lit, Lifetime Movies, the DSM-V, ‘Holy Anorexia’ and Tumblr v. Pro-Ana Blogs (@ Blisstree)

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I didn’t know what image to use for this post, so here is a picture of me and an old friend not having eating disorders, eating free ice cream from Friendly’s on a summer day.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at ‘the Beheld’ wrote some very nice things about our National Eating Disorder Awareness week coverage at Blisstree, the women’s health & wellness site where I write.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown examines the real fallout from eating disorder literature. I’m thrilled to see someone taking a sharp view on this—my own experience with ED lit mirrors Elizabeth’s, varying between using such books as dirty little guides to tips and tricks, and using them as actual support. In fact, I once pitched a piece about this to a teen mag and it was flatly shot down with, “There is no way in hell we can run a piece like that.” But Blisstree can! Yay Internet! (Actually, Blisstree overall seems to be offering smart content for NEDA week, sharing the real story behind sensationalist recovery tales and featuring an interview with Carrie Arnold, one of the best ED writers around.)

Yay Internet!, indeed. I’ve actually been very happy this week with the way we’ve been covering eating disorders. ED stories so often fall into sensationalism, melodrama or triteness. And I think we’ve done pretty well at avoiding that. In addition to the stories Autumn mentioned, we’ve posted:

• A non-sensationalist defense of pro-ana communities.

• A gallery of the best/most absurd Lifetime movies about eating disorders.

• A guide to proposed eating disorder changes in the DSM-V.

• A history of eating disorders, including “holy anorexia, fasting girls (like Mollie Fancher, the ‘Brooklyn Enigma’) and wasting diseases blamed on wandering uteruses.”

• A long, lovely and honest Q&A with Angela Liddon, of Oh She Glows.

• And a piece about how Tumblr plans to start restricting pro-ana and other ‘self harm’ blogs.

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Written by Elizabeth

March 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm

OMG, I find myself writing about fashion week…

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Whoa. Interesting perspective on the whole ‘are models too skinny?’ issue from Lisa Hilton at The Daily Beast. Basically, she says that a) criticizing fashion culture for the harm it does to the models is patronizing to models, and b) criticizing models for being bad role models for women is  patronizing to women.

We rarely get hysterical about the weight qualifications required of male sportsmen. Jockeys, boxers, and wrestlers put themselves through torture to make weight. A survey published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine lists a range of weight-loss methods for jockeys that would make any model agency proud—69 percent skip meals, 34 percent use diuretics, 67 percent sweat off the pounds in the sauna, 30 percent regularly vomit and 40 percent use laxatives. So where are the angry headlines and government initiatives to fatten up our jockeys? Perhaps in sport, the sacrifices are viewed as noble, and the rewards (prize money or prestigious college scholarships) seen as secondary to the noble end of winning for its own sake. Shifting dresses is after all a frivolous little multibillion dollar industry. Or is it that men are considered psychologically robust enough to admire the buff beauties of GQ or Men’s Health without getting their tighty-whities in a twist? Women, it is implied, are too fragile to make a distinction between the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and their own closets.

What’s more, to say that eating disorders are caused by runway shows is insulting to people with eating disorders, Hilton says:

Women recovering from severe eating disorders consistently report that their illness was not induced by the desire to look like Gisele, but by far more complex psychological issues. Is it not demeaning to insist that such women were gripped by nothing more than vanity?

That’s a really good point. I had “disordered eating” habits once. I frequented eating disorder chat rooms and livejournal groups (oh, yes). I’ve talked to a lot of girls with eating disorders. And as cliched as it sounds, it’s almost always about control, or making up for perceived inadequacies in other parts of life, not about looking like ladies in magazines. Or, not just about that. When it is about looks, it’s tied up in deeper things, deeper symbolism imbued in extreme thinness; it’s signaling on a deep psychological scale.

So I kind of dig Hilton’s point.

Written by Elizabeth

February 9, 2010 at 11:33 pm

On Families and Food

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Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s story about food in the New York Times’ magazine’s food edition—well, the beginning part, about his grandma and her relationship to food—I suddenly feel compelled to share some of my own family history about food. As I may or may not have mentioned here many times before, I grew up eating the quintessential turn-of-the-millennium American processed foods diet: Poptarts and lucky charms for breakfast. Lunchables, dunkaroos and doritos for lunch. Chicken patties and canned green beans for dinner. The only vegetables we ever ate fresh (not from a can) were broccoli and potatoes. The legendary story my college friends like to tell is when I bit into the skin of an orange freshman year. I didn’t know that wasn’t how you ate it. I’d never had an orange that wasn’t canned, or that my mother hadn’t already peeled and put in fruit salad.

Learning to change my eating habits has been an ongoing process over the past 4 or 5 years, one that’s mostly been enjoyable—and one that’s also been fraught with complications. Like, for instance, disordered eating. I’ve spent various years of my life consumed with what would be, medically termed, ED-NOS (eating disorder, not-otherwise-specified)—a mix of anorexic and bulimic tendencies that never quite reached a dangerous level but was nevertheless, um, not healthy (if, most of all, mentally). I’ve always been a bit weird about food: my mom says from the time I was about 5, I’d refuse to eat more than three separate things per meal. Why 3? I don’t know. But if we had chicken, green beans, bread and rice, one of those would have to be left out.

