This blog entry concerns a story reported in the UK's Daily Mail, a newspaper I've come to hate for its constant frieze, running up and down the right side of its web pages, of body-scrutinizing imagery of every kind. Women (celebrities) who are: too fat, too skinny, dressed wrong, dressed slutty, dressed right, have bunions (bunions; there have been at least two stories about Nigella Lawson's feet in recent weeks), stretch marks, unkempt hair...it's your worst fears about being Watched as a female come true. Whole separate pages with huge photos devoted to a woman's panty lines, back fat, sloppy footwear, whatever.
The story in question is more than horrible, though, and although it has a sickening, tabloid, over-reported feel--the girl in question has been a fixture in the media for a while and the screaming headline is horrid--it seems worth noting.
Malissa Jones is 21, and was called, in a gesture of sideshow freak labeling, "Britain's fattest teenager" when she had gastric bypass surgery three years ago. At that point she was around 475 pounds. In 2009, after losing around two hundred pounds, she made news in an interview in which she said wished she had never had the surgery. She was depressed from the hanging skin and wrinkles which she could not afford to fix, suffering from a severely compromised immune system, and discovered she was no longer able to carry a baby to term after a miscarriage (her inability to eat/lack of interest in eating was called the cause of the miscarriage).
Now she is diagnosed as anorexic. Her photo [same link as above] shows someone who looks like the battlefield of our body wars itself: fat, emaciated, ill, all at once. Starved in some deep-down, fundamental fashion. It's heartbreaking. It's also heartbreaking that we see so much of her--there is an invasive quality to the way the photos are used, as in all the stories I've read about her, as there often is pieces about fat/formerly fat people, who have to walk the perp walk and show their shame.
It also seems problematic to talk of this anorexia in the terms we usually do. Jones says:
I am not deliberately starving myself but, right now, I would rather die than force myself to eat. I'm too thin. My body shocks me. But swallowing is painful. Eating a tiny amount gives me stomach cramps or makes me sick. My consultant says, if I continue like this, I only have six months to live. I will most likely die of a heart attack, so I must persevere with eating. I am trying, but it is so hard.To what degree there is an emotional root cause contributing to her physical inability to eat we can't know, but judging from that quote it sounds like it just hurts her body to eat. Her body's ability to handle food was (deliberately) taken away--why would we expect it to work correctly? That is how weight loss surgery works. According to the 2009 article, she had to give up work after suffering "stomach pains and constant diarrhea," which are common side effects.
This woman is young. Terribly young, far too young to be ravaged by so much brutal decision-making and unnecessary body trauma. From the earlier pieces it sounds like Jones had problems with compulsive eating and learned at an extremely young age to match that with diets of similar intensity; her body has been in reaction, in extreme ways, to the world around her and its fear of fat for most of her life. She hasn't gotten to just be. If she is indeed an anorexic then it almost seems as if she's become prey to some new, extreme monster--an eating disorder that combines the strongest elements of both ends of the spectrum and the worst of all the physical effects. The Daily Mail being the Daily Mail, the focus is on superficial examinations of how Jones did the wrong thing (ate too much), then the wrong thing again (ate too little), and now her "fears" are keeping her from doing the right thing, but that doesn't feel like the whole story to me. Why do we disable people's digestive systems, then expect them to work? And why, when you've probably never felt like you owned your body, never even had the chance to (she was 17 when she had gastric bypass surgery at the urging of doctors), would you expect her to know how to do it now? We hobble people when we do this to them.
There are a lot of reasons why weight loss surgery exists, but medicine was its creator, and medicine needs to figure out how to feed the people who've had it: how to handle patients like Jones, who live with its effects--or die from them. The human body is an extremely complicated machine. We betray its design when we mutilate our insides in the name of weight loss; if we are going to do so, we have to be prepared to treat the damage, which comes back to us in exponential ways.