[Paleopsych] Hermenaut: Anorexia/Technology: An Introduction
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Anorexia/Technology: An Introduction
[Two related articles appended. Links omitted.]
"I was sick for a long time, and that made me think about
factories." --Jean-Luc Godard, in Numéro Deux (1975)
Hermes, the god of interpretation, gave his name to this magazine via
those thinkers who've used "philosophical hermeneutics" to challenge our
collective habit of taking received notions of self, truth, morality, and
other phenomena--our social arrangements, our basic expectations--for
granted. The "heady philosophy" of our subtitle is the kind that
challenges prejudices masquerading as common sense. Lately, we've found
the received wisdom surrounding the subjects of anorexia (as in "Calista
Flockhart, Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Teri Hatcher, Tori Spelling,
Helen Hunt, Celine Dion, ad--as it were--nauseam, must really want to be
thin") and technology (as in "Only a reactionary Neo-Luddite could
possibly believe that the 'Information Revolution' is anything less than
inevitable") particularly infuriating. Which is why you're holding an
issue of Hermenaut with not one, but two themes.
Here at Hermenaut HQ the editorial decision-making process operates
strictly on the basis of personal obsession; we never stop to wonder
what anyone else thinks. So when we sent out the call for submissions
to the "Anorexia/Technology" issue, we suspected we'd be deluged with
essays on food fetishism, the erotics of self-discipline, and the
politics and poetics of willful starvation--and in this we were not
disappointed. But we also never doubted for a moment that the
editors at Hermenaut.com in-box would soon be jammed with close readings
of the ongoing communications technology "revolution." After all, we
writers and artists are supposed to be particularly threatened by new
technologies: Tolstoy, for example, refused to use the Dictaphone
because he was afraid he'd find it "too dreadfully exciting"--we know
exactly what he means. This latter type of article, however, failed,
for the most part, to materialize. Readers, it is at these moments of
crisis, which happen at least once a quarter around here, that the
entire Hermenaut project is put to the test. Do we bow to the will of
the public, or not? As always, the answer came back "not." I was
informed by the Hermenaut staff that I'd just have to write about
technology myself. So here goes.
Not long ago, I quit a lucrative and high-profile job at one of those
ultra-capitalized Web-based start-up companies you're always hearing
about. I decided that I needed a change when I almost killed myself on the
highway one morning trying to hotsync my Palm Pilot with the dash-mounted
laptop while simultaneously "fertilizing" my virtual Chia Pet, Harry.
(Don't worry: Although he was a bit shaken, Harry survived.) As I hung
there, upside-down, waiting for the Jaws of Life to set me free, I found
that I suddenly craved freedom from wearable disposable computers, digital
mini-walkie-talkie phones, two-way pagers, personalized "start
pages"--from any and every device, in other words, that served only to
exacerbate the worst qualities of my own monkey-mind. At that moment I was
transformed, or so I believed at the time, into that most ludicrous of
contemporary creatures: a Neo-Luddite.
Like others of my ilk, I became paranoid: Technology fills the world
with itself, I suddenly realized. It's like a virus that way. I also
began to feel physically nauseated by the thought of what Jean
Baudrillard calls our current "society of excrescence." In "The
Anorexic Ruins," an essay from several years ago, Baudrillard insisted
that even if we manage to ignore 99 percent of all the information and
products out there, we are still "electrocuted" by what remains. And
in "Waiting for the Year 2000," published this past spring, he
suggests that, thanks to late-20th-century technology, all human and
social functions have become "extreme," literally grown beyond their
own ends. "Because of the intervention of numerical, cybernetic, and
virtual technologies... [things] can no longer end, and they fall into
the abyss of the endless (endless history, endless politics, endless
economic crisis). ... Everything can be extended ad infinitum. We can
no longer stop the process." Unlike some people out there, I know that
M. Baudrillard is a theorist, not a prophet, but I find I can relate
to his apocalyptic vision of an apocalypse that will never happen, or
that has already happened. The visceral feeling of too-muchness which
he describes is with me every day now.
Perhaps we do not literally live in a world grown obese through
technological outgrowth--but it sure feels like it sometimes. Thanks
to the octopoidal spread of fiber optic cables (capable of
transmitting about a million times more information than copper wires
can), the almost complete interconnection of the world's
computers--i.e. the "information society"--is upon us. Besides
changing the way we communicate, the way we do business, and the way
we spend our days, the sudden ubiquity of directly accessible data
sources has upped our daily information flow from a trickle to a
rushing torrent. Now, we "knowledge workers" want to be filled with
this substance... but we quickly become over-full, and are disgusted
with ourselves. We soon long to stop receiving faxes, e-mails, and
phone calls, yet we don't dare unplug for fear of becoming
non-entities. Eventually even the most hotwired among us become aware
of a hidden longing to "do something" about "technology." But the
imperative "do something" must always be examined for received notions
and prejudices, right? What, in fact, is the best way to think and
talk about technology?
"The hallucinatory utopia of communication technologies... has
crept up over the years, disguised in the glad rags of ideologies
of progress." --Paul Virilio, "The Shrinking Effect" (1993).
