January 2014

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An Interview with Kelsey Osgood

What is it about the narrative of eating disorders that gets so distorted? How they rest in our cultural mind as equal parts horrifying, and yet, somewhat noble or glamorous, something that has appeal. We feast on tales of eating disorders intended as cautionary tales of smallest weights, horrific details of stringent eating regimens, calorie counting and the ravage it does. Yet these same stories are providing the perfect how-to guides for developing anorexics. Yes, that's right: the same stories meant to help or warn become instruction manuals via the salacious details we crave.

But what if that weren't the case? Kelsey Osgood, author of the new book How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, wants it to be different. Not only does she reference her own ten-year struggle with anorexia, showcasing a world that debunks so many of the commonly held but misguided beliefs surrounding the disorder, but also how the same forces that are meant to support anorexics are often the ones that amplify its effects. This writer, editor, and self-described amateur thaumaturgist is bound to change the mythologies and assumptions that surround the disease, as well as the way we talk about it. Her work has been featured in New York magazine, The Baltimore Review, and our very own Bookslut. How To Disappear Completely is her first book publication. I'm honored to have talked to her on the book, contagious disordered-eating, and the culture of glamorization around mental illness and eating disorders.

Why did you write How to Disappear Completely?

I noticed a trend where anorexia memoirs, magazine articles, talk shows, or whatever are designed to "raise awareness" or act as cautionary tales to younger girls. Yet, when that was my peer group, most people took it as potential diet plans, or inspiration to learn how to have an eating disorder. So, sometimes people thought okay, I'm going to become anorexic, this is what I'm going to do, this is my goal. Or, I want to lose fifteen pounds; I'll follow this person, because obviously this person did it well. No one had ever seriously looked at that. I thought it was interesting and a problem that needed to be at least recognized.

So it seems that as far as talking about anorexia goes, we have formulaic narratives, or these spaces of telling someone's story as a means of providing support, but in actuality, we end up providing a game plan for starvation, often seeing these experiences reflected on Pro-Ana sites as goals to strive for. There is a glamorization around almost all mental disorders, but why do you think that there's a certain glamorization around anorexia as opposed to other addictions or diseases?

As opposed to drug addiction? I touch on it in the book, but I don't think that I can fully unpack it. I think one big thing is that anorexia still represents a type of morality, even though we know that people can become very debilitated from it and it can destroy lives. It still is, at its core, a behavior that looks or that we feel is virtuous and disciplined. Obviously the same cannot be said of heroin addiction or alcoholism. There's nothing that society (well, maybe New York society right now) values about being fall-down drunk. Whereas controlling your food is something that at least in smaller measures, the world, particularly consumer American society, does value. There's all this stuff that's left over also from hundreds of years of tradition of martyrdom and the idea of the fragile woman. We bring all that to the table when we think about anorexia, even if we intellectually know that those things aren't okay. We hold onto those ideals a little more than we think that we do.

What is really interesting in the book is the mention of Mary Kate Olsen.  I remember being flooded by images of her at the time of her "eating crisis," and there was so much coverage on her body and so much emphasis on her "state" -- not her disease. Self-destruction as the ultimate accessory. You mention several times that we as a society don't take the opportunity to talk about the destruction that comes with anorexia, and instead focus on numbers, or what was your lowest moment, or how much do you weigh-all these salacious things which you speak out against emphasizing. I want to hear your thoughts on how you think that these networks that are supposed to be there to support people are actually more harmful.

This is a tough one. Obviously the question of awareness is a sticky wicket, because it makes people who need the help aware and it makes the people who want to help aware. I don't exactly know what it would look like, but there needs to be some sort of reform in the psychiatric community.

Actually I went out for drinks with this psychologist recently who treats young women with eating disorders. She was saying that she has really shied away from the "eating disorder specialist" label and that community -- because there is a community built around it. People make their living off of it. I asked her the same thing: so what's the alternative? She felt that it is better to focus more on the fact that it's a coping mechanism, the same way that alcoholism and narcotics abuse are coping mechanisms. The difference is to take this idea off the pedestal -- that you're special and different because you've developed this particular problem. You're really not. To a certain extent, there's that same cult of chosen people who have substance abuse issues as well, but because the core value isn't something that society upholds, there is a larger stigma against drug and alcohol abuse.

With anorexia, you feel like you're special because you have the problem and your specialness is predicated on that. Unless you continue to have it, or identify with it in some way, you're going to lose your status. I don't know what that would mean necessarily, except for a difference in the way that we interact with people who are on the spectrum in some way. Pointing out how it's not special may be lessening it, and this is a very unpopular opinion; but maybe it's better to let go of the idea of your brain as different and building up the idea of your behaving this way because you feel badly. It has nothing to do with your internal essence.

That's evidenced especially when you talk about the community around anorexia and the disordered eating state of being. The same community that's there to help, often amplifies a lot of the behavior, almost like a competition. With something like alcohol or drug addiction, there isn't this sense of competition. There's this sense of like, oh I've got it under control, you're different, but I'm okay. Whereas with anorexia it almost seems like a hyper-competitive pact mentality. Would you agree with that?

