Feminist theory

I'm a feminist. I'm as about female equality, empowerment, identity, and authenticity as anyone.

So it was with dismay that I realized my friends were not my friends when it comes to eating disorders.

I don't think eating disorders need a feminist analysis any more than I think cancer or asthma do. In fact, talk of dissonance in treatment and analysis of differing senses of physicality and dualistic constructions strike me as more of the same stuff that got us into the incoherent mess we have in terms of treatment theory.

Here's the challenge: explain to me why the anorexia or bulimia or BED of a man is any different?

We must resist the temptation to use illness to confirm our dogma - or social cause. Feminism does not need eating disorders to prove its case. And eating disorder treatment does not need feminism for good treatment. You can be a feminist - and eschew commercialism, eat organic, believe in family, be non-violent, and hate the diet culture - without believing the lack of those things causes eating disorders.


  1. Amen to that!

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  3. why is anorexia or bulimia or BED in a man any different - partly because it is rarer and thus not researched, covered by many treatment teams or even recognised my many doctors. Fat is a feminist issue if only because the female body is designed to be composed of more fat than the male and messing around with the body fat composition is a huge trigger for eating disorders. Men who suffer from eating disorders are often not believed, or ridiculed even by doctors - just ask our former deputy prime minister http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/book_extracts/article3780994.ece

  4. By the way I personally just love the way he describes his first therapy session
    "He asked me lots of questions, most of which I thought were daft — about my childhood, early sexual experiences, that sort of stuff, which I don’t think had anything to do with it"

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  6. I think issues of dieting and body hatred within the general culture are indeed feminist issues. Even the way much of the dieting propoganda is targeted at women- feminist issue.

    But an eating disorder is, at the root of it all, a biological condition, a brain disease. Every disease has a cultural context- you can't deny that. How the "fasting saints" of the Middle Ages (who almost certainly had the same biological illness as people with AN today) understood their starvation is quite different than people might today.

    My view on genetics and culture is this: the genetic predisposition for an ED is a necessary but not sufficient cause. If you have an eating disorder, the predisposition has to be there. But something has to trigger it, and it's usually some sort of malnutrition, whether dieting, eating "healthy," illness, etc. That our culture encourages women to diet is a feminist issue. Absolutely. And that is a trigger for eating disorders.

    But once the disease takes hold, treating it isn't a matter of feminism or not. Like breast cancer. Primarily a women's illness, and how women understand their illness is really important. But you don't ask women how they feel about their breasts and what it means in a patriarchal culture before you administer chemotherapy. It's the same for eating disorders.

    Just my two cents.

    (and Tracey and Mary, you have my entry for the longest comment)


  7. Does the peer pressure to smoke cause lung cancer or do the Marlboros?

    Sexism does put different pressures and meanings to life for all of us - and the pressures are different for men and women, no question. I would argue that women are encouraged to engage in dieting and to loathe our bodies which pushes a lot of us to diet or overexercise which puts a certain percentage of us at high risk for a deadly mental disorder triggered by malnutrition.

    But I think it is important to remember that an eating disorder is a tsunami compared to a light breeze when it comes to body image. Most of us look sideways at a mirror and go "Oh, poo." and get on with the day. An eating disordered mind is locked into an entirely different order of magnitude of suffering.

    I think it is kind of insulting to people with eating disorders and BDD to even compare it. That is why I object to society presuming to say "I feel your pain." I don't think we do.

    We should change our sexist society FOR ALL OF US, not to cure eating disorders.

    And men, though fewer in number in ED treatment, do not as individuals suffer less. They should not be an afterthought in the discussion of eating disorders.

  8. My thoughts on the gender difference in incidences are that 1) Pyschiatric diseases in men go underdiagnosed and undertreated. Much -maybe even most - of this is culturally mediated.
    2) There is some indication that AN (or at least some form(s) of AN) is related to autism. Autism is diagnosed far more often in males than females, so it may turn out that the gender disparities are not what they first seemed.
    3) Other interesting research points to the fact that there may be auto-immune components to AN (or some form(s) of AN). If this is the case, then the higher prevelence of AN in females is part of a larger higher prevelence of auto-immune disorders in women. This observation is beleived by many to be related to differences in women's immune systems that are poorly understood at present, but most likely related to the fact that women's immune systems have evolved to systematically allow large foriegn bodies to live - even thrive! - inside us for 9-10mo stretches.
    4) When these stats are cited, mostly people talk about AN, yet 3/4ths of ED sufferers have BN or EDNOS. I can't remember the gender breakdowns for these diagnoses, but I don't think that they are 9:1 like for AN, my recollection is that it's more like 3:1 women to men. So that overall, ED patients are likely to be 4:1 women to men - but see points 1 and 2.

  9. Dieting is not necessarily because of body hatred either. Many athletes go on a diet because they believe less body fat will make them run faster or jump farther, or because they have to diet in order to make a weight classification in a sport like wrestling or rowing. For them, the dangers of dieting, and the genetic predisposition to eating disorders, is probably the same -- whether male or female.

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  11. Alhamdulillah. Thank you for this post. I've always enjoyed reading your blog, and as an eating disordered woman, activist, and even, yes, feminist, I am also often troubled by this. A lot of my research and writing is geared towards social issues (which do sometimes intersect with feminism in terms of things like dieting culture, etc.) that create a hotbed for eating disorders and disordered eating more generally, but I get sick of the constant need to make EVERYTHING into a "feminist issue" - and as you said, eating disorders as an individual illness are no more feminist than cancer or asthma.

  12. MR,

    Won't it be nice when we can each BE all the things we are without having to defend one against the other? (Your blog speaks to that, I think, very well!)


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