The following Blog was written by Meg Jones, who is a guest blogger and proud feminist. Meg has experienced her own battle with eating disorders. As such Meg’s views are formed both from her own lived experience but also her observation of societal influences. This is a personal blog written by Meg. It has not been written by a member of the Hope Therapy & Counselling Team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in this blog are entirely hers and do not necessarily represent those of ‘Hope’.
Eating Disorders and the Patriarchy
Recovering from an eating disorder is excruciating. Unlike most other addictions, food is not something you can lock away and avoid. You have to face your fear 3-6 times a day. Not only do you have to face it when you sit down to eat, but it is everywhere. It makes up most of our conversations, it’s on our social media, in movies, in government legislation, on the news. Food is not something we can escape from. Not only does this make the recovery journey so difficult, but the structures of our society actively work in favour of the eating disorder.
The systems upon which our world is built make it so much harder for people to recover from restrictive eating disorders, and add unbearable shame and guilt to binge eating disorders.
The pillars of our patriarchal society are an eating disorders’ best friend.
Thinness: a Western ideal
Sociocultural perspectives focus on the idealisation of thinness in women and the stigmatisation of ‘fat’, particularly in Western cultures. Not only are these perspectives a direct contributor to the rise of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, but they are also responsible for the side effects. Exposure to Western ideals of thinness and self-control generates disordered diet behaviours, body dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem. All of which elevate the risk for the development and persistence of an eating disorder. Gendered sociocultural pressures to be thin – often shaped by the media, family, and friends – work to ensure that eating disorders persist.
The attitude of, particularly older, family members are shaped by gendered roles and expectations.
Gendered discourses on appetite, sexuality, social roles, and economic power work in a way to oppress women. This oppression has stretched throughout history so much so that message that women need to shrink, in all areas of life, is entrenched within so many of us. How many of us have had an aunt who has commented on your weight; a grandfather who has said ‘you’re getting too big for your boots’; or a grandma who doesn’t understand why you don’t want to stay at home and cook dinner for your nice, breadwinning husband. All of these cultural understandings are enforced by the patriarchy and create a breeding ground for eating disorders. Many who struggle with eating disorders do not develop them in the pursuit of thinness or due to media-induced body dissatisfaction. But, rather experience the feelings of restricted or controlled agency, that are structurally gendered.
How does this aid the patriarchy?
A preoccupation with restriction and thinness works in the favour of the patriarchy. It keeps women in a place where they won’t fight for change, or for the balance of power to be shifted. The cultural expectations of how women handle anger and emotions are such that they are to not exist. Starvation helps us to feel numb, to feel void of any other emotion other than the fixation to commit to your eating disorder.
Thinness, starvation, and restriction serve the individual in a multitude of ways, by playing into understood gendered norms about how women ought to be and behave. Being thinner adheres to beauty standards and social pressures, but also makes women easier to manage, easier to control, easier to hurt. These are necessary for ensuring the that the patriarchy survives and thrives. Starvation also represents a rejection of femininity, by removing our curves, boobs and periods, etc. Thus, restriction also works as an escape from femininity into a childlike, boy-like state, which often feels safe for women in a system that has prioritised the needs and ambitions of men and boys.
Eating Disorders: what about the media?
There is a very common public perception, still, that eating problems are caused by the power of the media – that they are a direct impact of celebrities and the fashion industries. This is no longer an acceptable argument and undermines the experiences of those with eating disorders.
The impact of the media is not as simple as someone seeing an underweight model on Instagram or in a magazine and thinking that you need to look like that. This concept is reductive and trivialises the experiences of those with an eating disorder.
However, it is important to consider the impact of the messaging of the use of skinny models in media. We must not overlook how this messaging influences our thought patterns and its socio-cultural impact. The impact is that skinny = successful, beautiful, desirable, and worthy.
Even though individuals are no more to blame for these sociocultural risk factors than they are biological or psychological, these factors are seen as more controllable. It is viewed as though there is an element of agency for the individual to just choose to not pay attention to the media. The ostensible agency attached to these cultural factors makes people think that an eating disorder is just a behavioural choice.
Many people with eating disorders feel a very real need to justify or convince people that their eating disorder was not created by the media and the thin ideal. Whilst there are so many factors that cause eating disorders, the subliminal discourses used by social structures work to outline the idea that you are only good enough if you are thin and if you are fragile.
Society’s norms are disordered…
Images of small, petite women which men can pick up, throw around, care for, and ultimately control, have been fed to us throughout our whole lives. The message we have received from birth is that, as women, we are only worth something if don’t take up space.
By not taking up space, we are giving more space to men. Not just men, but other social structures which work to take away female autonomy and keep the world order to which all are accustomed. If women were to take up space, to have an appetite (in all senses of the word), then this jeopardises the patriarchy, and capitalism as world social structures. If the oppressed half the population are taught that it’s ok for them to have an opinion, to be in charge, to eat, to be in control, then what does that mean for the current world system? The very system that has so far benefited from the way things are.
