23: Kelsey Osgood
Kelsey and I spoke about her book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, being seen, good and bad women, cultures of competition, women and Judaism, and an all-female Hasidic rock band.
Kelsey Osgood is a graduate of Columbia University and Goucher College's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has contributed pieces to publications including New York, The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog, Time, Harper's and Salon. Her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. She was a consultant to former head of the FDA David Kessler, MD, on his book Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering (HarperCollins, 2016). Kelsey is a manuscript mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and edits The Read Along column at The Rumpus.
Mariam Gomez was born and raised in southern Spain, and moved to London to pursue her passion for photography. In June 2016, she graduated from the University of the Creative Arts in Fashion Promotion and Imaging.
This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on February 6, 2017. Mariam Gomez photographed the conversation in Kelsey's London apartment.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
KELSEY: I have two brothers, and…I felt very privileged to be a girl. I never had any qualms about girls being able to do less than boys. This probably has a lot to do with my particular background, coming from a relatively comfortable socioeconomic position. You get different messages, and I never got any messages that being female limits you in any way, or even that it means that you have to take certain paths in life. Maybe because I had two younger brothers and I thought they were so stupid and annoying when I was a kid –
KELSEY: I sort of thought that all boys were stupid and annoying. I remember arguing very heavily with a professor in college about…it was a Freud and English Literature class, and I just thought penis envy was the dumbest thing that I had ever heard. And I still think that. I mean, only a man would come up with something that dumb.
KELSEY: There are many parts of me that think if I were someone different, or if I had a different personality, then maybe my life would be easier, but I never really think about being a man. [laughs] On the whole, I think of men as being pretty unifaceted and…
KELSEY: Sort of easy to figure out, and that’s never really interested me —either as a way to be or as a thing to analyze.
Maybe one of many ways that I feel a little bit outside of the zeitgeist is…I mean, obviously I believe that people should have equal salaries. But there isn’t a part of me that feels undervalued as female, so I have a hard time getting on board with a lot of the unhappy rhetoric from more mainstream or visible feminists these days. I’m glad that they [express that], but I don’t really feel that that’s my position in the world, if that makes sense.
SOPHIA: Speaking of “good women,” you talk about anorexia as something that, unlike other behavioral disorders, is the extreme of a behavior that is largely encouraged. Anorexic women are good women, too good, and yet they’re also bad women.
You write, for example, that, “She was the worst and perhaps most successful anorexic I had ever seen.” Can you talk about this relationship between the “good” and the “bad” woman, not only related to anorexia, but as a larger cultural observation?
KELSEY: You could see my idea of myself [as someone who is] always pleased to be female as a kind of revisionism if I also ended up so attracted to this disease that preys on women a majority of the time. It’s hard not to see it as an expression of feeling frustrated with certain sort of female norms, so maybe there was a part of me that wasn’t really pleased about being female.
With regard to the “good” and the “bad”…I have no data whatsoever to back this up, but I think it’s hard to argue with the idea that a lot of people have some need for rebellion when they become adolescents. They want to test the boundaries of their parents, their parents as representatives of society, or society itself. I think it’s pretty normal to feel that way, and I think that for me, as a 12 or 13-year-old, there were certain things that I thought were sort of acceptably rebellious?
KELSEY: To be anorexic in the way that I wanted to do it, which was very loudly and disastrously, could communicate my unhappiness with and confusion about the world at large, but would also communicate certain things about me that were positive. That I was disciplined, that I was a perfectionist – neither one of those things I actually think that I am, frankly, at my core.
KELSEY: Especially in the late 90s, there was a lot of pushback against what people saw as the stereotypical anorexic. When anorexia first became popular, most people thought, “Oh, it’s just vain adolescent girls who don’t care about anything but their weight.” And then in the late 90s, there was a pushback against that, and a lot of people were saying, “No, they’re just overly concerned with others, they’re so altruistic.” That was the way that I wanted to be, but I didn’t feel like that was the way that I was.
