Eating Disorders Do Not Discriminate. Neither Should Feminism. Or Recovery.
Despite the myth that eating disorders only affect straight, white, thin, adolescent girls, women and men of all sizes, skin colors, and sexual orientations develop eating disorders. I remember one African-American client (details changes for confidentiality) I saw who was struggling with an eating disorder. She was a bright young woman who struggled with severe bulimia that could not get her family to support her in her recovery because “that’s a white girl’s disease.”
Here are just a few statistics:
African-American girls aged 11-14 consistently scored higher than white girls of the same age on all Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI) scales measuring features commonly associated with eating disorders except for body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness (Striegel-Moore et al, 2000).[i]
A study conducted by Robinson et al, found that among the leanest 25% of 6th and 7th grade girls, Hispanics and Asians reported significantly more body dissatisfaction than did white girls. [ii]
Chamorro & Flores-Ortiz (2000) found that second-generation Mexican-American women-those born in the US to foreign-born parents-were the most acculturated and had the highest disordered eating patterns.[iii]
Acculturation can be defined as the shifting of values from host culture from culture of origin (Kemp & Thomas). This can be one of many intersecting factors in the development of an eating disorder. One woman I worked with in an eating disorder treatment center was a first generation bilingual immigrant. Because her mother didn’t speak English, she had to spend her therapy time translating for her mother. This repeated the dynamic of being “the hero” for the family, and kept the burden of parenting
her mother on her, not allowing her to get the care and attention she needed to heal from her eating disorder. Although the mental health team I worked with attempted to find a translator to lift this burden from the client, we were unsuccessful. Another “miss” in treatment and recovery for eating disorders is the shortage of bilingual therapists and therapists not trained in cultural competence.
Eating Disorders have complex etiology and don’t occur in a vacuum. There is a cultural context in which they occur. I often explore with clients what was going on in their own life, in their family, and in a larger cultural context during the time they developed an eating disorder. There is a reason that eating disorders DO affect many adolescent girls: this is the time during which they are developing into a woman! When we look at how the rite of passage of becoming a woman is held culturally (OR NOT), this make sense. Mary Pipher, PhD in her 2005 book Reviving Ophelia explores the phenomena of how girls entering womanhood begin to collapse inwardly against themselves in a culture that doesn’t support their rite of passage into womanhood:
Why had these lovely and promising human beings fallen prey to depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts, and crushingly low self-esteem? Crashing and burning in a “developmental Bermuda Triangle,” they were coming of age in a media-saturated culture preoccupied with unrealistic ideals of beauty and images of dehumanized sex, a culture rife with addictions and sexually transmitted diseases. They were losing their resiliency and optimism in a “girl-poisoning” culture that propagated values at odds with those necessary to survive.
Similarly, when other rites of passage (pregnancy and postpartum, midlife, coming out as bisexual, lesbian or gay) are not welcomed, there is a cultural compost heap fertile for eating disorders to develop. Eating Disorders do NOT only affect straight women and the research is beginning to reflect that (All research stats from the National Eating Disorders Website, NEDA.org):
- Beginning as early as 12, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens may be at higher risk of binge-eating and purging than heterosexual peers.
- In one study, gay and bisexual boys reported being significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited or taken laxatives or diet pills to control their weight in the last 30 days. Gay males were 7 times more likely to report bingeing and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.
- Elevated rates of binge-eating and purging by vomiting or laxative abuse was found for both males and females who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or “mostly heterosexual” in comparison to their heterosexual peers.
- Gay men are thought to only represent 5% of the total male population but among men who have eating disorders, 42% identify as gay.
At the intersections of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism are implications for where we can become curious and fierce about advocating for women – and men, and transgender people – in their recovery and their rights. Feminist theory has a history of, among other intersectional misses, not addressing the experience of women of color. Intersectionality addresses how, when more than one aspect of discrimination intersects, something else altogether emerges that is missed.
“Intersectionality simply means that there are lots of different parts to our womanhood,” Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, explained. “And those parts — race, gender, sexuality, and religion, and ability — are not incidental or auxiliary. They matter politically.”[iv]
Many people, including myself, believe that this intersectionality is the next wave of feminism– and recovery.
[i] National eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website
“It takes no time to open your heart, but when will you do it? That is what takes the time.”
After working with women recovering from body hatred for the past decade and a half, I have noticed a few pitfalls that people get stuck in during the process of learning to love (and/or accept more on this soon) their bodies. One of them is:
“I don’t have TIME.”
In eating disorder recovery, it often shows up as “OK, I’ve stopped bingeing/purging/starving/overeating(insert disordered eating behavior here), so I should love my body now. When will that happen? 1 month? 2? Because I don’t have the patience for years. I’m ready to move on and be “normal.” What I say to this is Ummmm, sorry. There is no “normal,” and if there was (if “normal” means not having an eating disorder) then many of those people don’t like their bodies either. Leaning to love and accept yourself at a deep fundamental level (which is what body image issues are really about) takes time. Usually years. It cuts to the fundamental core of the self. (But don’t worry this project is 5 minutes PER WEEK for 8 weeks. You can do that. You can do this!)
