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To begin my investigation, I go for a coffee at Mathilde’s place. I need her to explain how everything started for her, how she developed anorexia.
“I began to restrict my food intake when I was 20, the summer of 2010. I was feeling bad about myself, as if my body was not as it should have been. For me, anorexia is an inner turmoil that can’t, or won’t, be expressed outwardly until it becomes physically noticeable.”
Before we go any further, here are a few things you should know about Mathilde.
First, she was born and grew up in Paris in a rather privileged environment. Her mother is a celebrated dancer and her father also works in the entertainment industry as a technician. This is also where Mathilde works now, among the public.
At 20 years old, when she became ill, she was a student of Art History at Sorbonne University and shared a flat with her boyfriend.
Mathilde can trace her feeling of being unwell back to her childhood. “At the age of 9 or 10, I was already feeling a sense of unease in my body. I had always been very thin growing up, and all of a sudden my body changed, I felt less pretty, less interesting, I didn’t like how I looked.” When I ask her how she saw herself at 20, she reports feeling a sort of inadequacy between herself and her body. “I would look at my reflection and feel like that body wasn’t me. I had curves, but I didn’t think my body was ugly; I knew girls who looked like me or had even bigger bodies and they were really pretty. I didn’t think models were better than me. What I wanted was to make it all less visible; to erase those parts of my body and make that heavy sensuality fade away.”
I ask Mathilde to show me pictures of women that her 20-year-old self liked and deemed close to how she felt deep inside. She answers with names of iconic women from the 1960’s, among which Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy. She immediately points out how thin the latter looked, and how she equated being thin with being able to wear anything you wished, and looking good no matter what. As if any piece of clothing looked at once elegant or fancy on a thin body. She also points out the melancholy, mysterious air of these women she calls “child-women”, whose femininity blurs the boundaries between girlhood and womanhood.
When Mathilde describes her ideal of thinness to me, what she calls “la Parisienne”, I’m surprised to hear her talk about not only desire but love, life, adventure — instead, I expected some cold description reminiscent of models as seen in the glossy paper of magazines. At this point, I feel like there is something else behind her idealized vision of thinness, something deeper than the mere desire to meet beauty standards.
When an individual is confronted with a situation of domination or submission, their stress response might be to seek control over themselves, to engage in restrictive behaviors as a coping mechanism to regain control over their life.
I reach out to Claire Scodellaro, lecturer in sociology and demographic studies at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne. Part of her work focuses on EDs (Eating Disorders), which include anorexia nervosa. She emphasizes the importance of socio-cultural factors in the development of these illnesses, and explains that, in many cases, the people who develop anorexia nervosa exhibit three particular social features:
- More often than not, they are women. She observed that 3% of 17-year-old girls suffer from an eating disorder, compared to 0,1% in boys.
- Most of the time, they are young people, between the ages of 16 and 22 — which can be explained by the fact that adolescence and early adulthood are times of development, but also of great vulnerability.
- In 60% of cases, they come from a relatively affluent social background, or are in a dynamic of upward social mobility.
Mathilde’s case matches those three characteristics. I wonder then what might account for such socio-cultural inequalities, and why women are the most exposed.
“With anorexia nervosa, the most salient feature is the control around one’s food intake — but in fact, the act of control itself is often sought after. Exposure to violence may be one contributing factor in this pursuit of control. When an individual is confronted with a situation of domination or submission, their stress response might be to seek control over themselves, to engage in restrictive behaviors as a coping mechanism to regain control over their life. Such a response can often be observed when people experience a feeling of inferiority or belittlement. And it so happens that women are more often on the receiving end of interpersonal violence and systemic inferiorization in social relationships. This is one of the factors that can explain why women are more likely to develop eating disorders — in this case, anorexia nervosa.”
“I didn’t want people to see a bra size or hips or a cinched waist when they looked at me; I wanted them to see me as a person; not a woman, a person. When I began to pursue thinness, I think what I wanted was a body that would allow me to be myself.”
To some women, seeking control over their bodies is a way to cope with the oppression that weighs on them in our society. But it is not the only factor that should be taken into account. Claire Scodellaro points out that, in our western societies, thinness is perceived as a sign of belonging to a socially elevated class — which accounts for the correlation between anorexia and affluent social backgrounds.
