Introductory Essay: Fighting Words



The following quotation is one of the first public statements of the so-called ‘anorexic’, Ellen West, who was later to suicide. Or was she executed? But first let us listen carefully to her words, the only words she had to express the horror of her life. This web-site is written in her memory with the hope of providing some form of redress and reparation.

I don’t understand myself at all. It is terrible not to understand yourself. I confront myself as a strange person. I am afraid of myself; I am afraid of the feelings to which I am defenselessly delivered over to every minute. This is the horrible part of my life; it is filled with dread. Existence is only torture…Life has become a prison camp….I long to be violated….and indeed I do violence to myself every hour”. (Binswanger, 1958)

If she could have spoken ‘anti-anorexically’ *, she may very well have proclaimed her conscientious objection to Anorexia rather than such a confession of her offenses.

Anorexia, why are you trying to confound and confuse me so that the contradictions I experience growing up as a woman in these times are obscured? Why did you appear just when I started to make myself up? How did you turn what I began to critique into my own estrangement? Why would you want to turn me against my very desires, wishes, opinions and appetites? And if I were, with a community of like-minded women, to reflect upon such matters as how and why you conscript us into prison camps, where we are defenseless against your tortures and violations, might we turn against you rather than our own bodies, minds and spirits?”

Anti-anorexia allows us, if we listen carefully, to not only hear what anorexia has to say but how it says it. However it does not tell us exactly what we are hearing. That is for all of us to find out. There are some questions that might guide our enquiries. For example, what sense can we make of the fact that anorexia speaks so convincingly to so many young women (and some men) in so many places around the world? And why some places and not others? Anorexia’s ubiquity is ironic when you learn that it provides so many with reassurances, fondly whispered, such as ‘You are the only one’ ‘You are so special to me!’. Claiming that anorexia is so widespread in no way denies it capacity to find almost any young woman’s Achilles hell.

How does anorexia enter a young woman’s life, impersonate her for a period of time before becoming her ventriloquist? What is so frightening is that the words coming out of their mouths in any number of mother tongues is so much the same. For such reasons, shouldn’t we we then concern ourselves about what is this ‘power’ that is pulling so many strings on so many lives? And furthermore, how does such ‘power’ spin so many deadly webs than entangle so many young lives, bleeding them of hope so that nothing but their annihilation is imaginable? How does Anorexia conceal itself so that it can proceed without much resistance to speak of or without almost any public outcry? We know all too well that executioners keep their faces well hidden. But anorexia’s ‘power’ is far more treacherous, so insidious in fact that it has young women torture and violate themselves while it remains in the shadows of their lives surveilling them. Anorexia not only claims its innocence but goes further than this. It now promises these young women the means to escape the very web in which it has ensnared them. They are told that a strict adherence to anorexia’s regime of rules and regulations will ‘set you free’ “You are not to put a foot out of (my) line!” “If you do what I say, you will be richly rewarded by your heart’s desires” “If you fail, you will deserve what you get and get what you deserve!” They are soon to learn that they can never satisfy Anorexia and they are now on a ‘diet to death’. Each and every attempt to reach the anorexic standard and their inevitable failure to do so unwittingly tangles them further into the web. And the web now starts closing in on them, slowly but surely squeezing the life out of them.

Anorexic torture is applied with exquisite psychological sophistication and a cruel professionalism. Nowhere does it apply brute force, dismemberments or public spectacles so typical of tyrannical powers. Rather anorexia acts not by deed, but by incitement, invisible to be sure but audible. It has a voice that speaks with such guile, authority and finally inspiring such fear that young women are gagged and silenced. To its very ‘voice’ we turn to find it out and it reveals a great deal.

The ‘torturer’s ‘voice’ is beguiling by speaking both as the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad’ guy’. Such tactics are well known where the intention is to break the ‘will and the body. The ‘good guy’ is so obsequious and flattering, promising glittering prizes, perfect happiness and superiority. Such promises will be delivered when these young women relinquish themselves – mind, body and spirit – and become obedient and docile. The ‘bad guy’ doesn’t administer punishments but has these young women inflict them upon themselves. What is withheld, although it cannot be kept forever, is that such a submission entails signing their own death warrant.

For all intents and purposes, it has these young women execute themselves. Their death certificates will show ‘drug overdoes…no suspicious circumstances…no police investigation warranted’, ‘heart failure’ which omits that the deceased was required to do thousands of push-ups daily or frantically run-on-the-spot as if her life depended on it, or a ‘diagnosis of anorexia nervosa’ which has good standing in the DSM-4 as a psychiatric disease with a long history. The ‘good guy’ charms, courts and beguiles whereas the ‘bad guy’ vilifies, insults and intimidates. The ‘good guy’ does not persist for long. Once the young woman is deceived and walks innocently into the snare, this ‘voice’ becomes less frequently heard and far less audible when it does speak.

