Last night I was listening to an episode of Radio Lab that focused on nihilism, particularly nihilism as part of pop culture and why the current moment seems to view nihilism as cool in some fashion. A number of the people on the show mentioned that this moment in time is on a pendulum swing towards nihilism. Some moments in history are more despairing (The Great Depression, immediately post WWII), and we seem to be in one of those moments now.
There’s no real way to measure the cultural milieu of any given point in time, but I don’t think these postulates are saying anything too outlandish. A lot of people are feeling frustrated, hopeless, and angry. One of the guests on the podcast was a philosophy professor, and he told the story of teaching a class about mystics in ancient Rome, people who left the city because it was too corrupt, went out into the desert, and practiced an ascetic lifestyle in order to give themselves over to God. They denied their bodies as a way to escape the sense of nihilism.
Today, we’ve tended to use a kind of irony or sense of coolness to bypass the nihilism. Apocalyptic stories abound, dystopias are the new favorite plot device, and yet somehow we’re all a little blase about it: the hipster mentality is still strong in our desire to not appear too worried about everything. We’ll wear the garb of despair and smile while we do so, convincing ourselves and others that it doesn’t really bother us. I think it’s a cop out though: we’re not really facing what it means that we’ll die, that things suck. It’s a cheat code.
So what does this have to do with anything else that I talk about ever? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty serious nihilist, and I love me some depressing philosophy, but there’s a little something more I want to talk about.
Eating disorders. Surprise, I know.
Lots of people have made connections between saints who fasted and eating disorders, questioning whether there is a connection between the two. But asceticism has a long history, and I think ancient mystics can give us some insight into why and perhaps why eating disorders appear to be so common today. One theory of how to move through nihilism (not simply ignore or bypass it) is through an extreme form of love, as the mystics had for their god. They showed how little they cared for this world by dedicating themselves entirely to devotion of god instead.
There’s also simple scientific evidence that ascetic practices like self harm and restriction of food can result in brain chemistry changes that often feel addicting and rewarding. There is clearly some connection between a society wide feeling of nihilism and despair and the choice to repudiate the body. I suspect that many people with eating disorders have the same sorts of feelings. The particulars might be slightly different, especially since selfishness and materialism are often pointed to as the source of the suffering in the current moment (it doesn’t seem a leap to think that the way out of that suffering would then be to utterly repudiate the self).
The impulse to find something more lasting and more meaningful when things feel utterly pointless is a strong one, and it isn’t a new one either. Many people see their bodies as a symbol of their temporal selves, and it can easily become the enemy. Perhaps the current explosion of diagnoses says more about the purposelessness many people are feeling than it does about the media or body image.
I suspect that like wearing your nihilism as a patch of coolness, destroying the body also doesn’t actually help you face the reality of pointlessness. It numbs out the feelings, certainly, it gives the illusion that you’re doing something and moving forward, and perhaps eventually it puts you face to face with death in such a way that you have to face it, but far too often it’s just a way to hide from the things we fear.
I have no idea if there’s evidence for these claims. This is simply drawing connections between things that appear parallel or similar. If anyone has further thoughts, I’d love to hear them as I’m just fleshing out these ideas.
“Perhaps why eating disorders appear to be so common today.” — Are they? AN, which is probably the most applicable to this post, doesn’t seem to be on the rise.
“There is clearly some connection between a society wide feeling of nihilism and despair and the choice to repudiate the body. I suspect that many people with eating disorders have the same sorts of feelings.” — This is true, they could, but that could simply be a spurious overlap (i.e., some people will feel A, and some people will have B; some group will have both), and it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything to that overlap. I am not saying there isn’t — I don’t know — I am just saying an overlap isn’t necessarily meaningful.
It could be a lot of post-hoc rationalization going on because I also think attributing restricting to those feelings of nihilism and despair is “cooler” than attributing them to a desire to fit a societal norm, or the fact that dieting/”body work” in-and-of-itself is valued in society and seen as evidence of various positive attributes (dedication, self-control, hard work).
I’m playing a bit of Devil’s advocate here.
But I don’t agree that eating disorders are on the rise. I don’t think anyone can really claim they are or they aren’t; it is quite tricky to evaluate. This is from a fairly recent meta-analysis by Smink, van Hoeken, & Hoek (2012):
“The question of whether the incidence of AN is on the rise has been under debate. Long-term epidemiological studies are sensitive to minor changes in the absolute incidence numbers and in the methods used, for example, variations in registration policy, demographic differences between the populations, faulty inclusion of re-admissions, the specific methods of detection used or the availability of services…. Since 1970, the incidence of AN in Europe seems to have been rather stable… (van Son et al., 2006; Hoek., 2006; Theander, 1985; Kendell et al., 1973)”
Of course, a caveat for the above: it is possible AN (if measured by substantial weight loss showing symptoms of malnutrition and accompanied by psychopathology) is on the rise but it is being masked by rising obesity (meaning fewer people fit the absolute BMI thresholds, or what doctors perceive as a weight low enough to be diagnosable for AN).
I think you’re probably right, I’m not sure that anorexia is on the rise. From the (admittedly not super thorough) research I’ve done, it does seem like self starvation does tend to be a little bit cyclical, sort of in the same manner as the nihilism that the Radio Lab people were talking about.
I also suspect there are LOTS of reasons that eating disorders happen, and one of the big reasons that I made this connection was because for me personally my eating disorder came out of a lot of feelings of existential angst and nihilism. I will say that I haven’t met a whole lot of other people who say the same thing, so it’s possible I’m a bit of an odd one out. I don’t think we can discount the feelings of helplessness that do seem to be a part of our generation playing some role in a disorder that gives feelings of control, importance, and morality.
But it’s definitely complicated and I 100% am not saying this is THE REASON, just that it might play some role.
I definitely don’t want to discount others’ feelings or your feelings. But, more broadly, I wonder sometimes how much of any meanings we ascribe to our behaviours is just post-hoc rationalization — making sense of something that may not make much sense, or may have a much more mundane explanations. I also wonder how much the reasons for our behaviours change over time, and about the differences between causal or triggering factors and maintaining factors.