Feminism and Eating Disorders: NEDA Week 2016

This post was written by Colleen, a high school student and Minnesota NOW volunteer.

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Given that I am both a feminist and an eating disorder (ED) warrior, I want to take this opportunity to discuss how feminism and eating disorders are inextricably linked, in more ways than meet the eye.

First, and foremost, eating disorders are a mental reflection of the ridiculous beauty standards perpetuated by social sexism. This is NOT to say that seeing paper thin models or those ludicrous health crazes in magazines causes eating disorders – they are complex, multifaceted illnesses that are influenced by genetics, environment, and biology, among other factors. However, the extremely unhealthy and unrealistic body image ideals our society promotes definitely influence those with eating disorders, as well as those without them. It is impossible to ever meet the requirements of what is considered “beautiful” in our society: tall but not too tall, thin but not emaciated, big butt/boobs but not too big, no acne, no blemishes, skilled at makeup, toned arms, etc., etc… This list diminishes the self-esteem and body positivity of practically anyone who reads it, and promotes the unhealthy ideals that a disordered mind believes. Not to mention that many of our society’s beauty standards are heteronormatively sexual in nature… but that’s another blog post.

Second, eating disorders are linked to feminism in how they touch on women taking up space. This idea may illicit a “huh?” at first, but bear with me as I explain. For me, I can definitely link my struggle with anorexia to the idea of women taking up space. Our society has come a looooong way in terms of the prevalence of sexism; no one can deny that. And yet there still are ingrained elements of sexism, many of which are subtle nuances that often have to do with women taking up space. Think about how much women apologize, even when it’s not necessary to apologize – like when someone else bumps into them or they contribute an idea in a discussion. (Check out this startling video on how quotidian a habit this is). That is nuanced sexism – women defaulting to apologies for taking up space, metaphorically and physically. 

In my struggle with anorexia, I focused a lot on losing weight and being thinner – taking up less space. I thought that by taking up less space, I would be better in every way. But really, taking up less space than you’re meant to only deprives the world and yourself of the wonderful contributions you bring to the table. On the flip side, women are often more judged than men for bigger sizes, both literally and metaphorically. Women who speak out and get involved, thus taking up “more space” in a figurative sense, are often judged as “bitchy” or “bossy.” I do want to emphasis that eating disorders are NOT about the food, and there is NOT one body type that indicates that someone is struggling with anorexia or bulimia or EDNOS or BED, contrary to what the media often portrays (the emaciated model type). I choose to talk about the size aspect in this post, both in the small and large sense, to show how feminism and eating disorders are paralleled in numerous ways. 

Lastly, eating disorders relate to feminism in that women are often shamed for needing and pursuing the two things all humans are programmed to need: food and sex. I find it fascinating from a sociological standpoint that humans are programmed to need sustenance and sexual interaction, and yet we live in a society where food is potently tied to value judgments and sex has become a power play that can change someone’s self-worth at the drop of a hat. I’m going to elaborate here on the food piece as it is more pertinent to the subject matter at hand. We all need food, and yet eating “too much” (which is a blatant disregard for the fact that everyone’s bodily needs are completely unique and no blanket calorie amount works for everyone) suddenly makes one seem “gluttonous,” “fat,” and “greedy.” This especially affects young girls–it’s interesting how when a teenage boy gets seconds, it’s deemed okay because “he’s growing!” and yet when a teenage girl does the same, there are usually comments on how much she’s eating. (News flash: teenage girls grow too! We all need food! Wow!)

Feminism and eating disorders are linked in other ways too – think affordable nutrition and the poverty cycle, access to healthcare, etc. The aforementioned reasons are but three of many. I encourage everyone to start/continue this discussion, especially during this week. Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses that never take a day off, so I encourage everyone to use this NEDA Week to stand in solidarity with all those who fight their inner demons each and every day.

Here are some great links to find out more about eating disorders, prevention, treatment, and how you can help:

http://theprojectheal.org/6-things-you-shouldnt-say-to-someone-with-an-eating-disorder/

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/

https://beatingeatingdisorderspage.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/what-is-anorexia/

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