Looking in a mirror is a trivial moment in most people's day. Whether to survey an outfit, observe a blemish or simply take stock, few things are more routine. Yet this nonchalance is symbolic of a life blindly led. It is common to mistake emotionally-charged moments, such as languishing in disappointment and self-criticism or relishing successes, for moments of true introspection. Deeper reflection means not just living in the moment but looking at what we hide even from ourselves: jealousy, greed, explosive anger and shame but also the most vulnerable love, dependency and tenderness. A person living without reflection is still driven by these internal, emotional forces but acts as if reasoned decisions and illusory control pave the way.
In its entirety, the community of people with eating disorders share the burden of empathy, as I described in the last post, and the concomitant role of society's emotional mirror, a thankless role for a world unwilling to take a good look at itself. With a quick glance, perhaps for something as mundane as checking its hair, the larger community may acknowledge what's in the mirror but has no interest in true reflection. Just as a family can heap responsibility onto an empathic family member, society can choose to blame the faulty reflection.
Many of the truths, even those too obvious to ignore, can be readily explained away. Obesity and diabetes in children: lazy, uninformed, uncaring parents. Homogeneous, unhealthful fast food: uneducated poor food choices of the masses. Epidemic of disordered eating: children making immature decisions. Explosion of eating disorders: ah what these crazy women will do to look thin. And the quick fixes are like patching a roof about to collapse from a deluge: misleading nutritional information on food items, Bariatric surgery, spa retreats to cure eating disorders.
The facile mind can always find a new explanation for the unusual or even the absurd. History is rife with tales of societies caught up in sheer folly on the way to destruction and chaos. The path lined solely with reason lands, sooner or later, in the muck. After crawling out of that mess, finally, one will have to really look in the mirror to see what happened. In that moment, the empathic women, silenced by eating disorders and filled with a different understanding of the manipulation and degradation of food and weight, might have their moment.
If empathy is the glue that binds humans into a complex, interdependent and ultimately fair society, then is a world without empathy worth living in? Modern living is about shared experience lived in isolation. We all live in our little bubbles, know a smattering of like-minded people and misuse our unfulfilled desire for connectedness to obsess about our own daily minutiae. The care and concern for others is routinely quashed: war looks suspiciously like the latest video game; natural disaster like the most recent apocalyptic movie. And if the empathizers, lost and ignored, have been wooed by calorie counting and the number on the scale, who cares about what's happening to people in need? Where is the mirror to steer us back to our collective responsibility to care for each other?
The most curious and disturbing aspect of our current food culture is that the well-off now starve while the poor are fattened up on food akin to garbage. This discrepancy is most notable in children. It's the right of passage for a suburban girl to start her first diet while the inner city kid only finds McDonald's in the neighborhood. The implicit government support--through lax regulation of the food industry--of this travesty and the blatantly unethical corporations which capitalize on the social forces (both the weight loss and various food industries) work hard to silence the reflection of empathy. Nothing can tamper with the bottom line. Instead, we all just continue to blame the reflection.
I fear that the silenced voice of empathy hides the ugly underbelly of our isolated world. The shameless celebration of the culture of plenty obscures the inequality, need and pain all around us. Surrounded by such abundance, the acceptance both of starvation and obesity-related illness--paradoxically in the well-off and poor, respectively--is unconscionable yet sadly has become routine. Meanwhile, the group of people most aware of the absence of social justice and most able to spearhead a revolution--an apt analogy during this time of upheaval in the world--suffer needlessly at home alone except for their food and scale.
The next series of posts will shift to food, children and identity. I will start by discussing how our relationship to food helps create identity in children and is closely intertwined with the development of an eating disorder.