Creative Destruction

April 7, 2006

Anorexia Nervosa, Obesity, Moral Panic and Christina Hoff Sommers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ampersand @ 4:00 am

Jill and Piny both have good posts at Feministe regarding Anorexia Nervosa. My favorite quote is from Jill’s post:

And as for denial, on a most basic level, fuck that. Sorry, but why are the values of self-sacrifice only brought up when we’re talking about women’s bodies? We’re supposed to deny ourselves food in order to stay thin so that someone else (always male) will enjoy looking at us; we’re supposed to deny ourselves sex so that the virginity fetishists can have an all-access pass once we’re married; and even then we’re supposed to sacrifice all of our own wants and needs for our children and our husband, and still deny sex if we don’t want any more babies. I call bullshit. I’ve had enough of the cult of female martyrdom, and I feel no need to let other people tell me that I should feel guilty for enjoying pleasures like food and sex. I own a vibrator, I use birth control, and I make myself steak au poivre and drink good red wine every Friday night. These things bring me far more pleasure than skinny thighs or blood on my wedding-night bedsheets. And if that makes me an over-indulgent pig, then so be it.

Sing it, sister!

But the main reason I’m posting is because of this quote, from a post on the blog “Cosmic Tap”:

My personal offhand estimate had been that we might lose about 100 Americans annually to anorexia. My research this morning showed that I was not far off – a 2001 study by the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology of every American death for the most recently available five year period showed only 724 people with anorexia as a causal factor – 145 per year. Christina Hoff-Sommers, in her research for the book Who Stole Feminism, came up with a number below half that. In a presentation to the International Congress of Psychology, one expert (Dr. Paul Hewitt) estimated a death rate for anorexia of 6.6 per 100,000 deaths. Even if you assume that sufferers outnumber deaths by a few orders of magnitude, it would still seem that all objective evidence shows the health impact on Americans from anorexia is statistically nil. Now, I know that doesn’t make for very good shock journalism, but it doesn’t change the uncomfortable fact that it’s true.

Hoff-Sommers claimed that between 50 and a hundred Americans a year die from anorexia – but her claim was based on an appalling misunderstanding of mortality statistics. She’s right that only a tiny number of Americans have “anorexia” credited as their cause of death, but that’s not the relevant question.

According to the NIMH, anorexics typically die due to “complications of the disorder, such as cardiac arrest or electrolyte imbalance,” not anorexia itself. Hoff-Sommers might as well have claimed that because so few people have “cigarettes” written on their death certificate, smoking hardly ever causes any deaths.

So what’s the real number? There are about 19 million American women between ages 15 and 24; of those, somewhere between 190,000 and 380,000 have anorexia (it’s estimated that 1-2% of young women suffer from anorexia). About 0.56% – somewhere between one and two thousand – of those die of anorexia-related causes each year. (This is a conservative estimate, both because some studies have found a much higher long-term mortality rate, and because not everyone with anorexia is a young woman age 15-24).

Hoff-Sommers used the mistaken “100 deaths” statistic to refute an also-mistaken number some feminists used in the early 1990s. She was right to correct the feminists – but, unlike Hoff-Sommers, the feminists were willing to retract their mistaken statistic. Hoff-Sommers has never corrected or retracted her false “100 deaths from anorexia” figure.

* * *

Anthony at The Cosmic Tap complains that concern for anorexia is a “moral panic” – but it’s clear that he’s uncritically bought into a far more pervasive and popular moral panic, fat-hating. He complains that two-thirds of Americans are “overweight” and jumps from this to all the usual cliches about Americans stuffing their faces and so forth. But there’s no evidence that fat people eat significantly more than thin people.

Anthony also doesn’t mention that the “two-thirds” statistic defines anyone with a BMI (body mass index) over 25 as “overweight.” But by that standard, merely being muscular can make someone “overweight” (Brad Pitt is a famous example – what a porker!).

More substantively, as a JAMA study published last year showed, “overweight” Americans with BMIs of 25-30 actually live longer than Americans who aren’t overweight. The panic over weight has very little to do with health. It is instead a true moral panic – a reflection of the fear that Americans are over-indulgent and pleasure-driven. As Elkins wrote, “Eating is the new sex. Anti-fat hysteria is the new Puritanism.”



  1. I use politics as my new sex, thank you very much.

    It’s a lot less satisfying, but you don’t have to worry about what they will think of you in the morning.

    Comment by offcolfax — April 7, 2006 @ 4:10 am | Reply

  2. While what you say may be technically true, I should point out that the .56% figure is a bit misleading. The NIH link you included in your post states:

    “The mortality rate among people with anorexia has been estimated at 0.56 percent per year, or approximately 5.6 percent per decade, which is about 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15-24 in the general population. The most common causes of death are complications of the disorder, such as cardiac arrest or electrolyte imbalance, and suicide.”

    So .56% of all females 15-24 with anorexia die every year. This is a correlational statistic – not a causal one. There are, after all, girls and women in that group who die in car accidents, are murdered, die of unrelated illnesses, etc., and they are included in the .56%. Additionally, counting suicide as a cause of death among anorexic females is particularly problematic, as an anorexic girl/woman who commits suicide is likely to have suffered from a litany of psychological problems which are unrelated to her earing disorder (although they may be *related*, the anorexia wasn’t necessarily the *cause* of death).

    Statistics can be a real pain in the ass, eh? 🙂

    Also, if I’m correct, the figure feminists used in the early 90s (and, from what I understand, some still do use) was over a million. Hoff-Sommers didn’t retract her 100 figure, but it’s at least *possible* that this figure is somewhere near correct (depending on how one defines causality, of course). The figure she corrected was so high as to be obscenely misleading, and I have yet to hear anyone who has ever employed it correct themselves (perhaps you can enlighten me here – I’m probably just not aware of such an incidence).

    Comment by Sean — June 18, 2007 @ 2:15 am | Reply

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