By Laura Labate:
Cover Letter: The process of writing this paper has allowed me to combine my personal opinions about the topic of eating disorders with scientific findings, in order to form a compelling argument that I have not yet heard. I take pride in my stance on the topic and feel by writing about eating disorders I have the potential to begin to address some stigmas about the disease that exists within our society. Of course recovery was a difficult part to write about since the experience is individual to each person and there is no linear road to health, however I believe the difficulty in the writing process is symbolic of the process itself. Therefore this topic is deserving of attention. That is why I think it is valuable to highlight the individualistic nature of the process and provide a framework for what someone might experience throughout. If people are unfamiliar with the topic, I believe this paper will be incredibly insightful and hopefully at the very least make people more aware of the female oppression in our society that conditions us subconsciously. If the reader already has previous knowledge about eating disorders or perhaps has struggled with one his/herself, I intend to create a platform that allows them to feel less isolated in their struggles. I am to relieve some of the blame those suffering may place on themselves. Lastly, I think a self-discovery period is valuable for anyone whether they are going through recovery or not. Hopefully this paper will get the reader thinking about ways to improve the way they treat themselves. Learning to demonstrate compassion towards yourself is a skill that everyone could afford to strengthen whether despite the presence of an eating disorder.
In this paper I aim to address the ways in which eating disorders are manifested in the structural oppression of women. Despite the disorder’s origins in structural oppression, I argue that recovery does not apply to systematic oppression, but instead is a personal process which requires one to reconsider their identity, in order to shift their individual cares/concerns regarding themselves. I have chosen this topic and stance out of concern for the magnitude of the problem in our society. My hope is that by bringing origins of the issue to the attention of the reader, one can begin to identity the forces in society contributing to women’s development. In addition to this, I aim to shift the public views of appropriate treatment mechanisms for the disorder, by illustrating the depth of the disorder past the surface of the physical body. This will be achieved by focusing on the individual and her journey to establish a form of identity which begins to allow her to lessen the pain of the eating disorder. I believe structural oppression to be a cause of eating disorders because of the scientific findings regarding the relationship between body objectification and eating disorders. I argue body objectification is a result of our systematic structure. On the other hand I don’t view a change in the system as the entirety solution, because such an idea undermines the individualistic nature of the disorder, however I do believe it should be considered as part of the solution.
Transitioning into college requires building a new home for yourself. With all familiarity rid from my sight, I grasped on to one of the few aspects of myself that I felt I had control over and that was my weight. Looking around my new homogeneous surroundings I noticed I was surrounded by thin, “attractive”, females. Due to the messages in our society, I equated thinness and attractiveness to social desirability. With this sequence of thoughts I was headed down a dark path of dieting/ food restriction, excessive exercise, and eventually mild starvation. Freshman year marked the beginning of my eating disorder. Had our society not perpetuated obsession of female bodily appearance it is likely these habits would not have formed as my coping mechanism. Yet in the light of uncertainty and change, weight loss was the only source of “comfort” I could seem to achieve myself.
Since I like other women in our society view my body as something that can and should be manipulated, I resorted to gaining control of changing life factors through a change in my appearance.
This tendency to think of our bodies as a means of escape rather than a source of knowledge, is the result of a society structure which objectifies women bodies.
Rather than befriending my body, I viewed it as something which could and should be managed. Fast forward one year. I am weight restored and to the average eye, “recovered”, but I myself know there is work to be done internally in order to find my true self in a society that overlooks the true female self every day. While I could point fault at the system for placing these ideas of desirability in my mind, I could not ask the system to change for me. For this reason I sought methods for recovery that focused on my personal needs. The discovery of these methods marked the beginning of a self-discovery process as I learned to change what I thought to be important in life. Through recovery I worked to replace beauty ideals and obsessive tendencies with compassion and kindness towards myself.
P1: If a challenge faced by women is rooted in the experience of being alienated from one’s body—i.e., experiencing the body as an object to be managed (much more often and more intensely than is normal or healthy)—then this challenge is a manifestation of the structural oppression of women.
P2: In many cases, eating disorders among women are rooted in the experience of being alienated from one’s body.
C: In many cases, eating disorders among women are manifestations of the structural oppression of women.
The first premise is routed in the work of Iris Marion Young, author of Throwing Like a Girl.Young describes the structural phenomenon of body objectification in her writing. Through quotes from this work, and through additional resources I will argue women face challenges due the experience of body alienation – a form of body objectification, which is manifested in our society. To begin I want to define body objectification to illustrate the depths of its meaning.
Body objectification describes the situation of a women living in her body “as a shape and flesh that presents itself as a potential object of another subjects intentions and manipulations.” (Young, 154)
It is not just the society that views the woman’s body as an object. Overtime the woman adopts this belief as well. Unconsciously the woman will begin to “take her body as a mere thing.” (Young, 154) These entrenched thoughts contribute to the experience of body alienation as the objectified bodily existence begins to impact the woman’s self-consciousness. Body alienation creates a separation between a woman’s physical body and her relation to the body. Therefore as long as the woman views her body as an object, or as long as society views the woman’s body as an object, the woman is unable to experience unity within herself.
