Women occupy an odd social space. Like all humans, we are full of contradictions, and often, they are related to our bodies and our sexuality. We constantly receive messages about how to look prettier and/or thinner—inherently making ourselves more pleasurable to the male gaze. Simultaneously, many of us like the male gaze, and often desire the attention of men. This post will explore the contradictory space we occupy, and how my own decision to discard any desire to look any way is ultimately a feminist act that also happened to help me recover from my eating disorder.
The shame I felt in my eating disorder was all-encompassing. Because I was starving myself, I was extremely irritable, and my personality shifted from sunny, outgoing, and caring to self-obsessed and annoyed. While I felt ashamed of the behavior I knew was bad for me, I also felt proud of myself. Starvation brought a feeling of lightness and euphoria that I’ve never felt before, and I loved it. I loved the small feeling of power and control I gleaned from manipulating and shrinking my body. However, I also felt my confidence diminishing as I tried, so hard, to fit my body into the patriarchal assumptions of female beauty. Not everyone thinks thin=beautiful, but that's what I saw, thanks to millions of images like this:
Of course, it is entirely possible and plausible to be a feminist and struggle with body image issues. My eating disorder didn’t automatically make me a perpetrator of the patriarchy, but I still felt conflicted. I felt ashamed to be hungry and preferred to eat alone. The idea of a man seeing me eat, or of anyone commenting on my appetite felt shameful. Why? Because I had also internalized the message that women are not supposed to have appetites—of any kind. Suzannah Weiss writes, “To be a hungry woman with an appetite, according to patriarchy, is to be voracious and pleasure-seeking, devoid of discipline and principles.”
The pressure for me was twofold: I wanted to be thin and beautiful to fit cultural standards of female beauty. However, I also wanted to be thin because I wanted to run fast, and those two separate things were inextricable in my disordered mind. Both attitudes were reaffirmed repeatedly by everyone and everything around me. Women who openly complained about their bodies or shamed other bodies. The magazines and television and literature that praised the smallness of a woman’s waist, providing laundry lists of tips and ways to shrink. The running industry that, on every level, is filled with tiny, lithe bodies and coaches, doctors, and athletes who, either knowingly or not, associate thinness with fitness and speed. When I was deeply sick with my eating disorder, my running suffered. My coaches seemed flummoxed; I looked like a runner, so my declining speed must be attributed to something else—what exactly, no one could say.
The patriarchy likes women to be small, meek, and powerless. That way, men remain powerful and privileged. Men are not to blame for this, but it is critical that they recognize and acknowledge their space of privilege in order for any semblance of equality to exist. The words men use often reiterate and exercise power over the women they interact with. As a teenager, grown men would comment on my developing body. Coaches and teachers and causal onlookers warned me about the dangers of puberty, assuming that the natural development of a girl into a woman would slow me down and negatively impact my running times. I have taken professional meetings with men who comment first and foremost on my eyes, my body, or my clothing. Doing so undermines me as a professional and sends me a very clear message: you might be smart, but that doesn’t really matter if you’re pretty.
I had a wonderful boss at my first job out of college who pulled me into her office one day and told me, “I don’t know who told you that it isn’t okay to be smart, but it is, and you are.” These words brought me to tears and I wasn’t sure why. No one had ever explicitly told me that it isn’t okay to be smart, but the overwhelming message I’d internalized over the course of 23 years was that my appearance mattered more than my brain. My eating disorder originated from many places, but at the heart of it was the belief that my value was determined by my appearance. This is a common and damaging assumption.
As I moved through Recovery and learned to dissociate my worth from the appearance or shape of my body, I became acutely aware of the radical nature of this choice. Radical, if only because it contradicts nearly everything I’ve been told. A woman choosing to be “selfish” by putting her own health and happiness first, by choosing to love herself regardless of anything or anyone is an inherently feminist act. Throughout Recovery, I was necessarily selfish. I had to be in order to learn that my value is inherent in who I am—not what I do, what I look like, or who I am with. That’s powerful, and it’s something girls everywhere need to hear.
P.S. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, call the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237. Find an Eating Disorder Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE or find a treatment center near you HERE.