If we were unaware of this, how could we possibly understand why women ‘run’ themselves into their early graves? How could we fathom how these young women are so uninterested and seemingly deaf to our ‘treatments’ and wise counsel as to their physical deterioration? How else can we grasp what seems like a secret lovers’ pact that excludes from their lives all those who care about and love them? And should we try to intervene, how do we respond when our well-meaning attempts are met with violence, both verbal or physical? And what do we do with our observations that such violence is so out of character as to seem to be a form of madness? How is the ‘voice’ of anorexia so deafening in their ears but we cannot hear it and are bystanders to such infamy?

Another order of inquiry has us consider – if we do speak out, are we so sure we do not speak in Anorexia’s favour? For example, if we call someone ‘an anorexic’, are we unwittingly complicit with Anorexia’s sinister purpose to cast these young women out of the human fold? Why are those terms of self-reproach, otherwise quaint and old-fashioned, so commonplace amongst those taken in by anorexia – ‘I am worthless’, ‘I am unworthy’, etc. If we, in our speaking, disease them, are we collaborating with Anorexia? Must we guard ourselves against arrogance, thinking it is only they who are being taken in by Anorexia? What guarantee do we have of our immunity? Could we be complicit without even realizing it? Could we perfidiously betray them without even any second thoughts?

After all, anorexia is everywhere and nowhere in the Western world and right now is very likely following in the wake of MacDonalds as it blazes its trail through the former communist empire. Do we have to know how anorexia operates before we can even offer an informed opinion? And must we do something soon? After all, “more cases of anorexia and bulimia are reported every year, and between 5% and 10% of females 14 and over, suffer from such disorders, according to the no-profit group, Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention” (McDowell, J. and Park, A., Time, June 29th, 1998 p.52) Has anorexia wormed its way into the very languages (e.g. psychology, psychiatry, etc) we use in our vain attempts to track it down and find it out? Perhaps anorexia speaks these language(s) even more fluently and with more dexterity than most of us. Why? Is it surer about its purposes – to break these young women’s will, to convict them as inadequate or flawed, demand their confessions than we are with our healing intentions? I propose this because so many of the ‘treatments’ for anorexia blame either the victim of it or their families (and in particular, their mother) and proceed by way of ‘examination’ of everyone’s every thought and feeling until one or more of the parties agree to confess. So often, in my experience, anorexia had already instigated these young women to surveil and police their every utterance and gesture against anorexia’s ‘measure’. Their lives, in a manner of speaking, are numbered, counted, compared against ‘norms, specifying what qualifies them as a person gendered female. And what’s more, a ‘good’ person or woman. Anorexic ‘measures’ never stand still but keep shifting until Perfection is the minimally satisfactory criterion for the status of ‘woman/person’.

The ‘cure’ now becomes tragically similar to the so-called ‘disease – to break their will.

The concept of surveillance and the production of docile subjects are central to the treatment process in treatment regimes based on behaviour modification. The point of the exercise is to break the self-starver’s will” (Eckermann, 157)

Zimmerman and Dickerson (1995) suggest that –

Most treatments of anorexia seems to play into anorexia hands. This treatment is based on the notions of individual defects (e.g. the inability to grow up or take charge of one’s life). Such constructions support the notion of an individual or family genesis of the problem. Because of this, many therapist inadvertently recreate the conditions that support anorexia by using the tactics that anorexia itself employs. These tactics include hospitalisation, resulting in the isolation of person, ongoing evaluations (of the person and of weight), the removal of the person’s entitlement to her own experiencing (e.g. by suggesting she no longer knows what is going on). Gremillion (1992) suggests that the traditional psychiatric approach the traditional therapies and many family therapies replicate the conditions of anorexia for women. Individual approaches attempt to teach rational control (privileging an objective, male perspective) over so-called ‘irrational process’ (feeling from a female perspective, such as guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and subjective experience, including bodily sensations. In effect, further self-domination is not only encouraged, it is insisted upon through acts of power used to control the person. These acts of power, Gremillion suggests, are justified by the person’s “underlying weakness”.

This weakness is seen through the objective methodology of science, rather than seen as produced by this methodology and Gremillion and others, including the authors (Zimmerman and Dickerson ?) would suggest. Psychiatry constructs the female body as weak and impulsive, a reflection of both a cultural construction and the construction anorexia uses to encourage women to dominate themselves.

