Friday, November 29, 2013

How to Disappear Completely, by Kelsey Osgood

What if anorexia and eating disorders in general were communicable illnesses? What if you became anorexic through reading abut it, through hearing other people talk about it, through treatment for it? What if anorexia isn't technically mental illness, but something you acquire overtime? 

That is, essentially, the premise of Kelsey Osgood's How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. Ultimately, her belief stems from her own personal struggle with anorexia, which essentially went like this: at some point, Kelsey felt alienated from her peers; she attributed this to being "fat," something she mimicked from seeing other girls do it; she read as many books about being anorexic as she could; over time, she became a "wannarexic"; in treatment, she became worse because of the competitive nature of the treatment centers she visited; and she became a full-blown anorexic. She alludes, very often, to Marya Horbacher's Wasted, a story of anorexia and bulimia, stating that most of the anorexic girls she met in treatment had read Marya's book. She asserts, essentially, that the literature surrounding anorexia -- from the definition to the literature that is written about the disease and those who struggle with it -- encourages anorexia, creating a template for girls to follow. Ultimately, the basis of this claim is the fact that girls with anorexia are always presented in a positive light: ballerinas, light ethereal, dreamy. They are, ultimately, positive metaphors used for those that suffer from anorexia, something that masks the really ugly side of the disease. 

In many ways, Osgood is accurate in her statement. When she dissects various depictions of anorexia, it makes sense: girls are always depicted in a way that makes them seem beautiful, other-wordly, spinning into an existence that is lighter than air. Who doesn't want to be described that way? 

Osgood makes a point of talking about her own anorexia without really talking about it. She never states how tall she is, how much she weighed at her lowest, or her tricks for starving herself and burning extra calories. In one chapter, she briefly mentions that in treatment, she would constantly jiggle her legs to burn calories -- a fact that she spends an entire paragraph dissecting, wondering if this brief look into her own struggle will give someone the idea to do it. As Osgood says, she learned how to be an anorexic -- a good one -- from reading about it and being in treatment centers. In this way, it's clear that Osgood believes what she's saying: she thinks she became anorexic because she decided to one day and from there, it was just research. 

I don't think that's necessarily true though. I think, ultimately, if someone had interceded early in Osgood's life -- when she was 13 and deciding her alienation was because she was "fat" and therefore, she needed to lose weight -- she still would have become anorexic eventually. Maybe not a year later, as she did, but eventually, I think it would have happened. However, even if no one interceded and she still became anorexic and it really was because she "researched" anorexia and dedicated herself do it, that still doesn't mean that's true for everyone. Ultimately, I think Osgood is basing her assertion too much off of her personal experience, without giving credence to girls who grow up without access to popular media or literature dedicated to anorexia who still become anorexic. Basically: I think Osgood's evidence is anecdotal, even if she does include various descriptions of email exchanges with former friends from treatment. 

That being said, I do think Osgood is correct in some regards. Throughout the book, she describes the competitive nature of treatment centers: girls compete to gain the least weight in treatment or they tell each other their weights. In this regard, I think she's right -- treatment centers do not seem like good places to recover from anorexia, especially with so many other girls. Anorexia is, ultimately, a disorder based in competition -- being thin, thinner, thinnest. 

As well, even though I think Osgood's evidence for her primary assertion -- that girls become anorexic because, ultimately, they teach themselves to be from mimicking the behavior of others -- is anecdotal, I do think she comes close to describing a very real phenomena. Girls who become anorexic, I think, will always become anorexic, whether they research it or not; but I think the literature around anorexia does contribute to those who already have the disease. I have plenty of body issues personally, but nothing I've ever read about anorexia had made me think, Oh, I should do that! even when I was feeling really, really low. That being said, I think someone who already exhibits traits of anorexia -- such as perfectionism, sort of an obsession dedication to a schedule, and disordered eating -- reading stories about anorexia, especially very detailed accounts, can be very damaging. In that regard, I think Osgood is correct. 

I have read my fair share of books about anorexia -- last winter, I read Winter Girls in a single day, and I have a good deal of other books on my shelf, including Hornbacher's Wasted -- and while they clearly did not effect me the way they did Osgood, I do understand her point that their depictions don't necessarily seem as damaging or daunting as they should. Winter Girls is a story about a girl who decided to become anorexic and her best friend became bulimic -- her best friend ends up dying in a hotel room and she ends up getting worse and worse. While the book is ultimately a book about accepting that eating disorders kill people, it's also still extremely ethereal and positive; there is still something beautiful and broken about the main character, the one who decides to recover and live. For whatever reason, literature has decided to portray those with anorexia in a certain way, a way that is in some ways appealing to those who might already be vulnerable to that kind of imagery. It's refreshing to Osgood to make a pointed effort to avoid that kind of depiction and to instead focus on what causes anorexia.

How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia is a book that left me feeling conflicted -- on one hand, I don't agree with Osgood's beliefs about the cause of anorexia... but then, as Osgood seems to assert, because I'm not anorexic, I don't really have the evidence to say otherwise. As well, after reading the book throughout the week, I would always walk away from it feeling very sad and drained -- it's not a happy book, but in many ways, I find it a lot harder to read than other depictions of anorexia, possibly because it is so honest in regards to the physical aspects and competitive nature. Ultimately, it's a book that made me question my beliefs about severe eating disorders, especially anorexia and those who suffer from it, and I think that's a good thing.

How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, by Kelsey Osgood, $17.00 from Amazon 

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