An Introduction to Eating Disorders.
There is not a singular feminist position from which to interpret eating disorders, in this introduction I will explore some of the approaches that might help us to understand eating disorders from a feminist perspective.
Susan Bordo claims that the fear of women’s fat is symbolic of fear of women’s power, in her collection of essays entitled Unbearable Weight. Susan Bordo says ‘female hunger…for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification…(is) contained and the public space that women (are) allowed to take up (is) circumscribed, lmited…On the body of the anorexic woman such rules are grimly and deeply etched.’
Bordo is not alone in her perception of eating disorders being more about power relations and obedience that beauty Naomi Wolf (1991) echoes Bordo’s premise in her book The Beauty Myth. , stating that the ‘cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience’ Thus women who achieve thinness are affirmed for remaining obedient to this patriarchal ideal in the myriad ways that it is reproduced, Wolf explains that; ‘If women cannot eat the same food as men, we cannot experience equal status .’
Sexuality is an issue that feminist Naomi Wolf explores in an effort to understand the prevalence of eating disorders among women. “Fat is sexual in women…to ask women to become unnaturally thin is to ask them to relinquish their sexuality” (Wolf, 193). Thus the rejection of food and compliance with this patriarchal ideal becomes a rejection of the body and of the self.
Bordo (1993) interprets anorexia as a rejection of the limitations of being a woman under patriarchy, a kind of rebellion, ‘Disidentification with the maternal body, far from symbolizing reduced power, may symbolize freedom from a reproductive destiny and a construction of femininity seen as constraining and suffocating’
Wolf interprets this as a tragedy, a terrible becoming of what one is trying to escape, in that “the anorexic may begin her journey defiant, but from the point of view of a male dominated society, she ends up as the perfect woman. She is weak, sexless, and voiceless, and can only with difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate” (Wolf, 197).
Feminist Bonnie Morris shares perhaps the most common perception on how eating disorders develop, that an eating disorder is an eating regimen that has spiralled out of control. Dieting is a behaviour that many women engage in, thus the anorexic in this pre anorexia stage has identified that her behaviour is not only an achievement in her own eyes but is also so in the eyes of her peers; ‘that behaviour pattern is regarded as an achievement not only by the anorexic but by her peer group’ (Morris, 90).
The emotional pay off for achieving this often underweight physique lies in the affirmation and approval and status that the woman experiences on achieving this cultural ideal of beauty. ‘The association of a woman’s status and character with her thinness sets up an underweight physique as an ideal, producing perpetual discontent in the eyes and minds of millions of young women’ (Morris, 95).
Snyder and Hasbrouk (1996) established that eating disordered behaviour is more prevalent amongst women who subscribed to traditional notions of gender roles as opposed to those who feel aligned with feminist values who are less likely to have a distorted body image.
Martz et al. (1995) found that there is a direct relationship between the stress experienced by women related to conforming to feminine gender role traits and cultural ideals of behaviour and appearance, and the prevalence of eating disorders. The stress in question is defined as ‘higher than usual levels of stress as a result of rigid adherence to the traditional feminine gender role’
A Gendered Illness.
Eating disorders, more so than other process/substance addictions (I suggest with the exception of co-dependency), are thought of as a gendered illness. Susie Orbach describes the addictive, obsessive nature of disordered thinking around food when one is engaged in a process addiction around eating. Orbach suggests that this way of thinking is shared by millions of women who do not necessarily present as eating disordered;
‘food is a combat zone, a source of incredible tension, the object of the most fevered desire, the engenderer of tremendous fear, and the recipient of a medley of projections centering round notions of good and bad’(Orbach, 1978, pg 62). I suggest that for women substance use may begin is an attempt to meet normative standards of emotional, mental and spiritual balance and to correct a sense of powerlessness and being out of control, whilst eating disorders may begin as an attempt to meet normative standards around body image and femininity. This process then becomes addiction and the woman finds herself even further disempowered and powerless over her process/addiction. I feel the interconnectedness between women implied by Susie Orbach’s works has therapeutic in itself as it reduces the shame experienced by the individual that thinks that her condition is peculiar to her own condition, the implication of which is that there is something inherently defective about the way in which she is responding to the world (i.e.; sick, defective, neurotic, insane, not fit, not perfect).
Sandy Friedman described the double bind that women with eating disorders face, saying that phallocentric language ‘forces women either to deny their own experiences or to reframe them in male-defined language. Reinforcing only the male perspective makes women feel that the very way that they speak is wrong and that the stories they tell are trivial’ (Friedman, 1993, pg, 290). This is deeply emotive for me and I feel moved to express this sometimes with clients when I feel it would be appropriate and not burdensome for me to do so. The feminist notion of moving the concerns and narratives of the private sphere into the political has successfully been done concerning the subject of food and consumption and how these subjects link with the concept of female emancipation and to what degree most women experience some level of dissonance around these issues.
It is interesting to note that whilst anorexia whilst one may presume that the motivation for starving oneself is an attempt to adhere to the prevailing standards of beauty, it is quite regularly not so.