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Women who identify as feminists are reportedly more satisfied with their bodies than women who do not identify as feminist, but disordered eating is just as common (Borowsky et al., 2016). This demonstrates that whilst eating disorders are often misrepresented as simply a women’s pursuit of thinness, these complex conditions are reflective of other socio-cultural problems faced by women. When listening to women with eating disorders you will hear themes of objectification, feeling dis-empowered, silenced and shamed. These themes also run through feminist conversation and literature and here we can see the need for feminist approaches to understanding recovery from the largely female illnesses – eating disorders.
In therapy, women have discussed the concept of protection from the male gaze when inside a bigger body; the protection from being sexually objectified is, however, often overshadowed by the aggression directed toward them for their size. The objectification still occurs and her efforts to hide from one type of attention means she is visible for another type of attention. Fat-shaming, fat-phobia, fat-discrimination, verbal and physical assault toward women is common and perpetuates eating disorders in some women.
In therapy, women discuss the feeling of power and control and sense of achievement from severely restricting their nutritional intake to the point of collapse and hospitalisation. The striving for feeling powerful obviously stems from a deep seated feeling of being vulnerable and powerless. The powerlessness continues as her efforts to prolong restriction in order to feel powerful mean she becomes more powerless to anorexia; physically and cognitively left more vulnerable than before.
In therapy, women discuss the self-loathing and intense shame they experience from binging and purging food that was consumed in secret. Stuffing down their opinions, ideas and feelings with food instead of expressing them and dissociating from the world for that moment. The vicious cycle that is bulimia leads her to experience visible changes in her appearance with an extended jaw and puffiness from purging, sores around her knuckles and dental erosion amongst other consequences and leave her feeling more shame and guilt and self-loathing than before.
When we listen to women with eating disorders we see the feminist struggles that fuel the illness. In order to better understand and treat eating disorders, we need to see the gendered context. Research supports the power of feminism in eating disorder recovery; including, education and reflection of socio-cultural influences on weight stigma (Venturo-Conerly et al., 2019) but the feminist therapeutic framework must extend beyond body dissatisfaction and incorporate education, discussion and treatment based on broader feminists principles.
Melbourne Centre for Women’s Mental Health utilises feminist frameworks for understanding and treating eating disorders. Book online for your initial consultation.
Skocic, S. 2019