***Disclaimer: This post is short on statistics and features virtually no referencing. If you would like citations or to be pointed in the direction of studies I will be happy to oblige***
When you’re in deep, so deeply entrenched in the recesses of an eating disorder that you believe the lie, you cannot conceive of the notion that what you’re doing isn’t somehow special, somehow different. You cannot address the reality: the reality that you share your affliction with an estimated 1.6 million others. The reality that one day you will wince at this mindset the way you now wince at the contact of bone on acrylic during aborted attempts to sit comfortably in the bath. And worst of all the reality that you will, ultimately, somehow feel less of a woman for the experience. I could drone on for hours about my experience of living with an eating disorder, of losing my formative years and a large helping of my twenties to what ultimately amounted to a waste of time as much as a wasting of flesh. But I don’t think the world needs another confessional. I will leave the poetically articulated misery memoirs, the eruditions on the netherworld, to the experts. Elizabeth Wurtzel and Marya Hornbacher have probably, between them, covered all that it meant to be miserable and starving in the ’90s.
Yet I do have something to say. Certain ideas have continued to preoccupy me long after the awkward and brutal manifestations of disordered thinking and eating became quieter. One of these ideas was brought sharply and acutely into focus at the recent UK Feminista lobby of parliament. There is nothing like sitting in a room full of inspiring and creative feminists, all clapping and whooping at the usurpation of emaciated models by those healthy, positive female forms generated by the Olympics, to make you feel small. And by this I mean small on principles, as if being in some ways a casualty of the representations of women I so vehemently oppose precludes me from helping to shut them down. I was fooled, I believed the lie. Ergo, being a skinny feminist is a problem.
Of course I know that this is nonsense and that my hang ups about how I am perceived as a former anorexic are one facet of what I find problematic about the way eating disorders are perceived in general. I, of course, worry deeply about how young girls today are exposed to pornification; to hyper-sexualised and unrealistic images of women. I am hugely concerned about the fact that the liberal, almost commonplace, use of airbrushing and photoshopping has created an impossible ideal. The message is painfully and destructively clear: to do more and to be more women have to be, physically, less. Yet to focus exclusively on this as the ’cause’ of eating disorders is a massive oversimplification. It is, I feel, a possible impediment to help-seeking and recovery, and limiting to our understanding of where eating disorders might fit into a broader spectrum analysis of femininity, gender and sexism.
For example, recent press coverage of the alarming statistic that referrals to eating disorder clinics have risen by 16% in the last year has in the main focussed on issues of visual representation. The twin evils of the media and the fashion industry have had blame heaped at their door. Of course I would never say that they are not culpable. Their, respectively, intense scrutiny of the female form and haunting ideal of sickness and bones are as repugnant as they are discriminatory. Yet I can’t help but feel that the dishonesty, or at least disingenuousness, or various celebrities fuels these problems. I am not an avid follower of showbiz gossip so forgive the less than contemporary references but I always remember Victoria Beckham chomping on about how she has a chocolate bar a day, and (the later to be revealed as severely eating disordered and clinically depressed) Gail Porter espousing her filling but healthy daily diet. They were both, clearly, full of shit. Yet Natasha Hamilton from Atomic Kitten (I know) was vilified when she replied candidly to the question of how she stayed so slim with a steely ‘I don’t eat much’. Such honesty, whilst low in the role model stakes, should be applauded for debunking the myth that you can eat what you like and stay skinny, and that if you can’t there is something wrong with you.
The studies are also there: girls felt their self esteem plummet after looking at pictures of fashion models and celebrities; the majority of young women said they’d prefer to be thin than have a career; younger and younger women are having tummy tucks, breast enlargements and liposuction. The latter no doubt influenced by the fact that the triad of supreme sexual objectification, Nuts, Zoo and The Sun, propound a cartoonish ideal that filters it’s way into the minds of young men, in turn dripping poisonously onto feminine self perception.
All of this is part of the problem. But only part. What of psychology, of the fall out from rape, from violence, abuse or exploitation? Or from an inability to determine our position in a society that still largely deems women as secondary? Here, if you look, there are the studies: the prevalence of eating disorders in women and children who have experienced domestic violence; of women de-sexualising their body after abuse or harassment; of girls expressing a fear of making the wrong choices, of not living up to the career-mother-happiness ideal and so instead turning to something they can control. And this is to say nothing of the rise of middle-aged women suffering. The International Journal of Eating Disorders has revealed that 13% of women aged 50 and older struggle with disordered eating — some for the first time in their lives. I would suggest most of these women would be insulted at the suggestion that they are starving themselves to the risk of heart failure, osteoporosis and stroke because they looked at a picture of Cheryl Cole.
There is something going wrong for women.
What I have discussed here has touched upon the perpetuation of destructive myths and misconceptions; the issue of disempowerment and the compensatory, redirected control of the body; of the long term effects of rape and violence and of the uncertain place of women and girls in society. All of these sound incredibly familiar to me and feed into a wider debate on the issues affecting – and disaffecting – women today. To stereotype sufferers of eating disorders as vainly chasing a body like this months’ hottest celebrity will do nothing to bring the statistics back down.