I think that does happen. I don't know if everyone who struggles would say that they recognize that. It's obviously much more recognizable in the treatment facilities where you're in a closed environment with a bunch of other anorexic and bulimic people and everybody knows the reason why everyone else is there. It becomes the activity, the only thing that you have to do. By then, if your life has been reduced to the extent to where you need to be in that sort of environment, it's likely that you don't really have anything else going on. You're not going to really be thinking about whether or not you're better read than the person next to you. Your anorexia? That's your art form.

Toward the end of the book, you talk about a literary phenomenon. I don't want to call it the self-help genre but maybe the "I'm fucked up" confessional memoir genre and how far you can go with that. For example, you cite Marya Hornbacher, whose writing I enjoy, but also find strange she has written so much on her issues -- something you say you struggle with as well, having the fucked-up story upon fucked up story as the basis of your writing career. I wonder if you felt like in writing this book, or the reception of the book, do you feel like that is something you're going to experience as far as maybe pigeonholing, or what it is then you will be expected to contribute as a writer here on out?

It makes me very nervous and I recognize that genre. But also, if I chose to write about that subject, especially as a first subject, it's not like I'm asking for myself to be branded that way, but I'm not totally avoiding it. I'm putting myself within a range of it. I think, or hope, that because of the argument of the book, that it won't end up being that way.

Of course, I can also just not write about it. I think that obviously there's something about the way that mental illness as a whole is viewed in culture. I think I say it pretty clearly that I don't want to do that, the falling into the one after the other, an Elizabeth Wurtzel wormhole of depression, eating disorder, drug addiction whatever, so I hope that will be enough for people to get the idea.

I like to think of it as the Lindsay Lohan complex of writing. Which is like, we love a good fall from grace and we love it over and over, especially if it makes solid narrative that's easily tangible for people. You can always pinpoint it. The same sort of cultural forces that glamorize anorexia, are also the same ones that make it very easy to fall into those categories and keep on bringing that sort of crisis to the masses. It's like, no we want to watch you fail.

It's the narrative and it's the identification that people find very comforting. I know everyone has a Lindsay Lohan critique or they pretend to have a Lindsay Lohan critique, but they don't really care, because she's still continuous. Every time she screws up, everyone says, "Oh my god, Lindsay Lohan. Why can't she get her shit together?" She knows as well as we know, that if she got her shit together, we would have no reason to pay attention to her. Frankly I'm going to go ahead and say that every time she goes on an interview, people freak out over the fact that she was really good in this one movie when she was twelve. She's not twelve anymore. She's squandering something, whether it's her acting talent or the possibility that she could go to college and learn accounting.

But we set it up and we play through it in that way, which is really comforting for us. She has a label: she is a fuck-up. I think it's probably comforting to her in a certain way, even if she can't recognize it. We like labels and we like predictability. It helps people feel grounded.

Like, I really don't like Oprah; I'll get that one out there. It's like really a horrible thing to say if you're a writer, unless your Jonathan Lethem and can get away with it. Now, Oprah's book club, that was never going to happen for me and I'm fine with that. I don't like Oprah for many reasons, but I remember watching her interview Lindsay Lohan and I felt like, Oprah is just an ambulance chaser like everyone else. Lindsay Lohan had come out of rehab what, a week before, and Oprah said, what's different this time Lindsay. She doesn't know, she just got out of rehab; yet the whole idea was that she was going to ask the hard-hitting questions.

She didn't ask her once if she was going to twelve-step, if she was going to therapy. She asked only about her decline, because she knows that is what is going to get attention.

It's salacious and it's all the fucked-up stuff we drool over. It's like when you mention in the book about how people emphasize things like "Oh, what was your lowest weight? What was your lowest moment?" We say we are interested in redemption, but then the culture of redemption seems just as toxic as the culture of fuck-up. We want redemption, but we want it super easy and potentially temporary.

What are you hoping that people take away from the book?

The interesting thing about writing a book is that while you're writing it, your opinions change. They solidify, they get a little bit more sophisticated. Because it's a little bit like a dialogue, you start to realize what it is you really think. I think that a lot of people have said, what is it that you want young girls to know? Frankly, I don't really know what young girls are dealing with nowadays. I think that their lives are probably much harder than my life was when I was thirteen or fourteen. I didn't have this constant feedback of social media. I can't imagine that as being validating when you're fourteen, fifteen years old.

It makes you scared to think about it, to write about it. If we were talking about them, what I would want them to understand about things like Pro-Ana, the inspiration, and this scary underworld that they have unfiltered access to? It's not meaningful. It feels meaningful, it feels poignant, and it feels like a way to express yourself. As we were saying before, normality, goodness, and muddling through doesn't really get a lot of attention. I would hope or think that maybe they would at least be able to intellectually see the pitfalls of that.

I don't know what the answers are to these questions. I would like people to think about the way that we think of mental illness as a whole and the way that we do this to ourselves. If you get sick or you're feeling sad, we label ourselves. Or we are labeled by a professional and told or indoctrinated into this conventional wisdom that says you're going to be dealing with this for the rest of your life. There is no reason to believe that, we have no valid scientific studies or proof that anything is really always permanent, save schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There's no anorexic gene. When they say anorexia's just like alcoholism, you can never fully recover? That's fine if you want to believe that, but that's not a fact. That's an idea that has grown up with eating disorders.

I think that it's important to make sure that people know that and that there are ways to approach it, engage with it, and then move on.