"That means they're anorexic," said a young woman I know when asked why the great majority of the girls at her elite college had declared themselves vegetarians or vegans. I thought she was being sarcastic, but she wasn't.
She was being witty. The ideological self-description has become a code word for an illness the girls didn't want to admit, she said. Being a vegetarian or vegan justified eating very little, and explained why you didn't go to the dining hall or got only a small salad when you did.
The girls at this college are all high achievers, driven, type-A personalities who have succeeded at almost everything they've tried in life, capable of long hours of intense work and assured, as much as anyone in this world can be, of future success. And yet an astonishing number hate their bodies and try to starve them into an image of perfection they know is ridiculous and unnatural, not to mention culturally determined and commercially driven.
It is, at first sight, baffling. Girls who profess a Marxist contempt for large corporations want to look like the girls in the ads those corporations use to sell their dresses, shoes, perfume, luggage, vodka, cars. They take for their personal ideal an image created by people whose ability to tell the truth about the world they flatly (and rightly) deny.
You hear of a girl you know, an active, intelligent Christian, obviously successful, apparently discerning, apparently confident, who thinks she's fat and ugly when she is quite beautiful. I have heard the explanations for this, and they all make perfect sense. Still, I cannot understand how such an obviously insane and self-destructive ideal has taken such a hold on so many young women.
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