The eating disordered lifestyle: imagetexts and the performance of similitude.

Author:Jensen, Robin E.

Lauren is 16. Her "thinspirations" are Audrey Hepburn, Fiona Apple, and Jennifer Aniston, and her goal is to make other people jealous of her thin body. Molly's goal weight is 84 pounds; she is losing those last, "stubborn" 16 pounds by eating no more than 500 calories per day. Rachel has been hospitalized twice for her anorexia and at 15 has given up hope for recovery. Luckie_gurl dropped 15 pounds in the first eight days of her fast, but she still failed to reach her goal weight by Christmas. Each of these young women posted this harrowing autobiographical information on one of the over 400 "pro-eating disorder" websites that have, over the past 5 or 6 years, found a home on the internet (Carroll, 2004). Their comments are accompanied by pictures of startlingly skeletal young women, sketches of hamburgers and pies with thick, black lines drawn through their juicy centers, and a variety of other images designed to encourage readers to achieve perfection through starvation.

Pro-eating disorder (hereafter: "lifestyle") discourse furthers the belief that people can choose to live with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia nervosa. Counter to popular and medical opinion, lifestyle adherents hold that those with eating disorders are not ill and, therefore, they need not be cured. The motto of the lifestyle movement is: Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease. Most discourse in support of the eating disordered lifestyle is featured on websites arguing for and promoting this decidedly controversial position. Many of these sites currently are banned from various internet servers due to the debate surrounding their content. Such divisive communication creates an ideal arena for exploring the relationship between visual images and argumentation. Due to the lifestyle websites' emphasis on body size, visual images on these sites function argumentatively in ways that verbal text alone cannot. Lifestyle websites use a combination of images and text that work together as "imagetexts" to uphold the idea that anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia nervosa are lifestyle choices (Mitchell, 1994). In this essay, I explore how lifestyle imagetexts make the unreasonable appear reasonable by tapping into contradictions in mainstream discourse about eating disorders. Lifestyle imagetexts demonstrate that, although the mainstream position is that eating disorders are diseases to be cured, much mainstream discourse implies the opposite, that eating disorders are not diseases but reasonable choices. By mimicking culturally accepted symbols and self-consciously drawing attention to this mimicry, eating disorder lifestyle advocates establish their claim's supposed reasonability. In this way, lifestyle imagetexts may be understood as performances of the contradictions in mainstream rhetoric, and therefore mainstream rhetoric's similitude to lifestyle rhetoric, rather than rational arguments about those contradictions. I begin the essay by describing the context in which these imagetexts operate and reviewing scholarship on the visual and its relationship to argumentation. Then I describe and examine imagetexts from two lifestyle websites and suggest three sources of appeal from which they build their arguments: mainstream consumer culture, popular health campaigns, and the mythical narrative of Christian theology. I conclude by noting that imagetexts are especially well suited for depicting similarities and differences between argumentative claims.


Today, the three most common eating disorders are categorized by voluntary starvation (anorexia nervosa), binging and purging (bulimia nervosa), and binging without purging (compulsive over-eating disorder). The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) (2005a) reports that 7 million women and a million men currently suffer from one of these disorders. All three conditions involve a preoccupation with food, an inability to cope with stress, and a consistent disregard for bodily needs (Woolsey, 2002, pp. 2-5). Anorexia and bulimia tend to coexist with conditions such as depression, anxiety, hypoglycemia, and anemia (Boskind-White & White, 2000, pp. 203-221). Anorexics lose between 15% and 60% of their original body weight, which can lead to osteoporosis, irregular heartbeat, and, in the most severe cases, death (Whelan, 2001, pp. 19-21). Bulimics often experience extreme tooth decay, bleeding in the esophagus, and unbalanced mineral levels that can lead to death (p. 22). In some cases, people vacillate between starvation and binging and purging, a condition that Boskind-White and White term "bulimarexia," and therefore put themselves at risk for all of the aforementioned conditions (p. 19).

