The sleaziness of women’s (and little girls’) Halloween costumes has become an annual gripe for mommies and feminists.
But my friend Jeannine Gailey, PhD, a sociologist at Texas Christian University, clued me in on what might be the most appalling costume ever created: Anna Rexia, the sexy side of a life-threatening eating disorder.
The model dressed as someone starving herself to death is slender, yes. Even skinny. But her breasts strain to escape the bodice that barely contains them. Her skin glows, her hair is shiny, her eyes have a come-hither sparkle. She doesn’t look the least bit like a woman with anorexia. She looks like a woman ready to take control with her womanly wiles.
Gailey also sent me a 2009 article she published in Critical Criminology, titled ‘‘Starving Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have’’: The Pro-Ana Subculture as Edgework.”
Gailey studies feminist issues, particularly as they relate to body image. For this study, she immersed herself (as sociologists do) in the online pro-anorexia subculture, which promotes anorexia and bulimia as a lifestyle rather than diseases.
Gailey spent a little more than a year reading, studying, and reflecting on pro-anorexia websites, blogs, and individuals’ profiles. She immersed herself so deeply, she wrote, that she felt her own dormant tendency towards eating disorders reactivating and had to regulate the amount of time she spent on the research each week.
“Edgework,” in the paper’s title, as defined by sociologist Stephen Lyng, is a form of risk-taking, and:
…includes activities that involve a ‘‘clearly observable threat to one’s physical or mental well being or one’s sense of an ordered existence.’’ He argues that the concept has broad application, including any and all behaviors where the actor seeks to go beyond the ‘‘edge’’ or test the limits between two physical or mental states, sanity versus insanity, consciousness versus unconsciousness, or an ordered environment versus a disordered environment…There are three central components to edgework: activity, skill, and sensation.
People involved in extreme sports are edgeworkers, pushing their skills to the edge with life-threatening feats. Graffiti artists are edgeworkers, as turned on by the risk of being caught, and their skill in evading authorities, as they are by the tagging itself. Drag racers are edgeworkers. (Drag queens, too, for that matter, though perhaps less these days.)
Most research on edgework has been done on men, who are assumed to be bigger risk takers than women. Some has been done on male and female rescue workers, and some on women in abusive relationships.
In her article Gailey suggests that many women with anorexia and bulimia (Ana and Mia to the pro-ana crowd) are edgeworkers in a culture that values women for their physical attractiveness. While men might gravitate towards edgework that makes them look mighty and manly, women with eating disorders strive to be what society tells them is sexy. And they view themselves not as victims of a disorder, but as powerful, strong, and accomplished in their chosen endeavor.
The edge on which these women voluntarily teeter is living at their lowest goal weight while “avoiding hospitalization, death, or therapy,” Gailey writes.
She found three motivational quotes posted on dozens of profiles:
- When it comes to losing weight, those who can do; those that can’t, make excuses.
- Success won’t just come to you—it has to be met at least half way. Success is the reward for accomplishment.
- Nothing splendid had ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstance.
These are not motivation for women trying to disappear. They are words to instill pride in women for their strength in enduring the pain of starvation. Many may be called, they imply, but few will succeed. Are you tough enough?
Themes we have heard before come up in Gailey’s article. Control, for example. The women control their eating since they can’t control the rest of their lives.
But Gailey’s paper also presents an interesting image of women with eating disorders as women finding power and strength in themselves by developing skills, keeping secrets, and living on the edge.
We know that body dysmorphia causes women to have distorted views of their bodies. Gailey’s theory suggests that some women with eating disorders look in the mirror and see themselves as powerful, beautiful Anna Rexia.