You were a tourist to my landscape: eating disorders, ableism, and privilege.

13Jul09

Is it a form of ableism to talk about quasi-eating-disordered experiences? I struggle with this so frequently, and I am never sure how to address it. I know, based on my emotional reaction, that something is happening which is troubling to me. I know that I feel marginalized. But feeling marginalized and being marginalized are two different things.

Western culture puts an emphasis on the appearance of women. Hell, the appearance of everyone. Books like Appetites and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters speak to this. Beauty, perfection, achievement, these are all pressures, conformity to a white middle-class idealized standard. This is nothing new. This is Feminism 101. Or something. Commodification, objectification, patriarchy, normatives, the male gaze. These are basic concepts that many people like to use in a superficial way, without getting into a deeper analysis of why. (I’m the perpetual child: Why? But why? No, really, why?)

As a result, women and men restrict their dietary habits, exercise, obsess about their bodies, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. Big fucking revelation there, I’m sure. Pretty much every study shows how most women are obsessed, have some disordered practices, occasionally engage in more self-destructive behaviors.

Then there are those with (how shall I say this?) non-normative body types. The ulta-skinny, the not-so ulta-skinny. I’ve seen a recent trend of the ultra-skinny people defending themselves against talk of thin privilege (why, anyway?) with how difficult and hurtful it is to constantly be asked if you are anorexic or whatever.

So, we have two groups of people so far. Here’s the third, the group I belong to: the eating disordered. And I’m not talking about people who necessarily have to fit the DSM criteria for an eating disorder to fit. I have huge problems with these criteria and how they are used to test who is “really” sick and who deserves treatment (especially insurance-sponsored treatment). I am talking about people who meet the barest requirements for a substantial period of time, like several months to several years.

There are qualitative differences among these three groups. If you threw up once or twice, maybe occasionally, because you feel pressured to hate your body, you do not have bulimia. If you once fasted for a month because of whatever cultural reason, you do not have anorexia. And banish from the English language the phrase “dabbled with/in (eating disorder)”. I fucking hate that phrase with a passion.

I’m not trying to be black and white here. I’m not trying to make an us v. them argument. I’m not trying to downplay the pain and suffering that many people endure because of these stupid fucking standards. I’m not at all. I’m not saying the eating disordered have a monopoly on body-based suffering.

Here’s what I’m saying: there are qualitative differences among these groups. Eating disorders may be culturally and socially motivated in form, but they are biological illnesses. They are addictions. They are caused by a whole set of factors and are in every way real illnesses. They cause physical and emotional damage that takes years to unravel. There is a reason only half or so of us ever truly recover. While all three groups are responding to conditions, there is something singular about having an eating disorder.

When a person uses that hated phrase or complains about being accused of having an eating disorder unjustly, it is an invalidation of my experience. A college kid who occasionally binge-drinks is as much of an alcoholic as a person who occasionally skips lunch is an anorexic.

Here’s the problem, to me, I think: these kinds of discussions lead away from discussing the real problem of eating disorders. And I think it smacks of privilege. I’m not saying that we should not have these conversations. No, we should. We fucking need to. I am saying that it smacks of privilege for someone to say anything like, “I went through a phase of dabbling in eating disorders”. (I wish I had an example to share.) Well, good for fucking you. You went through it, you dabbled, you were a tourist to my landscape, you stopped. I wish it were that fucking easy for me and for the people I’ve met throughout my entire battle.

And it’s a struggle for me because I realize how destructive these influences are and how much suffering people undergo because of body issues. I would never want to invalidate their experiences. And yet I do not want to see my experiences invalidated! While jokes made about you being anorexic can be wearing is you are ultra-skinny, jokes made about your anorexia are a different matter. “You should eat something!” to someone ultra-skinny is different than “You should eat something!” said out of a misguided understanding of eating disorders if you are bulimic. I want to see this difference made more often, or these discussions had with more awareness.

This is not to say that my experiences are the be-all and end-all of eating disorders. I recognize that I’m somewhere in the middle. Others had briefer periods of being sick and more rapid, comprehensive treatments. Others have battled for far longer than me, have been far sicker, and have faced worse barriers to treatment. (There’s a “sicker than thou” competition among people with eating disorders, you see.)

So when these discussions happen and there is this lack of awareness of privilege, it is frustrating to me because I continue to experience the aftermath of an eating disorder, even though it has been five years since I first entered recovery. Hell, just the other day, I got a notice about a collection agency wanting money from me from my second hospitalization. Not to mention the ongoing food weirdness and gym obsession. Or the fucking continual physical problems I have.

I want to express these things as the issues come up, but I just find it so hard. I wonder if I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. Then I wonder if I’m discounting my feelings because I’m a woman, because I had an eating disorder (and the accompanying feelings of self-loathing), or both. Then I wonder if I’m not acknowledging my own privilege (starving people in Africa, etc). Then I get angry. Then the cycle begins anew. It is so hard for me to talk about my eating disorder, about eating disorders in general, because of how much shame I’ve heaped upon myself over the whole thing. (I’d love to tell you, blogosphere, the details of my insanity while sick, perhaps in some misguided effort to exorcise the demons, but when I think about them, I seize up and choke on my shame.)

