But I can’t have an eating disorder! Some thoughts on ED, stigma and teenage girls

I was reading this post about ED on Geek Feminism the other day and it reminded me that I wanted to write something about the ways in which eating disorder stigma is used against people with eating distress, both as a means to stop us talking about it publicly and to divide us from each other. The post also made me think about the ways that ED stigma can be internalised and even used as a defence mechanism by people with ED, i.e. “But I can’t have an eating disorder because [insert your own identity] don’t get eating disorders”.

This, I think, is the nature of the double-bind of eating disorder stigma: only one group is allowed to officially represent eating disorders and this group is characterised as female, ostensibly heterosexual, pretty, white, middle-class and in their teens. This is the group that society is encouraged to be most concerned and vigilant over, this is the group that merits the most interventions and preventative work, the ones who must have their self-esteem bolstered in efforts to protect them from developing eating disorders.

As others have pointed out, this discourse is both racist and classist, positioning white, middle-class, female bodies as the only ones worth saving from eating disorders, but I think it does something else as well in relation to stigma.

Since teenage girls in general also happen to be a despised group in society, making them into the primary subjects of ED only compounds the stigma attached to the illness, sending a message to everyone else that they really ought to be ashamed of themselves. I mean, what are you doing with a condition that’s mainly associated with silly, vain, teenage girls who lack self-esteem and stopped eating because they looked at some pictures in a magazine?  Of course I don’t think that’s why teenage girls develop eating disorders at all, and nor do I think that teenage girls are any sillier or vainer than any other group of people, but I have seen exactly those sentiments expressed, more often than I would like, and sometimes by feminists.

This focus has made it difficult to effectively communicate the fact that ED is a serious mental illness that can affect anyone and also divides sufferers from one another.  After all, who wants to be associated with teenage girls? They like Twilight and stuff.  I don’t think Twilight is really that much sillier than a lot of other cultural productions, but it’s extra despised because it’s associated with teenage girls, just like eating disorders.

So here I am, a 34 year-old professional lesbian and feminist with plenty of self-confidence. How can I have an eating disorder dammit? How shameful!  I should be embarrassed and not mention it to anyone. This feeling is well expressed on the first page of the excellent webcomic I do not have an eating disorder

Well, obviously I can have an eating disorder because all these assumptions are nonsense.  While it may be true that certain groups are more at risk and that EDs affect different groups in different ways, the sooner we start to promote the message that anyone can get an eating disorder at any time in their life, the sooner we may reduce the stigma and get closer to understanding the illness.

But I think it’s interesting to have a closer look at some of the reasons why I might feel that I shouldn’t have an eating disorder because they tell us a bit more about ED stigma:

I am a lesbian 

Apparently lesbians are assumed to be less likely to develop eating disorders because they don’t adhere to conventional beauty standards.  If I was a teenage girl I think the appropriate response to this statement would look something like ROFLMAO. Well, that’s a subject for another post in itself, but for now I’ll just say that a group having different beauty standards does not imply that the group lacks norms and standards of appearance, or methods of enforcing them

I have a graduate degree

Smart people shouldn’t have eating disorders! I don’t really think that possession of a graduate degree necessarily means that a person is very smart, but we’re encouraged to buy into that idea. This assumption again taps into the idea that ED is not a mental illness, so much as a weakness or a kind of stupidity. The writer at Geek Feminism notes that she feels ashamed because geeks are supposed to be smarter than this, to rise above a concern with appearance.  ED stigma, like most oppressive discourses, is quite dissonant when it comes to intelligence – on the one hand, smart women aren’t supposed to be susceptible, but on the other hand, its proclaimed as an illness that affects high-achieving young women.  you can’t win!

I’m not girly!

This is where misogyny, both external and internalised, enters the picture.  In a misogynistic culture, what’s worse than being considered “girly”?  The writer at Geek Feminism talks about feeling ashamed because ED is associated with girliness and, apparently, in geek culture “girliness” is seen as a bad thing:

“Geek culture is not “girly” and rejects all notions of “girly”.  Why bother with body image issues when that’s clearly a “girl problem””.

