This article is part of the NCAFC Women & Non-Binary zine being distributed at this week’s NUS Women’s Conference. You can find the whole zine here.
By Lauren Kennedy. This article was originally published on the blog I eat your hate like love. Content note: eating disorders.
Every Wednesday I have a therapy session at the ED clinic I attend weekly. I am an outpatient now, so this means largely going recovery alone. I am lucky that, despite a very tricky gap from inpatients to outpatients care, I ended up with a fantastic therapist. The thing is therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is tricky because it’s based on the assumption that thought processes are faulty and thus need to be altered in order to perceive reality correctly. To its credit, mostly CB therapists don’t believe that everything is wonderful and you’re too ‘ill’ to see it, rather that some things can be average or even bad but your perception of them might make these things intolerable or that you only see the worst in situations where there can be good. This is extremely useful, especially in EDs where we tend to put an inordinate amount of thought on our weight, shape or appearance and CBT can help us shift our focus to other places.
There is a problem, though. I remember very clearly during treatment that a healthcare professional told me that it’s not out of the ordinary for a woman to be concerned about eating out at a restaurant for fear of gaining weight. Now it wasn’t like I hadn’t been fully aware of the absolute metric fuck-tonne of body-hating bile spilled by corporations and mass media designed to make you want to despise every inch of yourself enough to spend as much as you can on their products or services (think gyms, think plastic surgery, think beauty products). But perhaps through an eating disorder, it truly dawned on me that the problems it created were so endemic that it was hard to prise apart the experiences of someone with a diagnosis of an eating disorder and someone without. I have relatives who go to the gym obsessively, who talk to me about food nearly the whole time we are together and who would never even consider their behaviour disordered or problematic, no matter how much psychological stress they are clearly under from the amount of time needed to take out of their day for this, never mind being constantly hungry. As I began to look around, once I was confronted with the supposed ‘abnormality’ of my behaviour in my diagnosis, I saw disordered eating in many people that I knew in many different forms. In fact, I had had severely disordered eating up to 2 years before my treatment began but hardly anybody noticed because I hardly stood out, I mean why would I? Everyone else was doing it.
I am not the first person who has been enthusiastically congratulated, repeatedly might I add, on what was a very unhealthy body size. People I didn’t even know would gush at the sight of my body. (I like to really refrain from making any references to my size to prevent reinforcing stereotypes about the ‘typical’ person with an ED, but in this context it’s necessary.) However, as I have been overweight in my life as well, I am very familiar with the disgusting fatphobia that accompanies having a larger body. I used to get asked if I was pregnant, given unwanted tips on weight loss, get shouted at in the street and spoken to badly by customers at work as well as facing systemic oppression such as unhelpful treatment by doctors and very rude healthcare staff.
So we can see from the above that according to western beauty standards, it’s simple: thin is good, fat is bad.
So my question then, and unfortunately my unresolved question now, is how do I go about recovery in a world that doesn’t want me to recover? How do I go about recovery when it is accepted that feeling hatred towards your body is very widely accepted? And yes, whilst men do get eating disorders, it’s important to recognise that many of these are members of the LGBTQ community, and despite their underrepresentation, women of colour not only get EDs at high rates but they often aren’t diagnosed or treated appropriately. These are people who are told that their bodies don’t fit with white western beauty standards. If you are told that your body doesn’t belong, doesn’t fit, needs to be changed then yes, people may respond with disordered eating and at what point do we consider this an absurd response? Is it at all? I don’t think so. Now this isn’t to say that eating disorders are the correct and only response and in no way is this an attempt to trivialise the serious issues of people whose eating behaviours are particularly damaging to their wellbeing. However, I am attempting to illustrate the extent to which problematic eating behaviours manifest themselves more widely than just simply in the minds of those diagnosed with an eating disorder.
Don’t get me wrong, the body positivity movement can be of great help, but often it is still focused on ‘beauty’ or what is ‘beautiful’. It is still very body focused.
So yeah, I can say go seek out some body positivity and maybe you should, but it seems like such an individualistic response. Fuck blaming a phantom, omnipotent “media”, the “media” isn’t politically influenced by itself, it’s politically influenced by capital. Money. Capital that needs YOUR capital to thrive. Capital that needs you to feel bad about yourself, enough to spend money, enough not to feel like you’re worth anything more than a shit job in terrible conditions, a terribly maintained rented accommodation, £28,000+ tuition fees. Capital that needs you to dislike yourself, your body, your power and everything that it represents.
So how in good faith can I commit to recovery by changing my thought process surrounding this? Because I’m right aren’t I? The evidence is there. This doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying, it means I’ll assess the ways in which to do so, and I think that means tearing down the very institutions that make people feel like I do, and maybe like you do.