APRIL 8, 2021
A FEW YEARS AGO, The New Yorker ran an essay entitled “Anorexia, the Impossible Subject,” an autobiography-meets-literature-review of the disorder. The critic dubbed anorexia an “impossible subject” because “any writing about anorexia makes it more interesting than it really is.” If we want to “protect” young girl’s pliant brains and bodies from self-starvation — many writers’ professed purpose for committing hundreds of pages to the subject — then “we’d paint anorexics as they are: slowly suicidal obsessives who avoid other people and expend ninety-five per cent of their mental energy counting the calories in green vegetables.” Two years later, a different critic, in an essay in Slate, declared anorexia “the enemy of writing.” And then, two years after that, a third critic, in another New Yorker piece, criticized filmmakers’ tendency, in movies on the subject, to “draw from the poisonous worship of bodily discipline and deprivation that already surrounds young women” to “fascinate viewers.” She goes on to wonder if it’s even possible to make “responsible” art about anorexia. Two writers with novels coming out this winter didn’t heed these warnings to avoid the subject, and one of them proves that anorexia actually can be fodder for “interesting” writing.
I’ll start with that book. Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy — originally published in 2019 in the UK and out now in paperback from Counterpoint — follows a crew of long-limbed, rich 15-year-olds at a British boarding school. In one dorm, there’s Tiffanie (the hot French one), Bianca (“a looming skeleton”), Rachel (“huge and doughy”), Lissa (greasy), and Donya (unremarkable). Then, there’s our protagonist — Tash, the new girl, fresh off the plane from Russia where her absentee oligarch dad suddenly entered her life and promptly shipped her off to Britain. At school, she adjusts quickly: she grows just as bored and morose as her roommates. Their parents barely call. Their dowdy teachers silo them away from the boys at the brother school across the lake. The headmaster limits their wi-fi to one hour a day and pares down the endless web with parental controls until it’s basically useless. They’re “the boarders, the imprisoned.” So, what’s a group of over-surveilled, underloved teenage girls who want to learn everything but know close to nothing supposed to do? Invent and follow new diets, of course. Here’s Tash’s: no “farmed fish, any meat at all. Any dairy at all. […] Tomatoes. Aubergines. Any nightshade fruit at all.” Sure, there’s little logic behind the cans and cannots, but there’s even less logic behind the arbitrary rules parents and teachers impose.
Only silent, sullen Bianca actually sticks to the diets, crumbling her dessert “into tiny pieces that she feeds to the birds.” Bianca hides her bony body under knee-length skirts. Still, the girls can see her “brittle talon” arms. Bianca’s severe frame reflects a sense of peril lurking in the school. Will their go-to snack, meat paste, add inches to their hips? If it doesn’t, could it infect their brains with mad cow disease? At first, the threat of something sinister seems like wishful thinking, adolescent girls desperately forcing drama into their mundane countryside days. But these girls aren’t simply prone to hyperbole. One night around bedtime, Bianca goes to the headmaster’s house for a late-night scolding (she cussed out the ballet teacher who claimed she was too thin to dance). A few days later, Dr. Moone calls at the dorm. They all expect their own scolding. Instead, he tells them, “Bianca is dead” — she drowned herself in the lake.
The school supplies no real explanation for how or when Bianca went from the headmaster’s house to the bottom of the lake — the headmaster tentatively brands it an anorexia-driven suicide. Tash thinks: what, Bianca “walked anorexically past the lake and then slipped anorexically into it?” As the girls invent theories and pass around their wisdom as whispered gossip, someone else dies — their beloved biology teacher, Dr. Morgan. By suicide, in the same lake. One mysterious death could be a fluke, but two makes it a pattern. This twist swiftly redeems the teens. Don’t disregard the “shallow” girls’ hunches: they obsess over nothing, until it suddenly proves to be something. It also orients the reader to the girls’ true danger: they’re trapped and controlled by drab, nefarious adults who stockpile secrets.