To be strictly accurate, I first encountered what I think of as the
"technology question" back in 1994, the year I began working at an
"alternative press" magazine which had long published marginalized
would-be Thoreauvians and '60s hold-outs like Jerry (Four Arguments
for the Elimination of Television) Mander, Bill (The End of Nature)
McKibben, Neil (Technopoly) Postman, Wendell (The Unsettling of
America) Berry, Theodore (The Cult of Information) Roszak, and
Kirkpatrick (Rebels Against the Future) Sale. These and other social
critics had adopted, by the time I arrived on the scene, the
pejorative term "Neo-Luddite"--which used to mean, to conservative and
progressive social critics alike, a "hopelessly romantic
machinoclast"--as a badge of honor, indicating their principled stance
against technological "progress."
Before I could even begin to appreciate what these thinkers were
saying, however, everything suddenly changed. The World Wide Web,
previously the exclusive haunt of scientists and Deadheads, became a
mainstream medium. Wired started making publishing history, thanks to
its devotion to the personal computing "revolution." Early in '95,
then, the magazine I worked for ran a cover story on "100 Visionaries
Who Could Change Your Life," in which stalwart Neo-Luddites like
Berry, Postman, Sale, and Roszak were forced to jostle for elbow room
with Wired's "digerati": John Perry Barlow, Danny Hillis, Mitchell
Kapor, even Rand and Robyn Miller, the creators of the addictive
CD-ROM game Myst. Then, at a public event the magazine sponsored in
Manhattan, Sale pulverized a personal computer with a sledgehammer,
and Postman barked that "we have transformed information into a form
of garbage, and ourselves into garbage collectors." The peculiarly
'90s version of the century-old technophile vs. Neo-Luddite debate was
off and running.
In a Harper's forum shortly after that event, Neo-Luddites Sven (The
Gutenberg Elegies) Birkerts and Mark (Cyberspace and the Hi-Tech
Assault on Reality) Slouka expressed their fear that the advent of the
Internet was a signal of the disappearance of the "autonomous, bounded
'I'." Barlow, and Wired's editor Kevin Kelly, replied that the idea of
an 'I' which isn't always already fragmented is naïve. The
Neo-Luddites worried that the Internet warps its users' sense of time
and space; the technophiles replied that old-fashioned ideas of time
and space (not to mention race and class) just hold us back from that
ecstatic self-fulfillment which is the birthright of every American.
The Neo-Luddites said they hated the thought of
iously-unknown-configurations; the technophiles just said, "Well,
yeah, of course that's a good thing!" The Neo-Luddites argued that
online "community" is just a pathetic, mediated ersatz of human
exchange; the technophiles came back with, "Why can't we have both
kinds of community?" I'd been rooting for the Neo-Luddites, so I was
troubled at how easily the digerati had shut them down. Something, it
seemed to me, must be wrong with the very terms of the debate itself.
That's when I discovered "The Question Concerning Technology," a late
essay by Martin Heidegger (whose brief attraction to Nazism, it's
important to remember, was motivated not out of anti-Semitism, but by
his distaste for highly "technologized" mass societies like the U.S.A.
and the U.S.S.R.). Writing in 1954, Heidegger seemed to be speaking
directly to my own set of questions by insisting, rather mysteriously,
that "the essence of technology is by no means anything
technological." That is to say, the artifactual component of
technology--from steam engines to software--is the most insignificant
and innocent part of a complex social and institutional matrix which
includes corporations, banks, and public utilities. Technology is, for
Heidegger, fundamentally a relationship between people--and to think
of it as anything else is only to engender mystification, passivity,
and fatalism. The only thing worse than "a stultified compulsion to
push on blindly with technology," he concludes, is "to rebel
helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil." This, it
seemed to me, summed up most of what was passing for the debate over
An article on Wired in The Baffler right around then ("The Killer
App," by Keith White, The Baffler #6) directly addressed this larger,
Heideggerian definition of technology. White skewered Wired for being
"an aggressive apologist for the new Information Capitalism," the
"Great Rationalizer of the new technology." The media-hyped drive to
get us all online, White pointed out, is powered not by inevitable
historical forces but by entirely evitable business interests. It
became clear to me then that, like those 18th-century "Mechanical
Societies" which provided those who stood to profit by increased
production and the creation of new markets with a pseudo-religious
doctrine of technical progress, the digerati cannot be trusted to
speak with anything but a forked tongue. The idea that new technology
will bring universal wealth, enhanced freedom, revitalized politics,
satisfying community, and personal fulfillment is a promise we've
heard many times before in history. Will "being digital" offer us
ecstatic self-fulfillment through the ability to disburden ourselves
of outmoded illusions like place, time, and appearance? Of course not.
All it will really offer us is new gadgets, what Thoreau called
"pretty toys"--nothing but improved means to unimproved ends [see
"Disintermediated!" by Chris Fujiwara, this issue; and "The Thin
Machine" by David Rothenberg, this issue].
