Note: This is a non-link-heavy post, written so I can work through some of these ideological debates of seeing eating disorders and related problems as feminist issues.
Also, a disclaimer: In this post, it is not my intention to invalidate those male-identified or non-gendered people's experiences with eating disorders. I address myself to girls and women not because I believe they are the only ones who truly suffer from eating disorders, but because they are the most oppressed by the patriarchal beauty myth, and suffer in greater numbers from eating disorders.
I do not have an eating disorder.
I say this because I have never been diagnosed as such. I won't deny that I go through cycles where I don't eat more than 500 calories a day (if that), where I purge the calories I do eat, where I fight with myself about the prospect of eating a meal or snack or skipping it. However, I've never lost more than 20 pounds from this disordered eating, and I've never really been treated by anyone as though I were anorexic or bulimic, nor do I think I should be. I do not have an eating disorder. I simply partake in cyclical disordered eating.
Given the rest of the content on this blog, and the fact that my major at a predominant single-sex college is the Study of Women and Gender (SWaG), this is hardly the expected mindset. I should be all, "damn the Man" and "fuck the patriarchy" and "down with the beauty myth." And, in theory, I am. In practice, though, it's another story.
My being a feminist does not, unfortunately, make me immune to the widespread dissatisfaction of women with their bodies. I, too, hate my body. Well, that's not entirely true. My ass is pretty shapely. And I enjoy my surgery scar on my knee. But everything else? There's definitely room for improvement, to say the least.
And see? Even that, I know, is problematic. Seeing my body as something that needs to be improving. Wanting that waifish, bony (read: passive, unaggressive) body is purely a product of the patriarchy.
I know this.
And because I know this, I'm having an ideological dilemma. On the one hand, I have the typical eating-disorder-esque mindset of self-hatred and celery sticks*. On the other, though, I fully recognize and acknowledge that the source of the majority of the aspects of this mindset lie in the way that my mind has been socially constructed to play into the patriarchal beauty myth. I recognize these things, but I cannot change them.
Part of the reason I use this disordered eating is because I want that socially constructed impossible ideal of the 6-pack abs - the "perfect" body. I know that this body is largely unattainable, and my desire to attain this level of "perfection" plays easily into the hands of the patriarchy. But that doesn't mean that the social pressures to attain this ideal affect me any less.
But the main reason that I need these disordered eating patterns is control. It is an explicitly personal need to control my life and what happens in it. It being so explicitly personal, it almost becomes easy to dismiss it as not really part of the patriarchy, because it is my (intrinsic?) "nature" that makes me so reliant on the idea of self-control. It's not, and I know this. After all, the personal is political. And the personal, too, is largely socially constructed.
I need that control. And no amount of feminist theory can give that to me.
So where does that leave feminism in regards to the prevention/treatment of eating disorders/disordered eating/distorted body images? Is it even relevant? Can it even be helpful?
I'm inclined to say yes, if only because I'm an idealist. But it's a conditional "yes."
Feminism, I don't think, can explicitly do anything for those already severely indoctrinated with the ridiculous bodily ideals of the patriarchy. I'm sure there are cases where feminist consciousness has brought someone out of their eating disordered life, but in my case, and in many others', understanding these social implications does not immunize you, or even seriously protect you, from the patriarchy's message that you must attempt to attain this unattainable, "perfect" body. It might allow you to deflect the more blatant indoctrination of this ideal, but I don't think that anything, really, can protect women from the subtle forms of patriarchal control over our bodies.
I do think, however, that feminism's role in this issue of eating disorders is one of prevention, of preventing the indoctrination of young girls into this distorted body image cult. There is, unfortunately, little that can be done about the women who have already been indoctrinated by the patriarchy, an indoctrination that runs much deeper than we could possibly hope to reach. But it can change for the future generations. And, really, it must.
Because I can't really go a post without linkages...
confronting bulimia, anorexia, and feminism, by jennifer wells
eating disorders: a feminist issue, by tara eastland
adios barbie, with fun feed-the-starving-model game
about-face, with stats, gallery of offensive advertisements, and more
article on somethingfishy: does society influence eating disordered behavior in women?
article on somethingfishy: feminist perspectives on eating disorders
*Stolen from a planned parenthood Love Your Body Day magnet. Oh, the irony.