Tonight I am writing about someone else who is writing about someone else who is writing about herself. So forgive me for going a bit meta. It probably makes more sense once you know that the second someone else – the one who’s being written about and who’s also writing about herself – is Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones. Right now, with the publication of Jones’s Girl Least Likely To memoir, everyone wants to write about Liz Jones, although it’s usually to say that the one person who shouldn’t be allowed to write about Liz Jones is Liz Jones herself (still, the fact that Jones is still writing about Jones gives the rest of us something to write about).
I, however, am going to write about Suzanne Moore, or rather Moore’s review of Girl Least Likely To. While I can’t work out whether Moore hates or loves to hate the book, it’s clear to me that Moore doesn’t like Jones. That seems fair enough. I don’t think I’m fond of her, either. Nevertheless, Moore’s attitude towards Jones’s anorexia shocks me far more than Jones’s own brand of deliberate, desperate provocation.
I recognise Moore’s attitude but I suppose I’d always hoped it died out in the 1990s, along with all the punitive, damaging treatments to which anorexics were subjected. I don’t expect to experience these treatments ever again. All the same, I could do without rediscovering the beliefs that underpin them.
Alongside some waffle on anorexics being “in a fight against or a flight from womanhood” Moore’s piece includes the following choice observation:
She learned to lie very young, at 11. Anorexics do. They control their hunger and the world by lying about it. The habit, she says, became a lifetime one. At heart you see she is an operator, a manipulator, a liar.
I am sick – truly sick – of hearing that anorexics are devious, dishonest, controlling, blah blah blah. Enough. This isn’t tough love or some daringly honest appraisal of the moral realities of the disorder. It’s just picking on someone for being ill. It has to stop.
I’m conscious that Moore doesn’t actually write that every anorexic is “an operator, a manipulator, a liar”. There’s the switch from “they” to “she” but I think it comes too late. The association is already established, although it was there long before Moore made it. It’s one that’s led to some appalling misunderstandings of the disorder and some frankly abusive treatments.
Anorexics tell lies. Of course they do. They tell lies in order to avoid eating because they’re terrified of it. And they’re not always simple lies, either. It’s not all “ooh, I’m full, I already had lunch”. They’re much more complicated lies due the fact that if you’re battling with extreme hunger all day, every day, you have to make sure every single second is accounted for, otherwise you might end up eating. It’s torturous but it’s anything but control, anything but planned, and hardly a sign that you’re more likely to lie about, say, whether you love your mum or whether you ran over next door’s cat. There are limits. It’s not some overarching moral descent. You don’t lose scruples alongside every pound.
What’s more – something which outside observers often miss – is that having an eating disorder doesn’t make you lose all social awareness. You know certain activities – causing a scene in a restaurant because there’s oil on your salad, spending three hours dragging your family round Sainsbury’s reading the nutritional information on packets of food you’ll never buy, refusing to eat canapés specially prepared for you while at a newspaper event with Suzanne Moore – are inappropriate. You’re not doing it to piss off other people. You’re not trying to control them with your “funny habits”. You’re as mortified by it as they are (only unlike other people, who can later use your weirdness in the intro to a review of your work, you have to pretend what you’re doing makes some rational sense).
I’m not suggesting there cannot be some deeper message or motivation that lies behind anorexic behaviour. Nevertheless, to mistake the outward manifestations for the inward “message”— as Moore does here, and as Rachel Cusk did in the New Statesman last year — is deeply unhelpful, both to anorexics and to those who are attempting to maintain positive relationships with them.
Reading the columns of Liz Jones will not provide any insight into the presumed moral deficiencies of the average anorexia sufferer. Tarring all anorexics with the Liz Jones brush is ridiculous, but so too is deciding it’s acceptable to condemn Jones’s own disorder on the basis that she’s a bit of a cow. This undermines the credibility of any serious attack on her work, which I agree is strange, damaging and supports a horrendous Daily Mail view of womanhood. I think Suzanne Moore is a much better writer than this. At times I’ve also thought the same of Liz Jones. A world that’s less hostile to those with eating disorders would benefit us all.