“Anorexia rewired my brain”: on the Maura Kelly debacle

On Monday, Marie Claire posted this short piece from Maura Kelly: Should “Fatties” Get a Room? (Even on TV?) Superficially a review of the new CBS sitcom Mike and Molly (which features two overweight actors in the title roles), the article was a festival of fat-loathing and body-shaming. Because it may well be triggering for someone to read, the rest of this post is all below the fold.

Among other jaw-droppingly hurtful things, Kelly wrote:

So anyway, yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine (sic) addict slumping in a chair.

Within hours, more than 1000 comments of protest had appeared on the site, and Maura Kelly quickly put up an apology, which appears below the original piece. The story of her deeply unfortunate and offensive take on Mike and Molly has been much discussed in both the mainstream media and the feminist blogosphere over the past three days.

I glance at Marie Claire, one of the handful of truly global women’s magazines, but rarely read the online edition. And at first when I heard about the Maura Kelly piece, I couldn’t place the name. But then I remembered. Kelly, who is among other things the magazine’s “dating tips” correspondent, contributed an excellent essay to an invaluable recent anthology on anorexia: Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self-Denial, and Overcoming Anorexia. Published in 2008, it features some truly marvelous essays, including an offering from the great poet, Louise Glück. And as I remembered, among the better pieces in the very fine collection was one from Maura Kelly, detailing her own devastating battle with an eating disorder.

I re-read Kelly’s essay from Going Hungry this morning. Hers is a familiar story with a number of unique twists. When she was only eight, Kelly lost her mother to cancer. Beginning with the onset of puberty, she describes dieting as “a perverse way of mothering herself” (a family systems therapist might have said that her longing to avoid the onset of physical puberty and keep the body of a little girl was linked to the longing to remain always as her mother had last seen her, though Kelly never says that herself.) Living in a household with her widowed, emotionally withdrawn Irish Catholic father and a succession of housekeepers, Kelly finds order and structure and power in the counting of calories and compulsive exercise. Hers becomes an extreme case; she falls down to an unfathomable sixty-seven pounds and is hospitalized for several months during her freshman year of high school.

Kelly is honest about the difficulty of her physical and emotional recovery. Now in her early thirties, she still struggles with this most insidious of disorders; she notes, tellingly, that she’s “still waiting to regain feelings.” And as I thought about her own story, and the sheer cruelty of her Monday screed against the overweight, I thought of what another contributor, Ilana Kurshan, wrote in Going Hungry:

Anorexia rewired my brain and my aesthetic perceptions, and so while I am at a normal weight, my mind’s eye is still not completely refocused… I can always pick out an anorexic in a crowd, and when I pass a frighteningly skinny jogger in the morning, I turn my head to follow her with my eyes a bit wistfully.

Those aren’t Maura’s words, but they’re not just Ilana’s either. I’ve worked with a great many people who’ve suffered from eating disorders, and time and again I hear of both internalized and externalized body dysmorphia. Someone with internalized body dysmorphia might look at herself in the mirror and think “God, I look disgusting” when in fact she’s both healthy and attractive; externalized body dysmorphia is what you get when someone like Maura Kelly writes “I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room.” That overweight person, of course, symbolizes the deepest fears of the person whose body image perceptions have been distorted. As Kurshan wrote, anorexia rewires aesthetic perceptions — and anorexia rewired Maura Kelly’s.

I’ve not read all of Maura Kelly’s insights on the singles scene, which is her usual Marie Claire beat. I do think that both she and her editors should have thought carefully, however, about assigning the Mike and Molly piece to someone whose own body image issues remain unresolved. On the one hand, I feel deep empathy for Maura, and I honor her struggle and the tremendous candor she showed in her wonderful Going Hungry essay. On the other hand, she’s a woman in her thirties with many years of recovery who writes for a magazine aimed at women. She has a moral responsibility to remain cognizant of her own vulnerabilities and the “distorted aesthetic sense” that lingers long after healthy eating patterns have returned to an anorexic’s life. That responsibility is as much to others as to herself. The cruelties that she spewed forth on Monday did real harm, as the reaction to her piece showed.

Maura partly acknowledges this in her mea culpa beneath the original post

… a few commenters and one of my friends mentioned that my extreme reaction might have grown out of my own body issues, my history as an anorexic, and my life-long obsession with being thin. As I mentioned in the ongoing dialogue we’ve been carrying on in the comments section, I think that’s an accurate insight.