Here the intrusion of structural oppression becomes evident as the woman’s life is disadvantaged by body objectification. Young defines oppression as “The disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because of a tyrannical power coerces them, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society.” The “well-intentioned liberal society” mentioned in this definition would be the patriarchal society that defines women as objects, “a mere body.” Young claims the sexist society which defines woman as objects and mere bodies as well, is also responsible.
These structure’s create environments in which the woman is gazed upon as an existing body.
One of the many disadvantages women face as a result, is the idea that the women must be “kept in their place.” This societal message has repercussions on the woman’s behaviors as she begins to move with more restriction. If the women were to live in her body openly, she would run the risk of inviting objectification. Another example of the disadvantage the woman faces due to structural oppression, lies within the fear of bodily invasion. This fear drives the woman to demonstrate subtle acts of protection in her daily life.
Another reason Young and myself believe the structure to be a form of oppression is because it ignores the situatedness of the woman’s bodily movement, forcing her to engage in types of movement (exercise) that may not bring her any inherent pleasure. This is an example of an injustice forced upon women.Oppression is also evident in the quote “Women are culturally and socially denied by subjectivity, autonomy, and creativity which are definitive of being human.” (Young, 152) As women begin to weaken their connection with their bodies they lose a sense of humanity. That sense of loss transcends out of the once “lived body” into a pressure-filled world which encourages brokenness. Although brokenness between the body and mind may appear to be the norm driving society, it creates mental dissonance which may explain the high levels of anxiety found in women with eating disorders. Individual suffering continues as long as the woman oppresses her true self.
Additionally, Young claims these structural systems of oppressions are reproduced in major economic, political or cultural institutions. To apply this claim to female bodies – cultural institutions value thinness and external beauty which is reinforced through the diet culture where our economy gains profits. Politically, women are judged based upon their appearance causing qualifications to be overlooked and disadvantages for women to arise in the workforce. These systems do not operate with malice intentions, but rather they operate as part of the everyday practices of society. Nonetheless their contributions to female body objectification and in turn body alienation are significant and should not be ignored.
Young claims an ideal relationship with your own body requires you to view your body as a subject rather than an object. Viewing the body as a subject allows us to gain knowledge from the body through trust of our own awareness. To provide you with an example of what this “ideal” relationship may consist of, I invite you to consider the concept of intuitive eating.
“Intuitive eating is about trusting your inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment and without influence from diet culture.” (Flores)
For many this description may seem impossible to achieve since it requires one to eat purely out of bodily need and pleasure, rather than out of concern for the effects of the food on one’s appearance. Due to the foreignness of this idea, many in our culture are removed from the intuitive eating skills they were once born with. As we grow up we begin to lose our intuition regarding our bodies as we are surrounded by the structural oppression of body objectification. Soon the body is seen less as a source of wisdom and more as a burden. Women are taught to engage in body altering activities such as structured exercise, dieting, etc.
In order to reject our structural norms of objectification, women must act in radical ways to reclaim their bodies. I say radical not to place a negative connotation on the women’s actions, but to demonstrate effort is required to ignite body and mind unity since it defies the structural norm. A woman must establish a means of living in contradiction to her society in order to reduce the internal versus external tension within herself. The need for an established form of contradiction is proof of the woman’s oppression.
Premise #2 states: “In many cases, eating disorders among women are rooted in the experience of being alienated from one’s body.” I want to begin the transition into this premise by clearly defining the meaning of an eating disorder as I believe there are many misconceptions of the term in our society.
Unlike the stigmas and images placed on eating disorders, an individual does not need to appear emaciated or even thin for that matter, to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Many times an eating disorder is not apparent from the outside, while the internal struggle is overwhelming to the individual.
That being said, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), defines an eating disorder as “any range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits.” This definition may be useful to keep in mind while discussing the issue. Notice the definition does not include any reference to weight or appearance. This is important to recognize in order to begin to break eating disorder stigmas. I will not talk about the distinction between eating disorders and disordered eating, however both have been proven to be in part an outcome of body objectification.
Since body objectification is a cause of body alienation, and body alienation is rooted in eating disorders, body objectification is rooted in eating disorders. Body objectification transitions into an eating disorder once objectification is internalized to the point of disorder. I have provided a graph below to illustrate such a process, but essentially it begins with the self-objectification I described above.
This objectification leads to excess self-surveillance as the woman may begin to notice herself as less of an individual and more in terms of others through comparison. Naturally self-surveillance of this type leads to an increase in self-critical thoughts which increases a woman’s tendency to body shame. Now keep in mind as this process continues the woman becomes more and more alienated from her body because her sense of awareness is lacking. Awareness comes in many forms but in this study interceptive is the focus. A lack of interceptive awareness creates “difficulties in identifying and responding to emotional and visceral states including hunger.” Think back to the concept of intuitive eating mentioned previously. As one’s interceptive awareness lessens, their sense of embodiment does as well. The more embodies awareness is lost, the more people obsessively focus on their surface body as something to change or control.
Identifying with the surface body leads to dangerous eating disorder habits such as stepping on a scale, checking yourself in a mirror, or counting calories.