In mommy hood, it often shows up as “I’m too busy taking care of everyone else! I don’t have time for that superficial body image stuff! I’m lucky if I get a pair of sweat pants on and a haircut once/year!” To which I would say first of all, you can’t afford to NOT have the time because your child is picking up on every single nonverbal cue you give them as to your relationship with your own body and you are passing it on. So if there’s any suffering there that you wish your child to NOT experience, you have to do your own work. And second of all, it doesn’t actually take that much time. It is more about quality rather than quantity.
The Power of Intention
This is a new project, but not a new idea. It is about the power of intention to shift your relationship with your body. The good news is It won’t require much from you except willingness. And, actually, it won’t take too much time. 5 minutes/week for 8 weeks. But let me tell you a bit about the premise. As a clinician assisting people cultivate a different relationship with their bodies and themselves, I work with willingness. I also work with assisting people identify and shift the ways they talk to themselves, including both the content and the tone. A large part of this is actually dis-identifyig enough from the parts of yourself, particularly the often overdeveloped Superego Critical part, to find and cultivate other parts. The other part(s) being kinder, more self-advocating, non-shaming loving parts.
There is a well-know study in which experimenters were told to observe rats in a maze, but one group of experimenters were told that their rats were “bright” and another group were told that their rats were “dull.” (Rosenthal, R. & Fode, K.L.1963) They were actually all from the same group of lab rats, but guess which rats performed better? Yep. The ones that were supposedly “bright.” When looking at why, it was found that the experimenters had an intention of them doing better and encouraged these rats more. I want to invite you to bring this “experimenter bias” back to yourself: loving kindness, attention, intention.
Which brings me back to the issue of how you talk to your body. How do you speak to your body? Do you say “You should be smaller/larger/less wrinkled/not have cellulite/be less flabby/stop being so disgusting”? Then this is an opportunity for you to practice treating your body more “bright” and less “dull.” Really- if you’ve been saying unkind things to yourself for decades, what do you have to lose by trying to say something different?
The Every Body Love your Body Project
5 minutes (or less) of writing an affirmative statement toward part of your body every Wednesday (You can write yours on whatever day you would like but I will pick an affirmation winner and post the next part on Wednesday). Write your statement in the comments, and I will randomly pick a winner every week. I invite you to write this statement on a note and post it on your mirror for the week.
Each week we will look at a different part of your body and say something kind to it. That is IT. The only “rules” are:
1) It must be authentic to you.
2) It has to be kind, accepting, or neutral in tone.
3) If it is negative, it must be directed toward your body image CRITIC, not your body.
Then every week, I will pick a winner from the comments and that person will receive a free affirmation from Dr. Linda!
This week’s body part: the FACE
I’ll get us started on some examples here. Since we are starting with the face, I could say (going with the three choices above):
1) I like my little wrinkles around my eyes. They show empathy, wisdom and kindness.
2) I have nice cheekbones.
3) Those furrows between my eyes and on my forehead are hard-won! If I were to Botox those wrinkles, my face would lose its character. Shut the F*ck up! (That is to my body image critic, which says “Maybe you should think about getting bangs because did you know that bangs are the new Botox?”)
You may notice, when you write something kind toward your body, part(s) of you roaring in protest “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” That is good. That means you are on the right track with shifting from treating yourself as a “dull rat” to a “bright” one 🙂 Keep going!
See you next week!
Before recovery, everybody knows there is a problem except you. After recovery, no-one knows there is a problem except you, and it is your job to live in the solution. It is the challenge and opportunity of every recovering person to acknowledge the problem and live the solution.
It is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In my mind, that means all the people still struggling with eating disorders or disordered eating are putting their heads in the sand and pretending everything is ok. They don’t want to talk about it, everything is “fine,” let’s get on with the business of being perfect, trying to be perfect, or at least look ok so nobody knows what’s really going on. And all the people who have recovered, are willingly trying to recover, or work assisting people to recover are running around like Chicken Little saying “Hey! Everything is NOT ok and that is ok! Let’s celebrate imperfection! Let’s talk about what’s really going on! Let’s raise awareness! Let’s get our heads out of the sand!”
I never thought I would have an eating disorder. Eating Disorders were for models, popular girls, adolescents or athletes. I was none of these. I was a feminist. I was going to join the peace-corps and go to Africa and save the mountain gorillas from extinction. I was 20 years old and ready to save the world. Except I couldn’t pass the physical exam to apply to the peace-corps due to complications from my eating disorder.
I also never thought I would become a therapist. But life takes us in interesting directions, not always the places we plan. Ad here I am, 17 years recovered, 15 years working in recovery, still at it. I turned my passion for advocacy to helping all of the actual people suffering with eating disorders, not just the models and athletes, but the feminists, the environmentalists, the men secretly struggling with “a women’s disease,” and the middle aged moms. Because in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). That means either you or someone you know.
People suffering with eating disorders come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Emaciated, overweight, “normal” weight, men, women, adolescents, people of all skin colors, children ALL suffer from eating disorders. Though it may seem like it, eating disorders are not about food or weight. Eating disorders are hidden diseases that are not “a superficial problem with dieting” but deadly and complex diseases that deserve to be treated and eradicated. I’m speaking up for those who are still hiding, who are still suffering, who are not yet ready to “be in the solution” of freedom from shame, but want to know that it is possible. It is possible. You are not alone. Come out when you are ready. We are here for you, in a long lineage of healing, those of us who have recovered, who are recovering, who assist others to recover.
For More information on National eating Disorders Awareness Week and how to get involved: http://nedawareness.org/social