Marginalized Voices in Eating Disorder Recovery

NEDAwarenessLogoIn honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and UMKC’s Every Body is Beautiful Week, this is a guest blog from the  National Eating Disorders Association Blog.

For more information about UMKC’s Every Body is beautiful Week events, please visit our Facebook page.

By Melissa Fabello, Editor, Everyday Feminism

Pick up any eating disorder memoir at your local bookstore, and you are more than likely to find some iteration of this narrative arc.

Well-to-do, young white woman develops an eating disorder, spirals into near-oblivion, seeks treatment for her eating disorder (which usually results in her being admitted into a residential facility), experiences a myriad of successes and failures, and eventually commits to finding her Self again. Well-to-do, young white woman walks out of treatment with a new sense of hope on the road to recovery.

From a consumer-driven standpoint, it makes complete sense. Of course people are buying (and selling) these stories. Just as we see in our media landscape, there is a huge market for the most extreme and “graphic” version of any issue, and there will be people who are attracted to cathartic memoirs that are moving in that they’re so terrifying. It takes courage to tell your story of struggle with a mental disorder, to confront the stigma. They may be written from a place of good intention to educate and raise awareness about how serious eating disorders are, but they can also have the unintended effect of making us feel better about ourselves, our lives – hell, even our diets. “At least I’m not like that,” or “I’m not that sick.”

From an eating disorder recovery perspective, we have to ask ourselves whether these limiting representations of life with an eating disorder are doing more harm than good in the absence of other diverse voices and experiences with these illnesses.  As important and valid as stories like the above are about a commonly misunderstood illness – and as necessary as it is for people, from the field of psychology to the general public, to read and understand them – they simply aren’t telling the whole story.

My eating disorder didn’t look like that, and it’s been difficult to find stories that more closely resemble my own. My eating disorder was private and lonely. My rapid weight loss raised a few concerned eyebrows and flippant comments, but only one intervention. My doctor didn’t offer anything to me except a nutritionist and an SSRI prescription – oh, and the dreaded diagnosis of EDNOS. My eating disorder wasn’t (yet) killing me. It wasn’t making strangers stare at me. It looked entirely from the outside – so long as no one ever got a peek at my journals – like a diet.

And yet, my eating disorder was terrifying. And it was serious. And it mattered. Considering most people struggling with bulimia are of average weight, binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, most doctors hardly  receive any training about eating disorders, and people are socially rewarded in our culture for dieting or weight loss, I have a suspicion that I’m not alone.

While some may argue that these bestsellers are raising important awareness about a growing problem, my question is: How beneficial is it if the scope of what the shoppers see is such a narrow picture of eating disorder experiences? How concerning is it that many write these memoirs without realizing how critical it is to share their story responsibly – in ways that doesn’t invite comparisons of “not sick enough to count” or with triggering images and instructive behaviors?

Because here is what happens when the only eating disorder stories that we hear are the ones that fit the aforementioned description: We use them as examples to hold our own disorders up to. We use them to judge and determine what is and isn’t “really sick.” We start to trust that these narratives represent “real” eating disorders, and that experiences that fall outside of these confines just don’t count.

And that’s dangerous.

It’s dangerous for the men and the boys who are struggling when they’re looking in the mirror. It’s dangerous and invalidating for women and other people of color when eating disorders are chiefly looked at as a “white woman’s problem.” It’s dangerous for trans* folks whose body image battles are always lumped in as related to gender-related dysphoria.

It’s dangerous to every person who’s ever peered into the DSM for diagnostic criteria and thought, “Well, I don’t purge that much” or “I haven’t lost that much weight.” It’s dangerous to every person who’s ever thought that they must not be “that bad” just because they don’t see stars when they stand up or don’t have heart complications or haven’t been questioned about erosion by their dentist or don’t have to take a leave of absence from school or don’t ever see a therapist or don’t get admitted into residential treatment or don’t have to be fed through a tube.

As is every structure that exists to serve a hierarchy of power, when the landscape is primarily non-inclusive eating disorder stories, it’s dangerous to the marginalized. They say, “Your voices don’t matter. Your experiences aren’t important.” It’s dangerous to reality.

And something has to change.

So, with that in mind, I (in collaboration with NEDA) would like to collect and curate your eating disorder stories. We want to highlight recovery stories that challenge that dominant narrative formula. There are already some brave people out there sharing their stories, talking about how their ethnicity, gender identity, orientation,  age, or religion have impacted their experience with an eating disorder, but as a field and community, we have still have so far to go. You are invited to join us.

