Earlier this month you may have heard about so-called ‘managed anorexia’, as espoused by former Big Brother contestant Kenneth Tong. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. ‘Managed’ anorexia is thus a deadly contradiction – like dipping your toe into a whirlpool or being slightly pregnant. However, according to Tong, if you’re bigger than size zero, then you’re fat. Instead he has used his twitter feed to suggest that followers ‘get thin or die trying’. Wonderfully, however he has also developed a unique aid to starvation in the form of ‘size-zero pills’. Well, who would have thought it? And plucked no doubt from the same orifice as his theories. But I digress..
Following a storm of protest, Tong has since argued that the campaign was a hoax to raise his profile. Hopefully he and his pills will now return to the obscurity they deserve. What’s more interesting are the questions this debate has raised around the promotion of anorexia and related issues of free speech. As one journalist has commented,
If [the] tweets risk encouraging anorexia and causing harm, this should be addressed. By exercising his “liberty” to say whatever he likes, he risks infringing the liberties of others who read his words – those with a mental illness who have no control over the effect his words might have on their minds.
In a fascinating article in the New Statesman, David Green reminds us that free speech is not enshrined in law as an absolute right – particularly when such words can cause damage that goes against the wider public interest. He asks if the “managed anorexia” campaign is the health equivalent of a bomb hoax, which would be rightly prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act (1977)? Or is it instead a ‘speech act that deserves legal protection?’
Here’s another case, this time centered around the classroom. In August 2010, a federal judge ordered the Pittsburg Public Schools to pay $55,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a mother who claimed that her daughter was bullied into anorexia. The girl was bullied in sixth and seventh grades and was the target of sexually degrading comments which suggested that she was fat and ugly. As a result she stopped eating lunch and went on to develop anorexia, for which she was later hospitalised. Her mother successfully sued the school.
What are we to make of these situations?
Bullying is totally unacceptable. Words alone can cause tremendous psychological damage and such abuse is something we all need to challenge and confront. In particular, we have a responsibility to protect those weaker than ourselves, to fight for them with all our resources. But how are we to do so? Is it for example, by setting a legal precedent where schools can be held responsible for mental illness? And if we do legislate in this area, then where do we draw the line? Do we shut down pro-ana websites? How about fashion magazines? And what do we make of underweight models – victims or perpetrators?
If our culture enshrines the values that promote eating disorders – is such legislation even possible, let alone desirable?