Exposing the machinations of the digerati may be excellent social and
cultural criticism, but it ain't philosophy: It doesn't tell us what
"technology" is or what we should "do about it." That's why I turned
next to social philosopher Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization
(1934). Written in the grand style of the old-school public
intellectual, Mumford's book offers an accessible world history of
technology, and uses that over-arching perspective to shed light on
the Neo-Luddite vs. technophile debate of his own time (which was
focused on workplace automation and the increasing use of the
telephone and radio). Most of us, in debates over whether or not
technology is "good" or "bad," are referring to artifacts, things,
from toaster ovens to corporate intranets; an endlessly evolving mass
of tools, instruments, machines; the means and methods used to help
people travel, communicate, produce, calculate; the practical
implementations of human intelligence; McLuhan's "extensions of man."
Mumford was, I believe, one of the first to argue that "technology" is
not a thing, but a combination of artifacts ("technologies," even)
with activities, beliefs, and attitudes. Thus, physical instruments of
technology must be viewed as only one aspect of a larger
sociotechnical complex--Mumford calls this previously unnamed
phenomenon "technics"--which "promises well or ill as the social
groups that exploit it promise well or ill."
Against the Neo-Luddites of his own time, Mumford notes that automatic
machines don't make men "mechanized" or "regimented"; men had been
mechanized by the builders of the pyramids, for example, long before
mechanical automation happened, and monastic regularity is even
stricter than the factory time-clock. What is new, Mumford argued, is
not mechanization and regimentation but the fact that these functions
have come to dominate every aspect of our existence, the fact that we
Westerners have adapted our whole mode of life to the relentless pace
and seemingly infinite capacities of the automatic machine. To
Mumford, automatic machines are the result, not the cause, of our
inner capitulation to... it would be left to sociologist Jacques
Ellul, writing a generation later (La Technique, 1954), to finish this
thought: technique. By this term, Ellul means any complex of
standardized means, any deliberate application of rationalized
behavior whose goal is attaining a predetermined result. The automatic
machine is certainly the first and most obvious example of technique,
but it's not the origin of what Ellul calls the "technical problem."
Technique in its proper place is fine, writes Ellul; the problem is
that "technique has taken over all of man's activities, not just his
productive activity." "Technicians" (what we now call "technocrats")
control every sphere of human activity; political economists, for
example, whose mission it is to question the morality of various
economic activities, have been everywhere supplanted by economists who
just figure out how to make things work. The "end of ideology" in
politics has come to mean the end of ideals, and the successful
politician today is one who simply gets services delivered efficiently
[see "Whatever Works, Sucks" by Joshua Glenn, this issue]. In a
civilization dominated by technique, means are continually "improved"
while ends go unexamined: "Technical Man," laments Ellul, is
fascinated by results and results alone. Neo-Marxists would come to
call the reign of technique "instrumental rationality," the blind
pursuit of means to further means, with ends forgotten. Technology
theorist Rosalind Williams, writing in the journal Social Research
(Fall, 1997), summarizes this criticism: "There is a zeal that lets
nothing stand in the way of ever-greater efficiency in the production
of more and more goods, and all this for the sake of ever-greater
profits, and in total disregard of the costs to workers or to nature,
while all higher purposes recede, dwarfed by the technological
process." Ultimately, ends are transformed into means and means into
ends, and everything and everyone is transformed into an efficient
machine [see "Time for Teletubbies!" by Greg Rowland, this issue].
Having gotten "technics" and "technologies" and "technique"
straightened out, it finally became clear to me that any debate about
technology has to begin not with discussion about the various
technologies in our lives, but with a discussion about our ideals.
Although people would much rather debate the "effects" of new
technologies than disagree publicly about the nature of the Good Life,
this is precisely what needs to happen. How do we want to live? Once
we've answered this, we can address what Mumford calls the "real
question": How far does this or that "technology" further the ideal
ends of life? If our life-values include material conquest, wealth,
and power, then Ellulian "technique" is all good; wealth and power are
the by-products--which accrue to someone, though probably not you,
dear reader--of the process by which end-free means "improve"
themselves. But if our life-values revolve around, say, culture and
self-expression, then technique must be balanced with spontaneous and
intuitive action, following which (says Mumford) "the machine... will
fall back into its proper place: our servant, not our tyrant." This,
by the way, was the conclusion independently arrived at, around the
same time Mumford was writing, by this issue's Hermenaut: Simone Weil
[see "Hermenaut of the Month"]. Which brings us to the anorexia part
of this issue.
"Disgust in all its forms is one of the most precious trials sent
to man as a ladder by which to rise. I have a very large share of
this favor."--Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
Because of her lifelong obsession with purity, Weil has been
described, by contemporaries like T.S. Eliot, as a kind of saint.
