Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Eating Disordered Lifestyle: Imagetexts and the Performance of Similitude

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Eating Disordered Lifestyle: Imagetexts and the Performance of Similitude

Article excerpt

Lauren is 16. Her "thinspirations" are Audrey Hepburn, Fiona Apple, and Jennifer Aniston, and her goal is to make other people jealous of her thin body. Molly's goal weight is 84 pounds; she is losing those last, "stubborn" 16 pounds by eating no more than 500 calories per day. Rachel has been hospitalized twice for her anorexia and at 15 has given up hope for recovery. Luckie_gurl dropped 15 pounds in the first eight days of her fast, but she still failed to reach her goal weight by Christmas. Each of these young women posted this harrowing autobiographical information on one of the over 400 "pro-eating disorder" websites that have, over the past 5 or 6 years, found a home on the internet (Carroll, 2004). Their comments are accompanied by pictures of startlingly skeletal young women, sketches of hamburgers and pies with thick, black lines drawn through their juicy centers, and a variety of other images designed to encourage readers to achieve perfection through starvation.

Pro-eating disorder (hereafter: "lifestyle") discourse furthers the belief that people can choose to live with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia nervosa. Counter to popular and medical opinion, lifestyle adherents hold that those with eating disorders are not ill and, therefore, they need not be cured. The motto of the lifestyle movement is: Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease. Most discourse in support of the eating disordered lifestyle is featured on websites arguing for and promoting this decidedly controversial position. Many of these sites currently are banned from various internet servers due to the debate surrounding their content. Such divisive communication creates an ideal arena for exploring the relationship between visual images and argumentation. Due to the lifestyle websites' emphasis on body size, visual images on these sites function argumentatively in ways that verbal text alone cannot. Lifestyle websites use a combination of images and text that work together as "imagetexts" to uphold the idea that anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia nervosa are lifestyle choices (Mitchell, 1994). In this essay, I explore how lifestyle imagetexts make the unreasonable appear reasonable by tapping into contradictions in mainstream discourse about eating disorders. Lifestyle imagetexts demonstrate that, although the mainstream position is that eating disorders are diseases to be cured, much mainstream discourse implies the opposite, that eating disorders are not diseases but reasonable choices. By mimicking culturally accepted symbols and self-consciously drawing attention to this mimicry, eating disorder lifestyle advocates establish their claim's supposed reasonability. In this way, lifestyle imagetexts may be understood as performances of the contradictions in mainstream rhetoric, and therefore mainstream rhetoric's similitude to lifestyle rhetoric, rather than rational arguments about those contradictions. I begin the essay by describing the context in which these imagetexts operate and reviewing scholarship on the visual and its relationship to argumentation. Then I describe and examine imagetexts from two lifestyle websites and suggest three sources of appeal from which they build their arguments: mainstream consumer culture, popular health campaigns, and the mythical narrative of Christian theology. I conclude by noting that imagetexts are especially well suited for depicting similarities and differences between argumentative claims.

EATING DISORDERS AND CONTROVERSY

Today, the three most common eating disorders are categorized by voluntary starvation (anorexia nervosa), binging and purging (bulimia nervosa), and binging without purging (compulsive over-eating disorder). The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) (2005a) reports that 7 million women and a million men currently suffer from one of these disorders. All three conditions involve a preoccupation with food, an inability to cope with stress, and a consistent disregard for bodily needs (Woolsey, 2002, pp. …

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