Fiona Geraghty, a 14-year-old student at a private boarding school, suffered from bulimia. Fellow students sometimes saw her purging. Geraghty complained to her doctor and her parents that girls at the school were taunting her about being "fat." Then she hanged herself in her bedroom.
Geraghty died last year, but the coroner has only just concluded the inquest into her death. And, somewhat surprisingly, neither the school — which denies it has a bullying problem — nor the medical establishment — her parents think the eating disorder treatment Geraghty was offered was inadequate — comes in for any particular criticism. Who is to blame for Geraghty's death, according to the coroner? "The fashion industry" and "the media" and also "the Internet."
The one class of person not here who I feel [is] directly responsible for what happened is the fashion industry. The problems of eating disorders amongst young people, particularly girls, did not exist before the 1970s. From that period onwards the fashion industry and the magazines promoted thin models and the thin figure. I do ask, particularly the magazines in the fashion industry, to stop publishing photographs of wafer-thin girls. One magazine, I believe Vogue, has recently taken the decision not to do so. I do implore it, because at the end of the day for their benefit, families like this must suffer. It is, I am afraid, an increasing problem and until they control themselves it will continue.
The period just after the suicide of a 14-year-old girl who, already suffering from the kind of embodied anguish that led in her case to an eating disorder, was bullied because of her weight, is the wrong time for the point-scoring and Fisking the Internet is good for. Nonetheless, one struggles to imagine how any — presumably decently educated — person alive in the 21st century could rise to a position of public trust, such as coroner, while laboring under the profound misimpression that anorexia was invented in the 1970s.
The wrongheadedness of this coroner's verdict is staggering: invoking "the fashion industry" as some kind of vague, amorphous boogeyman "directly responsible" for a girl's suicide, rather than focusing on Geraghty's distress at the hands of her bullies and trying to examine whether appropriate measures were taken to get her adequate medical care, is not only woefully inadequate but likely to endanger the lives of other teenagers who are vulnerable to bullying and/or eating disorders.
The media's often pernicious impact on body image, particularly women's body image, and most particularly of all young women's body image, is undeniable. But it's not clear whether fashion magazines played any role in Geraghty's illness. It is clear that she suffered terribly at the hands of her classmates and made complaints through the appropriate channels. And that her school did nothing. Surely the coroner, rather than treating us to his bizarre counterfactual theory of the etiology of eating disorders in teenaged girls, could make some recommendations about better bullying policies in the local school district? Or better treatment options for ED patients?
The school principal told the inquest that Geraghty was not bullied, but there was "rather a clash of personalities common in girls of that age." Which sounds like a euphemism for bullying if ever we heard one. "I do not believe she was bullied." He continued, in what must be the understatement of the century, "I think the important thing…is that our thoughts are with the Geraghty family. They deserve our sympathy, it is a terrible time for them. They have had a really rough year."
The Geraghtys, for their part, don't seem to blame an abstraction for their daughter's death. They blame the treatment she was given for her bulimia. "Eating disorders are common. We feel that the diagnosis and treatment of Fiona's eating disorder … was inadequate."
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