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/

Gender Roles: What, Why, and How

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

Gender roles, defined as “a set of societal norms dictating what types of behaviors are generally considered acceptable, appropriate or desirable for a person based on their actual or perceived sex,” can be found anywhere and everywhere. The concept of gender roles has been around for a loooooong time, beginning with anthropological data of cavemen/women sticking to their pre-ordained duties – hunting for men, housekeeping for women. Fast forward a bit to the Middle Ages when girls prepared to be married off to much older men knowing that the rest of their (most likely short) lives would be dedicated to giving birth, hopefully to sons. Then, of course, the lovely “cult of domesticity” ideal developed in the 1800s, followed by the push against women working outside of the home (because who, then, would cook and clean? M-men?! GASP!).

In today’s society, many people think that feminism is no longer necessary and that gender roles are either a) a thing of the past or b) something rather inconsequential. Gender roles are ubiquitous, widely accepted by many people, and can be detrimental. Gender roles promote heteronormativity (assuming everyone identifies as heterosexual or “straight”) and cisnormativity (assuming everyone identifies with their biologically-assigned sex). Promoting these ideas may seem inconsequential on the surface, but they strengthen institutionalized homogeneity that creates feelings of dissonance in those who identify outside of what is considered “normal.” This leads to an undermining of diversity in all areas that is costly for both the individual and society.

One example of gender roles in action happened just the other day. A few girls in my physics class were discussing Polly Pocket toys they played with in their youth and my teacher asked what those toys were, claiming ignorance because “I’m a boy- I don’t play with dolls.” I was shocked– here was a grown man, using the “I’m a boy” excuse.

Another more global example of gender roles can be seen walking down the toy aisle at your local big box store. The boys’ toys are generally constructed with materials in more masculine colors like blues, reds, and blacks, and showcase “tough” toys like construction trucks, swords, and war-simulating board games. The girls’ options are often pink, sparkly, and affiliated with either princesses or domestic tasks (i.e. play stoves/ovens, baby dolls with fake bottles and diaper kits, etc.). The gender roles reflected in kids’ toys are only the beginning, though – the packaging and advertising of products for adults often reflect stereotypical gender roles as well.

Gender roles are reflected in the common assumption that women will be the ones to quit their jobs upon having a child(ren), in Father’s Day commercials promoting grills and toolboxes, and in the gender-based labeling of myriads of products.  They’re reflected in decisions about who pays for dinner on a date and what boys and girls say they want to be when they grow up. For example, a study done by Dr. Janet Shibley Hyde at UW-Madison showed that when the participants were told that their sex wouldn’t be identified, women exhibited more aggression than men. This shows that gender roles are not innate or pre-programmed; they are taught and conditioned by society. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, girls loving to bake and plays with dolls boys playing with trucks are not bad things. Neither is a guy treating his date to dinner or a woman choosing to stay home with her kids.  What makes gender roles an issue is when they become rigid– which they so often do. It’s detrimental to stop a boy from making cookies with an Easy-Bake Oven “because he’s a boy” or to tell a girl not to play kickball with the boys because its “unladylike.” Women should of course stay at home with their children if that is what they want to do– but not because they feel pressured to do so. One of my best friends was raised by a stay-at-home dad while her mother is a high-level and very successful businesswoman; conversely, my mom chose to be a homemaker and has dedicated the past 30 years to raising four kids while my father worked. Both of these choices are valid– because they are choices and reflect personal fulfillment rather than compliance with societal-designated norms.

Gender roles confine and assume. The roles which should be promoted are those that promote the individual pursuit of happiness, not related to one’s gender/sexuality but to one’s personal passions and vocations. Define your own roles – let the boy wear pink shoes and the girl play football; promote people roles instead. Yay inclusivity! 🙂

Intersectional Feminism and Maya Angelou

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

When discussing feminism, intersectionality is a very important aspect to consider. Intersectionality, or the study of intersections between oppressions/dominations/discriminations, is a key component to making feminism accessible and applicable to everyone. Feminism, at its core, is accessible and applicable to everyone; however, that fact is too often lost in translation, leading to harmful sects of feminism like “white feminism.” Intersectionality means that we, as feminists, fight for things like racial equality, LGBTQA+ rights, economic justice, disability rights, etc.  Intersectionality is a friendly reminder saying, “yoo-hoo! Feminism really is for everyone!” (side note: if you have not read Feminism is For Everybody by Bell Hooks, please do so immediately. It’s wonderful, enlightening, and a great example of the inclusivity intersectionality promotes.)

When I think of intersectional feminism, I think of Maya Angelou. For those of you who are not familiar with Maya Angelou, she was an incredible poet, writer, actor, dancer, and singer. In my eyes, she is one of the best examples of intersectional feminism to date. Her work– particularly, her poetry– radiates pride and love while advocating for the advancement of women and people of color simultaneously; her poem “Still I Rise” is a great example. Angelou draws on her own experiences of abuse and her insecurities to communicate the importance of raising awareness about all forms of abuse and body-image issues, as seen in her heart-wrenchingly beautiful essay collection named Letter to My Daughter. In her masterpiece poem “Phenomenal Woman,” Maya addresses the insecurities so many women and girls face and cites the individual spark and beauty found in every woman, simply because they are a woman.

It has been nearly a year and a half since Maya Angelou passed on, but her spirit and contributions to feminism, society, and the world will always live on. Appreciating, sharing, and spreading Maya’s works not only pays homage to a wonderful feminist, activist, and writer, but also encourages and promotes intersectional feminism. Share some of Maya Angelou’s works this week with friends and family– look up new poems, share your favorites, or discuss her books. Let’s honor an amazing woman and an amazing movement together.