Binge Reading

New Books On The Eating Disorder Industrial Complex

By Sascha Cohen

An illustration of a person eating fruit
Illustration courtesy of Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

In Gilda Radner’s 1989 memoir, the comedian confessed to “having every possible eating disorder by the time I was nine years old.” She desperately wanted to be as thin as her SNL co-star Laraine Newman, but New York City was filled with delicious temptations, “hot dogs and falafels, pizzas, ice cream, pretzels, charbroiled steaks with smells that steamed out of street vendors’ stalls.” So Radner figured out a way to manage her weight: “I became bulimic before medical science even gave it a name.”

In the decades since, the medical establishment — and the media — has given bulimics and binge-eaters plenty of names. We’ve been labeled “failed” or “aspirational” anorexics; in 2004, The British Journal of Psychiatry described bulimia as “anorexia’s ugly sister.” Bulimics have come to represent the “bad girls” of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, psychiatry’s bible. Yet behaviors like binge-eating and purging actually account for the most common eating disorders in America. In 2012, writer Cat Marnell called them “part of being a woman.” In fact, fifteen percent of women develop an eating disorder by their 40s or 50s, and 65 percent report nonspecific disordered eating habits. In Dead Weight: Essays on Hunger and Harm, author Emmeline Clein challenges the diagnostic hierarchy in which bulimics are the “unserious disciples” in the world of “girl diseases,” with its harmful dichotomy of “chaos and control, disgust and purity, virtue and vice.”

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