Monday, January 12, 2009

The New Yorker Article

Did anyone happen to catch this? If not, give it a read. I know it's supposed to be funny, I really do, but I still felt compelled to comment on a few points. See my letter to the editor below:

Dear Editor:

As a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders in private practice here in NY and at Columbia University Medical Center, I took great interest in Amy Ozol's "Looking Your Best" (in the January 5th issue). To be clear, I understand that most of what Ms. Ozol writes she writes in humor, and psychologists of all people understand the importance of maintaining a sense of humor. Still, there are some statements that cross even that line--if I had a dollar for every time I tell a layperson I specialize in eating disorders, that someone says, "Oh, I wish I had anorexia," I'd be looking toward early retirement.

Ozol's piece is funny and offers a number of truths related to healthy weight-loss or -maintenance. However, there are a couple of objections I have that I believe fall beyond even the clearly humorous spirit of the piece. Ozol mentions visualizing eating food and spitting it out as a possible weight-loss technique. Frequent chewing and spitting is actually an eating-disordered behavior and would be clinically diagnosed as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

Ozol also recommends using psychotropic medications in order to allay distress associated with emotional eating. This is, in fact, helpful for a number of patients. But, what Ozol fails to mention is how closely linked disordered eating and substance abuse are. Commonly, patients replace one set of behaviors with another, so there is concern for abuse potential of psychiatric medications, particularly when the classes of medication prescribed are addictive (such as benzodiazepines, including popular drugs like Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium).

As another recommendation, Ozol suggests surrounding yourself "with thin people." Unfortunately, there happens to be a lot of competition (particularly between women) around weight. Again, Ozol is using humor, recommending gastric bypass surgery in order to correct a discrepancy between friends. But beyond this, it's important to realize that competition between women can have deleterious effects on mood and self-esteem (and on relationships between women and even our standing in the world), consequently even causing, in some cases, the emotional eating to which Ozol refers earlier on.

Finally, Ozol reflects on the relationship between weight and socio-economic status when she writes about donating "fat clothes" to charity: "Refrain from donating anything to charity, as this could cause underprivileged people to become obese, which would be unsavory and possibly even illegal." Funny, yes, but also inaccurate--the percentage of low-income individual who are fat is quite high--related possibly to genetics, insufficient access to unprocessed foods and balanced meals (a meal from McDonald's is cheaper than one from Whole Foods, right?), and a lack of time and access to participate in physical activity. This truth, too, is lost in Ozol's comic recommendations.


JS said...

Ozol mentions visualizing eating food and spitting it out as a possible weight-loss technique. Frequent chewing and spitting is actually an eating-disordered behavior and would be clinically diagnosed as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

I am pretty sure that that was her point--she was satirizing weight-loss articles that in fact promote disordered eating under the guise of "healthy" choices.

Similarly, I think that was the point of the other things you object to: Ozol was advocating nothing in the piece, but instead using the satirist's technique of "reductio ad absurdum."

Brigid Keely said...

I ASSUMED (yes, yes, ass u me) that Ozol was aware of chewing and spitting behavior and was comparing disordered eating like that to disordered behavior advertised as weightloss behavior in diet guides and tips and stuff.

Sarah said...

ha, JS, that's a good description right there of my life right now, I'm "reductio" until I'm completely "absurdium"

Ellie said...

I agree w/ JS, she was pointing out (through satire) that this kind of thing - chew/spitting, abusing drugs to combat hunger - are ED and unreasonable behaviors, and her entire point was that people SHOULD NOT engage in such behaviors, even though mainstream diet magazines often encourage such things.

azusmom said...

I also saw the piece as satire in the best sense: not just poking fun at the absurdity of the weight loss culture, but pointing out the ridiculousness of it all. The danger, being, of course, that some may read it and take her seriously. But I really did see this article as a huge eye roll, if you know what I mean.
(And I thought the bit about the iguana was really funny.)

Beth said...

I really liked the article's sarcaastic tone. It kept my attention, which many traditional wieght loss articles fail to do. Much better than the mundane articles which offer the same tips over and over. I really hope you don't send that letter to the editor. Having a sense of humor is important, even when you have an eating disorder, like me.

drstaceyny said...

