We are currently learning about logical fallacies in my English class: arguments a writer or speaker makes to obscure the truth, to create a somewhat inaccurate understanding of an issue in the eyes of the audience. This can lead to audience action that may not be warranted. Influential people, such as politicians, will sometimes use these fallacies to their advantage. This is why experienced readers must be aware of all different types of logical fallacies, so they can be recognized and the writer will not be able to manipulate the reader.
Eating disorders are like fraudulent politicians. They enter the brain and attempt to gain control by rallying emotions that are stronger than rational thinking. This is why a person taken over by an eating disorder loses some of their ability to think rationally, and becomes a sort of slave to the eating disorder, robotically performing commanded tasks that don’t really make sense. Why would a reasonable person push themselves past the limit of health or comfort, exercising rather than hanging out with friends, eating meals meant for rabbits rather than enjoying a balanced meal diverse in food groups? Why would that person insist upon being the skinniest person in the room, even when this goal is certain to lead to hospitalization? Why would anyone with the ability to think rationally let a dictatorial power invade the brain, imposing a cage that closes in around the victim on all sides, growing tighter and tighter and shutting out all light?
I have never studied psychology, but I do know that in order for such things to happen, very persuasive thoughts must enter the brain. They must build in strength and numbers, until their voice is louder than the voice of common reason. The perverse thoughts do this through riveting emotional appeals that, when examined closely, can be characterized as logical fallacies. While the brain is under the control of these thoughts, they seem very real and forceful. They make us feel as if our only choice is to follow them and do unhealthy things to our bodies in pursuit of their goals. I want to recognize and acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to rise above these thoughts. When they are very real and imminent, it can be very helpful if one seeks the aid of a psychiatrist. I am no psychiatrist myself, but I do know these thoughts are tough to conquer. In order to rise above illogical thoughts, we must first recognize that they are illogical.
Here are some common types of logical fallacies I have been learning about in school. I feel each of these has a parallel in the brain when it comes to eating-disordered thoughts. They should be treated in the same way: recognized as unreasonable and then disregarded. In this blog post, I will discuss three particular logical fallacies that closely parallel eating-disordered thinking.
The Bandwagon Appeal
One logical fallacy we see every day is the “Bandwagon” Appeal. “Everybody’s doing it!” As an adolescent in the midst of today’s media jungle, pressures are constantly being applied from various sources to look and act a certain way. Teens of both genders feel the need to look cool like the airbrushed, plastic-surgery-ed celebrities in every magazine, on every billboard. And if looking like an anorexic model means eating like one, many teens will make that decision, thinking they aren’t cool if they do not. Many teens think being popular depends on being thin.
The error in this reasoning is that one won’t be popular if one is a brainless (skinny) jellyfish, floating aimlessly through life, lacking the energy to entertain others, let alone ask that cute boy for his number. The truth is that starving oneself is not normal, and in fact those who do starve themselves are whispered about and ostracized, often by that very same popular crew who created the bandwagon in the first place.
A good way to avoid jumping on this fatal bandwagon is to have a role model. One who stands out from the homogenous mass of skeletal celebrities, as a unique and powerful person who isn’t afraid of his or her own body. My role model, at least in this respect, is Kate Upton: she has a great feminine body and embraces it. By thinking of Kate Upton, I can feel like there is at least one like-minded celebrity out there. I belong to a group, just not the group on that bandwagon that’s driving to no good place.
A cute example of the “Slippery Slope” is Laura Joeffe Numeroff’s beloved If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, in which, as we probably all know, one action leads to another and another until ultimately the consequences of one cookie are quite enormous. (Spoiler alert for those who haven’t read it!) The reason a “slippery slope” is a fallacy is because it is usually designed to frighten the audience into desperate avoidance of an action that, in truth, may not produce such dire consequences as the writer or speaker would like the audience to believe.
Eating-disordered thoughts can work this way as well. For example: “don’t touch that cookie! If you eat one cookie you’ll eat another, and another, and soon you’ll eat the whole bag! Then you’ll be fat, you’ll never get a boyfriend and everyone will make fun of you.” The slippery slope lubricates itself with help from its sister the bandwagon appeal, combining to show you the treacherous path ahead if you eat one cookie.
When thoughts start to get out of control, it’s essential to first recognize this. Realize that there are many paths ahead, not just the one that leads down a steep cliff into the dreaded abyss. It is completely possible for a health-conscious person to determine to take the path of eating just one or two cookies, then stopping right there. Moderate eating includes the occasional indulgence, and it is perfectly safe and acceptable to eat a cookie every once in a while. So let yourself feel safe, and take the right path to earn your own trust.
When politicians can’t address a daunting issue, they will often set up a fake issue to tackle so the public believes the politician is taking action. The “strawman” is the imaginary, wicked opposition to the good of the people. The politician creates a strawman in his/her speeches just to knock it down.
Teenagers live in a world of angst. Our lives are fraught with insurmountable expectations, social pressures, and stressful situations over which we have little or no control. But I think sometimes we tell ourselves, “I do have total control over my life! I can make everything rosy if I just get skinny.” Losing weight can be hard, but it’s not as hard as ensuring one’s success at being accepted into Harvard, or getting the most popular guy in school to ask one out. Losing weight is a mathematical function based on scientific principles: you put in one number, and another comes out. No mind-reading or charisma necessary. It’s a relatively easy strawman to knock down. I think this is why we often tell ourselves all our problems will disappear if we lose weight: we are putting off dealing with an ambiguous reality.
But losing weight isn’t really the solution to all the problems of a stressed teen. In fact, if eating-disordered thoughts take over, it is difficult to accomplish much else. While the teen is slaving for hours at the gym, her crush will take out some other girl for ice cream. While the teen is in the hospital being force-fed, the other kids will be busy building up their resumés and applying to college. So none of the original problems have been solved. In addition, more problems are created, what with everyone gossiping about the mysterious absence, and the huge hospital bill that just might have to come out of the Harvard fund.
No, it isn’t possible to control every aspect of life. But if one sets up the weight-loss strawman, one’s life may just spin even more out of control. Personally, I try to put stressors such as college or social issues in perspective, so they don’t seem so big and scary. I accept that I will not be able to control everything. But at least I can control everything in my power. I apply myself at school and do my personal best at every endeavor I choose to take on, realizing that all I can do is all that can be done. When something is out of my hands I often have to remind myself that there is no point in agonizing over it; life goes on and the flow of things will take me where I am headed, with the compass of my best work pointing the way.
I could go on forever. Every logical fallacy in the book is employed by the irrationality of eating-disordered thoughts. Frankly, eating-disordered thoughts are consummate liars. The logic behind them is thinner than spider silk, and they take over the mind through manipulation like the most rotten politicians in history. As thinkers, we need to be savvy about which thoughts deserve any of our precious time, and which need to be disregarded at once. If your mind is being overrun by forceful, irrational thoughts, do yourself a favor and think twice. Stay strong, be unique and be you! You don’t need to be the skinniest person on the planet to be a good, successful and happy individual.