|Anorexia versus Extreme Surgery
||[May. 19th, 2009|05:20 pm]
Yesterday saw the first session of Body Image workshops. I won’t bore you with the details of the ins and outs, what that entails, but something of an interesting debate sprung up that I thought I would mull over here. That is the comparison between people who develop eating disorders with those who engages in extreme or repeated plastic surgery – both a means of changing the physical appearance of the human body. On the surface, you could add tattoos, piercings, earlobe enlargements, chin plates and neck rings to the list as they are all examples of the extremes that people go to in order to manipulate and alter the way in which nature designed us to look. The driving forces behind why we go to such lengths vary widely and depend very much on environment and culture – for the sake of this debate I will stick with cosmetic surgery, as suggested by our group leader, as it is a result of the westernised pressure to change the way we appear to the outside world to fit in, to better ourselves, or to attempt the impossible: perfection.
With regards to body image – the way in which we perceive ourselves physically – we were asked how closely we believe the relationship between extreme surgery and anorexia/bulimia to be.
My initial reaction was to scoff, get up on my high horse and almost snobbishly deny the fact that any other method of changing the body could come anywhere close to what I am going through. How dare anybody suggest that an obsession shared by Michael Jackson, Katie Price and ‘Lea from Big Brother’ could have anything in common with, or be seen as being on the same level as an Eating Disorder. The discussion moved on quickly, but I was left pondering over why I was so quick and abrupt in coming to the unquestionable conclusion that EDs cannot be compared to any other means of toying with human nature. Why so stubborn? Why was I so hesitant, held back in forcing myself to go that step further, to actually consider the question with more thought?
An Eating Disorder is an illness, a disease – having surgery is not. Plastic surgery is a modern invention, constantly increasing in terms of popularity and possibility, whereas Anorexia can be traced back hundreds of years. There were no barbies, no celebrities, no airbrushing – not in the 1600s. Here lies my barrier against believing that the drive behind Eating Disorders have all that much in common with the desire to change oneself using surgery. Anorexia has victims, not clients. It does not discriminate and it does not involve choice. It will inevitably become something unmanageable, uncontrollable for those unlucky to fall within its powerful grasp.
If I strip away the ‘illness’ factor and force myself (incredibly unwillingingly) to comprehend this association from a different, outside perspective, there lies the possibility to begin making comparisons and viewing the similarities shared by the two extremes without concentrating on the wider contextual issues that usually halt my brain from processing anything other than ‘No, it’s a disease, end of!’ It strikes me that I am too stubborn (bloody Taurus) – in order to truly understand my Eating Disorder, the whys and the wherefores, I need think beyond what lies comfortably with me, think outside the safety zone of the Eating Disorder and consider notions that I normally pass off as rubbish far too automatically. It can’t hurt to try.
Having plastic surgery and making a concerted effort to lose weight are both ways in which people change the appearance of their body in order to ‘improve’ themselves aesthetically, usually with the idea in mind that it will somehow make them a better, more likeable/powerful/respected person. Both incur dangers and risks – going under anaesthetic, problems during surgery and risk of infection are all present on the ‘what could go wrong’ lust – all of which are made known to clients before they hand over their cheque and take the plunge. Cosmetic surgery, whether for the first time or the fifteenth, is the result of a very conscious, educated and balanced decision – nobody would go into it without weighing up the pros and cons and going through some from of preparation, both mentally and physically. It is discussed with medical professionals in a trustworthy, safe environment, often over a number of consultations to ensure that the client is well prepared.
Anorexia and Bulimia also have their risks – the list is endless – heart problems (including Cardiac arrest), low blood pressure, low body temperature, depression, osteoporosis, infertility, electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, malnutrition, hair loss, tooth decay, and death. Anorexia kills 1 in 5 sufferers. Some people with Eating Disorders are fully aware of all the risks to their short-term and long-term health (I was), but the nature of the illness is that none of this is enough to stop us in our self-destructive tracks. When an Eating Disorder begins, we do not make appointments to discuss exactly what we want to change about our bodies; we are not subjected to the black marker treatment, this is not a precise art; and nor are we warned about the risks and dangers before being reassured by a neat folder containing your surgeon’s portfolio of before and after photographs and gushing testimonials.
We may share the desire to alter our bodies in the same way, sometimes in order to achieve the same result, but the approach could not be much more different. Rather than making an informed decision overseen all along by trained professionals, Anorexics and Bulimics take matters into their own hands. Nobody watches over us or realises immediately to take action the second something starts to go wrong. Extreme weightloss or compensatory behaviours (over exercise, purging, diet pills or laxative abuse) do not allow rest or caution, it’s full steam ahead and quite often result in major health problems and/or hospitalisation before we can even see for ourselves the results of our efforts that we had hoped for when we began our mission.
Another problem is that the illness causes a huge shift in the way in which we perceive the size and shape of our bodies, meaning that the little bit of weightloss is never, ever enough – those thighs are always too chubby, the stomach too rotund, the arms too wobbly and the cheekbones invisible, hidden beneath a cushion of podgy fat. You engage in a behaviour to control the way you looks – and in the case of plastic surgery, although people do get addicted and spend thousands on repeated procedures (many suffering from the same Body Dysmorphia as Anorexia and Bulimia sufferers), there is at least a degree of control and safety. There are protocols, rules and restraints, there are people to make the changes to you, for you, to look after you and make sure that everything goes perfectly. Eating Disorders are solitary – your actions, your choices, your illness and nobody interferes with that. In terms of dramatically changing ones appearance, being Anorexic or Bulimic – risking health and even life to alter the shape of the human body – would come close to extreme surgery only if the person were to perform the surgery themselves.