“The body is seen as a defining feature,” Claire Scodellaro explains, “the central object in the way we identify the social status of individuals. In that respect, thinness is equated with a mark of higher social belonging — especially for women. Looking back in history, it appears that thinness became an ideal for women at the end of the 19th century, primarily among women from the middle to upper class (“the bourgeoisie”). Their goal was to differentiate themselves from women belonging to the lower class, who had stronger, stouter bodies that handled physical labor, all the more so since their access to food was easier as famines receded.”
But let’s get back to Mathilde: “On the one hand, there was my body that wasn’t me; and on the other hand, there was me. To me, the appeal of being thin was to look how I felt deep inside.” At 20 years old, Mathilde saw a link between living in a thin body and living an ambitious life. During our discussion, she underlines a connection between misogynistic social injunctions forced onto women and her own belief that having a sensual body was an obstacle to being deemed “interesting”, to people seeing her for who she was. “I didn’t want people to see a bra size or hips or a cinched waist when they looked at me; I wanted them to see me as a person; not a woman, a person. When I began to pursue thinness, I think what I wanted was a body that would allow me to be myself.” Mathilde also adds that when she began to lose weight, when her breasts became flat, she experienced a sense of relief, feeling more in control of her sensuality than ever before. She says she could choose what to show or not to show, without it being “there”, immediately and de facto visible to the eye, like mere “pieces of meat”.
But I perceive something deeper lying behind this desire for thinness, something that affects all women. Mathilde associates being thin with the possibility of being not only desired but loved. Claire Scodellaro mentioned the violence inflicted on women. The hypersexualization of women’s bodies is one of its manifestations, which explains that femininity might be experienced as a burden. Mathilde emphasizes the part that early puberty played in her feeling of disconnect between her body and herself: her body changed rapidly, but inside she didn’t feel any different. All of the sudden, she became “a kind of sexually attractive thing”, earning unsolicited and unwanted comments or looks that concerned her body and not herself as a person.
Now, I understand what factors might have led Mathilde to desire and pursue thinness; but what I can’t grasp is the turning point when she first associated this desire with food restriction. When I ask my friend about it, she says it certainly did not happen overnight, and recalls a long period of time when she felt uncomfortable in her body, a mental state that culminated one summer when she thought, “I’m not feeling well and I’ve had enough of not feeling well”.
Mathilde suffered from restrictive anorexia, a subtype of anorexia nervosa, which also encompasses a binge eating/purging subtype. She defines restriction as the progressive diminution of the types and amounts of food that one consumes. “The way I started off resembled a classic dieting behaviour: I cut out cakes and desserts. But then after a few weeks, it didn’t feel like enough, so I cut out cheese and dairy. Then I moved on to cutting carbs.” Mathilde is describing the vicious cycle of restriction: once she excluded a food type from her diet, she wouldn’t allow it back on her plate, which meant that the list of what she would allow herself to eat was getting shorter and shorter over time. Were she to break the rules, the result would have been intense anxiety and panic.
As Mathilde reminds me, anorexia nervosa is a mental illness, with a psychological dimension that she sums up as “deluding yourself into thinking — and being convinced — that you can live your life without eating”.
I called Alain Perroud, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. “Contrary to popular belief,” he says, “girls from rich families are not the ones who become ill most frequently. Nowadays, they are simply people who live in wealthy countries, where food is abundant, the economic system follows the Western model, with a particular emphasis on image and media, and among these images, a female archetype promoting leanness or thinness as an important aesthetic feature.”
I ask him about the triggering factors in the development of an ED: “One of the most common and yet least known factors is the mere fact of going on a diet.”
Going on a diet. That was how it began for Mathilde, in this pretty mundane but highly praised way. She tells me how, in the beginning, everyone would comment on her weight loss, complimenting her, telling her how pretty she was, etc. But those comments only fueled the disorder: why should she stop when everyone was praising her?
Alain Perroud said that going on a diet could trigger the whole disorder, simply through losing a few pounds or falling into a vicious cycle. “The vicious cycle” — something I don’t quite understand yet. What could turn an apparently virtuous cycle (being mindful of one’s nutrition) into such a dangerous one? So I ask Mathilde this question: Why would one keep restricting their food intake once they had managed to lose weight? “For the sensation you get out of it,” she says. “It becomes similar to drugs, to an addiction; at the beginning you feel all-powerful — I didn’t want it to stop.”
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