“I have another idea for a TV show. It’s called ‘Rape My House.’” A stand-up MC in New York City was warming the audience up for the next act. He was commenting on the strangeness of having an MTV show called “Pimp My Ride.” It is a show for a young audience that gleefully uses the word “pimp” as if it had no association with sexual exploitation. He made a good point, and was funny while he did it. Even though he used “rape” in the joke, it was to underline the seriousness of it. The audience laughed because we compared the gravity of rape to that of pimping and realized that the TV show lets the latter slide, even glamorizes it. In the case of “pimp,” there is the argument that the word has been appropriated by some communities to have alternate meaning, but unfortunately such context is lost on a lot of viewers.
When we use words like “pimp,” “rape” and “anorexic,” especially in humor and sarcasm, we are saying a lot more than the language alone would imply. For example, there is an insidious way of using “rape” that shows a total lack of reflection. I have known some to say, after a particularly challenging test, “Oh man, that test raped me.” Actually, no. It didn’t. And if you stop to think about the fact that in the U.S., one out of six women has experienced attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and that college age women are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted, you might think rape is a bigger problem than a couple of unanswered multiple choice questions.
“Anorexic” is misused differently, but in a way that also writes off a social ill — one that is experienced by more women than men. Since anorexia has come into the public consciousness, it has morphed from a shocking disorder to a cultural fixture. In much daily speech, and some popular media, “anorexic” describes a body type instead of a psychological condition. And it is usually loaded with unconcealed ridicule. The thin models, for example, in last week’s CDL show, were indirectly called “anorexic” by a female Sun writer. It was supposed to be witty. But describing someone that way, for the sake of a reader’s smirk, mistreats both words and people. Sometimes the caustic diminutive “rexy” is also employed toward this end.
So what is going on? Why do people — mostly other women — use “anorexic” vindictively rather than empathically? Almost everyone knows the basic causes and symptoms of anorexia nervosa, but such a reaction would suggest they do not really understand where it comes from. I think the response is part of an effort made by women of my generation to separate themselves from any sign that patriarchy still affects us. Anorexia has connotations of feminine weakness, and we want nothing to do with that.
But this outlook misplaces blame. To be clear, the anxiety behind anorexia is not always rooted in gender oppression. However, the way that anorectics take out anxieties on the physical self is a largely feminine phenomenon — especially for the white, economically comfortable Cornell girls I’m talking about in this article. So, instead of attacking each individual anorectic, it would be more productive to consider why anorexia, and eating disorders in general are still prominent among women. It may be more difficult now to see eating disorders as a problem because, not only have we been conscious of them our whole lives, we have personally seen (and probably experienced) them. But eating disorders are still around, and we would do well to investigate their position in the socio-economic system, instead of calling the skinny girl “rexy” and calling it a day. It might even lead to some acknowledgement of a twisted kind of jealousy that I contend can be part of the attack on the anorexic. She may be weak, but she also managed to achieve an ideal we see in magazines all the time.
And now for an interlude. Since I started this column talking about words, I had planned to explain the difference between “anorexic” and “anorectic.” But, after investigation in online dictionaries and the trusty old Oxford English Dictionary, I remain confused. Both words can be an adjective or a noun referring to a sufferer of anorexia nervosa. Perhaps this demonstrates that conscientious use of words is important but difficult.
Although wordplay is a fun and worthwhile exercise, there is a fine line between playing and hating when terms lose context. Using “rape” lightly is insensitive unless, like the wily comedian, you make a concerted effort to prove otherwise. And, contrary to what some girls seem to think, anorexic/anorectic is not synonymous with stupid.