Terminal Uniqueness: The Reason I Disagree With Aimee Liu.

I think she's got a case of the terminally unique.

OK.  There is a phrase called “terminally unique” that is used in various recovery forums.  Broken down, this can refer to thoughts individuals have such as:

“No one has ever felt this way before.  I’m so alone in this feeling.  No one’s as isolated, or weird, or as quirky as me.”

In other words, think of the hipsters you see on Comm Ave in Allston.

All joking aside, I’m sure we can all connect to this feeling on some level or another.  (All of you – especially you theater kids – cannot escape this one.)  At some point in our lives, we’ve all been in a crap mood, sitting on the sidelines and thinking there is just. no. one. as. lonely/special yet single/depressed. as. I. am.  For the average individual, this feeling is awful, yet bearable.  For the person who struggles with any kind of addiction, this kind of thinking can be fatal.  I’m not being dramatic.  It really is.  For this kind of reasoning leads to depression, which leads to isolation, which leads to addictive behaviors.  (Because addictive behaviors are CLEARLY one’s best friend when no one is around!)

I will very readily admit I have a case of the terminally unique, and I think this kind of existence can be very prevalent in girls and women with eating disorders.  Why?  Think about a starved woman.  She stands out from others.  It’s a visual way of communicating to the world that something is off-balance, but also a way of communicating that she can perform an inhuman feat that no one else can: extreme self-discipline.  Therefore, terminally unique. 

This concept is the reason I cherished my “glamorous” city existence for so long, ripe with pomegranate martinis, Carrie Bradshaw-inspired outfits, and knowledge of all the trendy restaurants.  I wanted to be one of Boston’s young and beautiful.  And to be that, I had to be thin.  When I was really sick in 2005, I remember hanging out solo in Fenway at Boston Beer Works.  Some guy had temporarily attached himself to my arm because of our terminally unique shared fondness for blueberry beer.  He pinched his forefinger and thumb around my tiny arm, smiled, and sputtered incredulously,

“You’re so….tiny!  Oh my God, I love it.”

Therefore driving the ball out of the park in the means of cementing my belief that you had be super skinny to get a guy, or to do anything in life for that matter.  But I digress.

Now that I’ve got that shpiel out of the way, let me segue into current varying schools of thought in the eating disorder research and educational world.  When eating disorders were first getting talked about and treated, doctors and therapists thought that it was mainly a social disease.  In other words, they thought eating disorders were different from disorders like autism and schizophrenia, which have a genetic component.  Well, just recently, scientists have started to figure out that there is a genetic component to eating disorders (i.e., the hypothalamus is shaped differently in the brains of eating disordered clients, all anorexics and bulimics contain susceptibility genes, etc).  As I blogged in an earlier post, Aimee Liu recently wrote an informed book, Gaining, about the genetic component to eating disorders.

Let me start by saying that I agree with Aimee: there is most certainly a genetic component to this disease.  Also, her book provided me with various studies that delineated the different subdivisions of anorexic and bulimic personality traits (which are different).  However, I reject her rejection of Caroline Knapp and others who continue to fight the battle against the social forces which are clearly a factor in the development of an eating disorder. 

I stand by my old biopsychosocial model – any mental illness or disorder is caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.  Not one alone.

In Appetites, Caroline Knapp contends that most white, affluent, over-educated women struggle with a sense of self-deprivation that is similar to what anorexics experience.  In Gaining, Aimee disputes this, asking the question, “And do all white, affluent, educated women in fact feel compelled to deprive themselves?” 

Maybe not all, but I’d wager that about 95% of the women reading this blog have struggled with their literal and metaphorical appetites at one point or another.

In her blog, Life After Recovery (http://www.eatingdisordersblogs.com/life_after_recovery/), Aimee critiques Michelle’s Lelwica’s book The Religion of Thinness.  She writes:

“I’m afraid that Lelwica and I are looking at the same picture from two very different perspectives. She’s standing at a distance and painting the landscape with a broad brush, while I’m looking close enough to see the actual faces and lives of individuals.  She’s including every woman who looks at fashion magazines or thinks twice about having a hot fudge sundae.  I’m interested in the factors that distinguish those who easily maintain a healthy weight from those who are psychologically enslaved by their obsessions.”

This is what I fear: that Aimee’s dismissal of social and psychological commentary further propagates the terminal uniqueness that only makes eating disordered women more enslaved by their illness.

Why?  To say all eating disordered women possess these similar genetic traits may isolate the one girl out there who doesn’t quite fit into the bulimic or anorexic genetic jackpot.  She may think, “See?  I don’t fit into the anorexic stereotype.  Therefore, I must be too fat or not sick enough.”  (Thereby establishing her terminal uniqueness, even from other eating disordered women.  As she throws up her breakfast.)

Don’t get me wrong.  Aimee has made a huge contribution to the field, and I cannot thank her enough.  However, I am wary of her tendency to discount women writers who recognize the dangerousness of the media.  It is out there, and it is a dangerous force.  I worry that she is isolating the field and not uniting it.  I worry that she is isolating women, instead of joining them in a battle against an unhealthy society.

PS, I consumed an entire Ghiradelli chocolate bar in the writing of this entry, clad in sweats and glasses.  Am I cured from my own terminal uniqueness?  Nah, not cured, but definitely on my way.

(Image provided by me.)

4 thoughts on “Terminal Uniqueness: The Reason I Disagree With Aimee Liu.

  1. Good post, Amanda. I think eating disorders are absolutely a combination of many, many factors including genetic predisposition and societal/media influence. It’s a big bad cocktail basically. I have thought a lot about the difference between women who seem to be able to casually berate themselves over their size and eating habits while still maintaining a more “normal” perspective on the importance of food and weight- not to say that this is healthy, but it is very different than others for whom one image or article in a magazine can be incredibly triggering and lead to months back down a hole of effed-up eating and exercising and true self-hatred. In that respect I guess I can see being seduced by Liu’s thinking- it would be so simple to say that those women who can sort of move in and out and among the world of diets and triggering imagery without going over the deep end, were simply not predisposed genetically for a full blown eating disorder, but I don’t think it is that simple. Too bad, then maybe they could make a drug that would block those tendencies in the brain and we could all waste our time thinking about what Brad and Angelina were up to this week instead…

  2. “big bad cocktail”…I like that.

    and I would give anything for a pill to take away my shit somedays, and some days I am grateful for it.

    …but I am grateful all the time for reconnecting in this way with you… 🙂

  3. Interesting post! I may have been genetically predisposed to develop the hellish whirlwind of behaviors my ED has consisted of, but I cannot discount the many, & varied, life-altering societal triggers, that stand as mile high billboards emblazoned throughout the length of it’s path of destruction.

    1. Same here Michelle. Speaking of billboards, one of the most recent I saw was in LA (I live in a very culturally different Boston) and it read “1-800-GET-THIN”. I remember it was about half a mile once you got out of the airport. I also remember being grateful to live in a town that seems less image-obsessed.

      Either way, I hope you are not experiencing any of that hell you described now. Best wishes.

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