Eating Disorders: The Personal Is Political

dsc_0014“Gaining weight and pulling my head out of the toilet was the most political act I ever committed.” – Abra Fortune Chernick

As it’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I would like to tell you how I recovered from my eating disorder and share the realisations that changed my way of thinking.

I had been led to believe (because the sources I chose for my information were not helpful ones) that eating disorders were not really to do with society’s beauty ideals. That they were not necessarily to do with any outward influences at all. They were one of many possible outcomes of a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy, or a symptom of perfectionism that came from within. While this may be true for some individuals, I think to diminish the part society’s ideals play in creating the epidemic of eating disorders is a huge mistake. In retrospect, I see this line of thinking is very damaging as it takes the blame off the culture that has created an unrealistic beauty ideal, and places it on the already weakened shoulders of the ideal’s victims.

When I absorbed this message as a teenager, I recognised it as an accusation of my own weakness of character (sufferers of eating disorders are good at doing that) because if it wasn’t society’s fault, who else could I blame?

A major source of internal conflict whilst in the grip of the illness was that I felt I was failing myself for two reasons. The first was that I was not thin enough, or beautiful enough. I was ‘overeating’, which was a sure sign of lack of control and willpower.

More than that, though, I hated myself for being ‘taken in’ by this ideal. I had previously thought I was ‘better than that,’ but my illness testified that I was not. I liked to consider myself a non conformist. I didn’t wear fashionable clothes or listen to fashionable music, so why did I want to be fashionably thin? My eating disorder made me feel like I was being a bad feminist. I had always called myself a feminist but at this stage I couldn’t articulate my views very well. I hadn’t read the books, joined the discussions or given much time to thinking about how it impacted my own life. All I knew was that I was angry. I was not supposed to be affected by this ideal. I was supposed to see through it, to reject it and rebel against it. The fact that I didn’t was embarrassing, and seemed to point towards a total lack of political conviction.

Of course, this is not true. In fact, recognising I have suffered under the beauty ideal (as I believe all women do) helped me to better understand how oppressive, insidious, hurtful, damaging and unforgiving this culture of beauty idealism is. From my position, with that first-hand experience, the knowledge it gave me and the knowledge I chose to acquire as a result of it, I am better equipped for my fight.

My recovery progressed in line with my growing awareness of the political motivation for instilling these feelings in young women, particularly and deliberately. I realised why women were made to feel that their bodies were not good enough, why such an unrealistic (and constantly shifting) ideal was held up to them. I realised it was not actually anything to do with society wanting us to be beautiful to look at. It was that society wanted us to be hungry, tired, passive, reliable consumers.

We are forced into a way of thinking that makes us feel an obligation to consume diet and beauty products, and to strive for the ideal. We tell ourselves we have the choice because it’s easier than admitting we are in a trap. It’s more comfortable to say we do these things for ourselves, for empowerment or for fun, than to think we are feeding capitalism and upholding the patriarchy. But realising we have been indoctrinated into voraciously consuming diet and beauty products and striving for this ideal purely based on fear is also the first step towards breaking out of the cycle.
Women are the victims of this system, and we are being used as instruments to help it perpetuate itself. If we are buying unnecessary things simply because we feel bad without them, we surely need to ask ourselves what the motivation is.

So it was aligning my political beliefs with my personal experience that truly helped me recover. It was realising once and for all that the personal is political.

It was viewing advertisements and magazines with a healthy cynicism that helped me separate the fiction and the unattainable ideal from the reality.

It was gaining a better understanding of the power dynamics our society wants to uphold that made me realise this epidemic is deliberate, an act of oppression.

The cult of extreme thinness and generally narrow beauty ideal have not come about through consensus on the ‘best’ way for a woman to look. They are not even based on misinterpretations of this. It’s nothing to do with aesthetics at all. The ideal is fed to us by those with an interest in keeping things The Way They Are. That is, those who benefit from capitalism and patriarchy. It seeks to keep women hungry, poor and weak. It seeks to take away our individuality and our will to fight for what we know is truly important.

“Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history. A quietly mad population is a tractable one.” -The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf

This is not a conspiracy theory or an exaggeration. This is how it works. This is how the media works, how advertising works. And it DOES work… but not for us.

If we look at how much advertising space (on TV, billboards, bus shelters, in magazines) is dedicated to diet and beauty products, we begin to see the scale of this problem. The revenue from these advertisements funds the media we consume, the media we trust to impart information. OF COURSE they are going to show us a distorted ideal that makes us feel we are not good enough.

Companies compete for our attention to sell a product by making it appear the best, the shiniest, the sexiest. To make women think we NEED the product, the companies must ensure we do not feel we embody those qualities already. When a woman feels comfortable with her size (whatever that is) the diet industry cannot make her buy books, diet plans and specialist foods out of fear of being fat. When a woman feels beautiful in her own skin (however she looks) cosmetics companies cannot make her spend money on expensive makeup out of fear of being ugly.

I suppose the reason I wrote this was to point out that of all the recovery advice presented to girls and young women with eating disorders, political awareness seems to be quite low on the list. And it’s really, really important. I’m not saying I think every eating disorder sufferer needs to become an expert on politics, or that other roads to recovery are in any way less valid. Each individual will have different issues that need to be addressed in order to start recovering. However I do think it’s vital that we point out to EVERYONE, but to girls and young women in particular, WHY they are being told they are not thin enough, not pretty enough, not good enough.

I think it is our duty to all young women, starting with those in our families and our communities, to try to make it more common knowledge that:

– Your low sense of self-worth is NOT because of your failure to live up to a certain standard or ideal. You have been made to feel this way because you are more useful to society if you feel bad about yourself.

– ‘Beauty’ as portrayed by the media is a MADE UP THING. Beauty looks different to every individual on the planet, and the media has created one image of it and told us this is beauty, and looking the same as that is the only way to be beautiful.

– Images we see in magazines and advertisements are heavily edited. They do not represent ‘real’ women. They are usually altered beyond recognition. If you saw a close friend in a women’s magazine, you probably wouldn’t recognise her after the airbrushing treatment she would go through before making it onto the page, however beautiful you thought she was to begin with. H&M recently used computer generated images of women to showcase their clothing. THEY WEREN’T EVEN REAL WOMEN TO BEGIN WITH! What chance do we have of living up to a computer generated ideal?

So my question is, how can we make this common knowledge among young women?

How do we demand the space to talk about this when the media is run by advertising that wants to spread the exact opposite message?

How do we enter into conversations with young women that allow them to voice their concerns, really listen to them, and find out how the ideal images they are bombarded with make them feel? How do we help them think about what a genuinely empowering response might be?

And can we have these conversations before thousands more succumb to life-threatening eating disorders or resign themselves to a lifetime of self-loathing and chasing a completely man-made ideal?