On Anorexia


Blitz Magazine, September 2000

British Prime Minister Tony Blair takes a lot of flack for his occasionally ridiculous attempts to please everybody. And when he responded to the concerns of his medical community by summoning members of the fashion and advertising industries to No. 10 for a recent confab on Britain’s escalating problem with anorexia nervosa, I just shook my head.

Like everyone who went to an English boarding school, I have rather too much experience with anorexia nervosa, that pernicious disease which has long plagued girls’ boarding schools in the UK. Of the 30 girls in my house, two were anorexic. I’ll call them Rebecca and Sarah. I don’t know what became of Rebecca, but I do know that Sarah died of a heart attack, at 15.

Sarah was a preternaturally talented athlete. Rebecca hoped to become a physicist. They agonized over Latin verbs; I never saw them give themselves more than a cursory glance in a mirror. Six days a week, we played sports for two hours, studied for eight. Make-up was verboten. No one read Vogue. We didn’t have TV. Or a mall to shop in. And we didn’t care.

So, while I’m no expert, I have watched someone starve herself to death and can confidently state that it’s absurd to blame anorexia on advertising. Note that the fashion, cosmetic and entertainment industries did not exist 200 years ago, when Cambridge University began documenting and studying cases of anorexia.

I was just looking at a picture of Stella Tennant, a glaring example of what the British medical community is upset about. She’s the English aristocrat/haute couture favourite who is 6’ and, maybe, 110 lbs. A well-adjusted teen-ager looks at Tennant and thinks ‘Ugh.’ But it does not automatically follow that a mal-adjusted girl thinks ‘I must look like her.’ That conclusion is too simplistic.

Anorexia is a complicated psychiatric issue, not a consumer issue, and it’s pointless to blame it on marketers. Advertising probably exacerbates existing psychological problems, but it doesn’t cause them. And even if that blame were correctly placed, is Calista Flockhart going to be fired for being too thin? No. Are the creative directors for Prada and Gucci going to start using chubby models in print ads? No. Because, for now, skeletons sell.

We all know the blah blah about the entertainment and marketing media’s objectified portrayal and exploitation of the female body. But when discussing anorexia, that conversation is secondary. Because anorexia is the result of bad parenting. By people who give their girls cash, credit cards and pagers instead of books, pianos and cleats. Who are too busy to notice that their daughters feel so rejected, inadequate and powerless that the concept of ingesting food (mysteriously) becomes repulsive. Anorexia is a disease born of neglect, not emulation.

The advertising industry can be blamed for contributing to rampant consumerism. That’s its job. Agencies are paid by producers of consumer products. Who operate in a free market. Blair cannot say to these companies: ‘Change how you do business because you’re killing our daughters’.

As for the Downing Street ‘Anorexia Summit’, we’ll evidently never know what was discussed. All requests for information to official sources were ignored, and none of the organizations dealing with eating disorders were included or up-dated. Which leads me to believe that there was no solution found. Of course.