The double suicide turns the novel into a thriller. Tiffanie and Tash don’t believe the headmaster’s far-fetched explanation for Dr. Morgan’s death (he allegedly hoarded nudes of underage girls, including ones of Tash and Tiff, and, when confronted by the school, drowned himself — out of shame, or fear, or something). While Tash determines to solve the mystery of why the headmaster lied, the other students mourn their teacher’s death — “it turns out that even the most heartless of the girls actually loved Dr. Morgan, although of course no one can love him now.” As the girls grieve silently and puzzle over the deaths, they get serious about their diets. Rachel, one of the chubbier girls in the class, returns from winter break much thinner. The other girls watch her at meals, “fascinated” by someone with a plan, a girl who lives by a set of rules they can identify and mimic. Plus, she looks amazing. Tiffanie stops eating carbs. Lissa aims to lose so much weight that she’ll be hospitalized before her sister’s wedding. Eventually, “no one eats anything, at least not in public.” They all cry. They say “bitchy” things, point out their friend’s cellulite. “Everyone has sort of flopped. They are hanging over their chairs like old coats.”
The school hires Tony and Dominic, two Scottish therapists “who look like pedophiles,” to run militarized group therapy sessions in which they force the girls to share their “[r]eally, really real” worst memories of food. If a girl insists that she doesn’t binge, purge, or starve, the therapists declare her defensiveness the ultimate evidence that she is very sick in the head. These scenes verge on schlock — the meathead therapists are a bit too brainless — but they culminate in a point. Mindlessly diagnosing every girl with an eating disorder placates the teachers and helps the girls not at all. Two people inexplicably died in the same lake and all these girls got was the same bland psychiatric diagnosis.
Following girls who purposely starve themselves into a stupor could easily become grating, but it never does in Oligarchy. We stick with the girls — through various diets, when their weight swings up and down and back up again — because Thomas laces the lowest of lows with the enduring allure of not eating, taunting the reader with the hopes that keep the girls shaving off calories. Take Rachel; when she gains two pounds, she looks down at the number on the scale, sobs, then wonders if she could “cry it all out.” That “it” is, of course, herself — her skin and bones and muscles — but it feels like some foreign substance hijacking her carefully cultivated frame. She cuts her calories down to 500 a day. “Only then, does the weight start to shift again to declare itself beaten and slink back off to wherever it came from…” It’s a victory against some horrible error in biology that prevents her from being — that is, appearing as — the person she’s supposed to be. It’s only two pounds, but the moment feels devastating, not ridiculous, because Thomas neither conceals nor qualifies just how good Rachel thinks she will feel if she dropped the weight. Once she loses another stone, she’ll get her belly button pierced with a silver dreamcatcher crystal belly bar. “For the first time ever, she knows that something like that could be hers.” Thomas’s girls remain compelling because they so badly want whatever thinness offers that the origin or soundness of the impulse is beside the point.
Which brings me to the other novel — Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, published in February by Scribner. The novel follows another Rachel, a 24-year-old talent agency assistant in Los Angeles. She spends her days calculating, then recalculating, the calories she will eat, planning when she will eat them, stretching out the actual eating process, and then burning off those calories on a stationary bike. Here’s her lunch routine: a double turkey salad from Subway (no dressing), consumed alone, outside (to “protect” her habits from the employees’ wandering eyes). She caps this off with frozen yogurt, either from Yogurt World (a self-serve place where she can control her portions) or Yo!Good (better yogurt and fewer calories), also consumed outside, alone. She inherited this preoccupation with calories from her overbearing mother, “the high priestess of food” who always preached to “abstain, abstain abstain.” Rachel’s therapist prescribes a “communication detox” — 90 days without talking to her mother. Hungry, lonely, and neglected on day seven, Rachel drags herself into Yo!Good and discovers that her usual frozen yogurt server, a gangly, mute boy, has been replaced by zaftig 21-year-old Miriam. She’s immediately taken with Miriam because “it was as though she didn’t know or care she was fat.” In need of a substitute mom, Rachel interprets Miriam’s insistence on overfilling her frozen yogurt cups and ladling on-the-house full-fat fudge over the top as some version of love — or, at the very least, some much-needed affection.
