The mental health crisis is one of the many results of capitalism’s war of attrition against the youth and working class. Faced with a world of endless war, austerity, and instability, record numbers of workers and youth suffer from mental health issues.
Among the most deadly psychiatric illnesses are eating disorders, which transform what is meant to nourish and sustain us into an endless source of torment and misery. As many as 20% of people with eating disorders die without proper treatment, which is too often expensive and economically out of reach. And this figure does not take into account cases that go unreported, either due to lack of access to healthcare, or through shame and denial. In fact, 70% of people with eating disorders never seek help. To put an end to this atrocity, we must first understand the origins of body hatred.
Throughout history, we have seen examples of disordered eating patterns, such as fasting. However, this was usually for religious reasons, rather than an obsession with body image or the pursuit of an unattainable ideal of beauty. It is not until the 1930s that we see the first recorded instances of weight-phobia, of people afraid to gain weight. One component in the rise of unattainably thin beauty standards was the growth of capitalist mass media, which pushed such ideals into the minds of people everywhere. By peddling products that will allegedly allow us to achieve unattainable beauty ideals, the capitalists profit from our shame and self-hatred as we hold ourselves to unrealistic and unhealthy standards.
While working-class people face these pressures, they often simultaneously live in food deserts, where the only food options that their schedules and wallets can handle are highly processed and unhealthy. On top of this, we are often too busy to exercise and take care of our health. In this environment, capitalists push quick fixes that are assured to give us the body and life of our dreams. Thinness is presented as a miracle drug, guaranteed to solve all of our problems. In a world where stability and happiness are increasingly fleeting, people are desperate for a lifeboat. In the United States, the diet industry accounts for $60 billion every year. Under capitalism, we are taught to hate ourselves and our bodies so that the capitalists can sell us quick fixes in the form of diet supplements and juice cleanses.
It is under these conditions that people develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Eating disorders represent a desperate grasp for control that quickly turns into its opposite and takes over people’s lives. All the energy that could be spent reading, creating, or spending time with friends is instead spent worrying about whether you’ll be able to control your food. Nourishment turns into its opposite.
Capitalists have no incentive to put an end to the conditions that lead to eating disorders because these disorders are profitable. Those who seek professional help for eating disorders face astronomical hospital bills. In-patient care can cost as much as $30,000 per month, while long-term outpatient care can cost as much as $100,000 over a lifetime. Goldman Sachs recently stated that curing patients is not a good business model. Needless to say, we can’t trust the capitalists to solve this or any other fundamental problem we face!
Another “solution” offered by the capitalists is to feature “plus-sized” models. Though this is celebrated as something “progressive,” the capitalists do this not out of benevolence, but because of their cynical desire for higher profits. A plus-sized ad does not relieve people from the constant pressures of our society. To think otherwise is idealism. In the United States alone, the plus-sized market is worth $20 billion, and research has found that hyper-idealized models can deter shoppers. The only solutions that matter to the capitalists are ones that add to their bottom line.
The burden of changing poor mental health is put on the shoulders of the afflicted. We are taught that if only we would love ourselves, then all our problems would go away. However, it is absurd to believe that we can inoculate ourselves against the pressures of capitalism, that we can somehow magically solve collective societal problems through individualist means. The idea of “self-empowerment” is ultimately reactionary because the system that profits from our self-hatred is left untouched. To solve this epidemic, we have to attack the problem at its root.
The prevalence of such disorders is an indictment of capitalism’s willingness to sacrifice people’s lives and well-being at the altar of capital. A socialist solution would start by nationalizing the healthcare and food industries to ensure that everyone can live a healthy and well-nourished life. We would also nationalize the media and place it under democratic workers’ control to put an end to the profit-driven manufacture of insecurity and anxiety. And by reducing the work week to 20 hours and dramatically increasing wages, we can end unemployment and allow everyone more time and energy to live fully rounded lives. In short, only by putting an end to capitalism can we put an end to the suffering and misery it breeds.