The reluctant consumer, or the politics of abstinence

Eating disorder… We all know – more or less – what that means: mental illness defined by obsession with body image and diet. So it’s no surprise that eating disorders are on the rise. Anorexics, bulimics and binge eaters used to be – in the golden old days of, say, the ’80s – canaries in the coal mine of industrialised consumer society. But these ‘disorders’, as psychiatry calls them (imposing its own debatable standards of order in the process), have been losing significance as new disorders proliferate, with obesity stats increasing to the extent that what was formerly deemed abnormal (and extremely unhealthy) has been swallowed by the politics of identity.

Yet using the word obesity – which until recently hasn’t referred chiefly to a ‘chronic disease’ – reflects the medicalisation of a widespread (forgive the pun) symptom of the disease of mass (oops) overconsumption. And as fatness grows ever more prevalent in a West that seems hell bent on consuming itself to death, the self-starvation project of anorexia has never been more conspicuous. The stick figure that points to severe caloric restriction stands, in its otherness, as an indictment of our collective sickness. No wonder anorexics get treated as mentally ill, unlike their antithesis: overeaters. Yet in a world where billboards, signs and the ads that colonise our devices keep screaming at us, 24/7, to eat, to cultivate a skeletal physique takes colossal willpower, whether or not you applaud the result. Meanwhile, as bulk research gets devoted to this unnerving condition, millions of children in poverty still die of malnutrition, a third of the world’s food gets wasted, and the obese now outnumber the hungry.

Speaking of figures… As those who’ve tried to research the Covid death rate know, it’s hard to find straightforward, let alone reliable, Oz stats online. So, to cite US stats and pre-pandemic death rates (to exclude inflated Covid mortality) – in 2019, obesity caused about one in five US deaths: half a million+. Less than 2% of the US population is estimated to suffer from anorexia nervosa; also half a million+. But from 2018–19, anorexia killed 2,680. Not nothing, but hey, it aids perspective.

Why does anorexia rattle so many cages? Might the sight of an asexual, amenorrhoeal non-breeder bug the patriarchy because she defies male desires and needs? Or is there more to why these women courting death – a tiny minority – dismay some folk who have less to say on starvation enforced by war/debt/poverty? The pro-ana movement (underground online support communities for the cringe-inducingly thin) attracts censure that rivals hatred of the unvaxxed for intensity. Why is fat pride so widely endorsed and thin pride abhorred? What is disproportionate, sensationalist media coverage of the goddess Ana’s cultists meant to protect? Diverting attention from a far bigger and deadlier problem, it signifies a gap in the profit margins of corporate capitalists. How to monetise a condition whose sufferers discreetly shun treatment?

Obesity promotes economic growth – more food, more surface area requiring clothes or skincare products, more pharmaceuticals etc. – and the diet industry, too, is lucrative, boosted by repeat business because sooner or later most dieters backslide. Is it the symbolism of wasted young women – evocative of concentration camp inmates – that more adequately padded souls find shocking? Yet isn’t an urge to hone one’s flesh down to bones that take up less space a valid response to overpopulation by the overweight, as large parts of the Earth’s surface rapidly become less habitable?

Meanwhile, technology is gobbling up more jobs, spitting out more products, and shitting lethal toxins. Despite its shiny, benign PR image, AI is a hungry god. And the internet is a vast data farm. Like penned pigs or caged hens, we grunt and cluck and gobble up a pre-processed, meme-enriched, beauty-free diet with no added art, obeying cues to think inside the box and stay in line online. Hence vegan activists thrash the analogy of factory farming and our docile confinement. In fact, going vegan is a common pro-ana tactic, even though veganism incurs its own share of flak. (Not long ago, on Goodreads, I got randomly attacked by an apologist for the Dalai Lama’s meat-eating, which I’d dared question re so-called ‘compassion for all beings’.)

Both anorexics and vegans, even if scorned as pathetic, possess a mysterious power to provoke; the former attract death-phobic would-be rescuers; the latter earn the concern of carnivores keen to convert them (for self-validation?) or undermine their smug self-righteousness. Both groups draw constant fire re nutritional deficiencies and get accused of ignorance or stupidity by idiots unable to mind their own business and uncritical of the big business of a capitalist system happy to humour consumers who buy, say, products marked ‘free range’ and feel virtuous due to not knowing where their eggs or chickens came from.

Given that many anorexics find the prospect of weight gain so disgusting that they risk their lives to deny normal hunger, they can’t be expected to relish the sight of flab on others. Yet is their problem purely visual? To blame the aesthetics of fashion and cosmetics ads that have sold a preternaturally thin ideal since the sixties seems simplistic. What if this revulsion manifesting as dysfunction is, at least for some, an instinctual gut-level resistance to a repulsive and violent culture that fattens abused and suffering animals hidden from the herds who devour them only to grow fat and suffer in turn?

The volume of ads exhorting us to consume assorted products makes it hard to listen to our bodies, hence easy to believe we need technology to mediate via countless convenient diet and fitness apps, treadmills (machines that had more meaning in the days when they ground grain), blood pressure monitors etc. And experts with their checkups merely echo what the macro system (vs. our micro systems) wants: money, a monopoly. Yawn. But is this system soulless? Or are we being sucked hollow as technology swells and proliferates, the gift that keeps on giving (or taking), colonising our time and space? Look how much it’s already done for us: overriding our animal instincts and subtle intuitions, stripping our systems of highly evolved microbial intelligence with crude antiseptics and drugs, then selling it back to us as manufactured probiotics (or an unsafe, ineffective vax) – in the same sense that AI, disguised as information, pursues its program of trashing our cognitive autonomy: having shrunk our world to hand-held screen size, it promises to extend our horizons to con us into endless dependence.

Admittedly, anorexia isn’t a sign of sanity; it’s just the thin end of the wedge the capitalist system has driven between our compromised wits and our comatose wisdom. Yet, seen within the bigger picture, the acute discomfort its heresy triggers may well be indicative of the enshrinement of unrestricted consumption.

As for the propensity of organised veganism to mimic a religion (much as processed vegan products – minus both iron and irony – unconvincingly mimic types of meat), the tenets that typify many such systems of faith make a lousy substitute for the simple compassion so few of us show our fellow animals (except those trained to heel, fetch, beg etc.). No wonder we feel lost and alone. But, as always, AI has an answer: robot companions. Watch this space…

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