Eating disorders are presented as a feminine malady, and since women are seen as irrational, this gendering of the illness fuels a tendency not to take it seriously, to see it as symptomatic of feminine weakness, rather than as an understandable response to social conditions. There may be genetic predispositions and personality traits involved as well, but to me ED seems to be an illness that develops as a response to certain kinds of stress. It’s worth noting that animals also develop disordered eating when they are stressed.

By making teenage girls into the acceptable face of eating disorders, we actually compound stigma and divide people with ED from one another.  Why are teenage girls set up in this way?  Well, they probably are at high risk, which is hardly surprising given the way they’re treated and the stress they’re under, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. Young gay men are also at high risk of ED and we hear little about that in the media.

White, middle-class teenage girls are seen as both relatively powerless and non-threatening, but also as valuable bodies that are worth rescuing – someone could probably say something here about futurity and the need to ensure the reproductive potential of certain kinds of women; after all, one thing an ED will do is mess up your fertility.  This might also reveal something about the lack of attention to other groups with a high risk of ED – LGBT people are not seen as the reproducers of children, or not as socially desirable reproducers anyway.  I have another post percolating on what the discourse around ED tells us about which bodies are considered valuable bodies and which are not, so I won’t open up that can of worms right now.

There is also a very weird white, middle-class tendency to make this illness into a sign of specialness –  as I mentioned above, you’ll often hear it said that ED affects “high-achieving” young women. Aside from the amazing ability of white, middle-class culture to make everything that white middle-class people do into a sign of specialness,  I suspect that it’s more likely to be the case that “high-achieving” girls come from families that are more able to seek out treatment, and are therefore more likely to have their illness diagnosed because they are being more closely monitored.  The only way to find out if they really are at higher risk would be to value all young female bodies equally and make treatment equally available to everyone.

Whatever the reasons for the focus, it results in the disruptive problem of ED being absorbed by society fairly easily because, ultimately, things that affect teenage girls are trivialised. The media is starting to worry about ED among little boys now and it’ll be interesting to see how the representation of this “new” concern progresses – it is about boys developing ED, or about the idea of boys developing a “femininized” illness?

Anyway, if everyone started to get together and talk about the truly widespread nature of eating distress, I think we’d soon draw some very powerful and probably threatening conclusions, but as long as it’s made into a problem that affects one paradoxically idealised/stigmatised group, this is unlikely to happen.

Theoretical influences on this post include Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Part 1 (1976), Judith Butler’s work, espescially her essay ‘Critically Queer’ (1993) and her book Undoing Gender (2004), oh and Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004)

Crossposted to Purple Prose

5 thoughts on “But I can’t have an eating disorder! Some thoughts on ED, stigma and teenage girls

  1. I think for white teenage girls (hereafter WTGs!) — especially middle-class ones — there’s a very visceral feeling that, while you may be despised in and of yourself, you have the potential to someday become Important — the day you become a Wife and a Mother. Then you’re Important, Worthwhile. At least, this is very much the feeling I had as a WTG. You aren’t actually important, of course, you’re just useful to the powers that be, but I think for women (or at least white women), usefulness amounts to the same thing as importance. It’s really the best we can hope for.

    So having an ED, which really jepordizes your fertility, also jepordizes your future value to the patriarchy. In a way, albeit a very self-destructive one, EDs can function as a kind of massive FUCK YOU to society.

    Re: lesbians and appearances, if we understand EDs to be a response to massive stress, then it becomes glaringly obvious why members of the LGBT communities would have eating distress!

  2. I really needed to read this. Thank you for writing it – it’s still hard for me to come to terms with the idea that I have an ED, because of course only high-achieving thin girls do, right? This got stuck in my head from an early age and never really left.

  3. Hi Lavender,
    I like your blog and it’s unique compared to the other ED blogs out there. Have you ever read ‘the Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf? I personally love it and it’s altered my perception of the world in general, but I’m not that critical unfortunately and ‘d be interested to hear your views on it. I used to be anorexic and I think the book addresses ED quite well.
    All the best 🙂

    • Thank you. I have read The Beauty Myth but it was a very long time ago and I can’t remember that much about it beyond thinking that what she was saying about ED was interesting. Perhaps I’ll take another look at it.

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