Monday, January 08, 2007

It's my party and I'll die if I want to...

Today's item more properly belongs near the end of our just-begun thread on America and its weight problems, but when I saw this story out of the U.K. I couldn't resist. So instead, consider this a postscript to "last year's" discussion of body-image.

The U.K. news story describes the proliferation of web sites for those with eating disorders—and not exactly the kinds of sites you'd expect. Though they do offer tools and resources that might help an anorexic or bulimic kick the habit, these so-called "pro-ana" sites are primarily designed to make you feel more comfortable with your condition, such that you see it as less of a psychological impairment than a "lifestyle choice." As the article puts it, "The Eating Disorders Association warns there are over 500 pro-anorexia sites [that] have such slogans as 'hunger hurts but starving works...' Some even offer tips for becoming thinner alongside glamorous photos of stick-thin celebrities, including where to buy slimming pills over the internet and vomiting techniques."

If you read SHAM, you know that one of my basic premises was that there's nothing really wrong with most of us, so we don't need the brand of help that self-help offers. That is in fact the very reason why SHAMsters spend so much time making us think there's something wrong with us—so that they can turn around and sell us the alleged cure. The pro-ana movement, however, shows us the opposite end of the spectrum, where we confront a situation that, while far less common, is far more serious: People who do have a genuine mental-health problem aren't going to find the answer in self-help.* As the story tells us, "Such websites often lure youngsters into thinking they can cope without seeking professional help—which could lead to serious medical problems and even death... About one in five people who don't get appropriate treatment die prematurely, so they are literally killing people."** The story quotes U.S. studies that suggest that anorexics who frequent pro-ana sites are less likely to seek formal treatment. The sites may even lead visitors to chat rooms where girls (this being chiefly a female phenomenon) can discuss techniques for improved starvation.

The immediate peril here is obvious, but there's a more subtle takeaway that we can also blame on self-help and its contributions to latter-day mores. This is what happens when a society becomes obsessed with "empowering" people by destigmatizing even their worst tendencies, which it redefines simply as "lifestyle choices." (Hey, it's all about you!) As the late Randy Shilts noted in his brilliant book on the early days of the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On, one of the most vexing initial problems for public-health watchdogs was overcoming the resistance of gay activists themselves, who insisted that society view gay promiscuity as "a legitimate lifestyle choice." Trouble is, sometimes a lifestyle choice becomes a deathstyle choice.

P.S. For those of you who were born after 1965 and are no doubt wondering, the title of this post is a riff on a famous song lyric.

* which, in fairness to myself, I touch on at the end of my chapter on life coaching.
** I am sometimes dubious about grim statistics like these, when put forth by organizations with an obvious interest in making the problem sound as dire as possible. Clearly, though, the picture here is grim. See links in my previous post on body image, which is itself linked in the first paragraph, above.

8 comments:

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, I like this new focus on weight loss, if that's where your "secret project" is going. Looks like I may be the only one, juding by the scarcity of comments lately, but it's an important topic, and a timely one too!

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, but more importantly, had you ever heard the song?

Anonymous said...

I like the weight-loss focus, too. I think it was the photo of Saddam that caused the dearth of comments--what was there to say in the face of that? But there's always plenty to say about weight loss and all its related problems, industries, expectations...

Steve Salerno said...

Good point. Lesson learned: Don't expect to start off a cheerful new year with a photo of a hanging dictator.

Anonymous said...

Well, I wish you hadn't showed the scary photo of the anorectic (that's right, isn't it?) woman: Just looking at it makes me want to start eating!

Steve Salerno said...

I couldn't find a picture of an anorexic woman being hung...

RevRon's Rants said...

Yep, Steve... You're a sick puppy, alright! :-)

Just kidding, of course. I, for one, would love to see some equilibrium brought to the fashion industry & media's definition of feminine beauty... Somewhere between Kate Moss and Rosie, if you please. It has to start somewhere!

a/good/lysstener said...

I laughed so hard at that last one, Steve, that I literally-- well I think you know the rest. And by the way yes, I do know the song. "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to." My mom used to sing it all the time.