Although she starved herself to death at the age of 34, Weil had none
of the primary symptoms of clinical anorexia--she didn't weigh herself
excessively, hoard food, avoid eating in public, or appear to suffer
from any significant disturbance in her body-shape perception [see
"Interview with an Anorexic" by Lisa Carver, this issue]. It seems to
me, then, that Weil was what historian Rudolph Bell calls a "holy
anorexic," someone whose refusal to eat has nothing to do with body
shape and everything to do with purity. Like Catherine of Siena, whom
Bell analyzes, Weil practiced various austerities: She rejected
sexuality, wore rough clothes, slept on hard surfaces, and restricted
her diet whenever she could to bread, water, and raw vegetables [see
"Convent Erotica" by Chris Fujiwara, this issue]. In this, Weil may
have been a victim of what feminist literary critic Leslie Heywood
calls the "anorexic logic" of the Western philosophical, religious,
and literary tradition: To Weil, her body may have seemed the source
of worldly corruption, and the antithesis of philosophical detachment
[see "Confessions of an Anorexic Wannabe" by Michelle Chihara, this
The only thing more fascinating to Weil than the symbolism of eating
was the problem of automatic machinery in the workplace, and
technological "progress" in general. I hope it doesn't seem callous to
those who actually suffer from this disorder to suggest that anorexia
is a useful concept for thinking, not about technology itself, but
about how we think about and react to the technologies in our daily
lives. Anorexics suffer from feelings of ineffectiveness (think of how
you feel when your browser crashes again); from a strong need to
control their environment coupled with limited social spontaneity
(unless you count Multi-User Dungeons or whatever as a form of social
spontaneity); and above all from a feeling that their life is not
theirs to control--hello, Neo-Luddites!
But, of course, most of our lives are out of control. We enjoy the
freedom to be, do, and have almost anything we want, but we lack
"freedom from": freedom from being advertised to incessantly [see
"Letter from London" by Matthew De Abaitua, this issue], freedom from
direct mail solicitations and telephone sales calls, freedom from too
many TV channels and breakfast cereals, freedom from intimate
knowledge of the President's sex life, freedom from distraction and
overchoice. According to Hilde (The Golden Cage) Bruch, the pioneer
authority on anorexia, "Anorexics struggle against feeling enslaved,
exploited, and not permitted to lead a life of their own. They would
rather starve than continue a life of accommodation. In this blind
search for a sense of identity and selfhood they will not accept
anything that their parents, or the world around them, has to offer...
The main theme is a struggle for control, for a sense of identity,
competence, and effectiveness." In other words anorexics, typically
privileged young white women who enjoy all the "freedom to" in the
world, may long for freedom from freedom itself [see "Fatty Fiction"
by Lynn Peril, this issue; and "Anorexic Outfitters" by Pauline
Wolstencroft, this issue].
This sort of attitude towards what passes for freedom finds its most
direct expression in "Industrial Society and Its Future," the
manifesto of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. A true ascetic, who lived in an
unheated shack in the woods, Kaczynski wasn't just talking about
freedom from distraction--for him, the free market, free press, and
every other so-called freedom we enjoy are simply "freedoms that are
designed to serve the needs of the social machine more than those of
the individual." He writes that "industrial-technological society"
constricts every one of our true freedoms ("the power to control the
circumstances of one's own life"), leaving us nothing but "the freedom
to consume." Identity, competence, effectiveness--these are the
Thoreauvian values the Unabomber sought to publicize by killing
people. When, for whatever reason, these human impulses are (or just
seem to be) thwarted, we seem to arrive at some form of anorexia [see
"Fun With Richard & Karen" by John Marr, this issue].
The most recent widespread manifestation of Neo-Luddism is our
collective emotion of rage, frustration, or just exhaustion at the
thought of all that information we're expected to... well, ingest,
nowadays. Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information, for example,
argues that we're being endlessly "force-fed" data, to the point where
we begin to compare our minds unfavorably to computers [see
"Suffragist City" by Dara Moskowitz, this issue]. David Shenk's book
Data Smog makes the dieting/info glut connection manifest: Just as
rich people paradoxically tend to be thinner than poor people (because
they eat better, are more health-conscious, and have the leisure time
to worry about their weight), he notes, the more media- and tech-savvy
you are, the more likely you are to have the willingness and the tools
to be an info-ascetic [see "Thin Code" by Scot Hacker, this issue].
Anorexia is not, then, as the Greek word suggests, a lack of appetite,
but rather a distorted and implacable attitude toward eating [see "The
Juice on Dick Gregory" by Dan Reines, this issue; and "Extreme
Dieting" by Mark Frauenfelder, this issue]: I suggest that most of us
have a distorted and implacable attitude toward what we mistakenly
call "technology." Neo-Luddites like to argue that technologies are
never neutral, that TV inherently controls social and political
thought, breaks down family communication, shortens our attention
span, and mediates our reality; that computers inherently invade our
privacy (by making mega-databases possible, for example) and
facilitate social centralization. For Heidegger, modern technologies
are not the problem: The will to mastery is. One could say the same
thing about anorexics; that their pathetic attempts at self-mastery
only end up obliterat-ing the self [see "Half Karen" by A.S. Hamrah,
this issue]. We Neo-Luddites want to get technology under control,
we're super-privileged and super-disgusted--we're techno-anorexics:
Remember, you heard it here first.
