I have a bad relationship with food – so bad that I have unlearned the most basic messages my body could offer me. When my taste buds light up over something sweet, guilt is fast to follow. When I feel hunger pangs, relief washes over me. All because I have come to treat food as hostile, as that which sinks in me like an anchor, and sticks to my insides like a residue.
I was first told I had an eating disorder in hospital, when I was admitted for complications to undernourishment many years ago. My body was a composite of physiological markers: sallow skin, coarse body hair, brittle nails – all textbook symptoms that transform thinness from a boon to a bane. My most private rituals and perceptions – the calorie counting, the bargaining, the cognitive dissonance – came to be explicable, and pathological. After that night, I have had to work to justify my right to control my own body, because my capacity to make sound decisions regarding my body came to be suspect. Because really, how could someone do this to herself? What could possibly explain why someone would treat a necessity as an adversary and commit to a slow death by starvation?
Weight management is often draped in military and medical rhetoric: we wage war on obesity, we face an obesity epidemic. The term ‘obesity’ is a medical diagnosis measured by the body mass index (BMI), a scale that has in recent years been questioned by fat activists and scholars alike for relying only on height, age, and weight – not nearly enough variables to determine fitness or health. Recent studies question ready associations of fatness with medical conditions, and proffer the possibility that ‘fat’ and ‘healthy’ are not mutually exclusive categories. As York University professor Dr. Dennis Raphael explains extensively, despite the emphasis that Canadian health policy places on lifestyle choices as critical determinants of health, in actuality poor health is the product of living conditions, poor wages, poverty – socio-economic factors often beyond our control.
Despite all objections, the paradigm holds, and translates into policy. In 2009, Japan passed an anti-obesity law, fining companies for employing workers who qualify as obese. In Pennsylvania that same year, Lincoln University instated (though it has since had to rescind) the rule that students with a BMI of 30 or over must take a fitness course in order to graduate. This past year in Ohio, a child diagnosed as severely obese was monitored by social workers then seized and placed into foster care on the grounds that his mother could not control his weight. Since the Ohio story was picked up in the news, it has been brought to light that Canadian child protective services can do, and indeed have done, the same to Canadian families.
Policies like these persist because we live in a fatphobic culture. Jokes, jeers, and judgments are condoned, rarely understood to be discrimination, because as the language goes (ask any fat pride blogger about her comment boards), those disgusting, irresponsible, lazy slobs did this horrible thing to themselves. If you want to be healthy, if you want to keep your job and your degree and your children, aim for that medically-endorsed standard, that standard defined by photo-shopped pictures and the Barbie doll product line. If you want to get there, make use of Slimfast and Weight Watchers, magazine tips and daytime television ‘doctors’, diet pills and gastric bypasses. An entire industry has built up around, and been profiting immensely from, the framing of weight management as a high priority and personal responsibility.
So weight loss is encouraged, until it is not – until someone carries these strategies to their logical conclusion. In these cases, the person rather than the industry is adjusted. Eating disorders can serve as grounds for issuing Community Treatment Orders (CTOs), a legal provision according to which people diagnosed with mental health problems are forcibly treated. Treatments can range from the innocuous to the invasive: from support groups, to therapy, to medication, to institutionalization, and even to surgery. Indeed, medical practitioners have explored psychosurgeries, specifically cingulotomy and capsulotomy, as treatment options for anorexia nervosa. Their frequency has increased in Ontario in recent years, performed on people diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and body image disorders. These procedures are performed in order to manipulate nerve bundles connected to the frontal lobe – the modern-day lobotomy.
A very fine line exists between healthy and sick, beautiful and gross, disciplined and out of control. It is difficult to find that line on your own, but make no mistake: should you find yourself astray – whether from overeating or disordered eating – you are to blame, and the cost could be great.