Here one can begin to see signs of the formation of an eating disorder. The growing attachment to the external body leads to “abnormal or disturbed eating habits”, which we see in the definition of an eating disorder stated above. Dr. Ann Saffi Biasetti, a psychotherapist who has specialized in the field of eating disorders for 25 years recently wrote a book titled “Befriending Your Body.”
In this book she describes body alienation a sensation of “feeling broken.” This feeling includes a “sense of shame, feeling not okay as you are and with who you are. It also encompasses pain from the past, pain that is perhaps too much to bear”(Biasetti, 22) She carries on to say “This pain often lands in your body and becomes overwhelming. Eating disorder behaviors, such a bingeing, purging, and restricting, are often a response to this pain.” This quote demonstrates the power between the body and mind. Thoughts and feelings of body alienation, prove themselves to be strong enough to produce eating disorder behaviors. Women may begin to restrict their food intake believing their body is not deserving of proper nutrient, while potentially engaging in excess exercise. As these habits develop “women’s existences are weighed down by tying her to nature, immanence, and the requirements of the species at her own individuality”(Young, 143)Women no longer are acting for the benefit of themselves; they are acting in response to the pain of being alienated from their bodies.
Knowing that body objectification which leads to body alienation is the result of structural oppression and eating disorders are rooted in body alienation, it is logical to conclude eating disorders are manifested in structural oppression. It would also be logical to assume since the root is structural, the solution would be structural as well. However, this argument is false.
Despite the similar roots and the bodily responses amongst cases of eating disorders, it is an individualized process which implies the recovery process must be aimed at identity formation. Dr. Biasetti writes: “You must cultivate and build your body, your-self, and your spirit for the behavior to end, at least for it to end permanently. A self-compassionate recovery looks to embrace and heal at all levels – body, self, and spirit. It includes emotions, embodied moments and shifts, reframing thought, and movement forward in life and relationships.” (Biasetti, 107) This quote demonstrates a universal solution to eating disorders such as a change in the structure of our society would not be a sufficient means of recovery, for it would neglect crucial aspects of healing that Dr. Biasetti claims need to occur.
In addition to compassion, identity formation during recovery from an eating disorder requires one to distance themselves from identifying as the eating disorder. Often times it is frightening for people to picture their lives without the eating disorder. This is because of the disorder is a form of coping as I mentioned previously. The disorder attempts to cope with feelings stemming from: the fear of rejection, a person’s low self-esteem, the overwhelming of life, etc. The disorder is not an effective coping mechanism however, as it leads to further judging and rejecting of oneself. The key in transforming one’s identity in the midst of this disorder is recognizing the coping mechanism as a type of illusion. The illusion is filled with lies that separate your true identity from the one you are currently holding.
This recognition can be life altering. As Frankfurt claims it takes something of trauma to change your perspective about your cares, because the change is a radical one.
In the context of an eating disorder, women must cultivate the skills and courage to shift their cares from control and desirability, to self-compassion and acceptance. Although it defies our society, women must alter the importance they place on external validation, by recognizing the existence of body objectifications in our culture. Of course this process is a frightful one for many. It takes time, effort, willingness, and a tremendous amount of bravery to face the pain that has been trying to surface through the disorder. So how is this done? Dr. Biasetti suggests people begin reflecting on questions such as “Who you are?” “What are your values?” “What does a meaningful life look like to you?”(Biasetti, p.74) In addition to these questions, people are encouraged to envision their dreams and ask themselves if they see their eating disorder during this stage of their lives?
Such a personal approach to recovery is not to suggest we as a society shall remain passive to the structural oppression occurring because messages of body objectification are constantly being unconsciously received by women. The societal solution begins by gaining knowledge of unknown. If we as a society we can begin to gain awareness of the messages being produced which reinforce body objectification, we can label them for what they are. In addition to this, if society begins to recognize recovery as an individual process, we can begin to increase the quality of care we show for people suffering.
My hope is that by reading about the complexities and roots of eating disorders, can begin to dilute stigmas and shift the focus away from the female body as an object towards the body as a messenger of wisdom. Every person in our society deserves to live an embodied life in which they experience unity between their body and mind. No attitude, opinion, or fear should prevent a woman from feeling free in her body.
Biasetti, A. S. (2018). Befriending your body: A self-compassionate approach to freeing yourself from disordered eating. Boulder: Shambhala.
Frankfurt, H. (1982). The importance of what we care about. Synthese,53(2), 257-272. doi:10.1007/bf00484902
Marshall, S. J. (2019, April 11). The Mental Versus Physical Sides of Eating Disorder Recovery. Retrieved from: https://themighty.com/2017/01/mental-versus-physical-eating-disorder-recovery/
Tiggemann, M., & Williams, E. (2012). The Role of Self-Objectification in Disordered Eating, Depressed Mood, and Sexual Functioning Among Women: A Comprehensive Test of Objectification Theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly,36(1), 66–75.
Young, I. M. (1990). Throwing like a girl. Indiana University Press.
Young, I. M (1988). Five Faces of Oppression.Philosophical Forum 19 (4):270