In search of a non-distorted attitude toward the new information and
communication technologies in my life, technologies which were indeed
making me as unhappy as they were helping me to be more efficient, in
the spring of '95 I attended something called The Second Neo-Luddite
Congress. At this event, which took place at a Quaker meeting house in
Barnesville, Ohio, I was overjoyed to discover an ally in my own
attempt to address the Technology Question in a manner that was more
Heidegger and Mumford, less Birkerts and Barlow. Scott Savage, the
"plain" Quaker who'd organized the Congress, had convened
representatives of the most laughably technophobic
subcultures--survivalists, self-helpers, back-to-the-landers,
rawfoodists, tree-spikers, deep ecologists, pagan bioregionalists--in
order to teach them to stop asking "Technology: Changing The Way We
Live For The Worse, Or For The Better?" Instead, he (and other plain
folk present) suggested, let's ask "Technology how?" "Technology why?"
"Technology when?" "Technology with what history, and to what end?" I
have no idea if the ideas expressed at this event helped anybody
present other than myself begin to see a solution to the problem of
new technologies, but the whole scene, silly as it was in many ways,
affected me deeply.
Like anorexics, who fixate on the means of bodily denial ("How many
peas per serving is too many?") without ever allowing themselves to
consider their desired end ("Just how thin is thin enough?"), we don't
ask ourselves what we want our lives to be like before we slap the
"Kill Your TV" sticker on the Bronco. Until we can agree upon
standards by which to judge new technologies, Neo-Luddites and
technophiles can go around and around arguing the relative merits and
demerits of cyberspace and "real life" without ever getting anywhere.
The Amish belief that technology is only bad when it intrudes upon
one's home life (which leads to the spectacle of rollerblading
patriarchs, and a pay phone on every corner, in their communities),
may not work for all of us, of course. All I'm trying to suggest is
that the "technology question" is not just about machines and "their
effect"--whether positive or negative--on mankind: That's a dead end.
What to do? Heidegger's essay on technology offers one way out.
Writing after the war, the previously activist philosopher had come to
believe that human willpower cannot oppose the technological
"enframing" of the world, in which everything and everyone is
mobilized for the purpose of greater efficiency--precisely the state
of affairs the Una-bomber's manifesto describes. Instead of suggesting
that "it would be better to dump the whole stinking system," as
Kaczynski does, Heidegger proposes that we practice a
non-technological way of encountering things; that instead of
perceiving the world in terms of means and ends, we keep sight of the
"thereness" of reality, the mere given fact of the world. Heidegger
replaces resoluteness of will with Gelassenheit--"releasement": the
gentle coaxing from things of their own best potentiality.
For anorexics, Gelassenheit may mean learning to live with the reality
of one's body, allowing oneself to desire without being ruled by
desire--perhaps even to "desire without an object," as Weil puts it.
For us techno-anorexics, I think Gelassenheit means resisting the
instinct to reject or embrace new technologies reflexively. It means
questioning the motives of those who'd convince us that we can't get
along without the latest gadget; but it also means questioning our own
use of those technologies we take for granted.
One day, in the fall of 1995, I decided it was time to do something
about Urban Outfitters. I was sick of hearing my friends complain
about getting paid slave wages in exchange for discounts on crappy
clothes and the privilege of listening to indie rock at top volume all
day. I was especially disgusted by their stories of girls trying on
baby-doll dresses and begging their boyfriends to tell them they
didn't look like chubsters; or about the occasional overweight girl
brave enough to pick through the techno-enhanced labyrinth of
skinny-girl clothes, in order to squeeze into something that made her
look like an overgrown baby. Worst of all, I was horrified by the fact
that so many people my age were buying into U.O.'s brand of
mass-produced pseudo-nostalgia: After all, why scour through dirty
Salvation Army bins for bellbottoms, barrettes, and lava lamps when
you can pick up the same stuff sanitized and neatly presented on racks
at a location convenient to your dorm? So I designed a hate poster,
printed up a few thousand of them, and proceeded to plaster them on
the windows and walls of Urban Outfitters everywhere.
My [then-]boyfriend was touring with his band and I went along for the
ride. I hit stores in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San
Francisco, Austin, and Seattle. In Boston and New York the morning
after the posters went up, I stood outside of the store in costume (a
polka-dotted suit and a very long red wig) as my alter-ego Miss Kitty
Bates, handing out little postcards I'd made. The postcards depicted a
slouching waif with a question mark bubble for a head, and read:
"EXHIBIT A: HUNGRY WAIF," with my name and P.O. Box at the bottom.
People would crowd around, hoping for free passes to a club or fab
party or something, and continue on into the store. Often they'd read
the card before they got through the door and look back at me with
hurt, but also with curiosity, in their eyes.
When I included my address on the posters and cards I wasn't expecting
a lot of feedback, because like a lot of people, I had grown cynical
about people's lack of interest in anything with artistic or social
content. I was really touched, then, by the number of responses I
received from strangers who had just seen my poster on the street, and
who took the time to make a note of my address and write me. I was
also amused by these responses, though, because they ranged from the
sublime to the ridiculous. (One guy wrote an angst-filled poem for me,
entitled "Snapshots of a Void Screen," in which he lamented that "we
linger in the stillness, feeling a fading desire for life...") Some
people wrote admitting to not really understanding my beef with U.O.
but wanting to know more. One person, who ended his response with an
offer "to help in my campaign," wrote in asking, "Is this the kind of
company that is insensitive, cold, and only interested in making money
at the expense of others?" Sure.
