Why Eating disorders are caused by the totality of global capitalism, not just advertising
The distorted perception of my body that occurs often when I catch a glimpse of my image reflection in a window, always drags me backwards, drags me toward my teenage years; the existential fears of those years. Once here I am under an increased subordination. The anxiety it (re)creates takes over my pressing thoughts, and is infantilising, because I become so insecure again that it perpetuates the need to be asking others for reassurance. I am asking others to tell me what the Truth is: I do not trust my own thoughts; I want to be guided again. But I cannot be.
Maybe this ‘shove back down’, the momentary levelling of me down to my 15 year old self, is necessary in order to remember what were the main factors that put me on a one way street of a necessary scrutinising of the totality of global capitalism, precisely because it reminds me of why I cannot find any other comprehensible way of existing. It’s certainly allowed me to further my critical thinking surrounding obsessive disorders, and to see that, for all its damage, advertising alone cannot be seen as the sole causer of these problems in our disorientating times. Some time ago I began to realise how the development of obsessive/destructive patterns in one’s life is as much to do with observing everything environing as being out of control, and feeling powerless to do anything to alter this, as it is the advertising industry. I knew these two were part of the same process, but describing how and why could become muddling.
In his book Liquid Times (2007)
, Zygmunt Bauman
talks about how we live in times of endemic uncertainty under a negative globalisation, a movement of mainly money and goods, where there is no real outside to it, so nowhere to escape it, and no given alternative to the endemic uncertainties to individuals’ lives, and how this makes us “…seek substitute
targets on which to unload our surplus existential fear that has been barred from its natural outlets, and we find such makeshift targets in taking elaborate precautions…”.
Whilst reading the above sentence I couldn’t help but look at my own life, realising that my rigid routines, and almost militant approach to small tasks, mainly in times such as when my eating disorders where at their worse, were attempts to “…unload () surplus existential fear that has been barred from its natural outlets…”. The increasing cases of obsessive disorders centred around our bodies (still mostly affecting females – obviously, due to the commercial necessity for the eternal objectification of women – but increasingly affecting males too) is fundamentally a problem related to the totality of experience under the uncertainties of global capitalism, and the fears this stokes, and isn’t caused merely by advertising’s’ manipulations and commodification of body-image – which, although playing a massive role, is only a component, which flourishes under a globalisation that worships the globalism of commerce and nothing else. I often think the best way to understand the world global capitalism has created, isn’t to first look at how it makes the world act out, but how it makes us act out our own lives
“I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell”
“Does this sound simple?”
“Are you for sale?”
“Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?”
I found my way (half way) out of my self-made internment camp by becoming aware that the global capitalist system, it’s disenfranchising of any self-determined future, and its commodity-cultural expectations that it mummifies you with, has it imprints on every component of my own disorders, and the ensuing misery over the meaningless of things whenever I tried to ‘enjoy like others’ and postpone ‘job well-done’ routines. I’ve been building a picture of how this world works: I’ve become obsessed with dissecting the entire beastly system, because I can locate my own problems firmly at the doorsteps of the system’s components. It is probably true that this is merely a redirecting of my obsessive disorders, but if so, it’s a redirecting of them towards the only thing that gives me purpose and meaning and hope: dissecting what has taken away all other possible ways of living.
I revel in the above lyrics from Sonic Youth’s
Track The Sprawl
(Day Dream Nation
) because they describe this very assignment. “Does this sound simple?” Of course it isn’t fucking simple, but finding yourself unable to find a path of least resistance, what else can you do? A lot of friends say I don’t do myself any good by focusing on ‘hell’, that I “worry too much” and “need to relax more”. They mean well but don’t realise that doing this is the only thing I have found that there is left for me to do; and as much as I often get dragged along by cultural fictions (ones that lure me and look so much easier from the outside) I soon become too despondent. If there’s no getting away from this, one must “set the controls for the heart of capitalism” even if, in real terms, it has no heart.