There are a billion reasons why a person develops disordered eating habits, and I’ll spare you a dissertation on my own. But the reason I bring all this up is: my parents visited last weekend. My parents are both average for middle-aged midwestern parents, which is to say, once very thin and athletic but now chubby but not fat. They are constantly trying to lose weight, but have little idea how to go about it (one of my mom’s favorite diet lines is, “But all I had all day is tea and girl scout cookies!”). Most of my friends now are quite into food: food politics, food preparation, cooking, growing and eating food. And Brooklyn is full of amazing restaurants—the kind of places with interesting, locally grown, elaborately and lovingly prepared dishes. I took my parents to a few. Along the way, my boyfriend and roommate talked quite a bit about food.

And what did my dad have to say? Boy, your friends sure are obsessed with food. Or, by weekend’s end, “I’m a bit tired of all this food talk.” It made me feel weird, uncomfortable. Was their something unsavory, gluttonous about it?

And, I realized: food, in my family, in my culture growing up, is something to be enjoyed, but not too much. My dad (and, by consequence, me) likes meat, but doesn’t like preparing it, or eating it when it feels too much like an actual animal. He likes to be eat, sure, but he doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking about where it came from, how to make it, its effects, etc. I always thought that was healthy. But as I’m encountering new ways of thinking about eating, about food, I realize that may be just the problem. We should think about our food. We shouldn’t just guiltily enjoy whatever crap happens to taste good, and then try to exercise or rationalize it off. We should concentrate more on only putting things in our bodies that we don’t feel guilty about. And, if that means having to talk about food, to obsess about it: so be it.

I’m saying all this just as my roommates and I are embarking on a modified raw food diet. We’re on day 3. The main goal is to cut out anything processed, plus dairy, meat, pasta, soda, etc. Maybe I should say it’s more a ‘natural foods’ diet than a raw foods, as we’re not averse to cooking our veggies and such. It’s requiring a lot of thinking about food. A lot. And I think it’s good for me—thinking about food extensively is a hell of a lot better than not thinking and ordering a dominos pizza or jaunting down the street for a corner store sandwich every day.

Of course, there is a link—a link between thinking about food for health reasons, and about thinking about food like an anorexic person. I’m drawing all sorts of parallels these past few days. It feels like similar behavior to me. But maybe that’s only because thinking about food, to me, has always been thinking about restricting food. If not restricting, I wasn’t thinking about it. Thinking about food in order to enjoy it more, and to get the maximum health benefits from it, seems like an okay change, and one I’m welcome (and, falteringly, trying) to make.

Written by Elizabeth

October 13, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Anorexic teens ordered to turn Myspace writings over to the court

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There are many levels of weirdness to this New Jersey court case involving Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, a group of anorexic teenagers, and Myspace.

Here are the basics: In New Jersey, health insurance companies are required to cover mental illness only if it is biologically based. Horizon declined to pay for the treatment of three teenagers with eating disorders, and their families sued (in federal court). The families say the eating disorders are biologically based; Horizon says anorexia and bulimia are emotional disorders. The cases, filed separately, were consolidated for discovery.

Because the court has barred Horizon from taking depositions from the teens, Horizon requested access to the their diaries, emails, and any writing posted on Myspace or Facebook. The judge limited the scope of discovery to writings that were made public and “shared with others,” which means the emails and social networking pages are still up for grabs.

This presents the first level of weirdness. Can emails and postings on an (at least theoretically) closed-access social networking sites be classified as public, and up for grabs in discovery of this sort? Phillip Malone, director of the cyber law clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Cener for Interent and Technology, told Portfolio that the case law on discovery of materials posted on social networking sites is still just developing.

“Malone … says the generation that has grown up online have different privacy expectations, and believe they can put material on the Internet with the expectation that only a limited group will see it. “We should recognize that there is a continuum,” Malone says. A teenager on Facebook sharing with six friends “is a very small and limited group and courts should treat that differently than a blog available to the whole world.”

The bigger – and weirder – question, I think, is what exactly does Horizon hope to learn from these teens’ Myspace blogs? Philip Sellinger, Horizon’s lawyer, said these posts “go to the heart of” whether the girls’ eating disorders were biologically or emotionally based.

Really? A whole slew of mental health professionals can’t agree on this issue (the National Institute for Mental Health says eating disorders are biologically based, but others disagree), but by golly, teenage Myspace ramblings should get to the heart of it! Why, who even needs a psychiatry degree? I can’t wait to start diagnosing all my friends based on their facebook profiles. This is psychiatry 2.0, baby!

Says Rachel at Women’s Health News: “I wonder how BCBS plans to separate normal teenage angst from writings demonstrating a direct cause of their eating disorders? Somehow I doubt that’s even possible, because, let’s be frank – if someone dug up all of your teenage missives, would it seem like you were a mature, mentally stable person? Probably not.”

Newsweek take
Junkfood Science on the biology of starvation

Written by Elizabeth

February 14, 2008 at 5:13 pm