Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thoughts on a Portmanteau: Manorexia, Drunkorexia, and Liarexia

Webster's, 1894: Anorexy: Want of appetite, without a loathing of food

As Portmanteau Week here at The Beheld* concludes, I’d like to turn away from cankles and mandals—I know, how could anyone turn away from mandals?—to something with a tad more gravity: manorexia, drunkorexia, and liarexia.

These spinoffs of anorexia seem, at first (and second) look to undermine the severity of these conditions. Anorexia indicates that the sufferer needs treatment; manorexia implies that the sufferer is an outlier, not quite an anorexic (even though that’s exactly what he is), more of an anomaly than a person who might be welcomed into a treatment community. Drunkorexia conjures up not anorexia with alcoholism comorbidity (or alcoholism with disordered eating comorbidity) but a gaggle of sorority girls who skip dinner so they can hit up the beer bong and still fit into their Sevens. As for liarexia, the word didn’t appear to exist until this very month, with the Daily Mail piece about women who eat heartily in public but who restrict in private. The condition, of course, has been around for ages—it falls under the umbrella of ED-NOS, or eating disorder not otherwise specified, which actually has a higher mortality rate than both anorexia and bulimia.

Overall, I’m inclined to agree with Stephanie Marcus at The Huffington Post, who writes that “labeling the behavior ‘liarexia’ distracts from its seriousness,” which I feel goes for all of the above terms. But here’s where I’m going to trot out my beloved Gloria Steinem quote again: Because of feminism, “We have terms like sexual harassment and battered women. A few years ago, they were just called life.” The emergence of manorexia shows that people are beginning to understand that men can be afflicted with eating disorders—something that wasn’t true outside of the medical community (and often within it) less than a decade ago. Drunkorexia might get the mental wheels turning in some women who have been doing it for so long that they don’t realize it might actually be a problem, not just a Saturday night. As for liarexia, it highlights the larger problem behind the condition: We’re so on guard about women’s food intake—and we attach so much emotional and moral value to what we eat—that eating a cheeseburger becomes a signal that all is well on the food front, even when it’s not. See also: DIPE, or Documented Instances of Public Eating—which, incidentally, the Daily Mail piece addressed.

In fact, the Daily Mail piece that raised my ire is actually a pretty solid piece that raises awareness that one doesn’t have to have a full-fledged eating disorder in order to have a problem. I’m constantly reading up on this stuff, so I’m always glad to see a public take on eating disorders that goes beyond the classic poor-little-rich-girl tale (thankfully, there are more complex depictions of EDs out there now, but that’s a fairly recent development). But most people learn about eating disorders primarily through mainstream outlets, and by relying on cutesy terms, those outlets are failing the public. The Columbia Journalism Review opined that this New York Times piece about anorexia offshoots was frivolous, even as the writer stressed that addictions and eating disorders are troubling. “But worth nearly 1,400 words in the Sunday Times (the Style section, but still)—and deserving of the implicit validation that comes from reference as a ‘phenomenon’? Doubtful.” Yet I’m doubtful that the CJR would have taken issue with the topic if actual medical terms—say, anorexia with alcholism comorbidity, or ED-NOS—were used instead of the word drunkorexia. In pointing fingers at the Times for its reportage, the CJR dismissed a legitimate concern as a “trend piece.” But with a word like drunkorexia, can you blame them?

Anorexia spinoffs are the inverse of cankles: Where cankles invents a trivial problem to shame us, drunkorexia/manorexia/liarexia labels an existing legitimate problem and then inadvertently trivializes it. And I am fairly sure it’s inadvertent: Neither the Daily Mail liarexia piece nor the New York Times drunkorexia piece glosses over the issues at stake. (I’m picky about the way this stuff is reported and certainly see gaps in the presentation of the information, but overall I found it reasonably responsible.) What I’d like to see from here is a proper naming of what’s going on. If coining one corner of ED-NOS as liarexia helps alert some of its sufferers that what they’re doing is not normal behavior, then I don’t want to get rid of liarexia. Admitting to yourself that you have an eating disorder—especially when it’s not one that leaves you thin enough to warrant concern from others, or that doesn’t have easily diagnosable behaviors like purging—can be a long, self-searching process. My optimistic hope is that the minimizing of ED-NOS through terms like liarexia and drunkorexia may, on occasion, worm their way into sufferers’ minds in a way that a clinical term might not. (Manorexia is more problematic: Men with eating disorders already suffer a double shame, both the shame of having an ED in the first place and then the shame of not being taken as seriously as a woman with the same symptoms might. Male anorectics are already sidelined and belittled enough—but I suppose that there may be anorexic men who find solace in the term, as it indicates that other men suffer in the same way.)

