On eating disorders and the patriarchy
Last night, a feminist friend and I* were out drinking with a man. We’re all mid-to-upper class whites, well educated, socially mobile, and currently living in Benin. The man, several years out of undergrad, was astounded at the high numbers of women who had eating disorders while he was in school. My friend and I were not. Actually, we responded with derision. “What? The rates for your school weren’t high. They’re typical.”
He was appalled.
We explained the intense social pressure on women raised by second-wave feminists. We have been told that we can do anything and be anything. It’s an empowering message, and it’s one that we should continue communicating to all of our children; however, society tells these girls that not only can they do anything and everything, but they must. Straight-A students. Captains of the soccer team. Presidents of the debate club. Dancers. Musicians. Actors. We can do anything we want, even be the president.
Outward prettiness (i.e. being thin) is one more thing that well educated girls need on our way to the top. We’re not stupid. We know that our fortunes are tied to our looks, and we’ve been raised believing that there’s nothing in this world that we can’t do if we work hard enough (because there isn’t … wait! what?!).
Needing to control your appearance + being told that you can achieve anything = We WILL be thin, even if it kills us. Because we can do anything. And not doing it just means that we’re not working hard enugh.
My friend and I were talking about how we’d both done some stupid shit to lose weight, as early as high school. I remember summers where I swam 5 days a week at the Y with my mom, then came home and ate 600 calories (2 sandwiches) for the rest of the day. Or summers at my grandmothers where I would bike for 4 hours a day, not because I loved it, but because she had given cookies to my brother and refused them to me–I was chubby even as a child. Who needs lunch in high school? Cigarettes and Diet Coke should be enough for any growing girl.
I learned how to suck in my stomach in the 4th grade. WTF?!?!?!
We’ve grown up to be relatively well-adjusted women, feminists who believe in women’s right to choose their path, who understand how a patriarchial system affects these choices, and who really just want to do some good in our lives. We know how the system works, and we understand how our self-esteem has been systematically undermined since childhood, and we’re still not over it. We never will be.
* I also self-identify as a feminist