Anorexia in the modern day: halloween costumes, slogans, and the fallacy of self control

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Companies coming under fire for inappropriate clothing is nothing new. In 2011, the infamous Anna Rexia dress – possibly the world’s most distasteful Halloween costume – was removed from retailers, yet it still makes a comeback every year. In 2010, Urban Outfitters were forced to pull their ‘Eat Less’ t-shirt from their website, and in 2012, a star strikingly similar to the Star of David appeared on a blue striped t-shirt before being withdrawn.

The fact that a hoodie was being featured in the news last week for similar reasons therefore came as little surprise to me. I was not prepared, however, for how truly disgusting the slogan is. Sold on Amazon (but now taken down from their UK site), the shirt reads: “Anorexia: like Bulimia, except with self control”.

Arguably a hoodie is simply a piece of fabric, and the uproar caused by one item of clothing is unjustified. But this hoodie goes much further than a distasteful joke. The existence of this slogan shows that, societally, bulimia is still cast aside as the ‘lesser’ eating disorder: the less ‘impressive’ illness, where the sufferer seemingly has no restraint and simply eats excessively. The slogan also conveys the twisted myth that an anorexic achieves self-control – a very ‘pro-ana’ mentality which promotes a malnourished, frail body as a worthy outcome of years of torture.

Worst of all, however, is the fact that this slogan adds to the thousands of unnecessary voices telling us that we are not good enough. The control that we attribute to anorexia is seen as something to aspire to: to an outsider it seems that an eating disorder is a sign of great restraint which they wish they could have over their own life.

In reality, an eating disorder is not a show of self-mastery – it is an illness that has complete control over your body, mind and behaviours. At its worst, the illness makes your personality feel lost to a world of numbers, self-harm and obsession. And I cannot stress enough: eating disorders do not have a body type. Anorexia does not automatically result in drastic weight loss, just as bulimia is not synonymous with weight gain.

This slogan incites further questions. Namely, why do we still see anorexia as an ‘impressive’ illness? And why do we see thinness as the ultimate goal, even if it means a lifetime of disordered eating and misery?

Susan Bordo, in her well-known literary textbook Unbearable Weight, reads argues that the female body as is a reflection of political and social pressures. Although written over 20 years ago, the text is still incredibly important today. Bordo sees the anorexic body as a very physical reflection of the feminine ideals of the time. Focusing on 1950s/60s culture and the rise of the hourglass figure, Bordo writes:

Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup and dress […] we are rendered less socially orientated and more centripetally focused on self-modification. Through these disciplines, we continue to memorize on our bodies the feel and conviction of lack, of insufficiency, of never being good enough. At the farthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death.

This concept of ‘never being good enough’ has not gone away. As the hoodie slogan reminds us, we are still encouraged to view our bodies as objects to be controlled and manipulated according to what is societally pleasing. Bordo talks about starvation 60 years ago as an unconscious form of self-restraint. In today’s world, the prevalence of diet culture, exercise routines and body shaming means that we are told what our bodies should look like more blatantly than ever before.

The problem is not just the influence of ‘body goals’, which are spread left, right and centre online, it is also the media’s interpretation of anorexia. Mainstream media’s definition of the condition – drastic weight loss, disordered eating and excessive exercise – is too generalised and does more harm than good. And unfortunately, this association of anorexia with appearance and low body weight is becoming widespread due to TV shows, such as Netflix’s ‘To the Bone’. Contributing to the problem are the stories plastered on magazines with headlines designed to shock – ‘girl nearly dies at only X pounds’ – and chain stores which misinterpret the illness for their own economic gain.

But it would be wrong to suggest that diets and representations in popular culture alone directly cause eating disorders. Nevertheless, however, the media still spreads this toxic obsession with our bodies and the idea that anorexia is still tied to the size of our waists, rather than the mental anguish, long term health problems or trauma that come with it.

Why do we continue to consume these very visual representations of anorexia? Because they sell, and because the shock of seeing an underweight photo makes the eating disorder seem more impressive. But the praising of physical damage comes back to this idea of self-control. We find it fascinating that people have the power to starve themselves, even if this ‘power’ truly belongs to the illness.

Amazon’s hoodie slogan represents a large-scale joke gone wrong. It reflects a consumerist society obsessed with weight loss, and only serves to further taint our attitudes towards anorexia and other eating disorders. We are people – not mannequins, newspaper headlines or symbols of societal pressure – and our bodies should not be viewed as blank canvases on which to show our mental anguish.

Charlie Collett

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