“Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Have you ever heard this quote by the brilliant writer Naomi Wolf? Mind-blowing isn’t it? Inspiring. Telling. True.
There are some feminist theories that suggest that dieting is the way that the female population silently agrees to our collective subservient role. This theory makes sense doesn’t it? Dieting keeps us focused on our bodies and the mirror, rather than our minds and our sense of purpose. And it is hard to change the world when 80% of your time is sucked up by changing your weight. Ergo, dieting keeps femmes and females from gaining political power, freedom, and choice. Damn you patriarchy.
I am a born-and-raised feminist. I read Wolf’s book long ago and was hooked. I never even went through that phase in high school when others seemed to reject the word feminist as uncool (“I’m totally for equality, but I wouldn’t say I’m like, a feminist or whatever”). Nah. I stubbornly embraced the term. It was part of my college application essay (which was a hella-impassioned piece about how playing the violin intersected with and strengthened my feminist identity- in case you were wondering).
My passion for all things feminism only blossomed in college.* I participated in a campus march for women’s rights proudly wielding a sign that said “Burn Your Bra.” I was one of the founding members of my college’s first AAUW chapter. I drank my coffee out of mug emblazoned with the words “This is what a feminist looks like.” (Although, full disclosure, I also owned a shirt that said “Gas Grass or Ass, No one Rides for Free” during my college years. So take my actions with a grain of salt during that time. I digress)
You would think that with all of this feminist passion (read: rage) I would know better than to diet. Wrong. Behind the scenes, shrinking my body was my number one goal throughout high school and college. I struggled with an eating disorder throughout all of it. I was consumed by anorexia during that march that I mentioned. Drinking coffee in place of breakfast from that mug. I used to glance at my “Burn Your Bra” sign (which hung proudly on my wall) every time I walked out the door and proceeded to engage in disordered exercise.
This time period of my life was dark and awful. One thing that contributed to this darkness was the shame that I experienced about my eating disorder. I felt, on some level, that anorexia made me a “bad feminist.”
I’m not unique in this experience. There are many, many individuals who consider themselves feminists whilst also simultaneously struggling with an eating disorder. The experience creates a sense of dissonance at times. After all, publically declaring, “We need to TAKE UP MORE SPACE” while privately engaging in behaviors that have a very specific purpose of reducing your body size isn’t exactly a congruent reality.
For any of YOU who may feel shame about being a feminist struggling with an eating disorder- here are two things to keep in mind:
- Restricting your food intake or striving for weight loss does not mean that you are a willing and dormant participant of the patriarchy. Doing what the system demands that we do can, at times, be viewed as simple survival. Controlling ourselves via weight and food intake can be viewed as a desperate attempt to demonstrate power within the boundaries of an oppressive system.
- Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. They are not just a product of society. They are complex and have roots in biological and psychological factors (in addition to societal factors). If logic and education cured them, there would be no need for treatment. If calling out the culture was the cure-all, then I guess my job (an eating disorders psychologist) would simply consist of me handing out books-
“Here are your copies of Wolf, Yarrow and Millet. POOF! Eating disorder gone. You’re welcome.”
Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works. Recovering from an eating disorder is an extensive, intensive process of rewiring, unlearning, behavior-changing, and emotion-confronting. It takes more than intellect and passion. Much more.
BUT-don’t throw away your dog-eared copy of “We Should All Be Feminists” yet. Feminism won’t likely be your saving grace from your eating disorder, but it may be a healing component. Don’t get me wrong-like I said, eating disorders are not illnesses that can be healed through confronting society alone. However, when used along with all the other facets of eating disorder treatment, your feminist identify can definitely be another tool in your recovery pocket.
How, you ask? Well first thing’s first- you’ll have to learn to leave judgement at the door. You have an eating disorder, and you are still a badass, patriarchy-fighting hero. Deconstruct the idea that these two things cannot coexist.
Then, keep up the work of truly unpacking feminism theory- because this work will demand that you acknowledge the roots of our conditioned ways of behaving. It will demand the confrontation of contradictions. But further than that, it will demand that you talk about those contradictions, question them, and consider ways to challenge them. And challenging these ways of behaving may just lead to some of your own pro-recovery steps of challenging diet culture.
So, my feminists with eating disorders/in recovery- have some self-compassion. Recovering means kicking shame (in all of it’s sneaky forms) to the curb.
Now let’s get going. The patriarchy isn’t going to fight itself, and YOU have a lot to offer.
*Admittedly, I was under-educated about intersectional feminism at this time. My awareness about this concept began around five years ago, and since this time, my activist efforts have transformed quite a bit!
By: Dr. Colleen Reichmann
Image credit: clydefitchreport.com