Sticks and Stones

Earlier this month you may have heard about so-called ‘managed anorexia’, as espoused by former Big Brother contestant Kenneth Tong. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. ‘Managed’ anorexia is thus a deadly contradiction – like dipping your toe into a whirlpool or being slightly pregnant. However, according to Tong, if you’re bigger than size zero, then you’re fat. Instead he has used his twitter feed to suggest that followers ‘get thin or die trying’. Wonderfully, however he has also developed a unique aid to starvation in the form of ‘size-zero pills’. Well, who would have thought it? And plucked no doubt from the same orifice as his theories. But I digress..

Following a storm of protest, Tong has since argued that the campaign was a hoax to raise his profile. Hopefully he and his pills will now return to the obscurity they deserve. What’s more interesting are the questions this debate has raised around the promotion of anorexia and related issues of free speech. As one journalist has commented,

If [the] tweets risk encouraging anorexia and causing harm, this should be addressed. By exercising his “liberty” to say whatever he likes, he risks infringing the liberties of others who read his words – those with a mental illness who have no control over the effect his words might have on their minds.

In a fascinating article in the New Statesman, David Green reminds us that free speech is not enshrined in law as an absolute right – particularly when such words can cause damage that goes against the wider public interest. He asks if the “managed anorexia” campaign is the health equivalent of a bomb hoax, which would be rightly prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act (1977)? Or is it instead a ‘speech act that deserves legal protection?’

Here’s another case, this time centered around the classroom. In August 2010, a federal judge ordered the Pittsburg Public Schools to pay $55,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a mother who claimed that her daughter was bullied into anorexia. The girl was bullied in sixth and seventh grades and was the target of sexually degrading comments which suggested that she was fat and ugly. As a result she stopped eating lunch and went on to develop anorexia, for which she was later hospitalised. Her mother successfully sued the school.

What are we to make of these situations?

Bullying is totally unacceptable. Words alone can cause tremendous psychological damage and such abuse is something we all need to challenge and confront. In particular, we have a responsibility to protect those weaker than ourselves, to fight for them with all our resources. But how are we to do so? Is it for example, by setting a legal precedent where schools can be held responsible for mental illness? And if we do legislate in this area, then where do we draw the line? Do we shut down pro-ana websites? How about fashion magazines? And what do we make of underweight models – victims or perpetrators?

If our culture enshrines the values that promote eating disorders – is such legislation even possible, let alone desirable?

2 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones

  1. Thanks for your blog – it’s really interesting reading.
    I have to say that I really can’t make up my mind on this one. I think free speech is important – whatever’s being said, and a part of me thinks that even if all the pro-ana & mia websites were shut down and models had to be regular-sized etc. etc. it still wouldn’t really help, because there are still some people who are going to have eating disorders anyway (since I know mine started for very different reasons).
    And yet, the heart part of me, knows (from bitter experience) that I can’t go near those websites, or even read women’s magazines without getting sucked back into starving myself again so…who knows!
    Thanks for making me think though.

  2. Hi Ellidh

    Thanks for this – I absolutely agree. Like you,I’d be very wary about legislating on what we can and can’t say, (not least because as a Christian, I want to be able to talk about what I believe!)

    Yet my heart doesn’t always listen to my brain, so as you say, we need to be wary. Maybe one of the greatest parts of recovery is recognising that we are weak and that’s okay. So instead of trying to prove my strength by putting myself in a vulnerable position, I learn to flee from anything that might make me stumble..

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