The story is painful to read. More middle-aged women, often business executives, are falling prey to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
Recovery is often difficult; the results are sometimes tragic.
Naturally, we want to know what, if anything, it means.
I recall Ethan Watters’ book Crazy Like Us. There, Watters has a chapter where he shows that at one time anorexia did not exist in Hong Kong.
Then one day a girl came down with it, and the media jumped on the case with a flurry of stories about eating disorders. Before you knew it, there was a wave of anorexia among teenaged girls in Hong Kong.
No one is suggesting that these girls were not in distress. Watters and other epidemiologists have concluded that people select symptoms according to the standards defined by their culture.
I concur. If this is true, then anorexia does not express any mental conflict. It is chosen or selected as a culturally recognized way of coping with emotional distress.
Teenage girls might be suffering from a form of anomie that does not make any sense, to them or to anyone else. If the culture does not recognize their problem, they might select a set of symptoms that the culture does recognize and is happy to treat.
They had felt lost; now they find acceptance, interest, and a new identity as anorexics.
Anorexia is about young girls who feel lost and adrift, trying to find help. If they say that they feel lost and adrift, suffering from anomie, the culture will not know what to do. If they say that they suffer from eating disorders a battery of professionals will be there for them, will care for them, will comfort them, and will set them on the road to cure.
This analysis of the illness deviates significantly from the standard therapy culture view that anorexia expresses body image or appetite issues.
In the past anorexia and bulimia had been largely limited to adolescent females. Now, however, clinicians are starting to see increased numbers of mid-career executive women with eating disorders.
Some of them suffered from the disorders while teenagers and are falling back on a bad habit: regulating mood and mind through chemistry… not medication but alimentary chemistry.
Meghan Casserly points to another, social cause. Her article is worth examining.
When it comes to executive women, the most important stressor seems to be career anxiety. Not just the high-stress job, but what is called the “juggle” between career and family obligations.
Dr. Holly Grishkat is an expert in the field. She describes the specific form of anomie that afflicts these women: “It can be a high pressure job situation with a divorce, an illness, a child leaving home…. It could be work and an aging parent. For this age group there’s a lot of anxiety to ‘keep it together.’ They’re grappling for something to hold onto. For many, the eating disorder is something they have complete control over in an otherwise out-of-control time.”
Control is a very tricky concept. Grishkat suggests that when a woman’s life is spinning out of control, when the circuits have been overloaded to the breaking point, she will fall back on anorexia as a way of exercising control.
If she can control nothing else, she can control her food intake.
Unfortunately, it does not take very long for anorexia to take complete control over a woman’s life.
The concept of control is multi-faceted, to the point where I have my doubts about its usefulness.
I prefer to ask how it happened that all of these women have been lured into a life that is beyond what they want or need or can handle?
What is there in our culture that tells women that they have a moral obligation to conform to an ideal, one where a woman can and does do everything, independently and autonomously?
These high-powered career women seem to believe that they must work hard at their careers even if they would rather spend more time at home with their children.
What forces in our culture deprive women of their ability to choose a better balanced life? What forces tell them that they must have dynamic careers lest they betray a sacred cause?
If a group of women, under the banner of ideology, tells other women that they owe it to the cause to break glass ceilings or to work as hard as any man does, then that cause takes control of their lives, depriving them of their free choice.
Sacrificing your life to an ideological imperative is never a good idea.
At the least, we should stop shifting the blame to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
I do not need to name the cause that has gotten women into this bind. I do not need to tell you that forcing a woman’s life into the template created by this cause is going to cause significant psychological distress. We are still waiting for its zealots to step forward and take responsibility for the ill-effects it has caused women.
How do the middle aged executive anorexics solve their problem? Casserly reports that many of them end up quitting their high-powered corporate jobs and replacing them with lower stress work.
We are not surprised.