Anorexia and Capitalism

The anthropologist despairs as he watches a young native girl run from the dinner table, in fear of getting fat. She refuses to eat even a bite of lettuce and her weight is now down to 78, from 136. She is in a danger zone. Her organs are failing.

The father runs out to find her in the darkness, through the woods, following her tears. “Where are you, dear?”

On the TV, Portia de Rossi, the actress star of Ally McBeal, cries as she retells Oprah about her descent into anorexic madness. Portia was lucky. She had the money (which can be as high as $250,000) for good professional help at Monte Nido in California. They helped save her life. She tells her powerful story in her best-selling book, Unbearable Lightness (2010).

But this night the father screams into the night. The little native girl is not rich. Blue Cross and Blue Shield refuse to pay for this treatment which her pediatrician, nutritionist and therapist demand, with strongly worded letters.

They’ve been struck, bewitched. It is their fault. Die.

Abandoned, the family descends into a nightmare.

Obama care means nothing. Some states (like Minnesota and New York) pay for some of this residential care, but not their state. Under neoliberalism, they’ll have to fend for themselves.

Anorexia is one of the most serious illnesses for adolescent girls and young women (and increasingly boys). Twenty percent die from this disease. Societal contributors include the media’s unrealistic, ultra-thin depiction of women, bullying, and a young girl’s search for identity during difficult life transitions. Current media focus on Portia de Rossi, wife of comedienne Ellen, is bringing attention to this growing epidemic. The bestseller “Brave Girl Eating” (2010) well describes the impact that this disease has on the family. Harriet Brown, the book’s author, is a Professor of Journalism whose daughter is now in recovery.

The native girl’s doctor again pleads with the insurers to help pay for a 60 day stay at a good facility like Portia. The insurers again say no. An attorney is hired to appeal. The native girl’s father is ineligible to take money from his retirement account until he retires and his job (which has a giant medical school) does not help. They are unable to refinance their home to pay for the native girl’s treatment in a horrid economy.

Maybe he’ll just retire at 55 and pay the 20 percent penalty. Only, where will he get another job?

Do they suffer in shame and silence, blaming themselves? Or do they act?

They watch the award-winning new film “America the beautiful, Is America Obsessed with Beauty?” by Darryl Roberts. It’s all about how the culture creates anorexia. Ebert gave it three stars. Inspired, they march on.

Somehow, with help from an unexpected source, they get her into residential treatment but they still must pay a very high co-pay. The young native lass is finally improving, but the family may go bankrupt.

“I love you daddy. I can’t wait till I’m home. I listened to Mozella’s song Stay last night and thought of us bopping in the car together.”

So it goes in a mad world, under the terror of neoliberalism, the crushing blows of an alien nation. Our bodies, whether obese or stick-figured, are the enfleshment of capital. A sign of the times.

Music is a tonic. Thank the stars for Mozella.

BRIAN McKENNA lives in Michigan. He can be reached at:


Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at