Anorexia and Mimetic Desire

In 1995, televisions were introduced to a corner of the Fiji islands that had never had television before. Fijian culture has traditionally viewed a strong appetite and a strong, “full” body as positive qualities. But within only three years after the introduction of T.V.’s, 74% of the girls there reported feeling “too fat.” A full 69% had already went on a diet. But the most astounding number of all: 11% reported self-induced vomiting. In 1995, the number was zero. 

Since 1995, diagnoses of anorexia nervosa have been dramatically on the rise worldwide. What’s going on? 

Anorexia is an extreme example of how a person may distort reality due to the force of their desire. But all of us, in some way or another, are subject to the same forces as those suffering from anorexia—we just don’t take our mimetic rivalry as far.

The medical name for the disease, anorexia nervosa (literally, “nervous loss of appetite”) is a curious one. An anorexic person does not initially have a “loss of appetite”; rather, he has a mimetic appetite that is so strong that it overrides even the most basic bodily needs for nourishment and sustenance.

Bulimia, a cousin of anorexia, is the same. A bulimic person alternates between fulfilling his desire to eat by gorging on food and his stronger desire to imitate his model…and so he purges. Both bulimia and anorexia, in Girardian terms, are diseases of desire.

The anorexic’s needs are no match for his desires. When they come into conflict, the biological parts of the brain can’t overcome the enormous power of the mimetic brain. The need for basic goods like bodily nourishment can’t restrain the desire to conform to a mimetic model—as found on the pages of Men’s Health, or Teen Vogue, or his Instagram feed. The biological brain totally subordinates itself to the stronger command: to be like the model

His needs have been transformed into desires.

The power of mimetic desire pulls him into a vicious cycle of imitation for a model that eludes his grasp the closer and closer he gets.  

To understand the distortions of mimetic desire and rivalry in the world of internal mediation, we have to see the person suffering from anorexia as someone extremely kindred to us who is a far greater warrior in the battle of desire. It’s enough to examine our own relationship to food to see why. 

If you’re like most people, you have had a topsy-turvy relationship to food. You struggle to align your desires with your needs. You struggle to navigate the mimetic universe surrounding you. 

“Since food is the least dangerous drug,” says Girard, “most of us resort to a mild form of bulimia.” We medicate with food when we’ve had a bad day, and we exert our control over it when it becomes a tyrant. “Feeling in control again, we experience a psychological lift not unlike the exhilaration of the true anorexic.”

We all suffer from anorexia when it comes to our desires. 

It might be called Anorexia Universitaria or Anorexia Musculosa. The Harvard valedictorian has taken the same path, and so has the fitness model with six pack abs, two percent body fat, and veneers. 

They’ve simply chosen different models. 

The most tragic outcome of all is revealed when someone driven by mimetic desire, locked in a mimetic rivalry, finally achieves the goal that he set out to achieve: to possess the object of his desire. 

The moment when he finally possesses it is exactly the moment when it no longer has any value at all. 

Its value was entirely derived from the rivalry—from the fact that there was an obstacle in the way blocking the pathway to the object, mediating its value by making it difficult (or impossible) to possess. 

The subject who comes to possess an object comes to find out that he was wrong. The object must not be the one that he was looking for.
            He finds another model.

He becomes convinced that the object he’s looking for is hidden under a rock too heavy to lift. 

This is why the anorexic can never be satisfied no matter how much weight he loses. The object of his desire has long since ceased to exist. But there always another model, another obstacle to overcome. 

And so it is with us. 

Anorexia praestigia is the Eternal Diet. 

To learn more about anorexia and mimetic desire, see the monograph by Rene Girard here