If I didn't know anything about eating disorders, I might have a different perspective on the phenomenon of "thinspo" (thinspiration) blogs and Tumblrs. I'm a writer, a journalism professor at a university where the First Amendment blazes in giant letters along the side of the building where I teach. I believe in free and authentic self-expression.
If my older daughter had never developed anorexia, I might be more sympathetic to the notion that thinspo is a genuine form of self-expression. That it's every girl's right to want to be skinny--especially in this culture, which values thinness over intellect or curiosity or initiative or joyfulness.
I can see why some people might think, Isn't it a good thing to have a safe placeonline to voice your hopes and aspirations? Because most of the time that's true. One of the great things about the internet is its ability to connect people, to create community.
But I don't see it that way. If I could shut down every thinspo Tumblr and blog and site I'd do it in a heartbeat. I'd do it without giving the First Amendment another thought. Because there's nothing free or authentic about what's being expressed. Thinspo is not self-expression because it's not these young women's true selves that invite emaciation and worship at the altar of jutting hipbones. The longing for extreme thinness, for the self-annhilation of starvation, is not rational. It's not a choice. It's the expression of an underlying terror and compulsion that controls a person's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The girls who host thinspo Tumblrs and blogs are not merely disordered eaters; they are suffering from eating disorders. How do I know? Because I know the language of eating disorders. I know the rational-sounding rhetoric ("Everyone says it's better to be thin than fat!") that masks the extreme anxiety of anorexia. I know that someone can be in the grip of an eating disorder at any weight and long before the signs are obvious to outsiders. I know that once a girl (or boy) falls down the rabbit hole of anorexia, she can't "choose" to climb back up. She can't just decide to eat, because eating has become an act fraught with fear and guilt and self-loathing. She can't acknowledge she's hungry because if she does, the voice in her head (which may be literal or not) will berate her, excoriate her for hours. She won't be able to sleep, focus on schoolwork, think about anything but her own worthlessness and fear.
Of course people with anorexia avoid eating to avoid this internalized punishment. They glorify thinness and the culture of starvation because that's what human beings do: We tell ourselves stories to explain the things that happen to us.
And anorexia and other eating disorders happen to people. They're not lifestyle choices--on the contrary, they comprise a series of behaviors and distorted thought patterns that are eerily uniform among people who have them. Since writing Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anoerxia, I've gotten hundreds of emails from parents that start like this: "It's almost as if you were in our house watching our family . . ." Their daughters (and sons) say and do and believe the same things my daughter did when she was ill--not by coincidence but because those are the symptoms of the disease.
Imagine that one of the symptoms of cancer was not realizing you had it, that in fact people with the illness believed it was an important part of who they were, and that therefore they refused treatment. That sounds pretty crazy. But we don't question that kind of irrationality when it comes to eating disorders.
People who develop eating disorders are very likely susceptible from birth. Their families have a history of eating disorders or anxiety (or, as in my daughter's case, both). The serotonin and dopamine systems in their brains are dysregulated. They're wired differently from the get-go. Then they're exposed to the toxic stew of our culture's skinny-worshipping, and they get sick.
And in part because of our cultural obsession with thinness, we have trouble seeing anorexia and other eating disorders as illnesses. As real illnesses, the kind you can't snap yourself out of. And that's the main reason I would shut down every thinspo blog and Tumblr if I could: Because the girls and young women who so eagerly perpetuate them are ill. They're not stupid or vain or misguided; they are profoundly, mortally sick. As one young woman told the Huffington Post, "I know that if I stay on a very dangerous path, that it could kill me within a year easily, if not sooner. But at the same time, I feel like if I set a goal, I have to reach it."
These are the words of a person in torment. Part of her acknowledges that what she's doing could and probably will lead to her death. Part of her is compelled to do it anyway, because "if I set a goal I have to reach it."
That's not rational thinking.
Once you're sick with anorexia, you can't begin to recover on your own. It's a terrible trait of the illness that you often don't even recognize you're sick. I'm sure these bloggers would hotly defend their "lifestyle choices," because their brains are telling them they don't need to eat, that they're too fat (no matter how emaciated they are). When they look in the mirror they truly see themselves as fat and disgusting. Which is why they need other people to lead them out of the funhouse world of eating disorders, to feed them, to let their brains begin to heal so they can see the world as it really is.
And this too goes against the cultural grain. We like to think we're in control of everything all the time, that our choices are sacred and ours to make. That if someone says she's not sick, she's fine, that it's her right to starve herself to death, then we have to accept those words. That the worst thing we could do to someone would be to force them to recover.
My daughter insisted she was fine even as she was tumbling down the rabbit hole. She raged about why we were all making such a big deal over nothing even as her weight dropped to a point where her heart could have stopped beating any time. She told the emergency room doctor who admitted her to the hospital that we were being overprotective. She told the intensive care doctor who wanted to give her a feeding tube that she was fine and he should mind his own business.
She's a smart young woman, which is why it took me a while to realize I couldn't reason with her, that reason would never work because she was in the grip of something larger than herself. Her brain wasn't functioning. She couldn't see reality; she could only feel her terror and guilt and compulsion to do 1,000 sit-ups a day and eat nothing at all.
Her road back has been long and scary and has changed us all. And if my husband and I had listened to her words long ago, if we'd believed she was fine, I don't think she'd be alive today.
When my daughter was at her sickest, her whole demeanor changed. Her voice, her affect, the look in her eyes were all different, hard and angry and hostile. Every once in a while, I'd see a flash of the girl I knew, and I could see that she was panicking and terrified. That kept me going even when she pushed us away with everything she had.
Every one of those girls and young women writing is someone's daughter. Every one of them is locked in a prison she can't get out of, in the grip of an illness that can't be reasoned with or rationalized. In their postings of insect-like women and strategies for resisting hunger, they're crying out for help. They're longing to eat even as they can't bring themselves to do it.
I feel tremendous empathy for these young women even as their words nauseate me. The real question isn't whether such sites should be shut down. It's how we can reach past our cultural biases and blinders to the real pain and suffereing such young women are going through, and find a way to help them.