Once a year I take myself to a nice hair salon in my town for a haircut. I really don’t take care of my hair. I wash it a few times a week, scrape it back into a ponytail, and that has been that, for decades. But every once in a while I can no longer stand the straw-like brittleness of my mane and I go in to have several inches chopped off. One day after my annual haircut I was leaving the salon when I saw such a strange vision in front of me that I stopped in my tracks. There was a young woman struggling mightily to open the glass door of the salon, apparently on her way out. Her outfit was remarkable. She was wearing huge pink moon boots, a bright pink woolen skirt and winter coat combo, pink fishnet tights, a fluffy knit hat topped with two large pom-poms and a long Norma Desmond-esque scarf with even more pom-poms attached to it, trailing down her back. On top of all this bright pink Hello-Kitty-meets-Coco-Chanel realness was a long shiny straight mass of almost blue-black hair that reached all the way down her back. The outfit and the hair seemed so odd to me, so bizarre, as did her valiant struggle with the door that I simply stood there. Finally I snapped out of it and walked forward to help her. As I went to open the door she said, in an incredibly high-pitched but very sweet Minnie Mouse voice, “Gee. Oh my gosh. This door is so heavy. I can’t believe how heavy it is. Can you open it? This is so funny.” And she giggled like a little girl. The door was not heavy at all. In fact it was quite easy to push it open with one hand. Once I opened the door for her, she walked over to the waiting car service. “Thanks” she waved as she closed the door. But I didn't reply. I couldn't reply. Because what I had seen when I got close to this young woman, so weak she apparently could not even push open a door, was that this was quite clearly someone suffering…maybe even dying…from anorexia nervosa.
Now here’s where I feel compelled to insert a warning…something like “if the subject of anorexia is triggering for you, stop reading now”. But the insidious nature of this disease is that the very readers who would be triggered are the ones who will voraciously continue reading. (See my definition of Ano Inspo.) But for what it’s worth, you’ve been warned.
Back to the hair salon…
I was so shaken by her frailty and skeletal appearance that I had to stop and catch my breath. I felt dazed and confused, as if I had just seen the walking dead. I couldn't leave. I went back to the front desk where the salon’s receptionist lives. I needed to sit down. I needed a glass of water. I felt stunned. Apparently the girl manning the desk that day had witnessed our interaction.
“Are you ok?” she asked kindly. “I’m ok. I just….I think…” and then, surprising myself, I choked up. “I know” the girl said. “It’s so sad. It’s like the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. She's been coming in here for a few years now. Honestly I can’t believe she's still even alive.” Then another client, who had obviously been listening to our conversation chimed in. “That can’t be her real hair, she must have lost her own hair years ago. Her name is Eugenia Cooney. She lives here in town. I’ve seen her around. She’s tragic.”
This happened years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I went home, got on the internet, and fell down a Eugenia Cooney rabbit hole from which I have yet to emerge.
First up, I consulted Wikipedia and was amazed at what I found. Eugenia Sullivan Cooney (born Colleen Cooney, July 27, 1994) is an American YouTuber and internet personality who has severe anorexia nervosa. She was born in Massachusetts and is based in Greenwich, Connecticut and Los Angeles, California. She initially began livestreaming on broadcasting service YouNow, eventually creating her YouTube channel in 2011, which has garnered over 2 million subscribers. Known for her emo and gothic looks, as well as her eating disorder, Cooney's content mainly involves clothing hauls, beauty, cosplay and vlogs of her daily life. She also regularly livestreams on Twitch.
