Stop the Anorexia Obsession

The rumors were flying as fast as fiber optics could carry them: Calista Flockhart-a.k.a. Ally McBeal-was anorexic. Did you see her at the Emmys? So skinny! She must be sick. The speculation spread like a nasty virus, with articles on Flockhart's bony body cropping up everywhere from Star to Time. The actress denied the rumors, but that didn't stop the inside stories-or the jokes. On The Tonight Show, Jay Leno presented the "McBeal TV Dinner," a meal of a few peas and a single lima bean. TV Guide featured a takeoff on an Altoids ad, depicting Flockhart holding a box of "ALLY-TOIDS"-the "curiously thin" mints that are "guaranteed to make you sexy and popular." At nearly five-feet-six-inches tall and a reported 102 pounds, Flockhart is certainly slim. But why did her weight loss inspire jokes and gossip, not concern? Would the rumors have been as mean-spirited if she'd been diagnosed with, say, breast cancer? Of course not. But anorexia has become a joke of a disease. We use the term to describe any woman who's skinny-whether she's perfectly healthy or possibly sick-and in doing so, we trivialize an illness that is excruciatingly real.
Consider these examples of "anorexia" misuse: In an April 2, 1998, Chicago Tribune article, a columnist remarked that "miniskirts look terrific on the very young, on the anorexic…." In a July 9, 1998, New York Times article on a Spice Girls' CD-ROM, the writer described the market for good interactive music products as "anorexically thin." The disease's name is now simply a synonym for slim.
"Anorexic" is also used as a weapon in the ongoing woman-on-woman catfight. The genetically slender are asked by allegedly concerned female bystanders if they're-omigod!-anorexic? On Glamour reader says: "I was shopping, and a woman came up to me and asked if I'd always been 'like this.' Then she advised me to seek counseling for my supposed eating disorder. I've always been skinny, but she made me feel so bad I put down the clothes I wanted to try on, and left." Which makes us wonder: Since when is it okay to accuse people of having a disease?
And it is a disease. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says 1 percent of young women develop anorexia, and 2 to 3 percent develop bulimia. The woman who starves herself doesn't just get too skinny. As she misses meal after meal, she begins to suffer from depression, hair loss and poor circulation. In time, her muscles begin to waste away, and she has trouble breathing. She stops menstruating and, eventually, may develop low blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat, which can lead to cardiac arrest. An estimated 5 percent of college-aged women exhibit anorexic or bulimic behavior. Not all seek treatment. However, of the women who do become anorexic, NIMH estimates that one in 10 will die from cardiac arrest, suicide or other medical complications. Women are starving themselves to death. But why? Experts believe that anorexia stems from a girl's need to exert control over a life that seems more and more chaotic as she copes with adolescence. "She may not be comfortable with the way her body is changing and all the feelings she starts to have as hormones begin flooding her system," says Paula Levine, Ph.D., director of the Anorexia and Bulimia Resource Center, in Coral Gables, Florida. "She may think, The one thing I can control in life is what goes in and out of my mouth." Girls who starve themselves may be experiencing fear of becoming sexually developed or, in some cases, self-hatred so strong that it makes them want to literally disappear. And yet, the popular idea is that they starve themselves simply because they are vain wanna-be models trying to squeeze into size 4 jeans-and so it's fine, even feminist, to mock such silliness. That mocking devastates real anorexics. One Florida psychologist who counsels women with eating disorders says a client of hers once came in crying because she'd seen a morning news show featuring an interview with a group of models. As an on-set gag the models were given a single strawberry for breakfast. One strawberry, several women: The show made light of starving oneself, portraying it as a prerequisite for a model's success. "My patient felt as if the terrible disease she has is a joke to the rest of the world," says the therapist, "But an eating disorder is an agonizing illness-the fact really is minimized."
Calista Flockhart may or may not be sick. Either way, our reaction to her should be careful and compassionate, not cruel and catty. Let's not let the cries of anorexia's real victims get drowned out by one very loud meow.