So in a way I think that I saw it as killing two birds with one stone. It was a way for me to rebel and express my displeasure with a lot of the things that I thought that society wanted from me, not necessarily as a girl, but as a teenager, more or less. Like, caring about school, accepting the opinions of adults just because they were adults, things like that. And yet at the same time, it didn’t make me look bad, you know? Like, being promiscuous or having a substance abuse problem – in a weird sort of Victorian way, I thought that those [kinds of behavior] would tarnish me in society.
And I think that those ideas largely hold. I think generally, when we hear narratives about girls with eating disorders, I think even those relatively uneducated tend to think of them as good girls who just suffer too much, whereas if you hear a narrative about a young woman with a substance abuse problem, now you might not necessarily think it’s Hester Prynne or anything, but there’s a difference to the way that they’re viewed culturally.
Not to sound cynical, but I think these days, there are a lot of young female celebrities who go to rehab for an eating disorder, for depression, or for anxiety, and I think a lot of the time the public conception is that there’s probably a drug [involved] somewhere. But [admitting that would] just look too bad for their “image.” And that always annoys me a little bit, because I feel like [“good” and “bad” dependencies/disorders] can spring from the same sort of existential need or psychological underpinning, but somehow that there’s shame and stigma attached to one thing and not to another, which unfairly moralizes it, in a way.
SOPHIA: Anorexia seems to provide both a sense of community and a sense of competition between women. I’m thinking primarily of the tendency to constantly undermine how severe or legitimate your own illness is while also being frequently motivated to be the thinnest person in the room. Can you talk about how you understand that kind of feminine relationship?
KELSEY: I think the way that you see the competition thing in anorexia is kind of a hyperized version of the way that you see it…let’s say professionally. There’s been a lot written in the past couple of years about the way women deal with one another in their social lives and in their work lives, right? That they’re doing the same thing: they’re simultaneously coming together, banding together, supporting one another, while at the same time, feeling extra threatened by a woman in the same position, for example – more threatened by the woman than they would be by a man. It’s hard not to view that as something that’s sort of been…culturally sanctioned over the years —that maybe [women] were always told to look at each other more and to view each other as competition, rather than as teammates. Where that started, I don’t know, but I think what you see with anorexics is just kind of the more naked version of that.
SOPHIA: The periods in which you were hospitalized involved being in confined and pathologized quarters with what was basically an all-female community. Did those really intense female living-situations change the way you think about your close relationships with women?
KELSEY: Well, I’ve always had better female friends than male friends. And like I said, growing up, I just thought girls were smarter and more interesting than boys, and I was a girl, so I related to other girls better; that’s what I thought at the time. But my mother always said to me when I was little that I compared myself to other people too much. This was way prior to being diagnosed with or developing an eating disorder; that was just her pointing out something that she thought about my personality.
And I don’t know whether that’s true. Honestly, for the sake of all women, I kind of hope it’s true, because I feel like even now, I [compare myself to other women] a little more than I think is healthy or productive. It’s annoying and embarrassing, and I know that it doesn’t amount to anything for either party, but I do tend to think, “So and so has a better…byline,” or “This person is more successful.” The vocabulary of it is not dissimilar to the vocabulary that I used when I was sick; it was just that that was focused around weight and size and sort of anorexic resume, you might say, whereas now it’s sort of more focused around, I would say, professional success.
Post-my last hospitalization, which was 12 years ago, I made an unprecedented effort to organize my life in such a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have the fodder to do that. I wasn’t wholly confident in my ability to withstand these unwanted competitive ideas unless I did things like not have Facebook, for example. So I sort of cushioned myself in order to try to make sure that I couldn’t do it. I try to do the same thing now; when I see something becoming a point of comparison, I just actively try not to give myself too much material.
And I go back and forth about whether or not…because [avoiding comparison] is not something that’s natural to me, does thats mean that I’m damaged somehow? Or does the fact that I work hard trying to get myself out of these mental whirlpools mean that I’m actually doing a better job than some people? I mean, even that, that’s a kind of competitive –
KELSEY: Is it possible to try to fix the thing underneath, the thing that apparently has always been there, that wants to be able to measure myself very clearly against other people? Or is this the best that I can do, and is that a virtuous thing?