I want other perspectives. I want to hear what other people think, either from one of the three groups I’ve mentioned, or from another group. Am I wrong? Am I trying to play the Oppression Olympics and cry about how much I’ve suffered? Or is there some validity to how I feel? I think that there is. I know that there is.

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7 Responses to “You were a tourist to my landscape: eating disorders, ableism, and privilege.”

  1. I don’t think it’s ableism at all, nor do I think it’s Oppression Olympics. Maybe some people use that term differently than I do, but when I talk about Oppression Olympics, what I mean is “more oppressed than thou” in a way where certain people basically try to shut down other people talking about their own experiences. Because if you’re not a working-class transnationally-adopted disabled queer trans vegan woman of size and color, then you might as well just shut up and you don’t deserve to talk about your own life, because someone somewhere has it “worse” than you.

    If I sound pissed off, it’s because I am; not at you, but at the all too familiar feeling that your post exudes. I know the feeling well. But I truly think that any social justice movement that has the effect of individuals feeling that they cannot speak the truth of their own lives needs to reassess and re-center. As women, especially, we are all too accustomed to putting our own needs and feelings last – all the better if we can couch it in talk of “privilege” and “ally work” and “anti-oppression.” Not that it’s bad to listen to other people, but listening to other people does not mean we don’t speak about our own experiences in our own spaces.

    • This is what I struggle with so hard. I want to be able to have open, honest discussions about the body insanity our culture forces on people, without reducing a range of experiences to a single idea. I recognize that simply constantly being aware of one’s weigh or having once crash dieted is a terrifying ordeal. But when those voices crowd out people like me, I get frustrated.

      I wish I had examples to point out what I mean. I should get on finding some.

      • I think I know what you mean. What bugs me is that in such conversations there always seems to be such a clamoring to be heard, at the expense of others being heard. I guess that’s because we’re all afraid of NOT being heard – because we’ve all had the experience of not being heard, of being told our voice/experience doesn’t matter or isn’t important, and so any chance we get, we try to say as much as we can and maybe we perceive others talking about their experience as some kind of challenge. Ideally I would like to think there is room for *all* voices, and that certain ones will not crowd out others – they’ll all co-exist and be valid. But maybe that is wishful thinking. I hope not.

      • You know, I think that’s exactly it, but said much more simply and exactly than I was saying. I feel like, in conversations about food and body image and modern culture, it’s hard enough for people like me to speak up about our experiences because of the overwhelming shame. But then when a bunch of other voices chime in with, I know exactly what you went through because I once crash dieted for a week, that is frustrating. I don’t want to perceive that as a challenge to my experience, but in some ways, it is invalidating.

  2. I know the feeling but I also try to balance out my reactions. Because just as no one else knows my life and what it’s like to be me, I don’t know anyone else’s. So it’s not fair of me to make a judgment on the girl saying she crash dieted and had a horrible experience. For me to shut her down and yell a bunch of stuff about her “invalidating” – well, maybe she’s struggling to give voice to something she feels ashamed about an hasn’t spoken about before, and if that’s the reaction, then what good does that do? None.

    • No, I totally agree with that. The whole point of this post has been to figure out how to balance my reactions. I don’t want to shut down anyone or yell stuff at anyone. I was extremely worried about making this post for that exact reason. Which is why I was careful to saying “feeling” and “being” invalidated/marginalized are two different things. I’m open to the idea that I am overreacting. Again, I really, really don’t mean for any of this to come across as judging or denigrating the experiences of others. Does that mean I didn’t actually make that happen? Of course not. Which is why I did ask for input, and I really appreciate your feedback.

      What bothers me is that, in the example I provided, those voices seem to drown out the voices of people who have an eating disorder. To me, there is a qualitative difference which is rooted in brain chemistry, addiction, and biology. I understand that it’s an extremely pervasive problem. Most women have issues with food and body image. Probably everyone knows someone who had an eating disorder. But in the discussions, I feel like that’s more, “I know because I once crash dieted,” or “I know because everything thinks I’m sick because I’m just skinny,” than a constructive dialogue happening.

      That’s it. It just took some rambling to get to. I’m wondering what a constructive dialogue would look like because what has been happening sometimes to me is not a constructive dialogue. And I’m probably part of the problem. I think the lack of constructive dialogue comes from the fact that everyone has an emotional stake in this dialogue. And I don’t want that to be a bad thing.

      • Probably everyone knows someone who had an eating disorder. But in the discussions, I feel like that’s more, “I know because I once crash dieted,” or “I know because everything thinks I’m sick because I’m just skinny,” than a constructive dialogue happening.

        I definitely agree w/ you and I just think it’s something that has to be taken on a case by case basis.

        Oh and my previous comment was supposed to come *after* yours… I guess the threaded comments are throwing me off!


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