Re-examining the “Dysfunctional Pleasure” of Eating Disorders


That the Ironman participant may be as vain or as emotionally distressed as a freely directed exerciser becomes irrelevant, because the Ironman race, like a Thanksgiving feast, takes place in the presence of many others pursuing the same extreme pleasure. It has finite, communally agreed-upon bounds. Thanksgiving lasts for only one day; an Ironman has three precisely measured components. Conformity bestows the label of healthy. For such intense indulgence to exist outside of socially defined contexts—to be left in the hands of an individual, particularly a woman—is for it be rendered wild and threatening.

The latest issue of The New Inquiry includes a haunting essay in which Charlotte Shane maps the concept of the eating disorder onto a variety of ancient and modern cultural attitudes toward food and weight.

Why are religious fasts displays of devotion while weight-loss fasts are pathological? Are our simultaneous fixations on “hyperpalatable” food and dieting really any more fraught than the beliefs of the Catholic church, which has, in the past, alternately praised starving women for their holiness and labeled them witches?

And why is it usually women who have to bear the brunt of the social anxieties surrounding food?

Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →