Tales from a sick world;Books

27th February 1998 at 00:00
WASTED. Marya Hornbacher. Flamingo pound;12.99.

Do you know any woman who does not worry about her body size? Girls such as Marya Hornbacher - both anorexic and bulimic - enact all our worries. Life, death and the whole shebang narrows down to a burning-point obsession with how many calories there are in one apple or, conversely, an all-engulfing devouring of the contents of a kitchen, followed by remorseless vomiting until the waste pipes burst.

Compulsive reading, which ought to be compulsory for anyone having to deal with the countless adolescent girls who follow similar paths, Wasted is more than a gruesome case-study but less than a beautiful narrative of redemption. For that, one ought to turn to Sheena Macleod's The Art of Starvation, which chronicles the author's own teenage despair and slow recovery. Hornbacher is more frenzied, more repetitive and less appealing. She is, as people with eating disorders are classically described, almost totally self-obsessed and unable to empathise with others.

She largely dismisses cultural influences in her account, instead reiterating her suicidal desires, her reproaches to her parents as invasive and cold and her feats of promiscuity, drug abuse and binge-eating. More than analysis or revelation, this is bragging on a large scale.

Yet Marya (get that pronunciation right: it's Mar-ya, she yells frequently at hospital staff) is infinitely pitiable. For all her bravado, she is so young - eight when the eating disorder begins, 23 when the book ends. For all her duplicity - she cheats on everyone and steadfastly claims a happy childhood while rubbishing her parents at every turn - she does not deserve the damage she has inflicted on her heart, her kidneys, her bones. For all her cleverness - an A student, she constantly moves college as her ribs stick out or the pipes once more burst - she cannot control the headlong rush of emotions of unworthiness and unloveliness. She remembers weekends spent surrounded by clever and talented friends and relations, eating carrot sticks with mustard, lunch hours spent licking one no-fat (not low-fat) frozen yogurt slowly off a spoon, or two-hour breakfasts slowly shredding one no-fat bagel.

As one of Maurice Sendak's heroines remarks, there must be more to life! More than coming home lonely from school and eating everything in the house -frozen pizzas, boxes of crackers and cereal, tins of soup, pounds of butter, eggs, ice-cream, noodles - bar one jar of lime marmalade. Then scarfing it up.

Bulimics lead boring lives. Is fitting into a bathing suit compensation for hours spent fingers down the throat until the oesophagus bursts, front teeth stained with acid, an unstable electrolyte balance and a shorter life span? We all know the answer. In our culture, fitting into a bathing suit is worth anything. Which is why, until hell freezes over and the makers of diet foods cease to be the same people who make tempting high-calorie snacks, books like Fat and Proud by Charlotte Cooper (Women's Press pound;8.99) are busting a gut in vain. Can the Fat Rights movement take on an industry which has brought us both no-fat mini-muffins and supermodels? Think of Marya Hornbacher: head down the bog throwing up Hershey's Kisses while downstairs her teenage friends eat takeaway pizza and mothers hover anxiously wondering if their darlings are having a good time.

Is there more to life?

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