Society’s norms are disordered. Is it any wonder that the rate of people experiencing eating disorders is rising at an alarming speed, and that even without developing an eating disorder, many of us have a negative and disordered relationship with food? This adds another kind of pressure – how are you meant to change society’s norms? I think the answer here is that you aren’t meant to. You can only be responsible for how you react to them. Hopefully, the more of us that learn to critique the constructs to the point that they no longer hold any power, then they will cease to exist. And belief in a construct is the only thing that breeds its existence.
Regulation 0: appetite
Women should have small appetites. This is a rule that has been taught to us from a young age and this reflects culturally in many ways. This notion of the female ‘appetite’ includes food intake, sexual desire, or career drive/ambition. Our appetites have been regulated by government drives (when they regulate what foods are unhealthy, how much we should eat, and BMI scales). They have also been controlled by diet industry conglomerates that exist on the basis that individuals should manage and control their appetites.
We are told that we’re being bad if we have anything remotely ‘unhealthy’ or a bigger portion. This is conditioned by society. If you type into google ‘women laughing salad’ you will see countless images of women laughing at a bowl of lettuce. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t think of a time where lettuce has ever been funny. It is objectively boring.
It is the gendered discourses surrounding appetite in society, and the constructions of healthy eating that create a worldview that women are only happy and women are successful if, essentially, they eat lettuce.
All women have a conditioned idea that eating too much, or unhealthily is ‘greedy’, ‘gluttonous’, or ‘undesirable’. When we don’t order dessert or choose a lighter option, we are praised “oh aren’t you good”. The shame we feel when we indulge has been fed the messages in society. This is magnified when you have an eating disorder. To be seen to enjoy food, to eat a lot, to eat ‘unhealthy’ food, is terrifying. The fear feeds the illness.
Any kind of appetite is squashed by anorexia. Its voice becomes stronger than your hunger signals, your wants, or your desires. There is an internal pressure to eat less than anybody when you have anorexia. This pressure is often heightened around men and around individuals in our life who also have disordered eating habits. There is often a compulsion to eat less around them, to have to be the person with the smallest portion, or indeed no portion at all. The structures that encourage women to shrink and to have no appetite aid the survival of an eating disorder.
How can therapy help with eating disorders?
Sociocultural dynamics play a fundamental role in the aetiology and persistence of eating disorders.
One way in which therapy can work to help in eating disorder recovery is to recognise the existence of these social structures and gendered constructs. By being sensitive to power relations and placing emphasis on a woman’s strength and empowerment, it can change how we view our relationship to food and our bodies. It is so powerful to encourage and empower women to challenge the structures that have otherwise repressed and oppressed them.
Recognising these social influences can be a positive thing for someone in recovery. When you know that these sociocultural influences exist, it gives you the power to be able to rationalise and question. By having the ability to be able to step back and ask yourself “what is my actual opinion on that?” You can start to form your own views and protect yourself from the harmful discourses of society. One example could be when watching the TikTok or Instagram reels of influencers’ posts. These include videos like: ‘what I eat in a day’.
The ability to rationalise that this is not helpful for you, or anyone, is a brave and important step. All our bodies are different, they require different intakes, different exercise needs, and different foods. The social media culture of comparison is so detrimental; especially when having to regain weight and your intake of food needs to be a lot higher. The ability to question and rationalise normative values is a powerful tool in recovery. It positions you with a barrier against the eating disorder.
Eating disorders do not discriminate
There is a problem in the rhetoric that to treat eating disorders, we must clearly understand their causes. Causality isn’t linear, it isn’t quantifiable either. Each individual with an eating disorder has a different story, a different history, and different influences. However, the collective Western experience is that of dominant, patriarchal discourses which have been consistently fed to us. The Western experience permeates, that the ideal is to be rich, thin, and white. This is problematic on so many levels. Because of this it works to categorise anorexia as a white women’s illness, which is simply not the case.
Eating disorders do not discriminate, they do not have a preference based on skin tone or bank balance. They are complex mental health disorders that offer a semblance of control to individuals who feel that the outside world is out of their control. Our greatest power as women is to begin to question these norms, to question the breadcrumbing of gender oppression and control.
A critical attitude towards pervasive social constructs works to safeguard who you are from what the eating disorder wants from you.
How can Hope Therapy help?
Of course, there are multiple avenues that therapy can take you down when working to recover from an eating disorder. The conversation above is not a common approach taken during therapy. However, this can work for those who understand and view the world through a feminist lens.
At Hope Therapy there are two therapists whose presentational specialisms cover eating disorders in different, equally successful ways. Michele is a fully qualified integrative and psychotherapeutic counsellor. Her varied therapeutic approach means she’s able to integrate a wider range of ideas in each session. Keely is a Cognitive Behavioural, EMDR and Mindfulness Therapist. Alongside this, she is also a registered mental health nurse.
As eating disorders often present very physical symptoms, a dietician can help in many ways. This includes providing support and expert advice in re-feeding or trying to identify what your body needs to heal. Carin is Hope’s dietician. She puts emphasis on the client being in control, which is vital when trying to recover from an eating disorder.
Hope has a whole team of therapists to best suit your needs in your own recovery process.
Get in touch with us to discuss how we can help support you in your recovery.
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