The "conformity" part of my campaign seemed lost on most people: My
new pen-pals wanted to congratulate me for drawing attention to U.O.'s
exploitation of the self-conscious teen girl market. One Go-Girl-brand
feminist named "batgrrrl" wrote "Good luck deconstructing whatever
paradigm you're working on!" Spoken like a true Harvard Yard
cheerleader. Some of these folks, though, were looking for a
sympathetic ear into which to pour their own personal anorexia sob
stories. I came to realize that there were a lot more people out there
who had a personal history of anorexia than I had ever imagined. While
this made me sad, having to respond to a stranger who obviously needed
help made me extremely uncomfortable. In fact, anorexia is something
that I have never experienced first-hand--the thought "I'm sooo fat"
never ran through my head as a child or as a gawky brace-faced
teenager. Although I have an unwavering love for greasy, fattening
foods, particularly hot dogs and hamburgers, I am 5'8"/113 pounds.
Maybe that's why I got a lot of comments from people who saw me in
action and questioned what a skinny girl like myself was doing making
any comment about Urban Outfitters' perpetuation of the waif
aesthetic. I could only respond by saying that I don't starve myself,
and that my point in creating those posters was that if weight is an
issue for women in their awkward teenage years, they ceratinly don't
need additional pressure from some second-rate, overpriced, false
mecca of "urban" style.
One UMass grad student who wanted to interview me for a thesis paper
she was doing about "Women Taking Up Space" wrote asking, "As a woman
do you feel comfortable 'taking up space'?" Umm, yes. She then wanted
me to describe some examples of times when I felt I had to "keep
quiet, keep it down, pull it in, or behave myself because of my
gender." And to finish these sentences: "Power is... ," "I take up
space because... ," and "I would be happier if... ." I eventually
wrote her back telling her that I was not the right person for her
project, that I had never really considered myself as taking up space,
and that I would never start a sentence with "I take up space
In an article written about me and my posters in the Boston Phoenix,
the author (Geoff Edgers) talked to the manager of Urban Outfitters'
Boston location and to Sue Otto, the company's creative director. The
manager of U.O. Boston said that when she first saw the posters she
assumed that it was the work of a disgruntled employee. (Hmmm, why
would there be disgruntled employees? Because they get paid $5 an
hour? Or because they have to empty their pockets to prove that they
are not stealing anything every time they leave the store for any
reason? Or maybe because they're sick of being coerced into ratting on
their coworkers daily in required written reports for their managers?)
Otto, who ended her response with, "Working here has been my whole
life," took my posters a bit more personally. To rebut my claim that
the company where she's worked for 13 years caters to women who wish
they had the body of a 12-year-old, she volunteered her own physical
dimensions, which happened to be 5'3"/165 pounds. Talk about loyalty!
I'm aware that a lot of the things that I have griped about with Urban
Outfitters can be said of a million other companies. U.O. doesn't rip
the money out of teenagers' hands, and thrift-store fashion was bound
to trickle down from the starving artist types to suburban teens. But
in a perfect world, kids everywhere would realize that they are being
duped by marketing masterminds. These kids would then burn down all
the Urban Outfitters polluting our cities, finally freeing themselves
from the shackles of their chain wallets and the confines of their
Interview With An Anorexic
I have very little sympathy for someone whose disease involves poor
self-image. The idea that perfect control over your body is possible
is so WASPy, as is the idea that other people actually spend their
time caring whether you reach it or not. Much more attractive to me
are people whose problems come from seeking out all that is invisible
like that fad I read about in Vogue where young people cut themselves
every day. The silent suffering and self-containedness of anorexia, in
the grand scheme of life, is really worthless. Internalized drama is
everything pathetic about drama with none of the majesty. Anorexics
never kick out the jams. At least "diseases" like gambling or
alcoholism, or even spousal abuse, involve interaction--a
tipping-back-and-forth balance of guilt and fury and love and hatred,
a shouting match with your girlfriend when you arrive home sans
grandma's earrings. At least alcoholics have camaraderie--anorexics
are eternally alone, single piranhas circling. (An anorexic sees
another anorexic, she thinks, "Damn! Another skinny bitch on my
turf!") And in the end, those anorexics will force you to take care of
them while looking like they never wanted help, like they never hated
you or wanted you miserable: "Oh no, it was all inward-directed
violence." My foot! I fucking hate passive-aggressive behavior.
While my sympathy is small, my jealousy is big. Anorexics always seem
to have more thoughts than I do. All those intricacies and picayune
habits. My body is just something that walks me to the store--it's no
battlefield. Where do they come up with these ideas?I just want to
write, have sex, fight with my boyfriend, hire someone to clean my
house, figure out how to be funny, and go to Japan someday. Keeping my
consumption of peas to 7 per day, while not letting the fork touch my
lips, just doesn't enter in the picture. And I just know the swanky
homosexuals who disapprove of everything under the sun think those
spotty-haired scrawny girls are more worth talking to than I am.
