There is an idiom about the canary in the coal mine, dating back to when miners brought caged canaries underground with them. If the canary died, signalling toxic levels of methane or carbon monoxide which were undetectable by smell, the miners knew to get out. I’ve heard those with eating disorders likened to canaries in coal mines – delicate, small beings heralding some imperceptible danger. Sometimes, too, they pay with their lives.

A compelling parallel can be drawn between the canary and those with eating disorders (often young, usually female): underestimated, ornamental, expendable – their deaths indicative of a problem beyond themselves.

But what might eating disorders say about our culture at large? For although narrow body image standards extend ever farther with the impact of globalization, eating disorders are a particularly Western problem.

Tracing Western thought back a ways, the influence of Judeo Christian values on our culture is undeniable. Not long ago, the Lord’s Prayer was recited in the classrooms of public schools, and – needless to say – what are you doing for the holidays? How we organize our time, many of our statutory holidays, the very year we are in, orbit around the Christian calendar.

Here’s something to ponder: a great number of Christian saints died of anorexia. The literature does not define it as anorexia nervosa mind you, but really, how can we know? To explain the difference: anorexia is simply a medical term meaning “a lack or loss of appetite for food.” Anorexia nervosa, on the other hand “is an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat.” This starving of the saints has been called “holy anorexia” – the melting away of flesh to be closer to God.

Compare this, on the other hand, with the seven deadly sins, of which gluttony is one. In this context, to hunger, to desire, to eat and not stop is sin – a deep taboo. In Latin, bulimia literally means “ox-hunger” (bous=ox, limos=hunger). In modern times, we intersperse saintliness and sinfulness into how we describe food and desire. There are ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ foods; angel and devil’s food cakes; temptation and denial; ‘sinful’ indulgence; good or bad foods – the list goes on. Control over our physical nature is both implicitly and explicitly reinforced as desirable, even morally superior.

Which brings me to another point: in the 1600s, when Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am” he ushered in a new mode of thought that we now call Cartesian dualism. It runs like a silent, underground river – or noxious substance, depending on your politics – through our culture to this day. Dualism separates the mind from the body, and – as his famous statement suggests – elevates the former.

Reason over emotion dominates some of our most respected institutions, from law to ‘higher’ learning. Feminist scholars have done an admirable job of tracing how this dualism prizes the masculine over the feminine, as well. After all, women are inextricably bound to their physical nature – at the very least, every month. As a quality, emotion is considered more feminine, ration more masculine. Again, the list goes on.

At the intersection of the Western body, these associations have been grave. As women have been subjugated, so have their bodies – indeed, subjugated because of their bodies.

Eating disorders are a new(er) spin on an old story: that the avenue to worthiness, goodness – ‘perfection’ – is through denial of the physical self.

There is no room for the deep wisdom of bodily hunger, or for the sensual joy that comes from loving life. There is no room for that to be form of worship, devotion.

And this worthiness we seek: of what, to whom? The old answer would be God; the new answer is open to interpretation. Certainly, media is a modern day god, and a punishing one at that. The beauty industry alone is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, keeping us spending with little regard for cost to the individual. By design, it constantly shifts the goal posts beyond reach while it sells the fantasy of perfection.

In the midst of my own eating disorder decades ago, a new thought occurred to me:

What would I be doing with my life if I weren’t so obsessed with this impossible pursuit?

And the answer was: pretty much anything. Using my voice, that’s what. Taking up space, that’s what. Asking that question was my first awakening to a life outside of the Matrix.

And there’s another message here about freedom. The canary in the coal mine was caged. Do you think she so loved the miners that she volunteered for her mission? Doubtful. Throughout history and even today, women have been caged, corseted, covered, concealed. The peculiar success of the eating disorder is that a person comes to confine themselves, and that it appears to be an individual – rather than cultural – problem.

As feminists of the 1960s said, the personal is the political. To believe that eating disorders are unique to the individual is to not question the institutions that shape our thought. If eating disorder sufferers are canaries in coal mines, it leads one to wonder a few things:

  • Who has the right to confine another ideologically?
  • Who benefits from that confinement?
  • What if, instead of disappearing, individuals broke free and took up space?

And a word about the miners in all of this: the same system that sacrifices canaries is the very one that sends men underground to work for wages at the cost of their lives. Guaranteed, someone profits from that sacrifice. This narrow focus on body image that occupies our culture is a red herring of sorts. It keeps us from remembering to ask whatever was wrong with our body in the first place. And who got to set that standard?

Perhaps the greatest cost incurred is that eating disorders inhibit exploration; taking up space; and being of service to some cause greater than perfection. The actual answer that emerged for what I would be doing with my life if I weren’t so preoccupied with an eating disorder was this: digging waters wells in Africa. I haven’t done it – yet. But now that I’ve said it aloud, I have to. And because I’m alive, I can. It is the privilege of living in this human body.

About the Author

deirdre mclaughlin (she/they/we) is a counsellor, sex educator, and phd student in clinical sexology. they live and work within the ancestral, traditional, and unceded territories of the tmixʷ (Syilx Okanagan), snʕickstx tmxʷúlaʔxʷ (Sinixt), and ɁamakɁis (Ktunaxa) peoples, as well as many other diverse Indigenous persons, including the Métis.

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