Gendering Adderall: Weight Loss, Work, and Cat Marnell's Memoir

Augmenting the Body: Disability, Care and the Posthuman is an interdisciplinary research project that explores practices of bodily augmentation, from caring robots to prosthetic limbs, across the fields of English, Engineering, Healthcare, Philosophy, and Robotics. The project, led by Professor Stuart Murray and funded by a Wellcome Trust Seed Award, involves collaborators from the University of Leeds, the University of Exeter, and Sheffield Robotics.

In this post, Dr Sophie A. Jones (Leeds) reflects on the way contemporary writing figures the relationship between bodily extensions and beauty demands.

How do practices of cognitive augmentation intersect with the gendered labour of beauty management? As part of my contribution to the Augmenting the Body project I have been exploring cultural representations of so-called “smart drugs”—psychostimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, often prescribed for ADHD but also taken off-label to increase stamina and concentration. A particular stereotype of the millenial worker haunts media engagements with psychostimulants: the ambitious worker or student who views contemporary demands for ever-increasing productivity not as an exploitative set of working conditions but as a mode of self-actualization. The figure is epitomized by Bradley Cooper’s protagonist in the 2011 film (and subsequent TV show) Limitless, which follows our protagonist as he discovers, becomes addicted to, and finally makes his fortune from a fictional nootropic drug. This capitalist discourse of productivity enhancement, often tied to an ideal of white masculine professionalism, is pervasive across film, television, and news media. It is only rarely linked to an antecedent stereotype of the stimulant user: the woman for whom “diet pills” are a means not only of surviving the “double day” of waged work and housework, but of meeting a relentless pressure to be thin.

                I am wrong, of course, to distinguish the pressure to be thin from the demands of the working day: appearance maintenance has long been a significant dimension of feminized labour. Despite this, the appetite-suppressing qualities of ADHD drugs, and their relation to gendered working practices, have themselves been suppressed in contemporary narratives of stimulant use. Enter Cat Marnell, the notorious former beauty editor for Lucky magazine and, whose memoir How To Murder Your Life (2017) narrates her rise and fall in the world of beauty journalism through the lens of her addiction to Adderall. Marnell recounts receiving her first Ritalin prescription from her psychiatrist father as a teenage student at a prestigious boarding school on the US east coast. Graduating to Adderall as she climbs the ranks at Condé Nast Publishing, she ultimately quits her “dream job” as Lucky’s beauty editor due to her drug use. She is hired as an “unhealthy health writer” at the fledgling, then let go for the drug addiction that made her such a hot commodity in the first place on a site renowned for mining women’s personal lives for content. She winds up as the author of a column at Vice titled Amphetamine Logic, and her columns grow more and more infrequent until they fade out completely. Her final submissions to the column are in rhyming prose, in what Marnell describes as an attempt to record the habits of thought that attend speed highs.
Marnell has been pitched as a female Hunter S. Thompson, but the freewheeling Gonzo lifestyle feels a long way away: this, instead, is the drug addiction narrative as CV. Marnell structures her personal story as a series of employment opportunities, and the “life” of the title often seems a synonym for “career”. Far from a recovery memoir—“There’s a bottle of Adderall right next to me” (359), the author tells us at the book’s conclusion—How To Murder Your Life still strikes a note of caution for those looking to self-actualize through meaningful work and a stimulant prescription. Drugs helped Marnell both get and lose her shining career. At the same time, she is coy about the extent to which she views staying thin as one of the workplace norms that Adderall helped her meet during her periods of employment. Discussing the early days of her stimulant use as a teen at boarding school, Marnell writes:

I began getting As on math tests. And on essays.I never felt sleepy sitting at a desk ever again. I was always wired—hopped up. It was great. I never had an appetite. I’d already been skinny, but I got really skinny. (49)

Here, skinniness is framed as just another dimension of Ritalin’s performance-enhancing qualities. The concentration and thinness bestowed by the drug are coded as efficient forms of self-management. Later on, though, as Marnell reveals her bulimia, a new language of mental illness emerges to contend with this productivist rhetoric: terms like “addiction” and “eating disorder” displace the image of the “bright-eyed and chatty” student whose thinness is simply an expression of self control. Discussing her return to New York after a spell at the expensive Silver Hill rehab facility, Marnell writes:

Being clean had felt really great in Connecticut. But back in Manhattan, not being on stimulants just felt . . . wrong. My energy didn’t match the city’s energy anymore. I felt very fuzzy around the edges, and just . . . weird and lazy. And I was always hungry! So hungry. I’d gained fifteen pounds since I’d stopped taking Adderall. (177)

In addressing the relationship between Adderall and weight loss, however obliquely and sporadically, How To Murder Your Life draws attention to a dimension of stimulant use that is often pushed to one side as the twenty-first century stereotype of the keen, wired employee displaces the twentieth-century stereotype of the diet pill addicted housewife. Marnell’s decision to structure her addiction memoir around the peaks and troughs of her CV, in line with this new discourse, means that references to appetite suppression and weight management are hushed as soon as they rear up, left at the margin of Marnell’s central tale of jobs gained and lost. What happens if we pause at these references, where Marnell rushes on, and ask how ADHD drugs mediate the collision of employment demands and beauty demands? Why, indeed, are contemporary cultural forms so reluctant to dwell at this intersection, where the gendered labour of appearance maintenance appears so stark and violent? 

Sophie A. Jones is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of English at the University of Leeds, and the Research Assistant on the Wellcome-funded Augmenting the Body project. She is currently writing her first monograph, The Reproductive Politics of American Literature and Film, 1959-1973, and conducting research for a second project on contemporary literature and the medicalisation of attention. 


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