I look for things that could give me pleasure/meaning, but apart from the instant obtainment of these through consuming food or drink (which the fear and guilt that generated the unusual-for-heterosexual-males disorders, centred around eating and body image, originate from ) I can’t feel anything else. When I have friends who can show unabashed adoration for new-born lambs, and have hobbies that keep them smiling all way through their 20-something years, it feels like there’s something wrong with me. But there seems to be no escape from this world, there is a totality I struggle to speak of in day to day conversation that I feel in every inhalation and exhalation.
“(C)apitalism…must now remake the totality of space into its own setting” (forewarning from Guy Debord, Society Of The Spectacle, 1967). In Liquid Times, Zygmunt Bauman quotes novelist Milan Kundera, to elaborate on the totality of global capitalism’s interpenetration: “Such ‘unity of mankind’ as has been brought about by globalisation means mainly ‘that there is nowhere left to escape to'” (2007). This is the conditions under which increasing numbers of us cannot invest ourselves any longer. And once you’ve suffered a disorder at the hands of the endemic uncertainties under this system, ‘there is nowhere left to escape to’, you have to turn around and try to hack away at this “visible freezing of time” (Debord).
I am certainly not the only one. There are many, and the numbers are growing, who can’t exist within capitalism’s drainage of meaning, and are feeling hopeless when they attempt to look through its telescope at the future. They all find different ways of dissecting global capitalism and spitting back out what it’s been pumping down their throats for years. Arguably this is the only genuine hope of these times. Some organise action groups; Some aim to create ruptures. More than anything else, I want know everything I can about it; I want to know what it does to everything, what it has done to everything. “I want to know that exact dimensions of hell”.
Why can’t I eat sensibly still? Why can’t I accept myself? Why do I still worry about body fat? Why can’t I enjoy things like a lot of those around me still seem to be able to do? Why can’t I relax? Why can’t I sit still? Why can’t I get close to anyone? Why when I drink do I do so like there’s no tomorrow? Why don’t I have any real plans for the future? Why can’t I just get on with life? Why, why, why.
On this blog over the years I have kept on going back to the issue of eating disorders, because as I grow older I am gaining more and more understanding of both my own dealings with them, and the reasons why they are rising at a frightening rate under global capitalism (“since 1999, there has been an 80% rise in the number of teenagers admitted to hospital with anorexia nervosa” Laurie Penny, Meat Market: female flesh under capitalism, 2011, Zero Books). The issue, coupled with the issue of pending ecological collapse, is what put me on this aforementioned route first and foremost. Ecological collapse scares the shit out of me, and my writings on it seem to fold in on themselves precisely due to this. Eating disorders have helped me build up a controlled rage, because unlike ecological collapse, this is personal. Because I often feel that having eating disorders (and its smaller versions) has killed off so much of my life, it’s an issue I will reuse as weaponry.
This is the reason why I much appreciated Laurie Penny’s Meat Market: female flesh under capitalism. Laurie seems to have ‘set her controls to the heart of capitalism’ from the very same spot. Once would be misguided to think that her book only deals about anorexia experienced by females: the descriptions of its affects, although experience more so by females, apply to both sexes. However, there is no doubt it is still a problem affecting women more than men; male obsessive behaviour is usually played out in other ways. But it is certainly not only a disorder affecting males of a Bi or gay sexual nature. As I said above my own eating disorders may have partly originated from the fear and guilt affixed to the knowledge that I only really found meaning/pleasure in quick fixes consuming food or (later in life) drink.
Laurie refers to a very insightful experiment that seems to show that the effects of anorexia, the obsession with food and ritualistic behaviour can actually be induced through starvation not initiated by a disorder. An experiment undertaken at The University of Minnesota in 1944, “enlisted and systematically starved 36 conscientious objectors (to the war)”. These subjects “developed bizarre rituals around eating, collecting recipes and hoarding food obsessively – not just during the experiment but, in some cases, for the rest of their lives”.
