I believe that adults have the right to decide freely whether they want to live or die, and to have that decision respected. The critical – and difficult – part is that word “freely”. Imagine that you have a friend in an abusive relationship. She is so miserable that she openly says she will let her abuser kill her; she has no intention or will to leave him. In that case, the decision to die may be perfectly rational, but it isn’t taken “freely” at all. Another person has destroyed your friend’s ability to value her survival, and rather than leave her to the death she says she accepts, you will maybe feel that she should be forcibly removed from the influence of her abuser before she can be seen as competent to make life-or-death decisions.
How can self-destruction be explained? What rationalisation can we put on something as brutal and seemingly-voluntary as starving yourself? Bishop Martin Shaw attempts to constrain the extreme asceticism of radical and mystic Simone Weil within religious terms:
Some would say that Simone had an obsessive/compulsive personality that led to the eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. Whether neurotic or anorexic, such labels come nowhere near a true understanding of this refined soul who dared to face the darkest of human circumstances and there find the Light of Christ.
It’s not an eating disorder if you do it for God, apparently. Shaw’s distinction feels unfair, as though he has to wrangle Weil free from the anorexics, with their reputed vanity and girlish lack of substance. But saying that Weil couldn’t have been an anorexic because she was too serious simply feeds the romance of anorexia and the valourising of self-harm.
In fact, the language used by Shaw’s interviewee to explain Weil’s transcendent not-eating was easily reconcilable with the self-justification of anorexics: Sara Maitland (not included in the transcript) described Weil as being concerned with bodily purity. Well, quite. Out of all the complicated physiological and social causes of anorexia, I’d argue that this sort of celebration of the frail heroine is probably more dangerous than any number of size zeroes on the catwalk. Even a mystic can be sick, but for supposed-critics to echo that sickness and turn a horror of consumption and flesh into a devout experience – that’s just stupid.
Related: Paperhouse reads: Wetlands
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009