But I will say that I think I have a lot of healthy friendships with girls. A vast majority of my really close relationships are with girls, and friendships from way back in my life. So I can value them, and I try to. It’s more recent acquaintances that I sometimes get a little caught up in. “Am I good enough for this person? Do they think that I’m a failure?” Stuff like that. Like I said, the internal dialogue looks very much like it did when I was sick, except for the content is a little bit different, so it makes me wary.
SOPHIA: You write that “To be seen is a common desire of the eating disordered.” I think that the most common response to that desire to be seen would attribute it to something like the visibility of fashion models. Where do you see that desire as being located? Have you also understood it to originate in cultural images, or does it come from somewhere more internal? This doesn’t have to be a global question; it could just be about you.
KELSEY: I think it’s really different for each individual. I do think that cultural images play a role. I don’t think that they’re the be-all and end-all, because otherwise all women would have eating disorders. A lot of people make the argument that all women do have eating disorders. That’s a separate issue, but I don’t think that. I’m talking about like, clinically diagnosable, reaching the threshold eating disorders. Not all women have that. Maybe all women have neuroses around food, or feel bad about themselves in some way or another, but that’s kind of normal. A lot of people feel bad about themselves in one way or another; you can’t eradicate that from life.
Anyway, I think [cultural images] play a role, but I don’t think they’re the final factor, if you will. I think personally I felt a little ignored [by the people around me] and I don’t know that was actually something that was reflected in my life or it’s just something that I felt. It’s possible that people have different appetites, no pun intended, for being recognized within their family, within their school, within their society.
Just as a counterexample to [the idea that cultural images play a definitive role]: the second and third times I was in the hospital, both places had a disproportionate number of young people from very Orthodox Jewish and Hasidic backgrounds. In particular, I remember there was a girl who was maybe 11 at the hospital in Westchester County, who was one of 9 or 10 children in her family. It was her second time in the hospital, maybe even third. But this girl had never seen pictures of runway models, you know? She came from a very, very insular community. She probably had never watched television before. The supermodel, the heroin-chic 90s had not touched her, and yet she ascribed the same value system that the rest of us did, that it was better to be thinner, that you shouldn’t be eating, all this stuff. She had a necklace on, so one day I asked her who gave her the necklace. She said, “Oh, my grandfather gave it to me.” And I said, “Oh, do your brothers and sisters have one too?” And she said, “No, just me.” And I asked, “Why just you?” And she said, “Because I’m the one in the hospital.” And I said, “Oh, I see.”
Because for her, the being-seen was a function of her own personal survival. She came from this huge family where a lot of the kids were probably taking on the responsibilities of caring for their siblings. And that was her way of making people stop and think of her as the special individual within this large group. But again, that’s an impulse very specific to her circumstance, and I think it’s very different for each person.
SOPHIA: I know you converted to Judaism somewhat late in life. How did that change your relationship to your own womanhood?
KELSEY: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because when I was in New York most recently, I went with a friend of mine, and she belongs to a new club that’s a women’s-only space.
SOPHIA: Is it The Wing?
KELSEY: Yeah, it’s The Wing. And I was thinking about it, because I had seen a number of articles in its aftermath about like, “Do women need their own spaces?” - sort of evaluating the purpose of these areas that women are starting to carve out for themselves. And it’s funny for me, because I thought, “This is an extremely common thing in the religious world, to have women-only gatherings.” Now, you could make the argument that these spaces in the religious world were designed that way because these are patriarchal systems, just the way you could argue, as I think people do, about places like The Wing are, in their own way, sort of sexist.
I see both sides of that argument, and I think that if I had grown up very religious, my relationship to it would be quite different. But for me personally, becoming a relatively observant Jewish person has made my relationship to my femininity and my life as a human being a lot calmer and more measured. It works for me. I think there’s a lot in Judaism that really respects the natural value of women. For example, if you’re an observant Jewish man, there are a lot of things that you have to do that women don’t have to do. I mean, frankly, Jewish women don’t really have to do that much at all. There is a domestic ideal about it, but not necessarily within the community where I live, you might say. There isn’t this balabusta expectation that you cook perfectly and all that. But, for example, men have to pray three times a day, men have to lay tefillin… Women don’t have to do that —the idea being that women are naturally more connected to the spiritual realm than men are. And I’ve sort of always felt that way, so for me it works perfectly well.