Yes. But Maura needs to do more than acknowledge the accuracy of the insight. Speaking as a writer and as someone in long-term recovery from a cluster of intersecting addictions, I get how our own “issues” shape our words for good or for ill. But because our perceptions are still distorted by our histories, those of us who have that long-term recovery have a serious obligation to get independent feedback before we write about a subject so closely connected to our disease. Good editors do more than clean up our grammatical infelicities, they are attuned to the way in which our own troubled experiences may have twisted our views.

Maura Kelly was right to apologize. But she needs to do much more, including perhaps publicly acknowledging the ways in which the anorexic after-effect of aesthetic distortion continues to manifest.

0 thoughts on ““Anorexia rewired my brain”: on the Maura Kelly debacle

  1. Well done Hugo. You strike a nice balance between compassion for an anorexia sufferer, while at the same time holding her accountable for saying some pretty ugly things about overweight people.

  2. Good editors do more than clean up our grammatical infelicities, they are attuned to the way in which our own troubled experiences may have twisted our views.

    Therein lies the much less discussed portion of the imbroglio, I do believe. There’s a lot to be said here about Western womens’ magazines and tacit approval of the expressed POV.

    I’m not sure you’ve seen the oh-so-casual response of the EIC, calling Ms. Kelly a “provocative blogger” *eyeroll* , but I’m also sure the EVP in charge of circulation is thrilled the discussion has made both the Forbes blog and the Washington Post.

    I’m cynical like that, though.

    (Also, surprised there are no comments. Am I just early?)

  3. I agree with Sweating Through Fog; I simply couldn’t have written an essay this generous and compassionate on Maura Kelly. My initial read here is that you’ve successfully navigated Scylla and Charybdis here.

    That said, I’d add that while the horrible decision to publish the essay is largely and best understood as a failing of editors, the distressingly mainstream nature of anti-fat bigotry can’t be ignored. That anti-fat bigotry is routinely laundered through ‘concern about health’ narratives that allow it to retain a respectability underwrites failings like this, in a way that spreads the responsibility quite a bit more widely.

  4. This is like that piece on Bob Guccione all over again–finding something sympathetic to say about someone that nobody in their right mind would say a good word for. Who is this Hugo guy, some kind of Christian or something like that?

  5. I listened to a BBC show about this today. They had some US health guru on along with several other health professionals from Europe. The US guy completely sided with Maura on the ‘fat people shouldn’t kiss in public’ issue. He said that fat people need to be motivated to not be lazy so they can lose the weight and he personally agreed with Maura that none of us should enjoy watching two unhealthy people be ‘ok’ with it (I guess he meant happy?). It became clear to me that this lack of compassion seemed to be a very American trait, or at least was in this crowd. The other commentators and the mostly European audience were horrified.

    I find it interesting that America has one of the highest-growing obesity rates and also seems to have the least human dignity about it. Granted, this was not a scientific survey, but an observation of the different attitudes displayed during this discussion. Still…fascinated by the gap in cultural approaches and attitudes to the issue. Only the European side was broadly aware that fat does not equal unhealthy and thin does not equal healthy. That concept seemed completely out of the grasp of the American commentator and audience members.

    Thanks for this piece!

  6. Whatever her personal body issue battles have caused her to think and feel inside herself, Ms. Kelly made a choice to write the content she did. You’re a writer, I would venture to guess you don’t publish anything without considering the tone and overall point of what you put out there. No matter which way you swing it, body issues or not, this woman made a choice to openly declare what she did and they were the words of someone who feels entitled to berate and shame others. Homophobic sentiments might come from some personal issues, but is that an excuse to callously toss around words that so distinctly devalue people?

    Sentiments like hers, and the rationalization of such sentiments, are what fuel cycles of shame and validate people who spew such devaluing statements in every day life. This woman is writing from the platform of a national/global magazine aimed at young women, not from some personal blog tucked away in the corners of the internet. Maybe she does have some issues, but it’s no excuse for such extreme insensitivity on a platform such as hers. I have the same attitude toward bloggers who call really thin people “Gross skeletons” or other such petty, hateful commentary.

