Emmeline Clein’s Reframing of Eating Disorder Culture Makes ‘Dead Weight’ a Must-Read

“Why are we only angry at the women who are in pain? Why are we not asking who taught them these coping mechanisms?” the author said to Jezebel in a recent interview.

Emmeline Clein’s Reframing of Eating Disorder Culture Makes ‘Dead Weight’ a Must-Read

There are certain types of books we often find ourselves saying we ought to read: the novels long-listed for prestigious awards; the essay collections by writers whose off-beat observations go viral; the 400-page in-depth investigations about the secretive entities harming society.

Dead Weight is not a book like that. Dead Weight is a book you must read. Even if you are one of the lucky few who has never suffered from the paralyzing pervasive pressure of Western beauty standards, Emmeline Clein’s new book—subtitled Essays on Hunger and Harm—speaks to so much more. It is, in its broadest sense, a hopeful book offering an alternative, communitarian way of existing in our bodies and in the world. More specifically, it seeks to reframe the way we talk about, think about, and treat eating disorders.

Getting to this better place requires unearthing and closely examining what underpins the structures that trap us in cycles of self-hatred and self-improvement (hint: It’s often capitalism). Clein does this with the encyclopedic citations and references of a researcher, combined with the lyricism of an MFA grad (both of which she is). In another writer’s hands, the argument she makes throughout the book’s 12 essays could risk verging into the dour, sober, or pollyanna-ish, but Clein’s writing is innovative and refreshingly enervating, taking on everything from why eating disorder treatment is so ineffective (“The places meant to help patients realize that their weight is not the defining facet of their personhood are entirely oriented around their weight”) to a defense of the often-demonized eating disorder chatrooms where young women encounter their sisters in arms (who told Clein “about the isolation that accompanies a disease whose sufferers are villainized, isolation alleviated by the ‘hours [they] spent talking to people who understand’”).

In her prologue, which Clein writes primarily addressing those like her (women and girls and femmes with a history of disordered eating), she includes a line that operates as a bit of a thesis statement for the book: “I’m trying to find out what might happen if we blame someone other than each other and ourselves for a change.”

I asked her about that idea—and the series of other arguments she explores in Dead Weight—in a recent conversation. 

JEZEBEL: The throughline of this book is basically that eating disorders are a systemic issue that we blame on individuals. I’m wondering how you came to that point; when did this way of thinking appear to you as the thing that might actually help people with eating disorders?

EMMELINE CLEIN: I relapsed from my eating disorder after that traditional treatment many times and I sort of ended up in a place that was like that. I think a lot of people get to sort of “recovered enough” that people aren’t worried about you when they see you, but the thoughts are still there at a very high volume pretty much all the time. And then I had a pretty bad relapse when I was working in fashion soon after college, which culminated in my experience with a Wellbutrin seizure (which you can read about in the book). But after that was when I really started kind of reorienting my whole life and being like, I need to address this. For me, it was having really open and honest conversations with other women who have been through this and doing a lot of this education. I started looking for books and texts that would offer me the context and the historicization that I actually wanted, but they were very difficult to find. 

Any mental illness that does not primarily afflict women is understood as a structural issue—as well as something that individuals need to deal with—and is understood as something that is a microcosm of a lot of political and economic and social forces as well as a medical disease. Yet eating disorders get the like, “teen girls are being crazy and making each other sick online” treatment. Addiction and depression get the “addiction is late capitalism and depression is neoliberalism” treatment that does relieve blame from sufferers and understands people as pawns to these capitalistic forces. And eating disorders are, in fact, better microcosms for a lot of those forces, more nuanced ones than these other diseases. 

Why are we only angry at the women who are in pain? Why are we not asking who taught them these coping mechanisms? So I wanted to give the sufferers who have been so mocked and reduced and told they were crazy a solidarity-forward kind of polemical narrative that is also taking them seriously. Let’s really map out this room you’ve been locked into and figure out who has the key.

This is intentionally not a memoir, right?