Like many of you, and like I said in my letter, I appreciate Ozol's exaggerated humor, but there's something I can't seem to stomach about eating disorder's comedy. It's interesting b/c a couple of colleagues feel the same way--I don't think it's b/c we lack a sense of humor--maybe it's b/c we see people in serious medical crisis and can't hold that in the same mental space as something funny. Just a thought. While the average reader (esp the average New Yorker reader) likely picked up on the satirical nature of the article, I felt there were certain facts that were important to point out to lay people. I'm not sure how many ppl know that chewing and spitting is an e.d., that as e.d. patients decrease their behaviors, we often see an increase in substance abuse and that obesity is not an affliction of the rich and overfed, so I felt these truths were important to point out. Yes, the article is funny, and I claim to have a sense of humor, but I'm worried that some people might read the article and get an idea or two, and that's not funny at all. Moreover, I'm not sure a magazine would satirize another mental disorder (could there be a similar article on schizophrenia or autism?) A colleague of mine pointed out that Maxim mag ran a similar article on suicide. Again, to me, not funny.

azusmom said...

Very good point! I don't think any of us here think you lack a sense of humor (I certainly don't!), and you DO have a very different perspective on all of this, even from those of us who have or have had an ED.
And you're right; as the mother of two Autistic kids, I probably wouldn't find a similar piece on Autism very funny. Even though, as a family, we often use humor as a way to just get through the day.
(I still like the image of taking an iguana out for a walk, though, lol!)

allularpunk said...

i just read through several pages of your blog, and i want to say 'thank you' for it. i am currently recovering (all on my own) from an eating disorder that plagued me for about 6 years. it's hard. and every day is a struggle. i just wanted you to know that reading what you have written on the topic of eating disorders and our society's skewed view on what a woman should look like have hit a chord with me. it's nice to know i'm not alone in trying to be a healthy woman. it seems like no one just wants to be 'healthy' these days. so...thanks for the refreshing viewpoint.

LG said...

I'm not so keen on people making jokes or making light of eating disorders. I know it's supposed to be funny, but life is so hard for people going through them that it seems in poor taste.

Leigh said...

My gut reaction was, "hey, it's satire," just a joke, but when you pointed out how we would never tolerate a piece making light of a mental disorder, I realized the inherent double-standard. And while I reluctantly invoke the other F word (feminism), it does seem to be yet another instance of reducing women to a set of cliched stereotypes.

HottyTotty said...

Wouldn't taking psychotropic drugs make you GAIN weight?

I have mental issues but if I ever DO find the time and money for therapy I'm staying the HELL away from anti-depressants!!

Guess I'll just shove those emotions down further if it's possible..

HottyTotty said...

Another thing, having various sexual partners the way Oozl describes would probably lead to some form of S.T.D. which would most likely result in weight loss if it was serious enough so I guess she was right about that!!


Minh said...

Thanks for your article. I would also like to suggest another website with lots more information about eating disorders as well as addictions.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I've struggled with anorexia and bulimia for four years now and I still giggled at the article.
It's easy to critisise but I think you are being too easily offended.

danni said...

I don't see humor as the most valuable thing about this article - while it is certainly funny, that is a means to an end. By using a rather black humor, yes, the author is spotlighting some obviously disordered behaviors.

This is a valuable format to do as such, since I think there are a lot of people who could read/hear about these topics in a more serious manner and take them less seriously for it. Sometimes the positive messages stop hitting home, so to speak, after they've been presented a certain way so many times. You hear it, and you know it's true, but you've heard it before and it's becoming just words.

So as opposed to saying "Don't adopt these ultimately self-destructive habits, girls, they'll damage you and make you unhappy in the long run," the author chose to highlight the inherent absurdity of such, which naturally causes readers to take a slightly fresher look at themselves and their behaviors (as opposed to tuning out something they're tired of hearing)

There's a reason to write humorously about serious topics that have little or no inherent humor - for some people a fresh, slightly jarring approach is needed to cut through the negativity and excuses that can bog them down.

(Not to say anything against more serious messages, everything has it's place and is valuable in different ways at different times to different people.)