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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Anorexia and Bulimia: Marya Hornbacher's "Wasted"

Podcasts / audio file

Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher, is a memoir written by a young woman who chronicles her teenage years, her hidden life and self-destructive tendencies, which are masked by perfectionism and an edgy relationship with her mother. Marya Hornbacher, alternatively anorexic and bulimic, described how she was hospitalized several times, her weight sinking to a low of less than 80 pounds. Theoretically a part of the dominant culture's privileged class, Hornbacher is an enigma to those who judge people by the stereotype. Far from feeling privilege or self-confidence, Hornbacher exhibits the sort of self-loathing that one comes to expect from individuals who perceive themselves as society's pariahs.

Hornbacher's eating disorder causes her to lead a double life. The binging, purging, and recovery cycles are hidden or masked, as are the obsessive exercise and ritualistic activities. ( She becomes an outsider to herself. The more she tries to achieve balance between the perfectionist and the chronic "shlemiel," the more frantic and self-destructive she becomes. She is angry with herself, and with her parents. The etiology of Marya's ailment remains a mystery, even to herself, despite years and years of struggle and therapy. The early chapters explore some of the factors that cause Marya to try anorexia, "my Big Idea, my bid for independence, identity, freedom, savior, etc."

Marya is the primary player in this selection, and the narrative takes place at home - her parents' home - while she is a teenager. The action takes place against a backdrop of middle-class prosperity, affluence, access, opportunities. The American Dream hovers over the stage. Yet, in this theater of the perfect family, something has gone terribly wrong to create such masochistic habits. The conditions are perfect for the development of an eating disorder. Perhaps in a different setting, Marya's rage would have manifested itself as an addiction to heroin, paint sniffing, or criminal behavior. It is hard to say.

As an anorexic/bulimic teenager, Marya's mindset is that of a person who perpetually defines herself as a part of the outgroup, who refuses to join the mainstream. Further, a part of her refuses to thrive.

As she struggles with her need for control and her mounting sense of self-loathing, she finds solace in writing. Her writing is an act of rebellion against the rigid rules she has set for herself. Writing allows her to escape her self-created bonds and what seems to be an incorrigible masochism.

The first part of Wasted provides a glimpse inside the mind of a person who has recovered from a strange, inexplicable, and painfully slow way to die. Instead of slow suicide, one begins to see that Marya's eating disorders are a kind of soi-disant physical therapy. She is attempting to rehabilitate herself, and trying to come back from the wounds cause by anxiety.

The primary life lesson from this selection is to see how each person runs the risk of becoming an outsider to herself or himself. After self-isolating, the individual will think, act, and plan in ways that out-group her even to herself. There is no real community or ethnicity here - if anything, meeting people with the same issues would be anathema - after all, they could reveal or expose too much. Perhaps a narcissistic culture is to blame here - after all, isn't the core problem the rage against limits?

Perhaps narcissism is not the correct term. Perhaps it is simply individualism taken to extremes. The American Dream is not only the possession of creature comforts.

The American Dream also involves the attainment of lofty goals -- to be special and "different" and thus achieve success. What happens when a young woman realizes that her dreams are not truly attainable, even though she has been programmed to believe that they are? Do we see a ghastly inversion of a "dream deferred" and a "raisin in the sun"? What would Hornbacher be if not a "raisin in the sun"? In this case, the "wasted" fruit might be an "apple on the grass." Think of the images.

No one believes in Eden, but they certainly do believe in sin. Dreams deferred? Dreams despoiled. Think of vastly diverse images. Envision diversity. It might work as a strategy against a rigid, narrow, over-determined sense of what is "right" or "wrong" with body image.

Marya Hornbacher.

Guiding Questions

1. Explain how Marya could be classified as a member of an outgroup. Which outgroup did she belong to?

2. Explain why the author thought that her eating disorder could not get out of control.

3. Did the author experience discrimination or stereotyping as a result of her problem? Explain.

4. What kind of stereotypes are associated with the author's disorder, and what are the effects of that stereotyping on her?

5. Explain how the author's home environment contributed to her addiction.

6. Eating disorders are more common among white, adolescent females from middle or upper-middle class families. In addition, most females who develop eating disorders are also over achievers. Explain why you think that this group is most at risk for this type of addiction.

7. How is an eating disorder often seen as a solution to a lack of autonomy?

8. Eating disorders can also be seen as a way of revenge. Please explain.

9. Why do you think that males are less susceptible to eating disorders?

10. Explain how labels and stereotypes became self fulfilling prophecies in the author's life.

11. Did Marya really have control? Explain.

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