KELSEY: Again, this is with the very hearty disclaimer that if I had grown up religious, I think my relationship to it would be a lot different. I would call myself and my husband moderate Orthodox, and there are a lot of people we know who are frustrated by the ways in which they feel their gender limits them, and I’m very sympathetic to that. It’s not something that I feel is my battle to fight, honestly.
But I do find it very interesting to see the dominant secular culture and what I’ll just just say is the Jewish culture align in this way. In so many ways they purport to be about very different things, but yet you see this alignment in terms of figuring out how to give women their own space where they can be together, feel empowered, and have their own conversation.
A couple years ago, I wrote a piece where I brought up this band, who, they’re no longer together, but it was a Hasidic all-girls rock group [the Bulletproof Stockings]. They only performed in front of women because they observed a law that’s known as kol isha, which is not that women shouldn’t be allowed to sing in front of men, it’s that men shouldn’t be allowed to listen to women sing. The way that they described it was that technically, they could sing wherever they wanted; it’s the man’s responsibility to not hear the woman. I frankly don’t know much about this law; it’s not something that I follow in my practice. But anyway, it was funny to me to read all the reactions to this profile of them, because half of them were very left-wing feminists being like, “This is amazing! But at the same time, I’m weirded out by the fact that I think this is amazing, because I think that they come from a rather patriarchal, repressed culture, so what am I supposed to do with this?” [laughs]
SOPHIA: How do you think that we as a culture can better care for adolescent girls?
KELSEY: I read recently that calling yourself cynical is self-congratulatory, it’s becoming the new “exhausted,” so…
KELSEY: I don’t want to call myself cynical, but I am a bit of a Luddite by nature and also by design, and I do worry that the prevalence of social media has some negative effects on young women. It’s not going away, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but I do wonder if there isn’t some way that we can help them sort of manage understanding of its effects on their lives. Maybe not even that, but understanding that the validation that they get from a digital life is oftentimes fleeting, and maybe not a substitute for the things that they can do in their real lives. I have no idea how to do that; I don’t work in the field!
SOPHIA: How has your idea of womanhood changed over the course of your life?
KELSEY: Frankly, not all that much. I still kind of think that being female is much better than being male. I’m still quite happy to be female. There was a part of me that really hoped/expected that when I got pregnant, I would become this beacon of maternal beauty and would just kind of walk around glowing all of the time, and that would mean that I would finally understand the true holiness of not only of being a female but of being human. That didn’t exactly happen.
KELSEY: I mean, I’m happy to be pregnant, but I’m still kind of the same asshole that I always was, in a lot of ways. I’m just still very happy that, just like when I was a little girl, there’s no part of me that ever thought, “If only I were male.” I think that this is enough.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
KELSEY: I have a hard time envisioning something that’s specific to the female world. I do think that there are a lot of things that we can do for each other as humans, particularly in this moment in our history.
I do think that there is a bit of a lack of empathy generally, and an inability to put ourselves into the positions of other people. I was just visiting a friend of mine here who had a baby, a 10 month old, and she was talking about being on Instagram and the subtly moralizing way that people talk about things like childbirth and breastfeeding, for example. I get where it comes from, because there’s been so much time where talking these things was shameful, or where at best, people only wanted to hear about a certain part of it. So there’s a little pushback there: now we should be able to talk about breastfeeding, and I should be able to have the kind of birth that I want to have. But there are plenty of people who can’t have the kind of birth that they want because either they don’t have the money, because something goes wrong medically, or because they have difficulty breastfeeding, which is actually quite normal. So I do wish people would be a little more thoughtful in the way that they communicate with each other.
That’s a really small-scale example, but I think that it’s emblematic of the way that we’re kind of shouting our personal choices at each other, like, “I should be allowed to do this!” Well, you are allowed to do that, but you’re also allowed to just do that and keep it to yourself – you’re not thinking about how that necessarily makes other people feel. Not to sound like such a curmudgeon, but a little more restraint before we start to ascribe virtues to certain ways of living would be wonderful. I don’t know if that’s more prevalent in the female world than in the male world, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that it was.
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