Brumberg (2000) locates the first diagnosed case of anorexia nervosa in the 1870s; however, members of the general public did not begin to learn about what they called the "starving disease" for another century, when eating disorders became more prevalent (p. 11). Bell (1985) dates the origin of anorexia and bulimia much earlier, drawing parallels between the behavior of Roman Catholic female saint during the Middle Ages and modern-day anorexics and bulimics. Although it is believed that the saints fasted, vomited, and exercised excessively to demonstrate piety rather than to obtain a slim physique, Bell argues that both groups of women thrive on the feeling of starvation and the sense of control that accompanies it, sometimes to the point of death. As different as are their contexts, all of these women attempt to stifle their desires by severely limiting their bodies' access to nutrition.

By the 1970s and 1980s, eating disorders were linked almost exclusively with middle-class, white, adolescent females, and today's lifestyle websites still tend to speak to this group most directly. (1) Yet, according to Brumberg (2000), the incidence of eating disorders has continued to rise into the 21st century to include increasingly younger, more diverse people as well as males (p. xvi; Hesse-Biber, 1996, chap. 8). ANAD's (2005a) website contends that eating disorders are nothing short of an epidemic that currently affects Americans of all age groups, social classes, races, and religions.

The turn of the 21st century saw the emergence of discourse in support of the eating disordered lifestyle. An article in the August, 2000 issue of Self magazine was one of the first to discuss and critique lifestyle websites, followed by articles in Time, USA Today, The Seattle Times, The New Yorker, and other major media sources (Goldman, 2002). Soon after these articles began appearing, statements against lifestyle sites were posted on the internet by groups such as Support Concern and Resources for Eating Disorders, ANAD, Dads and Daughters, and the Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association, Inc. ANAD (2005b) set up a Media and Internet Guardian program in which individuals can volunteer to report lifestyle websites to internet servers. On August 3, 2001, the internet server Yahoo! responded to these efforts and began to block lifestyle sites (Hill, 2001, p. 10; Nagourney, 2005, p. 6; Pollack, 2003, p. 247). Other servers such as ivillage, AOL, MSN, and Homestead Technologies soon followed suit.

The removal of lifestyle sites resulted in an onslaught of media coverage that culminated in October, 2001 on The Oprah Winfrey Show (Hudson, 2001). On this show, the Director of Programs at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) told parents to watch their daughters and make sure that they were not visiting lifestyle websites, which, she argued, "are normalizing and glamorizing these very dangerous, self-destructive behaviors" (p. 3). Although the NEDA homepage claims, "Eating disorders are illnesses, not choices" (2005), the Director of Programs' comments suggest otherwise:

It's not only eating disorder sufferers who are picking up tips, maybe replacing things that they've stopped doing with new tips on the site, but also girls who are signing on out of curiosity and who aren't able to maybe carefully consider the consequences of these different behaviors and that they can quickly spiral out of control and lead to an eating disorder. (p. 3)

This suggests that although lifestyle websites speak to "real" eating disorder sufferers with diagnosed illnesses, the sites also target healthy young girls who can be persuaded to take up the eating disordered lifestyle. Around the same time that The Oprah Winfrey Show aired, websites opposing the lifestyle philosophy, such as No-To-Pro, appeared on the internet with similar allegations about the harmful effects of lifestyle sites. It is not difficult to understand what might drive people to want to remove these sites given their shocking messages condoning eating disorders. Indeed, lifestyle websites suggest a frightening and seemingly unreasonable set of beliefs. After encountering the critical media coverage on lifestyle websites, many parents worried, and continue to worry, that their daughters would discover the sites and "quite literally, join the anorexic club" (Pollack, 2003, p. 247).

Yet critical coverage by the mainstream media produced a backlash from the lifestyle community. Several lifestyle supporters created an online petition "to support the free rights of anorexics to express their views on their illness/lifestyle on the internet" ("Allow," n.d.). As of September 21, 2005, 11,190 signatures had been collected that will be sent to the internet servers Yahoo!, MSN, and Lycos. Today, of the lifestyle sites that have managed to avoid being blocked by internet servers, most explicitly respond to their censors by featuring arguments supporting the right to freedom of speech. More subtly, lifestyle websites also respond to their critics by arguing that anorexia and bulimia are lifestyle choices rather than deadly diseases, and therefore practitioners should be respected and left alone. The latter argument...

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