Do we have to first find out Anorexia’s ways and means before we can successfully oppose, resist and finally refuse it? For not only can Anorexia swallow up the resistance to it but even turn such resistance to its own advantage. Some lines of inquiries might lead in these directions – by what machinations does anorexia take young women’s concerns about the injustices and violence in the world they live and have them hold themselves responsible for them? Or take their wishes for a better world and twist that so they are limited to looking into a mirror to seek remedies? Or turn everything good about them into everything bad about them? I think we have very few parallels in which good young people are turned against themselves – where the innocent are made over as Joanna (2) reported anorexia would have her believe about herself. Is anorexia so hard to expose because it has infiltrated our minds and the very words that issue from our mouths? When we share Anorexia’s view that these young women are loathsome ‘bitches’, mindlessly seeking attention, can anorexia then go about its business of selecting out many of the best women of their generation for destruction?

One purpose of this web-site is for anyone to know who and what are your enemies and who and what are your friends, who will treacherously betray you and who will remain faithful and constant. It is this site’s hope that no one will ever again be able to be turned against themselves, their families and communities, and those values and spiritualities they hold dear. Why shouldn’t the means by which anorexia transforms the lives of young women and turns them from making an appearance in their lives to disappearing (White, Michael – 1985), from blossoming and flowering to withering, languishing and finally perishing, and from dieting to dying be public knowledge?

This web-site intends to provide a response to the question that has been at the very heart of its inquiries – ‘why are so many of the ‘concentration camps’ of anorexia invisible to their inmates, despite the slave labouring and death marches, let alone the rest of us who stand by seemingly unaware?’

But just look carefully around on those pleasant sunny afternoons. Wander through city parks and you will see them kitted out in $250 Nike triathelete running shoes and the latest in fashion gym-wear with designer logos emblazoned along the stripe running the length of their track-pants and across bulky sweat shirts. Perhaps you wonder about their leg and arm warmers. But if you dare, look into the eyes of these torture-cizers. To this question – ‘Can you tell the different between a woman exercising and torture-cizing at your gym? -no anti-anorexic veteran has any difficulty whatsoever discerning one from the other. They say – ‘It’s all in their eyes. The pain on their faces!’

Why is it then that conscientious objection, resistance and very real combat are the only ways to escape? Why is anorexia so merciless that begging or pleading only provokes it to inflict more excruciating pain and humiliating mortifications of the body and spirit? This then is a web-site too about ‘fighting words’ daring anti-anorexic deeds and thrilling anti-anorexic possibilities. For many of you visitors, this site may assist you to remember times and places in your life where and when you were not occupied by anorexia. I would hope too that it will not only allow you to speak up and out but know there are so many others who will know, only too well, what you are saying – a ‘virtual’ community who unite with you in your resistance. And the League(s) will revel when you entertain your own freedoms, joys, pleasures and appetites again. Saying this, anti-anorexic vigilance might be the price to secure these freedoms for all times.

The League(s) have come to know anorexia as our sworn antagonist in this life-or-death (or living a life versus living a living death) duels. To our knowledge, anorexia has never surrendered honourably. Like the mythical snake, Hydra, cutting off it’s head leads to many more growing back to replace it. We repeat – we have never known anorexia to relinquish its hold over anyone at their request, diplomacy, or compromise. It has only been through violent hostilities and raging vehemence that anyone has had the ‘power’ required to disentangle themselves from anorexia’s web of deceit.

The only safe houses in a culture so infiltrated by Anorexia are those anti-anorexic sites we compose. Living your own life against anorexia may become one of those very sites from which others can seek inspiration. The archive intends to act as “a public place where records are held” (Oxford Dictionary), where all documents pertaining to histories of conscientious objection, resistance and ‘fighting for your life’ will always be available at a moment’s notice. Why? Anorexia can put almost anyone back into a daze under circumstances of humiliation, degradation and violation. Anyone can lose their way in life and may need to retreat to the ‘virtual community’ of anti-anorexia. Anorexia, will “kick you when you are down” and try again to beguile you with its pseudo-promises of ‘superiority, invulnerability, control and security’.