I just want these terms to be portals to real discussion that could lead to real treatment for the people who need it, instead of allowing them to reside in the mental space created by the trivialization of their problem. I’m guessing that for every woman for whom hearing drunkorexia sounds an alarm, there’s another woman who uses it to laugh off her symptoms, popping martini olives—you know, dinner—into her mouth as she jokes about being drunkorexic. If we’re going to use these words as ways to develop a more comprehensive understanding of eating disorders, we need to do so with care.

*    *    *    *    *

Language evolves with the people: Copyediting is my bread and butter, but nonetheless I wholeheartedly subscribe to a descriptive approach to words and grammar. (Don’t tell my clients!) You’ll never find me hand-wringing over the inclusion of LOL, OMG, or IMHO in Oxford; these are terms we use to help us communicate, and if we’re going to communicate effectively we need to make good use of all the tools at our disposal, IMHO. This includes portmanteaux—even the ones I’ve examined with skepticism this week.

But I’d suggest that we should proceed with caution when coining new words. There’s no evidence that language changes more quickly than it did before the Internet; what the Internet has done is give rise to the ability to create mini-phenomenon. When I was researching terms for Portmanteau Week, it stood out to me how the words were clustered. Cankles hit its peak in 2009 (it had gone mainstream well before then, but 2009 provided the most buzz); drunkorexia was big in 2008; liarexia has more than 14,000 Google hits, and I’ve yet to find one of those results published before July of this year. (Mandals, ever the outlier, stands alone, popping up with seasonal regularity.)

What this indicates to me is that we’re eager to examine what may (manorexia) or may not (cankles) be a genuine cultural shift, and that we’re getting better than ever at coining catchy words to describe them. I’d like to see us be careful to not chase clever terminology at the expense of the actual meaning of the words. Trend-ifying portmanteaux may hopefully (hopefully!) work well when we're talking about things like cankles (if we can agree that 2006-2009 was the era of the cankle and be done with it, I'll be thrilled). But it doesn't work out so nicely when we're talking about legitimate concerns that need legitimate examination. We can't allow for the issues behind those talk-cute terms to be swept under the rug once their press cycle has expired.
If coining manorexia leads more sick men to seek treatment for anorexia, fantastic—but we need to keep discussing these issues in order to avoid turning them into the trend that their catchy portmanteaux labels indicate they are. Let’s not forget that the Times drunkorexia piece appeared in the Fashion & Style section (as do most things affecting the ladies, but that’s a different post). Human suffering is not a trend, and giving it the trend treatment makes that easy to forget.


*Note that I must qualify Portmanteau Week with “at The Beheld,” because otherwise I’d run the risk of confusing readers who surely participated in 1995’s “Fun People” Portmanteau Week. Everything I do, I do it for you. Also, please allow the record to reflect that as analytical as I got here, I recognize that the concept of Portmanteau Week is utterly ridiculous. Or—and with this I shall allow Portmanteau Week to close with love—ridonkulous.


  1. "Anorexia spinoffs are the inverse of cankles: Where cankles invents a trivial problem to shame us, drunkorexia/manorexia/liarexia labels an existing legitimate problem and then inadvertently trivializes it."

    Gasp! I hadn't seen that.

    "Let’s not forget that the Times drunkorexia piece appeared in the Fashion & Style section (as do most things affecting the ladies, but that’s a different post)."

    I look forward to that post.

    Also, wouldn't alcorexia have been a better portmanteau? Why doesn't anyone call me when they're making these decisions?

  2. I've had manorexics in my classes. They often overexercise as well. When they confide to me their diet and exercise regime...I'm at a loss.

    The terms drunkorexia and liarexia are actually new to me--although I recognize the phenomenon they describe. If the cute terms work to draw initial attention to a phenomena that people don't talk about, it is a start. I agree though that the discussion shouldn't stop there.

  3. Rebekah, I'd nominate you for the Portmanteau Committee, if it existed, because alcorexia wouldn't be raising my ire so much here! At least it's Latin!

    Terri, that must be difficult for you to see face-to-face. I haven't met male anorexics, but I do have a male friend with what this laywoman would definitely term ED-NOS--I've never met anyone as restrictive as he is with his diet, even though he's the model of physical health. He doesn't seem to be deriving pleasure from food, and it just makes me sad to see.