    Also, I’ve known people who struggled with anorexia and obesity respectively, and the issues are not the same. Ms. Kelly might have a lot of interesting insight into the issues of those suffering with anorexia but she has made it very clear she has zero insight into the other side of the spectrum. Again, she didn’t express these sentiments in a chat or live interview, she CHOSE to make them public in a column. If she’s still suffering skewed perceptions of weight to the point she so freely spouts such cruel statements, she should not be writing for a publication such as Marie Claire.

  7. Part of the reasons Americans are so hostile toward fat people is that America is seen as an obese country. It’s a common negative comment directed at the US from foreigners. Thus, Americans who are not obese come to see obese people are reinforcing a negative stereotype that is (for them individually) not true. Not saying that makes it right, but that’s the obvious psychology behind it.

  8. @Ordo, your explanation vastly overestimates the attention Americans give to “foreigners.”

    Anyway, what I really meant to say was, as dismayed as I was with Ms. Kelly’s essay, I was much more upset with the vitriol of some of the response to it– but that’s life on the Internet, now, isn’t it. Hit as hard and dirty as you can, and run. Two or three wrongs don’t make a right, but they’re so satisfying.

  9. @Theresa, actually, no, I don’t think it does. Many Americans are very attuned to the low opinion certain foreign nations have of them. By the way, I don’t know why you bracketed the word “foreigners” in sarcastic quotes- in this context, it is referring to a person who is not a citizen of the US, is it not? Seems simple enough.

  10. “Child molesters are less hated than the obese.”

    Oh please….tel me when they start jailing fat people, putting them on registers for life, forbidding them to live near schools or just about anywhere to the point they are forced into homelessness, when fat people are subjected to vigilante violence and when the conventional narrative is that fat people can never change.

    Fat people get a huge amount of hatred, and it is unremitting, and it is deadly. It kills people. This disgusting article shocked me, so I guess I was not aware enough of how nasty fat hatred can be. I still have a lot to learn about it. But playing oppression oluympics is not going to help much.

  11. “He said that fat people need to be motivated to not be lazy so they can lose the weight and he personally agreed with Maura that none of us should enjoy watching two unhealthy people be ‘ok’ with it (I guess he meant happy?). ‘

    Unhealthy people – most of this talk about fat and health usually turns out to be concern trolling. He was expressing visceral disgust and hatred and it had nothing to do any concenr for nayone’s health.

    “Still…fascinated by the gap in cultural approaches and attitudes to the issue. ”

    Differing stages of historical development, I suppose. Obesity is rising in all industrial populations worldwide; it just started earlier in the US. The US pioneered food sufficiency (we’ve backslid on that these days) We used to have the same attitudes towards carrying a few extra pounds as Europeans do not – much more relaxed about it. Then too, real hunger as a fact of ongoing daily life is a living memory for lots of Europeans, and not just due to wartime disruptions. That will change with time.

  12. Thank you for a nuanced take. I’ve got the “Going Hungry” book on order from Amazon now. I was furious when I read about this at first, and I still think Kelly needs to do more, but I appreciate having a better understanding of WHY this happened.

    Do you think that this can ever be overcome, this “rewiring”, or is it permanent?

  13. Mr. Schwyzer, you point out that it’s an odd thing for the editors of a women’s magazine to do to entrust the writing of an article about the attractiveness of fat people to a writer whom they know to have been anorexic in the past. And it is…by most standards. But has it occured to you that the editors of Marie Claire may have gotten the exact effect they were aiming at?

    Nothing moves copy like controversy, so…the editors of Marie Claire ask Maura Kelly to write an article which deals with the physical presentability, in the last analysis the fuckability, of the obese. They do this because they know it’s a job which will move her to fright and disgust, and that once she’s written her piece these emotions will practically roll off the page (or the screen, take your pick). The article is completed and it reads just as Kelly’s editors intended it would. They post/publish it. The reaction to the article is not long in building, and it, too, is adequate to requirements.

    I wish I thought this whole kerfuffle was something that just happened, but I don’t. The people who publish women’s magazines have had the opportunity to collect decades’ worth of data about women’s insecurities, and it’s ridiculous to expect them never to make use of the knowledge, which, I suspect, is what they did here.

  14. I don’t know about that, bekabot- it’s a bit too much of a conspiracy. Even if you accept that this nefarious dark council that runs women’s magazines are profiting off women’s insecurity… there are much more effective and less risky ways to do it than this.

  15. Sorry, I just don’t care what her problems are. I really don’t. Some people are assholes. I have no time for them or their sickness. Her comments and her behavior can easily be described as callous, shallow, hateful, hurtful, disrespectful, selfish, and bigoted.