After my shock at the nonchalance of her Wikipedia entry had subsided (“Yes, she's famous for starving herself to death while over 2 million people watch…”) I started looking at her videos on YouTube and her images on Instagram. I found it hard to believe. It seems impossible that a human being in that condition, for close to a decade, is alive. And it is not CGI. I’ve seen it in person. How can this be legal, I wonder, to have millions of people around the world watching a young woman starve herself to death? And it’s not just that…she has sponsors! Companies so desperate for publicity that they will send free items to a dying girl so that they can benefit from her large following. Clothing and makeup and toys and hair products. Shoes and boots and wigs and jewelry. But alas, no food. What would she do with it? All this cheap crap sent to her with the hope that she will post about it. And who is following Eugenia? Who can bear to watch a young woman committing a slow and sickening suicide? Creeps, losers, dirty old men, me, and tens of thousands of current and future anorexics. Eugenia is the poster girl for anorexic inspiration, or Ano Inspo as it is called. These are the images that other anorexics look to when they falter and need to find the strength to continue starving themselves to death. She’s the undisputed queen of this genre. “If Eugenia can do it, then so can I!” I imagine some poor young thing saying to herself (or himself) in the mirror.
But what about my obsession with her? I almost never look at her page now as it is too triggering but I used to visit it quite often. Why? Truth is because I’m still sometimes drawn to the dark side. And this is about as dark as I’ve ever seen it get. I am also in recovery from bulimia, an eating disorder. As an active bulimic I used to envy the anorexics for their ability to just not eat, ever. That causes me great shame to admit, but it’s the truth. I still marvel at Eugenia’s images. Not in the old way where I might admire her strength and determination, but in a new way. With empathy. Because having been trapped in an eating disorder myself I know that recovery from one is possible. Also because after watching several of Eugenia’s earlier social media posts (before the anorexia completely consumed her) I began to like her. Eugenia is very cute. She is charismatic and engaging. She is a talented makeup artist. She seems sweet and funny and friendly but very very lost.
I don’t know how Eugenia is still alive. She lives with her mother, who, based on her appearances in some of her daughter's videos, is also suffering from mental illness...and profound denial. Someone takes Eugenia's photos and also the videos she posts of herself dancing around different parts of our town. She sways there, like a corpse dug up after all the flesh has disintegrated. She’s just a skeleton, translucent skin tightly stretched over her frame. She moves slowly and shakily, her bones clicking and clacking against each other, in time to her own fading beat.
Mostly I have compassion for Eugenia. As an addict, I have lived in the perversion and shame of active self destruction. Eugenia is self destructing in front of the eyes of the world and no one can do a thing. Or so YouTube, Instagram, Twitch and all the other sites where she promotes her illness say. “We can’t block her” they cry. “It’s against community guidelines” they protest. Do I even want to be part of any of those communities any more? A community that allows this? One that promotes eating disorders and then makes money off of them? A community that turns a blind eye to the fetishization of a profound and deadly mental illness? I need to think about that long and hard.
Several years ago one of Eugenia's friends prevailed and they got her into an eating disorder clinic on an involuntary psychiatric hold. She got help, got a little better, and then relapsed back into her anorexia. It’s going to kill her. And her death, as often happens, will make her more famous than she is now. I’m sure there will be a wild outraged cry. “How dare they?? Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, the rest. How dare they give this girl a platform?? How dare they promote this? How dare they allow this??” And the social media companies will apologize, will make some meaningless mindless statements, will donate some cash to some eating disorder cause, and will say “so sad. We had no idea.” Eugenia will be mourned and Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts will cry crocodile tears and say, “oh that was awful. It won’t happen again”. But I know the social media companies will continue to allow these kinds of self-harm images and videos to proliferate. As long as they are making money off the backs of suffering souls like Eugenia Cooney, this will all be allowed.
I hope I run into Eugenia again somewhere in town. I have a vivid fantasy of grabbing her, throwing her into my car and bringing her to our local emergency room. I wish I had done that years ago when I opened the door for her at the salon. I want to save her. I want to help her. I want to will her back to health. I want her to get better. I want her to live. But it has to come from her. She has to want to get better. She has to want to live. From what I’ve seen so far it seems clear that today Eugenia is completely powerless over her anorexia. She may not even realize what is happening to her. Poor Eugenia may not know that the grim reaper is standing right next to her, breathing down her emaciated neck, waiting for just the right moment to spirit her away. And when that happens, the world will have lost a bright and beautiful spark.