Monday, April 03, 2006

It doesn't have to be an eating disorder to be bad

The recent hair-raising article in the NYT about young women starving themselves for bikini-perfect bodies in anticipation of Spring Break has brought out some good commentary on the connections between eating disorders, feminism, and American consumer culture. I've written about the apparent biological influences on eating disorders, and my own problems with body image, food and weight, and I think that there is a less sensational but more prevalent issue that tends to skirt under the radar - after all, there are people dying out there.

Eating disorders get a two-pronged treatment by the media, where women affected are either victims of a culture that demands too much of them, or they are vindictive bitches starving themselves to make everyone else jealous. Either is a problematic way to look at eating disorders, especially with the complicated nature (and nurture) of how they arise. These attitudes, I think, crop up when we lump the very large number of truly self-hating, weight-obsessed women with the much smaller number of women who are actually suffering eating disorders. These two populations certainly have women who cross from one side to the other, but the differences often get lost in the rush to expose the very real damage that a beauty-obsessed, sexist culture does to women. It's like people pull out the dead anorexic girl as their trump card - even when she is not simply a product of her culture.

Myself, I don't think I have ever lost a pound on purpose. I've never fit the definition of obesity or unhealthy thinness, generally eat three meals a day, and am in no danger of overexercising, but I've still suffered with huge amounts of shame, self-hatred and misery. And we all know I'm not the only one.

What especially bothers me about the anorexia-media-feminism conversation is that we have to say "Look! These women are dying!" to get people to pay attention to the endemic body image and self-hatred problems amongst women. I was never about to die or be physically harmed by my misery, but I certainly was miserable. We need to help women love - or at least not hate - their bodies not just so they can survive, but so that they can live.
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