We want all of it: your successes, your messes, your relapses, your questions. We want to hear from people of marginalized identities and from different parts of the world. We want to span the entire spectrum. We want to create a collection of stories that tells the whole truth so that we can present the world with what the reality of most eating disorders look like – because how can we truly address a problem if we don’t know what it looks like?

So if you have ever read an eating disorder memoir and felt misrepresented, underrepresented, or unrepresented, we want to hear from you. Submit your story now!

Interested in sharing your experiences as a step toward public enlightenment? For guidelines and to submit your stories, check out our submissions page here.

And for more on what I wish people understood about eating disorders, check out this video.

Fight the Stereotypes: Never Apologize for Who You Are

By Morgan Paul

A cartoon example of how degrading steretypes are. Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

A cartoon example of how degrading steretypes are. Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

“You throw like a girl.” “Boys don’t cry.” “Be a man.” These are just a few of the phrases that are pounded into young boys’ heads, and they are great examples of how the patriarchy hurts everyone! Why do we feel the need to tell young boys that if they do not conform, they are a girl? And furthermore, what’s so offensive about being a girl? Then girls are told to “be a lady,” and stay pretty and polite. My niece is almost 2 years old and I don’t tell her she’s beautiful. I tell her that she’s smart and she’s funny and that I love her, and I hope that she never bases her self-worth on her looks because she is so much more.

While reading through something on my friend’s Facebook I found a quote that really stuck with me:

“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”—Ian McEwan.

Another cartoon example of how degrading steretypes are. Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

Another cartoon example of how degrading steretypes are. Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

While on one hand this was seen as progress for women, it was really telling them that if they wanted to be better then they must be like men. Yet if a man wants to wear a skirt he’s ridiculed, because who would want to be like a woman? (and don’t tell me that men wouldn’t want to wear skirts because they are comfortable!) So the best insults people can come up with are not about their intelligence but they’re poor attacks on their expression or unrelated insults calling them a “pussy” or “faggot” because being a girl or being gay is the worst possible thing they can think of. Then there are quite possibly the easiest insults: attacks on one’s appearance. In a society that already tells us that no matter what we do we’ll never be pretty enough, the last thing we need are our peers using our insecurities against us. Do you honestly think that I don’t know I’m “fat?” I am well aware. And you want to call me a “cunt” or “gay?” I won’t get offended. If you want to offend me then insult my intellect! But I will never apologize for who I am.

Gender Stereotypes In the Classroom

Image from flickr.com

By Bonnie Messbarger

Recently I was reading some of the blogs on Ms. Magazine’s blog site, and found this article to be really interesting.  It talks about the new book written by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett called The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children. The book takes a look into the pseudoscience of gender essentialism, which basically is the idea that because we have different genders that means there is a natural difference in their biological and psychological makeup. This belief has bled into parenting styles, media and corporation strategies, and even education. Some see the differences between boys and girls to be so great that they need to be educated not only separately (as in a private all girls/boys school), but in completely different ways.  The Ms. Magazine Blog says, “In the U.S., 524 public schools now have at least one single-sex classroom; nine years ago there were only a dozen.” Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian are the faces of gender separation in the classroom with books like “Why Gender Matters” and “Boys and Girls Learn Differently”. So, what exactly are these people suggesting we teach in these single-sex classrooms?

For starters people like Sax and Gurian tell us girls learn most effectively in a calm and quiet environment, where there isn’t much noise and everyone learns home economics, poetry, and other subjects that they see as useful to women. They are taught to be passive, quiet, and to nurture and listen.  Also according to these stereotypes, boys learn best in an active environment, where they are moving constantly, and there is lots of noise. They disassemble electronics, and cars, and learn how to make things fly. They do not read literature critically, or discuss art and music, that is for women. They are outgoing and persistent, and taught to take charge and lead.

In my opinion, these stereotypes, which are basically what they are, are dangerous to be teaching young children.  This system of separation could be very damaging for both boys and girls because of how limiting it is. This idea of different education methods for boys and girls claims to be based on science. But this “science” doesn’t account for boys who like to cook and teach and girls who like to build planes and take charge. This whole idea of separatist education is shocking to me, because it seems more like something out of a classroom in the 1900’s than a classroom in 2011. As a woman who’s outgoing, bakes, works on cars, can’t sit still, plays video games, sews, reads, and learns best by being hands on, I don’t see how these separate classrooms can be beneficial to anyone.