Laurie Penny quotes an individual account, which served to me as a vivid reminder of a state of being that is quickly forgotten, once one is above merely-surviving body weight, despite the persistence of the routine-controlled lifestyle. Describing how starvation affected his life, this man recalled that “…if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate” (The Great Starvation experiment: The heroes who starved so that millions could live, Free Press, 2006). I know this situation well: an all-consuming obsession with food. You’d notice what the TV stars were having for dinner, or how often they ate. As well as salivating at the sight of the on screen consumption of fatty foods, you were also compairing yourself to these spectacular role models, and if you were eating less than them you were ‘winning’; winning a war not with them but with yourself, victorious in the flight from being a human. There were points when I was at my lowest weight when I’d go on visits to nearby towns and cities, literally to go to food shops and stare at food, but ‘controlling’ myself, saving myself for my ration of what had become utterly sacred at dinner time. (I still frequent these towns/cities with the routine still remaining, but now the emphasis is with reading and writing about the system I have trying to investigate with intense scrutiny).
This is the point where you are no longer a human being with sexual desires, but merely a body wired to the pursuit of food, whether to eat or just worship. I only suffered from anorexia proper for little over a year. But the controlling and routine behaviours around eating and body image haven’t really had a break for 13 years. The period where the intensification of this control over myself resulted in anorexia proper was triggered by frightening ruptures to the normality of my surrounding world, that dropped me, unprepared, into the perpetual uncertainties and ensuing fears that define life on a planet swivelled on its axis by global capitalism. These moments were really existing moments, mediated to me by news channels that in both in content and mediated-form were like the most spectacular movie scenes.
The events were the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks and the warning on the BBC news on a summer’s morning in July 2002 of a likely asteroid collision with the earth in 2018 (Asteroid Nt7-2002). It felt like the spectacles I had absorbed in the youthful years previous to these close-together events were coming true, but without the usual happy endings. This was a time (at the beginning of the new millennium) when the rolling news format was beginning to be used more by most television broadcasters. Rolling news stokes any unease about what’s happening on the planet. It is almost an avatar for the relentless flow of capital under globalisation: both make reality feel like it could be restructured at any minute, but in an autocratic manner, where we have no voice to negotiate with the dialogue spoken at us. Basically rolling news brings the feeling of having no power to change a world unfolding scarily into our homes: it is very distressing to be in the same room as the world under global capitalism.
I went in on myself. The world began to terrify. With all these seemingly terrifying things all waiting to happen, and completely beyond my control, I, by a mixture of design and accident, began to insert maximum control over the only thing I could: my own life. Such an all-consuming control system over my life took up my entire mind allowing me to hide from all that seemed terrifying out there. I would make sure those fears of being overweight, of giving in to food, of being lazy (all the things the system’s spectacular imagery had told me were unforgivable), would never be allowed to detract me this victory over myself again. The weight began to pour, and the hunger simply exacerbated the control-system. Laurie puts this perfectly by saying “when you are anorexic, your world shrinks to the size of a dinner plate”.
There is certainly a lineage connecting the Protestant work ethic, capitalism’s ‘moral’ ethic, with the feelings one gets of ‘doing very well’ and ‘working hard’ when they succeed in maintaining their body weight at merely survival levels. So in a sense it is an intense effort to impress the system. “Look at me I’m trying to be all that you’ve told me is best, and I never cause any trouble; I don’t indulge, I don’t enjoy; I just work harder all the time”. All the system’s Mores pile in on you and completely subsume you. You daren’t even question anything anymore, because it causes too much upset to your daily victories against yourself. Just keeping running, “you’re doing well” you tell yourself, “you’re winning”.
Laurie Penny writes “the triumph of self-starvation represents a major defeat for feminism in the west”. Regarding male self-starvation, I would like to elaborate on this by stating ‘the triumph of self-starvation represents a major defeat for our minds and bodies to the total “subsumption” to capitalism in the west’. Although I would argue that over the past decades there has also been a systemic need for a male to see himself as an object to be viewed by others, it is nothing to the pressure of this sort placed on women. However, being as heterosexual male obsessive disorders seem to play themselves in other ways, I need to emphasise the case of eating disorders for males. Why? because it is the ground zero from where I had no choice but to fight back. Laurie Penny’s words speak volumes to me because they seem to come from the same ground zero point. From this point onwards the only reasonable solution is to find “the exact dimensions of hell”.
(p.s. Why do so many other ‘anti-capitalists’ seem to despise her guts?)