Far From the Tree, a true masterpiece of a book written by Andrew Solomon, addresses the link between identity and various illnesses and disabilities for children and their parents. I can't do justice to the work, but his thesis has clear implications for people with eating disorders and is very relevant to this blog.
In fact, he briefly addresses anorexia and bulimia, referencing pro-Ana and pro-Mia websites as examples of activist movements for people with illness or disability. However, he quickly dismisses the premise because eating disorders are fatal and thus cannot compare to similar movements such as for deaf people or dwarfs.
To be fair, Mr. Solomon didn't research eating disorders in the way he so thoroughly did the other issues chronicled in his book. He may have been better off leaving this one alone, but he does touch upon something critical and confusing about how eating disorders are linked to identity.
The controversial eating disorder websites are certainly dangerous, and supporting an eating disorder as identity only increases the morbidity and mortality of these diseases. But in light of the topic of identity, the pro-ED sites also reinforce two things necessary for successful recovery. First, much as the other illnesses Mr. Solomon discusses, people with eating disorders did not choose their disease and don't choose to stay sick any more than someone with Down's Syndrome or cerebral palsy. Second, unlike these other issues, people with eating disorders can get better but the process involves relinquishing the core of identity since adolescence--the opposite of the premise of the book.
Mr. Solomon draws the reader in to story after story of heartbreak, resilience, transformation and acceptance. After hundreds of pages, it's exhausting but exhilarating to realize these stories could go on ad infinitum. A crucial part of each person's path is acceptance of the limitations of the illness combined with taking pleasure in what life can still offer. Implied in acceptance is coming to terms with the identity of the disability or illness, both for the person afflicted and for the parents.
There is a clear demarcation here between eating disorders and the illnesses described in this book. Chronic eating disorders always intertwine the thoughts and behaviors of illness into identity, inextricably and with finality. The result is that the person feels bereft even at the thought of letting their illness go.
Recovery involves stripping away all sense of oneself so that this person can start over, raw, unprotected and very much alone but with the hope of a life free of this terrible affliction. Disavowing one's identity for anyone discussed in Far From the Tree is denial and leads to an extremely limiting life. Doing so with an eating disorder is a painful but necessary step in recovery.
The activism in the eating disorder world must explain that recovery involves relinquishing identity to start over. Learning how to live without one's guiding force, destructive though it was, is a tall order. Recovery means creating a new self and life, not just eating more food.