If you think I am overstating the case against Anorexia, that I am bitter and twisted, then you do me a disservice by judging me so poorly. I have not come to take such a position happily. I did not want to believe what I have learned with the League(s). Some days, I would have preferred to have remained innocent of this anti-anorexic ‘knowledge’. I would certainly sleep more soundly. But having stumbled upon the ‘concentration camp’ of anorexia, it would be morally reprehensible to turn my back on it. And I don’t think I could ever look a League member in the face again if I did. This web-site is the best response I know to so many requests for reading and easy access to its archives, archives that I have been collecting since around 1987. In fact, the Auckland League first mobilised to do so at the New Zealand Family therapy Conference in Auckland, New Zealand as early as 1991.

The Co-Production of Anorexia/.Bulimia versus The Co-Production of Anti-Anorexia/Anti-Bulimia.

This workshop will propose that anorexia/bulimia can be and often is co-produced by those ‘treatments’ that have the avowed purpose of ‘treating’ this so-called ‘disease’. This proposal derives from a reading of the notions of ‘power/knowledge’ of Michael Foucault and the manner in which power can be inscribed on the body of persons and the reworking of those ideas with Feminist scholarship. This has been supported by the testimonies of members of the Anti-Anorexia/Anti-Bulimia League, discussing how they ‘lost weight’ for the ‘treatment’. In contrast, a counter-approach will be outlined that is currently being developed in the context of the League, League members will be discussants. (From the Conference programme)

Also I cannot pretend that I have not witnessed death letting itself into the lives of these young women as it first skeletonises their bodies. Nor can I drive out of my ears what I have heard – their screams of anguish that admit no hope and even more chilling, their silent resignation as they await their death.

By the same token, I have heard tell and been close by and even present on some occasions of valour when despite the risks, anti-anorexic women (and some men) have fought for their very lives in community with anti-anorexic others. They reclaimed their freedom as their very own. I vividly recall so their tales of rediscovering those freedoms we take for granted as citizenry, e.g. smiling, relaxation, care-freeness, the flight of the imagination, the pleasure of another’s company, free speech, the satisfaction of our desires and appetites, etc. How often in the very telling or re-reading of such accounts, League members are reminded of how much and for how long Anorexia has deprived them. So many lost years cannot be relived but only redeemed and redressed. Often in these tellings, joy for what has been regained co-mingles with grief for what has been lost. Several :League members have asked me to warn you that should you find this happening to you, consider welcoming such a response and don’t try to staunch your tears. They told me it led to relief and was at the same time a measure of their regard for themselves. That Anorexia was in no way whatsoever what they ‘deserved’. They said too that such sweet weeping does not diminish the exquisite recognition say of the sweet fragrance of cherry blossoms in spring, the sensual pleasures such as the sea lapping against your legs when you first enter it in summer or those matters about which poets most often speak . Such weeping will not prevent you from uttering aloud the appreciation of yourself to which you now have the right.

These contests, resistances, crusades and wars associated with anti-anorexic endeavours ought to be celebrated to the same degree that every loss to anorexia should embitter those of us who value freedom, dignity and oppose tyrannies of any sort and their practices of torture and terror that main our spirits. Anorexia is to this way of thinking the ‘nazification’ of everyday life. Anti-anorexia is any number of resistance movements, no matter how small or large, loosely attached and at times unknown to each other. They are connected by their opposition to Anorexia and the ‘concentration camps’ that it has thrown up in so many people’s/families lives, even if yet they are not fully aware of it. This recalls for me a conversation I had with Bryony (23/9/.1995) at our sixth meeting. I quote from a letter written reviewing this conversation.

“I then asked you – “Am I making too much of this? Am I oversubscribing these events in your life as anti-anorexic?” You were only too willing to openly acknowledge that “I am still doing weird and self-destructive things like weighing myself up”. I asked – “Yah….but when you do this, is there anything you would consider novel in your response?” You told me “There now is a doubt . . . a query. I am re-examining what I’m eating and thinking I’ve figured out what I’ve eaten. And then I ask myself – ‘Is that the ‘truth’ or is it anorexia telling me that?” You said that leaves you “in confusion”. But then what follows next was interesting indeed: “To do it in the first place – counting, working it out – is POINTLESS”. “What would have transpired in your old Anorexic days?” “I wouldn’t have said it. Anorexia would have told me not to question it. I know you better than you know yourself”.

We then entered into an imaginary dialogue with Anorexia (I was Bryony and Bryony was Anorexia).

DE as Bryony: How did you get to know me more than I know myself, Anorexia?

Bryony as Anorexia: You are not an individual. The methods I apply are not specific for that reason. They are general to the ‘object’ of women, and some men.

DE as Bryony: If I wanted to be ME, would you permit that?

Bryony as Anorexia: You are not good enough to be a somebody. That is why this substitute has been created.

DE as Bryony: Are you saying you are doing me a favour?

