How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia by Kelsey Osgood is the meta eating disorder memoir. Osgood critiques the impact of popular anorexia fare on already eating disordered individuals and the so-called “wannarexics.” She critiques the moral panic regarding pro-ana sites (short for pro-anorexia FYI) and reveals the perverse relationship vulnerable individuals can have with such materials. She highlights Wasted and the Best Little Girl in the World as her study guides to developing her eating disorder.
Her dissection of the “wannarexic” phenomenon is what I connected to throughout Osgood’s critique. Osgood explains “wannarexia” as “an amalgam of ‘want’ and ‘anorexia’” that describes a “cultural phenomenon” rather than a “clinical diagnosis” (pg.94). Within this cultural phenomenon, anorexia is seen as desirable and so one seeks out anorexia materials. As my eating disorder engulfed me, I became obsessed with eating disorder media. I watched Dr. Phil episodes, Youtube vloggers, and reality-tv. I read memoirs and recovery guides. I took online diagnosis quizzes. I even scoured the infamous pro-ana sites. All of this behavior falls into, what Osgood notes as, “studying” for my eating disorder (alas, my tendency as an intense student prevails!). Because of the negative impact Osgood experienced with other eating disorder memoirs, she tries to remove potentially harmful details such as specific weights and calorie intakes from her own memoir, which I commend.
Even with all of this anorexia knowledge, I never understood “wannarexia” as a common eating disorder phenomenon until I read this book. Osgood mentions the shame she felt regarding her “wannarexia” and this same shame is obvious in my own life. Osgood remembers trying to impress her friends by proclaiming her missed meals and faint trips to the nurse. My “wannarexia” manifested differently, as my shame was so intense that my obsession became my most guarded secret. On one level, I used eating disordered behavior to express overwhelming negative emotions (thank-you therapy for that insight), but I didn’t want this recognition until I had “earned” it a.k.a starved myself into a rack of bones. When I did actually lose enough weight to “earn” the horror of my loved ones, my shame only intensified. I remember feeling both fearful that this freakshow display would have my eating disorder disrupted by my concerned onlookers and also mortified that my problems were on such obvious display to begin with.
Although my own experiences appear to follow the Osgood’s narrative, I would approach the conclusion that such eating disorder material causes eating disorders with caution. I believe that although these materials certainly played a role in my eating disorder, they don’t explain why I sought them out in the first place. I think that Osgood makes a misstep by leaping from the media simply exacerbating symptoms and to being the root cause for the illness itself. I believe there needs to be a balance between the social ramifications of anorexia and the very real personal pain behind this disease. So, I would caution readers of How to Disappear Completely to research other factors that contribute to these illnesses for a fuller understanding of eating disorders.
I recommend How to Disappear Completely if “wannarexia” rings true either for yourself or someone you know. It gave me insight into an aspect of eating disorders that is often overlooked. “Wannarexia” itself, even if it doesn’t develop into a full-blown eating disorder, is still an attempt to mask pain that should be taken seriously. My only qualm is when Osgood takes her argument too far and fails to incorporate the pain that is behind mental illness. I think there are important insights in this book but, as always, I would recommend reading critically and widely to form your own conclusions.