Is feminism useful in eating disorders recovery?

There has been recent argument on Twitter on whether Gloria Steinem’s talk on feminism and eating disorders at a treatment clinic was useful, scientifically correct, and/or marginalizing men who have EDs.

My first thoughts are related to the DSM-5 definition of anorexia nervosa:

  • Either an intense fear of gaining weight or of becoming fat, or persistent behaviour that interferes with weight gain (even though significantly low weight).
  • Disturbance in the way one’s body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body shape and weight on self-evaluation, or persistent lack of recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight

and bulimia nervosa:

  • Self-evaluation is unduly influenced by body shape and weight.

So we can see that high evaluation of weight and shape is usually (not always) at least a part of many people’s eating disorders.

So how does feminism come into this?

Letting go of eating disorder beliefs, such as ‘I can only be happy while thin’ is difficult. What is more difficult, is when society, friends, media and celebrities say the same thing! If everything around you says there’s only one way to be beautiful, and implies that women can only be happy if they look like this, fighting the eating disorder is harder.

Feminism aims for equal rights for women, by reducing damaging gender roles and expectations for both men and women. These roles and expectations may be harmful to someone trying to fight the eating disorder thoughts. If this is the case feminism can help by:

  • Encouraging people to see themselves and others as being important because of who they are and what they do, not just as how they look.
  • Showing and appreciating bodies that come in all shapes and sizes, and removing pressure for men and women to look a certain way.

Society expects women to look one way and men to look another. Feminism fights these damaging expecations and helps to challenge eating disorders!

Feminism is often criticized for ignoring men’s troubles. While empowering women is the goal of feminism, narrow gender roles also hurt men. Tyler Kingkade explains how being mistaken as a girl fuelled his poor body image, and men often delay getting help for mental illnesses such as eating disorders, because men are expected to be strong and invulnerable.

Finally, because eating disorders are associated with women, they are seen to be associated with negative, traditionally female, traits, such as being vain, superficial, weak and irrational. Associating negative stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits with EDs prevents everyone getting treatment.

Feminism can help fight eating disorders, and we need all the tools we can get. It shouldn’t be dismissed as unrelated.


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