Most literature that I have seen about eating disorders is usually in the form of either a memoir or a self-help book. And these are both things that I was reading in the depths of my eating disorder, as did many people I know. I don’t mean to demonize the writers of these memoirs—because again, I’m always trying to ask the question of, who taught us to do this?—but often these memoirs are still written in some level of the grip of disease, where you can still sense pride in their unnecessarily detailed description of what they ate at their sickest or how low their weight got. And so these things also serve as handbooks for people who are actively seeking them out. 

I think that it’s in part because the memoir genre—especially as it relates to mental illness—is doing so many favors for capitalism at all times. These books get published and publicized very effectively because they’re relieving all the blame from the forces that might have made the person sick. And they’re usually offering a path towards some form of recovery, whether it’s full or not, that is predicated on either paying for really expensive treatment or realizing something about yourself that was flawed, rather than anything about the society you lived in. 

On top of that, memoirs can function as a way for specifically feminized forms of pain that are caused by these societal structures to be entirely sapped of their political force. You know: There’s another confessional memoir by a crying woman which we love to read and maybe we’ll give it a lot of literary acclaim and will compliment the prose and the emotional honesty, but we’ll remove it kind of from its societal context.

So much of this book is about the concept of control; you write, for example, about how “dissociative feminism” has given us this bleak wryness that operates as a coping mechanism. Like, well, maybe we aren’t in control of our surroundings, but we can control how we respond to them. And in a big way, eating disorders are a similar symptom of that.

This desire for control of the physical is something misogynistic that goes back to like, Plato and the Christian Desert Fathers: Woman being construed as the uncontrollable, having hideous fleshy bodies that we disdain. 

I think what is important to me to try to get across in this book is like, whether that control is manifesting as disciplining your appetites, or disciplining your voice, so you’re making a deadpan joke about your pain rather than crying about it, or disciplining an emotion you’re expressing about a need in a heterosexual relationship, or whatever it is, I think that act of control is actually less agentive than you think it is. 

In speaking to other non-men about this topic, you can realize how painful exerting that control on your body and your emotions and your soul is and how many of us are doing it on a daily basis. It is a masochistic coping mechanism that I totally understand using and have used and still do in different ways at certain points, whether I’m making a sarcastic joke, or whatever it is. And I’m not saying we can never use them. But I am saying like, what if we throw some other things in the toolbox and actually stop having a toolbox that’s only filled with knives? 

This book is shockingly hopeful, despite so much of it making me feel like I was connecting all these disparate ideas with red string, going “It’s a conspiracy!” 

It feels like a grand conspiracy, because it is like a lot of forces colluding and intersecting that are all benefiting off of this incredibly patriarchal, racist beauty standard. However, they’re not even that smart, and they’re not hiding it that well, and they’re not even necessarily in an active conspiracy: It’s just that this is how the machine has been built and it’s running according to plan. So if we actually start noticing it and stop allowing ourselves to be pawns and instead become those screws that don’t work, I don’t think it would actually be as difficult as it can feel to disrupt it.

I’m curious to know what the reception of your book has been like so far. 

I’ve been incredibly grateful and honored to speak to a completely fabulous and incredibly intelligent array of girls and gays at various women’s media publications. And I really have found that those journalists have understood this book as what it is, and have not siloed it off as memoir in that way I was afraid of. Those places are what a lot of my readers are reading and so that’s where I want to be to reach them. 

I will say that there has been far less interest from political publications and so-called “serious” literary outlets at least thus far. In a way, some of my experience of the reception has proved part of the point of the book: I think the most important audience for me are the people who need it and who have experienced any version of this and any version of disordered eating. And on the flip side, there was another audience that I wanted it to reach, which is this audience of an intellectual and academic establishment that I feel has been both misunderstanding these disorders in their sufferers, and has also been missing an opportunity to understand the functioning of our economy through a lens that can really clarify a lot of specific forces, specifically, on the larger economic failure of our insurance regime to deal with mental health care of all types, and in terms of the way that economic forces inflect our consumption habits and our mindsets. That audience I don’t think is currently reading it. Maybe they will eventually. I hope they will, because I think it is a useful lens. 

But I do think that a book arguing that teenage girls’ pain is a useful kaleidoscope through which to look at our entire economy and our political history in this country is not yet something that that establishment believes is going to be convincing. 

That is not surprising, and hopefully changes. But it is a depressingly appropriate note to end it on.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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