Bryony as Anorexia: Yah, absolutely.

DE as Bryony: Why do you offer these substitute lives more often and women than to men, and young women in particular?

Bryony as Anorexia: So they can succeed in life. I am creating all the clones, models for other women to shape themselves up to. They will gain such success because there will be no one better and no one worse”.

You then reflected on this dialogue, not finding it interesting at all but rather “revolting . . . it’s like ‘The Hand-Maiden’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood like the Nazi.”

Look through this anti-anorexic dialogue, and even under the camouflage of an ‘anorexic make-over’ that has prettied up the corpse-to-be, look very closely and you will read through the fog and sorrow something similar to what was on the gates of Auschwitz – ARBEIT MACHT FRIE (Perfection Will Set You Free).

For me, Anti-anorexia provided me with a place to stand – a standpoint – without which I have no idea what I would have done with what I knew except weep in despair. It is also a “community of counter practice” )(Tomm, 1992) from which I have drawn upon to advance and repaired to under duress. What it has meant for me personally is that I have ‘never surrendered’, no matter how desperate the circumstances. Retreat yes, but surrender, never.

Not so long ago (31/10/1997), it appeared that Mary (17) had been swept away by anorexia just before her national secondary school examinations. Her father, Bill, wept throughout our hour-long meeting and her mother, Sharon was almost gagging on her terror. I repaired to the League and the archive that keeps its stories and knowledges current and took heart as I always do. I then was able to write:

Dear Mary:

I wanted to write you after our meeting on Thursday. I strongly felt anorexia, once again, pulling you down and away from us. It seemed to be insinuating that there was no other ‘world’ for you than his Hell, where you might sit beside him as his Queen. It was unnerving for me and judging by your dad’s helpless tears of frustration, it was for us all. Before I had time to put my fingers to my typewriter, Sharon phoned to reassure me that you were able to come back to us a bit. This was a great relief to me and I suspect it must have been for your parents. However, her call did delay my response.

Mary, I am writing to you in defiance of anorexia and all that it stands for. I swear to you – and all those murdered by anorexia are my witnesses- that nothing will prevent the League from keeping your place open – a place to stand and take a stand for your life and entitlements to happiness, peace and fulfillment. Admittedly such a Resistance must at times go into hiding underground and at other times strike fiercely. And we do sustain losses. But such losses are trivial compared to those suffered at anorexia’s hands. After all, anorexia will even “eat your smile for dessert”. What kind of life is it that Anorexia promises – a well-dressed barbie-puppet, looking pretty? What do you make of her smiling as she goes about measuring herself up to Perfection and torture?

What does Anti-anorexia promise? Nothing but a place to stand and hold up a mirror to see anorexia without its mask of benevolent solicitude. It is a long standing tradition in the annals of punishment and torture that the executioner always keeps his face well hidden, is it not? From an anti-anorexic standpoint, anorexia can no longer blindfold you or keep you in the dark. Can you now see what there is to see? Can you speak out against anorexia because you now have the means to do so? Can anorexia conceal its intentions from you any longer? Are its promises turning to treacherous betrayals?

If my experience in the League over the past ten years is anything to go by, there will be struggle but I suspect in and out of those very struggles, you will forge yourself for yourself. I can assure you there will be fun and celebration along the way. And one day you will decide for yourself to put down your arms. However, will you ever set aside your anti-anorexic vigilance? After all, anorexia is nowhere but everywhere; anti-anorexia is merely somewhere

Mary, we remain your sisters, your brothers, your comrades, and your friends-in-arms. We remain where we are, even if sometimes we must go underground, but we will never surrender. If I am any judge of your parents, I believe that they would never surrender either. NEVER!!!!! To join us, there is no measurement, no examination and no assessment. Your suffering, which is so evident to all of us, is your welcome. So many in the League have endured or are enduring the self-same torture. On behalf of them, I welcome you too.

And welcome back even if you have to jump the hurdle of your ‘examination’. We want you to know we abhor examinations. You are more than good enough for Anti-anorexia.

David Epston

On behalf of The Anti-Anorexia/Bulimia Leagues


This web-site is the very archive on which I have always depended and which has ‘seeded’ others around the world. It is my burning hope that it should serve you as well, both as a source of your own League and a resource to anti-anorexia, resistance and other Leagues.


Yours forever anti-anorexically, David Epston



* We prefer not to use the term “eating disorders.” There has been long history in the psychologies and psychiatries in which so many of the practices associated with the “trreatment” of eating disorders were according to the “insiders” (consumers of those treatments) complicit with anorexia/bulimia.