I decided to ask around online if people agreed that Eating Disorders (EDs) were a feminist issue, I received some really great answers, which I will discuss later on, but mostly I got negative feedback, personally insulting me. People responded by saying that I didn’t understand eating disorders (despite me explaining that I have had various EDs for the past 12 years), that “men don’t give women eating disorders” and that I am stupid for even asking. The common denominator in these responses was that because I mentioned feminism, I must be unintelligent and a man-hater. Basically, I found most people didn’t understand eating disorders or feminism.
Through my recover journey, I have found that people – medical professionals included – often do not take EDs seriously. I was struggling with Bulimic tendencies a few years ago and it was taking a toll on my health. I was describing some ways I had been feeling and discussing my abysmal blood work with my then family doctor when she said that I “wasn’t one of those dumb, vain girls with eating disorders.” I was dumbfounded and didn’t even consider seeking help for another year. There is a stereotype of people with EDs that is false and dangerous; many people think that the only people who are suffering are young, white, women with certain personalities. In reality, eating disorders do not discriminate. I know people of all ages, races, genders and socio-economic classes that suffer from eating disorders.
The comment made doctor made about women with eating disorders being vain and dumb is sexist and incredibly untrue. First off she was assuming that EDs are about looks and that there is choice in getting this illness and that EDs are a problem only for women. The women and men I know that are suffering or having recovered from EDs are some of the most intelligent, kind and compassionate people I know. They are not vain or stupid.
Over 24 million men and women in America have eating disorders. Most suffers are women, with 5-15% of sufferers being men. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest rate of mortality in all mental illness. Bulimia and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) have incredibly high rates as well. Yet, we still see pro-anorexia shirts being sold at Hudson’s Bay Company and weight-loss ads everywhere we go. Women are constantly told to look a certain way; that we shouldn’t be hungry, that being on a diet is normal and anything about a size 4 is fat, or that there is something wrong with having fat. Women are expected to starve; from the time I was a child I remember hearing conversations about growing teenage boys and how much they should eat, but it seemed like every woman I knew was on a diet. Why must be always shrink away?
Men are affected by patriarchal standards as well. They are told that being weak is not manly; that they have to be ripped or work out six days a week or no one will love them. I have known men who have engaged in disordered behaviour on the advice of coaches or their fathers.
Women are the main target of body criticism and outdated standards, however it affects our entire culture. We are teaching children that their looks are more important than their character and that a number can define them as a person.
Mental health is stigmatized throughout society and part of that is influenced by patriarchy. Equality of treatment and access to services is vital in the fight against eating disorders. Many women, myself included, have been told that it is “normal” to hate our bodies, to starve ourselves, to exercise to the point of danger. These are not normal behaviours. The idea that it is normal for women to hate themselves is disgusting! We must challenge the idea of low self-esteem and disordered behaviour is the norm for women and girls. When we create a environment for positive body image and healthy eating, we can better fight the root causes of the messages we see in society.
*Statistics from NEDIC