Maybe it's just the word "anorexia" I love--spread out like a fishing
net over the stars, filaments so thin they're barely visible. The girl
herself is a constellation of fine, blow-dried hair, shiny clothes,
peeling nails, and jutting bones--you have to connect the dots because
there's nothing in between. My best friend for the last 13 years has
been anorexic to varying degrees: She is driven by egotism,
perfectionism, and what people I never want to meet would call "issues
of control." She ate only chips, iced tea, and jalapeño peppers for
her main meal every day for a solid year. She'd go to three different
stores to buy these items, as if some poor clerk might be keeping
track, thinking "If she eats chips, she needn't eat jalapeño peppers
as well." If she ever bought anything else, say a cup of soup, she'd
talk about it with the person at the cash register (and anyone else
around), pretending it was for someone else: "I guess this is the kind
he wanted, I don't know..." Eventually, she stopped talking to clerks
altogether. She'd pass them a note that said, "I am a deaf-mute. I am
picking up some turkey soup for my friend. How much, please?" She was
always getting in car accidents, and every single month she thought
she was pregnant.
The cool people are always selfish and dramatic. Unlike, say,
depressives, who sink down into the same old patterns of
self-destructive behavior and never get out of them, anorexics have a
constantly expanding galaxy of ways to have problems. They lie. They
black out. They hemorrhage. All the anorexics I've known steal
boyfriends. Things always "happen" to them: People molest them when
they sleep, ex-boyfriends steal their gas cards, or things go wrong
when they try to kill themselves and they end up stuck in the loony
bin for the weekend. They have mortal enemies. People put curses on
them! It's an extravagant, silent life, the life of the anorexic. A
guy recently told me his sister had been having a telepathic
relationship with Martin Gore of Depeche Mode for the last 8
months--and had even gotten pregnant from it! "Wait!" I said, "Does
your sister have an eating disorder?" "Yes," he said, "She's a
fruitopian. She hasn't eaten anything but fruit for years."
I got anorexic/bulimics all over my life. One of them is my son's
baby-sitter, Chance Provencal--so I interviewed her. Throughout the
interview, Chance peeled and ripped up an onion that was sitting on my
table. You can hear the low crackle of the mutilation throughout the
Lisa: When did it start?
Chance Provencal: When I was 18. I never thought about how much I ate
or how much I weighed until I had this one boyfriend. I was 120 pounds
and he was like, "Oh, I like my girls to be skinny."
Lisa: "My girls." Sounds like a pimp.
Chance: The thing is, he was fat! He was! "I like my girls to be 100,
105 pounds." No matter how much I tried to cut down on my eating or
exercise more, I couldn't lose any weight. So I just kind of like ate
what I wanted and then got rid of it.
Lisa: You puked.
Chance: Oh yeah, I puked and I starved, alternately. I did a lot more
puking than I did starving. It was easier to just puke it out.
Lisa: How often did you throw up?
Chance: Sometimes just a couple times a week, sometimes a couple times
a day. It depends on how much I ate that day. Because there are days
where I won't eat at all. I found that if you wake up in the morning
and you don't eat, you can go longer without eating. But once I eat, I
just have to eat and eat and eat.
Lisa: How come after you dumped that boyfriend you still had the
Chance: Because after that it was an obsession to be skinny. All my
friends down in Maryland are really skinny--between 90 and 105
pounds--and I felt fat.
Lisa: What if you got a bunch of fat friends, would that help?
Chance: Probably not, because then I'd be mean and want to be even
skinnier. I have fat friends now and I continue to be skinny because
they all say, "Look how skinny you are, look how tiny you are," and I
Lisa: What's the lowest weight you ever got to?
Chance: 85 pounds. I didn't get lower because I was taken to the
hospital pretty early--[starvation] was harder on me than most people
because of my diabetes. I got down to 85 with painkillers. I think
painkillers are the best diet drug. You really don't get hungry! You
just lay in bed all the time and lose the weight. But when you're not
tired, they make you just jump up and run around and not think about
anything--just keep going.
Lisa: Were you able to hold down a job at this time?
Chance: Not then, because I had an ovarian cyst, so I was out of work
because of that. I never wanted to count calories. I'd just eat a
piece of lettuce, drink water. I didn't want to do this whole thing of
eat one M&M, exercise for three hours. I was never that meticulous
about it. I'm too lazy.
Lisa: Did you go to the hospital by choice?
Chance: No. I couldn't really fight it by that point because I was
just too out of it. I was too weak and half in and out. My boyfriend
at the time took me because I was bordering on unconsciousness. My
roommates called him up and said, "Her heartbeat's really low, she's
not responding to much, she's dehydrated." So he came and picked me up
and took me to the emergency room.
Lisa: Is this the one who likes his girls skinny?
Chance: No, a different one. This boyfriend never said I was too
Lisa: How did people treat you while you were recovering in the
Chance: Some were really nice and sympathetic, some were mean and
heartless. They'd say, "Well you got yourself into this and you ought
to know better and I don't feel sorry for you!" Other people would
say, "Oh, you poor little thing." The counselors were nice, but a lot
of the nurses were mean--the fat nurses. But you get that no matter
what you're in the hospital for--some nice nurses, some mean.
