This week’s installment in Feminism For Real branches out into new territory for the anthology — the relationship of feminist theory and eating disorder treatment. ”To me, the notion of being a feminist with an eating disorder seemed contradictory,” writes Cassandra Polyzou (127). Polyzou recounts her experience as a self-identified feminist who also struggles with disordered eating, calling on feminists to move beyond theoretical analysis of beauty standards toward a “more caring attitude” toward individuals who suffer from eating disorders and often feel judged by feminists for being “weak” or “bad” feminists.
FEMINISM AND EATING DISORDERS: WISHFUL THINKING FOR A MORE CARING ATTITUDE by Cassandra Polyzou (pp. 127-133)
p. 127 – “It took me three years since fully recognizing my disorder to be able to consider myself a feminist again and to stop expecting the feminist ‘police’ to call me out as a fake.” I’m always fascinated by what individual people perceive to be personal experiences that disqualify them from feminist politics. While I draw a great deal of strength from feminist theory to oppose toxic beauty standards, it seems embedded in the feminist insight that “the personal is political” that we — feminists too! — are all in some measure shaped by the world around us in ways not completely in our conscious control. Just as people who suffer from depression are not in control of their brain chemistry and can’t just “feel better” when they want to, so too eating disorder suffers — and those of us with more low-level disordered eating — can’t just turn it off with a switch just because it’s irrational or unhealthy or makes us feel like crap. Why would these experiences disqualify us from embracing feminist politics? Yet almost every woman I know — feminist-identified or not — has a list of behaviors they believe will cause the “feminist police” to take their membership card away.
p. 128 – “I was not surprised to see that there is limited mention of feminism in eating disorder journals. Likewise, not very much is being written about eating disorders in feminist journals.” This really surprised me, actually, on both counts. Since virtually all my exposure to thinking about body issues and disordered eating has come in women’s studies and feminist texts and discussions (on and offline), I assumed — wrongly, I guess — that the field of eating disorder treatment would be filled with professionals who in some measure were influenced by feminist thinking.
p. 130 – “To be clear, not every feminist I know hates on anorexics, but I have lost count of the times I have heard disrespectful comments made about skinny women or about people who restrict their food, or jokes about pretty women puking up their dinner.” This makes me think of Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters (2007), in which she calls upon all of us to stop judging other peoples’ bodies as a major step forward in self-acceptance. In my experience, the pejorative comments that women make about each others’ appearance are passive-aggressively about their own body insecurities. Whether or not we excuse our judgyness by (mis)labeling it feminist criticism, it’s profoundly un-feminist in that it is assessing the women around us (and ourselves) by their relation to mainstream norms of beauty. I would argue that the most radical everyday practice a self-identified feminist could undertake as a way of changing herself (or himself) and the culture, is to as much as possible stop judging other peoples’ clothing choices, eating habits, grooming decisions, gender presentation, or supposed relative beauty. We can (and should) just step off onto a third rail and think about people along alternate vectors of worthiness, beginning with the fundamental assumption that everyone is beautiful and deserves to be supported as a body (of whatever ableness) in the world. In short:
p. 133 – “I would wish for … a kinder feminism. One that considers … individuals as unique, flawed, and beautiful, and takes a step out of the classroom and non-profit organization and into every person’s life.”
Harpies: What has your own experience been of the intersection between feminism and embodiment? Feminism and food choices? Feminism and beauty image? What (if any) feminist theory and practice has helped you grapple with the mainstream pressures that encourage disordered eating and narrow standards of bodily acceptability? What feminist theories or practices haven’t been so helpful (or even been detrimental)?
Join me next Tuesday for an excerpt from Peggy Cooke’s poem “My Secret” (pp. 135-136).