Far more forcefully than in Oligarchy, anorexia here is pinned on the parents: Rachel points to maternal neglect as the obvious origin of her eating problems. This very neat line from a bad relationship with mom to a bad relationship with food flattens Rachel — but not in the way she wants. Broder relies on hyperbole to inflate anorexia into pure horror, the grim aftermath of a central childhood trauma. Free food at work is an “avalanche of vegan donuts that threatened to suffocate me.” At lunch, a client “extended a basket of carbs threateningly close to my head” and the overdressed arugula salad “was but a slippery cadaver: death by oil, goodbye.” Comparing an oily salad to death doesn’t illuminate why eating oil feels deathly but, rather, sets up Rachel’s fear of fat as an obvious, borderline ridiculous neurosis. This melodrama (Broder often describes eating as “like dying”) simplifies Rachel’s psyche — a terrible mother inflicted a terrible eating disorder that makes Rachel terribly miserable. Simple problems require simple solutions. Suddenly, there’s a stranger who all but forces Rachel to fill her taut tummy, supplies her with so many sweets that her hunger doesn’t just subside but disappears. And so Rachel keeps returning to Yo!Good, despite her years-long diet, to visit the doting Jewish mother she always wanted. Halfway into the novel, when she briefly sleeps with Miriam, Rachel improbably starts eating in the way she “imagined normal people ate: three squares, some snacks, whatever I wanted, really, with a feeling of impunity, and without bingeing to the point of illness.”
Broder seems too intent on proving that anorexia is bad. That 2013 New Yorker critic called anorexia an “impossible subject” in part because “refusing food at the expense of bodily function is not an easy addiction to convey.” Constantly playing up anorexia as totally grotesque and bizarre doesn’t convey the appeal of starving, which is essential to understanding why Rachel would do something like scarf down a diet protein bar in the bathroom stall (next to someone defecating) at a work party. Broder evokes the appeal of starving in a few throwaway lines, cycling through vague, psychologist-supplied wisdoms about why girls go anorexic. Skinny girls seem “cocooned by an absence of flesh — from judgment, hurt, or shame,” “[w]hile the algebraic formula was imperfect, it allowed me some illusion of control,” and “I wanted to be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less.” It sounds like WebMD’s anorexia summary: symptoms include “feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness,” “people with anorexia often use food and eating as a way to gain a sense of control,” and “they tend to be perfectionists.” It’s a one-size-fits-all explanation that feels hollow and turns Rachel into an anorexic cribbed from the DSM rather than a character in a novel.
Take the first time Rachel eats one of Miriam’s caloric sundaes in lieu of half-filled, fat-free froyo. Rachel can’t determine the calories in the peanuts, fudge, and strawberry syrup so she resolves to “bury it under more food,” otherwise known as a binge. Before she inaugurates this binge with a slice of carrot cake, she likens the impulse to “cutting off my head because of a headache.” This habit — Broder’s undermining of the allure of starving and binging with didactic asides that prove Rachel knows her habits are wrong and silly — alienates us from the character. Rachel’s relentless awareness of her diet’s misguidedness — an awareness that the young girls in Oligarchy lack — thwarts the sense of longing and danger that presumably prompted a diet in the first place, making her behavior inscrutable. I don’t understand why she endured these years of starving and binging if she never even believed, however naïvely, in some payoff.
The girls we follow in Oligarchy aren’t obsessed with being pro-ana or anti-ana — they are obsessed with what they want. They don’t always know what they want, or why they want it. But Thomas doesn’t ignore or justify their desires, which is why the girls’ desperation — e.g., subsisting only on pineapple — isn’t irritating or pitiable. Broder’s almost exclusive focus on the woes of anorexia doesn’t make her book “responsible,” a cautionary tale about eating disorders; rather, it estranges us from the protagonist. Marya Hornbacher’s 1998 memoir Wasted — now the anorexia ur-text — summarizes the anorexic impulse like this: “I remember wanting. And I remember being at once afraid and ashamed that I wanted.” The only reason the fear and shame hold any weight is because they qualify something that is so plainly, so clearly wanted.