Sunday, August 20, 2006

Silence as a starting point

Piny has a really interesting post about what men could do to help women who with eating disorders. Piny has had an eating disorder and I thought his list was great:

Model comfortable eating.
Calm down
Do not overcompensate for your friends’ self-hatred.
Do not allow your friends to tear themselves down in your presence.
Shut the fuck up about your own body issues.

I think the most important idea that I'd add was a similar instruction to shut the fuck up about food. It's is so easy to reinforce eating disordered ideas of controlling what you eat. I'm often amazed at how easy it is for men not to understand this - to use really powerful words casually as if they had no weight or meaning.

I would also take piny's ideas wider. I have known a woman whose anorexia drove her to the verge of death, I have known some women who were damaging their body they were eating so little, and I have known many women whose relationship with food was dysfunctional and damaging.* Eating disorders are not an on/off state, not something that you accuse someone of having, but a continuum of behaviours that huge numbers of women use as a coping mechanism at some time or another, and many women can't escape from. I think the suggestions that piny makes (and the commenters on that thread), could and should be standard steps that pro-feminist men take to try and lessen the damage they do to the women around them.

It gets more complicated when I think about the way feminist women should try and lessen the damage they do. The reason I think it's so important that people stop talking about food, is that everyone I have ever known on the anorexia continuum has talked a lot about food, particularly food and morality and food and control. I have come to believe that, at least in the mild end of the continuum, talking about food plays an important role in maintaining both an anorexic mind-set and anorexic behaviour.

I do believe that stopping talking about food in a destructive way is one of the most important ways women can help women who are on the eating disordered spectrum (and often also themselves). But controlling food isn't a survival mechianism I need, or have been trapped into. It breaks my heart to see women I like and respect reinforcing such destructive patterns. I get angry and upset, I snark, I roll my eyes, I bitch and complain - and none of these are particularly useful reactions. But while a woman lives in an eating disordered world, asking her to get out of that world because of the damage she is doing to other women, probably isn't particularly productive. She needs to stop doing it because of the damage she's doing to herself - and that's a really uphill battle.

Unfortunately this means that there are always more women to reinforce and help maintain each others dysfunctional and destructive attitudes towards food. The good news is I do know women who have managed to move away from an anorexic mind-set, and are now one less voice reinforcing the idea that controlling food is normal and necessary. Their strength awes me.

* I even know a woman who has a relationship with food that isn't completely dysfunctional.


  1. Cheers for this Maia.

    I've been having some really interesting discussions with some a-fem friends lately about body image, food and society which have really made me question a lot of my own internalised's something I've never really been able to approach in depth on my own, so having others willing to share their experiences has been really good to help me realise and start to work on some of my own bullshit.

  2. How would you manage this approach for someone who had type 2 diabetes? ie. me.

  3. Muerk in exactly the same way I expect people to manage their approach to food around me - since I'm allergic to dairy - ie I don't think it should make the tiniest bit of difference.

  4. Maia:

    Fair enough when it comes to general situations but what about education? I'm quite specific with my kids about what food is an everyday food, eg. bread, fruit, veges, milk, eggs, and what's a sometimes food, eg, cakes, chips, pies, biscuits, lollies.

    These foods aren't "bad" just not what you eat everyday because everyday foods need to be fibre or protein/mineral and vitamin rich.

    But obviously because of my diabetes, we talk about food quite a bit because the kids know that I have to be very careful about what and how much I eat. Plus they see me testing and whatnot.

    I find myself having to fight back against tv marketing of such foods as Nutragrain, which is high in sugar and salt. We don't buy it and offer the kids weetbix, porridge, ricies, fruit, baked beans, toast or eggs for breakfast. But if I didn't talk about food with the boys they'd think they could eat Nutragrain and get big muscles beause the ads say so.

  5. Anonymous8:56 am

    Oh, dead lord...

    One woman says, "Stop talking about food," and immediately the conversation turns back to food.

    Proposal: anyone who has the urge to talk about food must first spend at least 60 minutes discussing their bowel movements. Hey, that's a health issue, too, right? And, of such crucial importance, talking about poop far exceeds the need to talk about any sort of feminist politics.

    Can you say "addiction," girls?