Eating Disorders: The Personal is Political

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Lifeline – 13 11 14

Words by Melis, 20 VIC

Four years ago, an eating disorder colonised my mind. What began as a seemingly healthy preoccupation with fitness and ‘clean-eating’ soon consumed my sense of self.  Days became endless cycles of starvation, lethargy and punishment as calorie-counting apps dictated my days and black coffee replaced my meals. Every morning I pinched my skin, checking if it had expanded overnight, and promised myself that I would be better today. I believed that anorexia was my friend. It serenaded me with the illusion of control and convinced me that restriction equated to discipline. I memorised its bigoted script, compulsively performing it every time I dreamed of eating: “you don’t deserve this”, “you have no self-control”, “I knew you were weak”. The only way to win was to keep on losing; if I became fat, then people would be as disgusted with me as I was with myself.

The prevalence of misinformation about eating disorders only bolstered my illness. In high school, the entirety of my eating disorder education was formed by one pallid poster featuring an ailing, skeletal young girl whose bones jutted out of her body like glass shards. This not only limited my understanding of eating disorders to anorexia nervosa (which only accounts for 3% of EDs) but restricted who I thought was worthy of treatment, namely people on the cusp of collapse. Plus, I didn’t look like that. My bones were still comfortably encased. So, I couldn’t be sick, right? Vapid validation from those around me, congratulating me on my weight loss, further entrenched this notion. Never was I taught that eating disorders are a mental health illness with physical manifestations; you don’t have to be emaciated to have one, nor do you have to be on the brink of organ failure to deserve help.

For years, anorexia felt like an intimate part of who I was: a personal problem and an individual weakness. Yet, how could that be true when one million others in Australia, 75% of whom are girls and women, suffered the same plight? How is it that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illnesses, yet we never seem to hear about them? They are scarcely mentioned in public discourse and commonly derided as ‘vain’ and ‘attention-seeking’ fixations. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that an illness which primarily affects women is dismissed in this way. Simultaneously, male sufferers are disparaged, mocked and disbelieved for being afflicted by a ‘feminised’ disease. While one’s predispositions play a part in every mental disorder, the escalation of EDs cannot be reduced to individual proclivities. To the contrary, they are a clear consequence of a misogynistic and capitalist landscape which promotes self-loathing for profit.

Everywhere we turn, from food labelling to giant billboards and even ads on streaming websites, thinness and beauty is sold to women as the sheer purpose of our existence. Multi-billion-dollar industries are predicated on our suffering and self-hatred. Each year, they manufacture a new imperfection, from hip dips to cellulite, which they can conveniently ‘correct.’ Advertising oppression as ‘self-improvement,’ the fitness, makeup, fashion, plastic surgery and anti-ageing industries keep us yearning for a non-existent state of perfection, before they move the benchmark once again, all as their profits surge. We see the repercussions for outliers, the caustic scorn directed at the likes of Lizzo and Sam Smith, and we are cordially warned of the consequences of disobedience. Is it any wonder that we are conditioned to hate ourselves when every second Instagram ad features a new ‘fat-blasting laser therapy’, ‘fit tea’ or ‘guilt-free snack’? Maybe if girls weren’t bottle-fed thinness as a prerequisite for female existence, we could grow into women with the self-assuredness to question this system. Maybe we wouldn’t spend years of our lives perfecting the art of shrinking, and we could focus on living instead. But that’s a frightening prospect for capitalism. So here we are, trapped on a treadmill of doubt and self-diminishment, feelings which have become so commonplace that we are desensitised to their toxicity.

I was lucky enough to recover (for the most part) from this illness. Yet, as the cloudy veil which comes from perpetual starvation began to lift, I grew increasingly furious. And I am angrier still. I am sick of being told that I ‘don’t look like someone who has an ED,’ a bafflingly inane response which typifies the dearth of education around the illness and further cements stigma around mental health. After all, would you ever tell someone that they didn’t look like they had cancer? Are our ribs supposed to resemble shrapnel before our suffering is taken seriously? Most of all, I am enraged by an economic system which incentivises misogyny and is willing to do anything if it ensures profit. After all, as Dr Gail Dines rightfully pointed out, ‘if tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.’ Once again, I find that this ‘personal’ problem is rooted in a much larger political one. We need more than doctors, psychologists and dietitians to combat the proliferation of EDs – we need to confront the misogynist market forces which poison us to begin with.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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