Monday, November 07, 2005

feminists with eating disorders/disordered eating/distorted body images

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.
Even so.
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...
some links:
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.


Hugo said...

Jen, I've written a long post about this offering of yours. Thank you for your candor.

Anonymous said...

I'm an eating disorder survivor, myself. My disorder wasn't "cyclical," but pretty constant over several years. However, I didn't have any of the other indicators you seem to be using. I didn't lose very much weight--in fact, about as much as you report, on what's probably a larger frame--or dip below a "healthy" weight. I didn't look unhealthy. I have suffered no permanent side effects apart from slightly softened teeth. Had I not sought help, I could have continued purging and starving indefinitely.

No one knew that I had a problem until I told friends and family. I also was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, unless you count the single-session university counselor's, "Yup, that sounds like a problem," when I walked into her office all, "I have an eating disorder, and here's why." I never received any treatment for my eating disorder, except for a twenty-minute discussion of triggers with that same woman.

So I understand that you're trying to make a point about insidious body-hatred messages being a continuum of damage rather than a dichotomy of "safe" (crash dieting, stomach stapling, ephedra) and "unsafe," (bulimia, anorexia) but I gotta say the difference between "disordered eating" and "eating disorder" in this instance escapes me. "Cyclical" means habitual and longterm, and purging is a pretty significant milestone on the aforementioned continuum. Most anorexia and bulimia sufferers aren't living skeletons.

I think that the true measure of an eating disorder from a feminist perspective is not how much damage you have to do to yourself to feel comfortable in your skin, but how necessary that damage is, how ingrained the ritual deprivation. And while you're right that a raised consciousness doesn't shield any woman from the patriarchy, a lot of my recovery was effected by learning to see food as comforting, delicious, a gift to a useful body: feminist eating, in other words.


alice_pants said...

Jen, this post hit home and I've decided to write something of my own story. I'd be delighted if you read it. :)

Thank you for being so open about this.

LtRand said...

I came across your blog through my girlfriend, and as I read your post, I had a question.

I'll start off with agreeing, that yes, there are several social pressures for unreasonable looks that usually can't be achieved or are healthy for most people.

The question I have, is why do you believe it is bad to look at yourself and see areas of improvement? As we persue education for self-improvement, shouldn't we also look at ourselves physically, and try to be as healthy as possible? Each are positive areas of self critizism because not only must you be mentally healthy and prepared for the world, you must also be physically healthy and prepared. No, we shouldn't be super thin or super-muscular. But looking at some flab and seeing an area of improvement is a healthy thing, not a social complex. We naturally want to be healthy, and just as underweight is unhealthy, so is overweight.