Some years ago, the Sunday Times magazine published a memorable portfolio of photographs, nude studies of a young woman who had starved herself into an advanced state of emaciation. Shot in moody black and white, they were not so much portraits of an animated, living being as arty compositions of bone and skin: a nature morte, or near-morte, of body parts which just happened still to comprise a person. The accompanying text explained that the woman pictured wanted to illustrate the hellish consequences of anorexia in order to warn other girls away from experimenting with starvation. Yet there was an unspoken subtext to the words and the pictures which contributed to their haunting power: the unacknowledged narcissism of the subject. Anoretics - the correct medical term for the anorexia-sufferer, on which Hornbacher insists - are typically high achievers and perfectionists; they tend to be proud of their ability to get thinner than anyone else. So even though this girl looked like a Belsen victim, sick and consummately unenviable, it was hard not to think that at least part of the reason she had had the pictures taken was that she was proud of how she looked. She wanted to show off her shocking thinness, to parade her achievement, in the guise of cautioning others from attempting it.
LRB 21 May 1998 | PDF Download