Lisa: How much weight did they make you gain before you could leave?
Chance:: 10 or 15 pounds.
Lisa: How did you gain the weight? Did you get an I.V. drip?
Chance: Yeah. They gave me the saline solution, then glucose. They
were talking about putting that tube in my nose.
Lisa: Why? Were you afraid to eat?
Chance: No, they just felt it was so necessary at that time, but I was
like, "No, no, no, I'll eat!" And then I had to get monitored every
time I had to go to the bathroom. I had to call a nurse and leave the
door open part-way so they could make sure I was going to the bathroom
and not doing other stuff.
Lisa: How long did it take you to gain 10 pounds?
Chance: It took a couple months, because your stomach shrinks, so what
was a normal meal to me would be like a snack to someone else. Even
now, when I don't eat for a while, my stomach shrinks, and then I'll
eat just a couple bites and I'm full. I can't eat another bite, and
that's fine for me! After that I went to my boyfriend's house and he
was fat and his whole family was fat, and they took care of me. They
made sure I got fed. And he worked at Taco Bell so I got to eat tacos
all the time. They were trying to force me to eat, and then when I'd
feel sick they'd tell me, "Oh you're fine," and like force-feed me,
and then I'd really be sick, and throw up.
Lisa: How do you feel when you see a fat person?
Chance: I don't know, I think a lot of fat people are beautiful.
Sometimes I want to be fat, have a little extra meat on me. But I
can't bring myself to actually do it. But sometimes I get mad at fat
people because I think they're gross and disgusting, other times I
think they're fine, I think they're beautiful. My good friend Cindy,
she's overweight, and sometimes I think, "Fat pig!" and then other
times I think, "Oh, she's fine."
Lisa: How do you feel when you see a skinny person?
Chance: When I see someone skinnier than me, I get mad. This one lady,
she was so skinny, I kept looking at her and thinking, "There must be
something really wrong with her. She must have cancer. She is
Lisa: Was she elegant or grotesque?
Chance: She was grotesque. It was really nasty.
Lisa: Did you realize you looked disgusting when you were that skinny?
Chance: No. Because you have your own image of what you look like.
There's this mirror over at Rick's house that I call the Skinny Mirror
because I looked in it one day and I looked really thin. Everybody
said, "You're just saying that." But then this guy's girlfriend looked
in it and she said the same thing, so we call it the Skinny Mirror
now. So whenever I feel fat I go look in the Skinny Mirror. There's
days when I look at myself and I think, "Wow, I look great, I can live
with this." And there's other days when I look at myself in the mirror
and start scrutinizing every inch of my body: "My butt's fat. My legs
are fat. My gut is fat." But I don't ever want to go through
hospitalization again, I'll never let myself get to that point again.
I have a messed-up esophagus now from making myself throw up so much.
Sometimes I'll just chew on a pen cap now, and I'll gag. Because I
used to stick my toothbrush down there, my fingers, anything. And now
when I throw up it really hurts and burns, it feels like my whole
chest is gonna cave in.
Lisa: When you were so skinny, what did your skin and hair look like?
Chance: I did get that light layer of hair that you grow. It's
baby-blonde color. That extra layer that keeps you warm, because you
get so skinny your body can't keep itself warm.
Lisa: Was it all over your body and face?
Chance: Not on my face so much. It was mostly on my midsection, on my
back and front.
Lisa: How did your boyfriend feel about you having chest hair?
Chance: He was kind of disgusted by it, but he really cared for me, so
he didn't let it really show. There was no physical relationship at
that point, because I was too weak and he was too afraid he would
break me. He was really delicate with me all the time. If he held my
hand, his hand would completely wrap around mine.
Lisa: Do you still get urges to not eat and to throw up?
Chance: I still do. There are days where I won't eat at all. Just
because I'm afraid I'll get to the point where I'm too fat again and
then it will start all over. Other days I'll eat like a pig and then
I'll feel awful for weeks after. And I'll be like, "Well, I can't eat
for a couple days because I ate a lot yesterday." I haven't thrown up
lately. I was doing it a couple months ago, because I'd eat so much
I'd have to. And then you know, when you throw up you get dehydrated,
so I'd drink like a whole gallon of water and then I'd have to throw
that up. I used to throw up every night still last year.
Lisa: Do you take painkillers now?
Chance: I did the other day. But a lot of doctors are cracking down on
what they give you. I had a kidney infection two weeks ago and they
wouldn't even give me painkillers for that. Which is good, because I
was addicted to them really bad. When I stopped taking them, I went
through withdrawal, the shakes. If I even take one or two now, I'll
get addicted almost automatically, so it's good they don't give them
out as easily anymore. You don't think about a lot when you have
painkillers. Painkillers are deadly, not just for the obvious reasons,
but because of the way they make you think and act. I'm proud that I
stopped, the painkillers and the eating disorder. I still have my
days. They say it's never really cured, you always have it in the back
of your mind. It's just a matter of controlling it. I don't make
myself throw up anymore. When I look back at what I used to do, it
really kind of disgusts me.
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