    There is no other side to this story. There is no way to respect her, regardless of her career achievements or the poor choices she has made (if she’s binning obesity as a choice, I’m binning anorexia as a choice.) Think Mel Gibson. He has an actual body of work, unlike Mr. Kelly (adam’s apple and the last time I saw a mouth like that, it had a hook in it.) Is there an apology he can make? Is there an effort made to understand why he said the hurtful things he said? No on both counts. So why does this callous, shallow, hateful, hurtful, disrespectful, selfish and bigoted person get the soft-ball treatment? Because you have a soft-spot for the mentally ill?

    I can’t tell you how to think, but I can say that your position lacks merit in light of her behavior.

  16. “I don’t know about that, bekabot- it’s a bit too much of a conspiracy. Even if you accept that this nefarious dark council that runs women’s magazines…”

    I don’t think that a nefarious dark council runs anything, let alone women’s magazines. If it did we might live in a better organized world. What I do think is that women’s magazines, like all magazines, exist as vehicles for advertising. In order to put advertising across it’s necessary to

    “(profit) off of women’s insecurity”

    Or off the insecurity, basically, of anyone who buys a women’s magazine, or, in the wider sense, the insecurity of anybody who buys any magazine. News magazines, for example, don’t present their readers with the view that the world is a safe place. They’d be lying if they did, of course, but even leaving that consideration aside, they have to motivate their readers to buy the things their advertisers are planning to sell. Secure people are not good targets for sales patter. A man who thinks that all is well with the world is not going to want a new car or a new bottle of Scotch unless his car wears out or gets wrecked or unless he’s drunk up all his booze. He’s not going to be in the market for the feeling of security the purchase of either commodity would afford him. Similarly, a woman who thinks she’s skinny enough is not going to want to buy a new bottle of diet pills. What would she need them for? What use would they be to her?

    “…there are much more effective and less risky ways to do it than this.”

    I think you’re right, in the sense that I think the blowback has probably been greater than anticipated. I imagine that a good many steaming women who fumed that they were going to cancel their subscriptions went right ahead and didn’t do it, but then again there were likely a good many who made good on the threat, and another good many who kept quiet and cancelled without a fuss.

    I read some of the comments appended to Kelly’s article (couldn’t read them all; there were too many for that) and I was impressed at the number of people who realized (accurately) that what was happening was that they were paying good money, in terms of attention if not in terms of actual cash, to be put down. Lots of them seemed to asking themselves why they should do that. What am I doing (was the implication of many of these comments) reading a magazine which has just assured me that I’ll never be a member of its club? Shouldn’t I find something else to do with my time?

    I found that gratifying. So: I agree with you that though what Marie Claire aspired to do was to rivet all its readers what it actually succeeded in doing was to cut lots of them loose. But this is just a subjective impression and I don’t vouch for its veracity.

  17. Dobie, I can respect that position that a harsh condemnation–indeed, disgust–is the proper response to Maura Kelly’s article, rather than Hugo’s more charitable approach. However: Engaging in a nasty little bit of transphobic taunting while implying that sympathy for the mentally ill is a character flaw is probably not the best way of making that case.

  18. They had this exact discussion on Feministe. Jill put forward the idea in her post, and then Chally criticized her for doing so. She said,

    It’s indeed possible that her words or actions are the result of her illness in addition to social attitudes, why not, but the kind of speculation above isn’t grounded in anything, and I find the whole strangers making comments about someone’s personal medical issues on the Internet thing really distasteful, especially in an environment that isn’t exactly going to be friendly to her. So I say, let’s focus on the social issues at play here. :)

    Jill subsequently deleted all mention of it from her post.

  19. I struggled with anorexia, and by your definition of “extreme”, I too was an extreme case.

    I suppose one of my many differences with Ms. Kelly, however, is that I’ve never once felt critical of others weight. For me, anorexia was an attempt to disappear and not take up space. Feminism grounded me in my right to have a voice and a right to at least be heard.

    I really am concerned about the effects her hateful opinion piece will have on those who have anorexia or recovered/are in remission for it. We’re not all like that.

    As for responsibility, yes, Ms. Kelly is responsible for what she wrote. However, the editor surely knew that this would cause such a firestorm and be incredibly hurtful to so many people. In my opinion, it is the editor’s responsibility to the public and to her writers to stop this sort of trash from being published…yet she approved it, and I cannot help but think she did so in the interest of free publicity–bad publicity is still publicity. I find the decision to publish this shady and some other choice words I’ll censor.

