This single-volume manga by Moyoko Anno is the story of a woman with an eating disorder that was absolutely incredible, but also very, very difficult to read. Huge, huge trigger warning for eating disorders — it actually messed me up for a few days. But if you can get through it, I think it’s a very important work. This may be kind of disjointed, because it’s a bit hard for me to talk about, but more people should read this book.
Huge TW for this post as well.
It’s rather unusual to see depictions of binge eating disorder. The protagonist, Noko, does ultimately end up bulimic, but for the first half or so of the story it’s just BED, and it’s dealt with so well, treated as something somewhere in between a compulsion and comfort, something that pollutes every aspect of your being. Anorexia and bulimia get a lot of screentime, I think, because they’re illnesses that make you thin — they’re sexy, in a terrible, twisted way. But BED — and certain manifestations of bulimia — don’t result in thinness. There’s this unstated expectation with EDs, that if you’re going to be so sensitive you should at least be pretty… and I think I’m not the only one who’s heard, “Well, if you do have an eating disorder, it’s not working,” and the like. That the story makes it clear Noko is sick long before she’s also thin — long before she’s even actively trying to lose weight — is really important.
The way Noko’s boyfriend tortures her and uses her to up his own self-esteem is so… accurate. But more importantly, I think one of the really amazing things the book does is take the female bully Noko deals with and make her sympathetic. She’s horrible, almost sociopathic, but the thing about Thinness as a goal is that it’s never enough. You’re never happy. The nature of an ED is that you’re always miserable and it will never stop. Ami, the admin of Escher Girls, had a really insightful post about this:
[…] when my ED was really bad it started to occur to me that I could NEVER stop it, and I felt completely and utterly trapped.
The scariest part was that I realized that there was no end point. I had to keep starving myself and exercising because I was defying the natural weight/size/shape my body wanted to be in, so I could never stop, I could never go back to eating normally. And that’s on top of how absolutely trapped I was in the mindset of my starving and exercising being a compulsion at that point too. But before I could tackle the compulsion, I had to let go of the idea of what my body had to look like to be “beautiful” and to be worthwhile.
And realizing that it was NEVER. GOING. TO. END. was horrifying.
When I started dieting, which ended up spiraling down, I never thought of the end point. I thought, eventually, I’d reach where I wanted to be, I’d be beautiful, and then I’d be happy… but once I got there, I started to realize, I’m trapped. There’s no way out. If I go back to where I was, so would my body. I had gone all in, and it would all be wasted, if I gave up now, so I could only go deeper.
Eventually, I started to cry at the realization that I couldn’t see anything other than starving, exercising, until the day I died. And I had already suffered so much to get to this point, if I went back, what would be the point? At least I had accomplished something. And the sad part is, being thin, controlling your food intake, being “beautiful”, is an “accomplishment” for women in our society. And it’s what my brain latched onto. After the trauma that happened to me half a year before, I felt like an utter and total failure as a person, and my brain latched onto a way society told me I could prove myself a success as a woman: “be size 0, be beautiful”.
When you’re fat, Thinness is seen as a place in which you’ll be happy — fatness is a moral failing and is what makes people unhappy, because it is Bad. To be thin is to access this kind of Real Life. As Lindy West said in her FemFreq interview, “I always thought of myself in the future. This was just my temporary body, and my real self would have a thin body, because that’s what real people have.” But what Ami talks about is the truth — there is no happiness, because there’s no end. I remember the first time I had that realization. People would say to me, “Wow, you’ve lost so much weight, do you think you’ll lose more?” and I realized: it will never be enough. And that realization, that this Thinness I’d been chasing didn’t exist for me, was I think the final straw between dangerous dieting and a full-blown ED, because when nothing about you is ever good enough, it’s impossible to care. My body was wrong and it had ruined me, ruined my life, so it didn’t matter if I destroyed it in return, and if I found Thinness along the way, even better.
And the worst part is the hate it makes you have for other people. No one else is in this hell. All these girls and women, they walk around, not even aware that they have the Thinness. And you find yourself hating them for it, hating them so much, because you were supposed to be happy, too. Why are they happy without you? What right do they have to be so happy without working as hard as you have? What makes them so much better than you? And there’s still this sane part that knows that they’re not better than you but it gets twisted by the ED into this resentment because if you can’t be as happy as them, they should at least be as miserable as you.
And one of the most important things this story does is recognize this.
It knows, it knows, that the women who are cruelest to other women are almost invariably the women in the most pain, because we’re all victims of this terrible system and sometimes it twists you so badly that all you want it to drag others to hell with you, and it’s not a personal failing, it’s a societal one, and it’s not your fault when you hate yourself so much, when you’re so unhappy that other people’s joy just brings you more hate.
So, so often this reality gets twisted into a more tropic “women hate women” thing that is extra cruel precisely because we essentially emotionally abuse women into that hate, and that Anno is able to illustrate that cruel people are also often miserable people is so, so important. Noko’s scene near the end in the bathroom when she calls the other women fat and ugly isn’t a sign that she’s become a monster or become the thing she always hated, it’s a sign that she’s broken in a way no one should ever have to break. And it reveals Mayumi’s seemingly psychotic hatred for the actual pitiful insanity that it is.
Anno depicts the prison of chasing Thinness with a deftness and accuracy that is, in the most complimentary way this word could be used, almost sickening. And she’s very, very good about depicting the men on the outside, looking in, pulling strings and laughing as the women tear themselves to pieces in search of comfort.
And on that note, I want to look at the utterly despicable back cover summary, because whoever wrote it should be absolutely ashamed of themselves:
It’s honestly hard to even know where to start. “Dark comedy of manners?” Whoever reads this and finds it funny should seek help — it’s a horrible, cruel tragedy (Wiki rightly called the genre “drama”). “No one comes out looking good?” As if the point of this was to look good, either literally or metaphorically? Or what about “[her] weight problems are not her true failing,” implying that her weight problems are, in fact, a personal failing? And what about this “true failing?” What the fuck “failing” did they find here? The abusive boyfriend? The mental breakdown? The eating disorder and self-harm? When she gets so sick she has to be hospitalized?
This description is so cruel it almost feels like it should be part of the story itself, something Noko sees that drives her further into despair. It’s bad enough that I kind of want to send the publisher, Vertical, a strongly worded email, because it’s just such a horrible thing to say about this story.
The reviews, both professional and amateur, are equally as horrifying for a variety of different reasons — “But if she’s thin at the end why doesn’t it get a happy ending?” is a recurring theme, as is, “Why won’t she just lose weight properly?” — but I don’t have the energy to deal with those. (Mercifully, there also seem to be a good chunk of people who actually view Noko as a human being.)
Suffice to say, if you can cope with it, I highly recommend reading this book, if not because it’s a well-told story with nice art, then because it offers a nuanced, sympathetic, and realistic perspective on an issue that’s way, way too often swept under the rug.