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Getting away with the detox thing

Women
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Ralph Aichinger under a Creative Commons Licence

When I was a teenager I was anorexic. It seemed to be a thing in the 1990s, like Global Hypercolour shirts and Monica Lewinsky.

Anorexics knew how to spot each other. We swapped secrets and tricks. Hiding food and skipping meals. It was very unhealthy indeed. Some of us died.

Even the survivors, like me, never really recover from an eating disorder. You find ways of managing your complicated relationship with food and your pervasive hatred of your own body. It ebbs and flows.

You also retain the ability to spot a fellow sufferer. More than 2 decades later, I can tell you who has an eating disorder in the West in the 21st century: most women do.

Eating disorders are now mainstream. We talk about rape culture being a society where rape is so normalized that many victims do not even recognize it. I would argue we also live in an eating disorder culture. Eating disorders are a mainstream way of life.

Case in point. At the gym last week, a woman was telling me about her detox diet. Twenty-eight days drinking only green vegetable juice.

My irrational bullshit radar was clanging like the New Year gong in Times Square. I pushed my acting skills to the limit trying to smile and nod. Finally I couldn’t take it any more.

I explained, as politely as I could, which still isn’t going to win me any friends, that the concept of detox is essentially meaningless in nutrition.

Anything we consume is toxic if we consume enough of it. In fact green vegetables are essentially good for us because they contain ‘toxins’ which cause our body to work harder to process them. Broccoli, for example, contains cyanide. Fact.

The woman looked annoyed. Understandably. I was expecting that. Then she replied ‘I know. But I wanted to lose weight and if I told my family I was on a crash diet they’d worry about me. But I can get away with the detox thing.’

And there it is. A full-blown eating disorder hiding in plain sight.

It’s everywhere – disordered eating behaviour portrayed as a lifestyle choice.

On some of the diet shows contestants are shown losing as much as 4.5 kilograms a week. Replacing meals and even days’ worth of food with snack bars or juice is viewed as normal, as is cutting out whole food groups in the long term.

None of these things is anything other than the behaviour of someone with an eating disorder.

But instead of a diagnosis and a treatment plan, these people have a book. A book, a website and a TV show that tells them how to starve themselves in step-by-step detail and reassures them that they’re doing the ‘right’ thing.

The fightback is feeble. Catwalk models forced up to a size 2 or 4. ‘Real beauty’ adverts trying to convince us that revolution looks like a few grey hairs or a freckle on people who in every other respect fit the idealized airbrushed stereotypes.

Or worse, much worse: the celebrity men who think they can end anorexia by telling the world that they, amazingly, actually prefer a woman who is a little bit heavier. Thanks for assuming every action I take in my life is part of an extended campaign to seduce you. It is not. Sorry if your ego doesn’t like that.

The irony of trying to alleviate pressure on women to look a certain way by pressuring them to look a different way is overwhelming.

The answer is obvious. We need to stop valuing women on their appearance, and their appeal to men. We need to take women seriously in work, in academia, in government. We need to show women as the heroes of their own lives, rather than as glamorous ornaments offered up as tokenistic prizes for men.

Eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental illnesses. We need to get serious about tackling them on every level, not blithely treat unhealthy disordered eating as the social norm.

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