Dedications to hunger

 

Miss A, anorexia patient

Miss A, an unnamed patient of William Withey Gull, before and after treatment for anorexia nervosa. Published in an 1873 medical paper.

The Guardian published an excerpt from a book written by Kirstie Clements, a former editor of Australian Vogue. In it, she talks about the terrible self-deprivation of fashion models, giving a firsthand account of how her own industry demands that young women destroy their bodies in the service of a certain style of beauty. It is a harrowing read; even if, like me, you are well versed in feminist critiques of the thinness ideal and beauty culture, it still hurts to read about real women suffering like this:

I was dressing a model from the US on a beauty shoot, and I noticed scars and scabs on her knees. When I queried her about them she said, nonchalantly: “Oh yes. Because I’m always so hungry, I faint a lot.” She thought it was normal to pass out every day, sometimes more than once.

I’m a fainter, and I’ve never been thin. Fainting is terrifying, both for the fainter and (maybe more) for the bystanders. It’s not instant, in my experience; several strange things happen at once, and you have time for brief, weird thoughts: your ears ring, your vision grays into a tunnel, your legs weaken. You think something like “I will fall down now” and then you wake up on the floor, often having dreamed, and you have to piece together the connection between that gray ringing time and your self on a cold floor. Why is my leg in the bathtub? Why is my purse over there on the floor? You dream, a little, while unconscious. It seems like hours have gone by, and you have to logic yourself into believing that only seconds have passed. You probably bruised something or banged your head on the way down. You get a terrible headache that you can’t shake for the rest of the day. You feel not quite like a person.

I’ve fainted maybe 8 or 10 times in the last two decades, and a few of those times have been the start of some of the worst days of my life. Once, I had a brain cancer scare. Another time, I had my one and only ambulance ride of my life (knock wood). It’s a dramatic event, and EMTs and doctors take it seriously. Bystanders and family members take it seriously. It looks bad, and it means something went very wrong with your nervous system or your circulation. How alone and vulnerable would you have to be to think, like the model above, that fainting every day is normal?

But the question of what is “normal” lies behind much of the trouble with beauty culture, and though the Vogue editor acknowledges this problem, she doesn’t seem to see where she perpetuates it. She tells another horrifying anecdote about what counts as “normal”:

On another shoot I was chatting to one of the top Australian models during lunch. She had just moved to Paris and was sharing a small apartment with another model. I asked her how that was working out. “I get a lot of time by myself actually,” she said, picking at her salad. “My flatmate is a ‘fit model’, so she’s in hospital on a drip a lot of the time.” A fit model is one who is used in the top designer ateliers, or workrooms, and is the body around which the clothes are designed. That the ideal body shape used as a starting point for a collection should be a female on the brink of hospitalisation from starvation is frightening.

This is the part of the article that I can’t get out of my head. The irony of the word “fit” here: fit the clothes, fit the body. Looking fit requires an IV drip so you don’t die. 

But see how Clements still can’t help but normalize a thin body later in the article: 

They get so caught up in the hype of how brilliant clothes look on a size 4, they cannot see the inherent danger in the message. It cannot be denied that visually, clothes fall better on a slimmer frame, but there is slim, and then there is scary skinny.

Some fashion suits a curvier girl, some doesn’t. I see no problem with presenting a healthy, toned, Australian size 10 [UK 8-10]. [Ed. note: US size 6]

I don’t think she even notices that her vision of the norm is still quite small. I doubt she even realizes she has a vision of the normal body at all. But as a woman who has never, ever worn a US size 6, I notice. I’m sure most women readers notice, because as women we are well trained in measuring and finding ourselves wanting. Several years ago, I came down with a chronic digestive disorder which took nearly a year to diagnose and left me feeling profoundly ill. At my sickest, with weight loss so rapid my doctor was worried about cancer, I wore a US size 8. People told me all the time that I looked fantastic. Kirstie Clements would have found me a little chubby.

Louise Glück writes brilliantly about the self-lacerating gaze of women, the gaze that perhaps starts by mimicking the objectifying male gaze but changes into its own, nearly living thing. Her most direct depiction of anorexia comes in the fourth section of “Dedication to Hunger,” called “The Deviation”:

It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form
dedication to hunger,
because a woman’s body
is a grave: it will accept 
anything.

….

it is the same need to perfect,
of which death is the mere byproduct.

Death is the byproduct of the idealization of female beauty. Now, it’s death by starvation: in 50 or 100 years, perhaps it will be death by some other means. But as long as we value female bodies for their decorativeness rather than their personhood, we consent to the sacrifice of certain female children, Iphigenias all.

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