  20. Austin, Maura Kelly wrote publicly about her anorexia, and alluded to the very real possibility that her past had impacted her judgment. I posted because no one else in the sphere seemed to be aware of Kelly’s first published essay, and I wanted to draw attention to it to give nuance and sympathy.

  21. I suppose one of my many differences with Ms. Kelly, however, is that I’ve never once felt critical of others weight. For me, anorexia was an attempt to disappear and not take up space. Feminism grounded me in my right to have a voice and a right to at least be heard.

    I really am concerned about the effects her hateful opinion piece will have on those who have anorexia or recovered/are in remission for it. We’re not all like that.

    Demeter, thank you for writing this – it was my first thought as well. I think of myself as a recovering anorexic, even though 10 years later I’m at a low but healthy body weight, and that’s because I will never be fully free of the way eating disorders have caused me to hate my own body. But anorexia is a disease turned toward the self. Part of that is to still look ‘wistfully’ at other anorexics, but that does not translate into the kind of bigotry Maura Kelly espouses. That I should be uncomfortable watching overweight people does not compute with me at all – if anything, at my sickest I was jealous of everyone who was not me.

    Hugo, I read your blog and enjoy your posts, but this is not the first time you’ve ridden to the rescue of a privileged, white female blogger and defended her against the masses. If someone brought up in a fundamentalist religion were writing about how disgusting they thought gay couples BEING OUT IN PUBLIC were, would you call for understanding, or call them out on it? If someone brought up in a segregated society fumed about interracial couples feeling ENTITLED TO BE AMONG OTHERS, would you feel sympathetic and gently ask their critics to understand? Or would you point out that prejudice is not a given consequence of a life lived and that others, even given the same background, do not feel this way?

    I’ve been reading about this in the blogosphere and I see Kelly’s anorexic ‘credentials’ brought up frequently. That aside, there’s no way to be sure that anorexia is the reason Kelly feels so disgusted at having to even see fat people in her vicinity. I don’t see it mentioned yet, but one possible reason that this column was greenlit by the editor is that they assume that their readers feel the same way. That’s often how the fashion world works.

    You’ve written in the past about having body image/weight control issues – why no mention on how that might color your view on the Marie Claire article? Hugo, believe me when I say that this post is both infantilizing and insulting to this recovering (female) anorexic.

    And for the record, Kelly’s “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” does not make for a real apology.

  22. Faraway, I think I’m pretty hard on Maura Kelly here. I call her post “jaw-droppingly hurtful” and “a festival of fat-loathing”. How on earth is that “defending her against the masses”?

    I read the “Going Hungry” anthology, and didn’t see anyone else commenting in the ‘sphere who actually had — and so my take was simply to look at Kelly’s own words in another context to see if that could shed light on why she wrote what she wrote.

    There’s a colossal distinction, isn’t there, between making excuses for someone and looking for explanations for why they wrote what they wrote?

    Indeed, not all are like Kelly (and Ilana Kurshan, whose words form the title of this post). Anorexia is a complicated disease with many variations. I certainly had my own battles with an eating disorder, about which I have not been shy and from which I have some recovery. But again, I don’t think I’m defending Kelly or universalizing from her experience (and those of her fellow writers in the “Going Hungry” anthology, which I cannot recommend highly enough). I’m looking for an explanation, and I think I’ve hit on one possible one. Simply saying “she’s mean” isn’t good enough; it’s not a defense of her words to look at a known phenomenon of body dysmorphia among recovering folks.

  23. I have my own issues with this article, but it’s a bit rich to accuse Hugo of periodically “riding to the rescue of a privileged white female”. Not more than a week ago he wrote a post defending the creator of Penthouse.

  24. Ordo, I think Faraway is thinking of some old posts I wrote in defense of Jessica Valenti and Amanda Marcotte after each blogger’s debut book appeared. Both were received rather critically by certain segments of the feminist blogosphere, and I wrote vigorous and enthusiastic endorsements of both books, and count both writers as friends.

  25. I’m with Dobie – nothing, absolutely nothing, excuses Maura’s mean, hateful, bigoted article. She must have dieted away the compassionate part of her brain. I have no sympathy for this woman and I hope her future writing career is a failture.