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Letter From Elsewhere: Untimely Death

Letter From Elsewhere: Untimely Death

By Anne Else

Untimely death comes in many forms. Along with thousands of other New Zealanders, I walked through the city on Saturday to protest against its arbitrary, mass infliction on the citizens of Iraq, and on the armed forces now being marshalled to attack them.

The case for war has been clearly shown to be based on shameless lies. A “major new dossier”, praised by Colin Powell, turns out to consist mainly of decade-old intelligence reports, complete with the original spelling mistakes, but with a few key sentences hyped up. The only surprising thing about this is that the powers that be thought they could get away with it.

But it was another kind of lie, in the service of another, much less dramatic kind of war, that caught my attention this week. It came in a reprinted Sunday Telegraph feature on a few shops (all of them overseas, of course) offering trendy clothes for bigger teens.

The story went on to quote one Andrea Marks, a "specialist in child and adolescent medicine". She pointed the finger of blame for "the thin era" and the increase in anorexia nervosa at feminism.

Her theory was simple: "Eating disorders increased alarmingly at the time of the rise in feminism and sexual liberation. Feminism increased pressure on women to be perfect and as the sexual revolution increased the pressure on women to look good in their own eyes as they competed for attention." (The fractured syntax is the Telegraph’s, not mine.)

You may think that it’s sacrilege to compare this piece of egregious nonsense with the lies about Iraq. But eating disorders are quietly killing people every day, almost all of them women. The day after the Telegraph piece appeared, tucked away at the bottom of the sports pages was a report on the death of an Auckland teacher and internationally ranked long-distance runner. She died of a heart attack, following years of anorexia nervosa.

Heart disease is the most common medical cause of death in people with severe anorexia. Many studies of groups of anorexic patients have found overall death rates ranging from 4 percent to 20 percent. If anorexia develops in children and adolescence, less than two thirds recover.

Sterility is a major risk too. Even after treatment, menstruation never returns in one out of four patients with severe anorexia. Women who conceive before regaining normal weight face a poor reproductive future, with low birth weights, frequent miscarriages, and a high rate of children with birth defects.

Most researchers agree that the number of patients with anorexia nervosa is increasing. Recent US estimates suggest that out of every 200 American girls between the ages of 10 and 20, one will develop anorexia to some degree. This rate is high enough for it to be described as "relatively common" among young women. But it’s most common among women such as models and ballet dancers, who have a professional obligation to be thin.

The disease mainly affects young white Western women, although its incidence in the third world is rising rapidly, as Western imagery proliferates. The media’s "ideal women", such as Kate Moss and Julia Roberts, are well below a safe weight/height ratio.

In fact there may be a link between anorexia and feminism, but it’s a far cry from the cock-eyed claims in the Telegraph. Just as women started to make some real gains in terms of education, jobs, income and independence, the sick cult of thinness began its lethal work of cutting women down to size 10 – then 8 – then 6. Given the statistics, it’s no exaggeration to call this a war on women.

One minute young women are being told (but not by feminists) that they have it all; the next they’re seeing yet another emaciated creature held up as a role model. Starving themselves can all too easily come to seem the only way of taking control of their life. Tragically, it may lead only to death.


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