[Trigger warning: discusses eating disorders, without numbers.]
Often when we hear about feminism and eating disorders we hear things like “the media’s focus on thinness is causing eating disorders!” or “unrealistic beauty expectations are the cause of eating disorders!” As a feminist, a woman, and someone with an eating disorder, I find these kinds of statements offensive. The real relationship between gender expectations and eating disorders is far more complicated than that.
When we assert that young girls are ignorant of the effects of the media, and they are simply influenced against their will to believe they must look a certain way, we ignore the many pressures that exert themselves on women. And we demean the agency and intelligence of young women who are struggling to navigate identity, autonomy, expectations, and gender roles in a culture that tells them they should simply be effortlessly perfect.
Society puts a great deal of pressure on women. We are expected to be beautiful, but not focus on beauty. We are expected to be selfless, nurturing, caring, and emotional, but not so much so that we become hysterical or crazy. We are expected to both raise families and hold down a career, and to exceed flawlessly at both of these endeavors! Studies show that when men and women speak equally in a meeting, women are perceived as dominating the conversation. Women are very much expected to take up less space than men.
However, at the same time as these strong patriarchal influences telling us that we need to be small or else we’ll can expect to be harassed and abused, we also have the echoes of the first waves of feminism telling us that we need to stand up and be independent: we need to learn to be like men and succeed in business. But we can’t become emotionless and reject our feminine impulses. Being a mother is also good. This is a lot to pack into one body.
Sometimes I feel as if I’m not enough to contain everything that I need to be, all the expectations that society has for me, and all the things I’m supposed to do just perfectly. Many of the things I know I should do contradict each other. I’m left feeling as if I don’t know which way is up, as if I don’t know how to be a woman, and as if no matter what I do I’m ruining it, and I’m in the way.
But the worst part of all of this is that I feel responsible. Oh do I feel responsible. Everything is my fault. If my boyfriend is unhappy, it’s because I did something wrong. More often than not I have been told that I’m responsible for the emotions of the men around me, and that I need to manage not only my own life, but theirs as well. When you add a little black and white thinking to these expectations, you find yourself failing everywhere.
Societal expectations of women are set up to make us fail, leave us feeling as though we didn’t give enough, as if we were too stingy or too full of ourselves. An eating disorder seems like the perfect way to manage everything in life. The right answer becomes obvious and clear: always eat less. You don’t have to worry about being the perfect woman anymore because there is only one answer and that answer is lose weight. By some sick sort of transubstantiation you find that the more you lose of yourself, the more saintly you feel, as if you’ve done it for others. You’re making space for other people. You’re becoming quieter. You’re dwelling in self-hatred so that you never have to blame anyone else or call anyone out. In these ways, you feel that by harming yourself you’re becoming a good person, someone who is moral or kind.
Perhaps even worse, one of the more common tropes in movies and video games recently is that love requires violence. In the most recent ‘Tropes vs Women’ video from Anita Sarkeesian, she identifies the trope of the mercy killing (particularly in relation to the damsel in distress trope) and gives a myriad of examples in which a player of a video game must kill his girlfriend in order to save her (as she begs him for death and thanks him as she dies).
Something in our culture tells us that doing violence to the bodies of women is good, a sign of care, and a sign of love, as well as something that is deserved, asked for, and necessary to keep women in their place. Is it any surprise that we internalize this? When I have self-harmed or restricted, I have felt like I am showing some sort of twisted care to my body, or like the pain that I feel is a mark of making myself better.
Internalized misogyny leads to self-hatred, and let me tell you, eating disorders have an abundance of self-hatred. I can’t speak for everyone, but I wanted my body to hurt. I wanted to punish it for existing. I didn’t want it to exist, and I didn’t want myself to exist. I was sick of being too loud or too strong or too smart for other people and I simply wanted to be good and follow the rules. Unfortunately the rules of our society told me that I should hate myself.
But even with all of these strands of self-hatred, which come from gender roles, eating disorders also provide a perverse kind of autonomy in a world where you constantly feel dependent and wrong. Bodies are inherently connected with other people. We need other people to help us feed ourselves, and our bodies are constantly vulnerable to the threat of violence from others. As women, there’s little we can do to save ourselves from the potential of violence. However, we can try to silence our hunger and illustrate that we depend on no one but ourselves. It gives us some power over our body that no one else in the world has: the ability to have an autonomous body. In some way we mark our bodies as entirely our own, something that belongs to us in that we can judge it and we can perfect it. In the same moment that an eating disorder recreates all of the misogyny society has forced on us, it also perverts it in some bizarre way: women are not supposed to exert the power of violence over themselves. Only men are supposed to do that.
Gender roles are tied in complex ways to experiences of eating disorders, but it’s certainly more than a simple beauty ideal. I was never interested in being beautiful. I was simply interested in being perfect and in being independent. I felt that as I restricted I was both giving to others and taking myself to a different space where I could be safe and calm. I was quieting the storm of conflicting expectations that society created for me, while also fulfilling all of them by being both a perfect student and a perfectly quiet and “beautiful” girl. Eating disorders can be understood as a way to satisfy and thus escape from many of the pressures of being a woman today.