Feminism and Anorexia: A Complex Alliance

February 9, 2015
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This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna.

Free-Female-BodyWhen the young British celebrity Peaches Geldof was found dead at her home in April 2014, early speculations frequently pointed the
finger at anorexia, suggesting that her low weight and dramatic weight loss could have played a causal role in her untimely demise (aged 25). Indeed, the apparently high incidence of anorexia – which is still positioned predominantly as a female problem – within female celebrity culture is suggestive of the ways in which the latter can be seen to function as an arena which offers hyperbolic representations of femininity. Female stars and celebrities live under a constant media spotlight of surveillance which in turn demands a prescriptive regime of self-maintenance, and thus can be seen to represent an extreme version of the condition of femininity within patriarchal culture (Holmes and Negra, 2011). Furthermore, the emphasis on eating disorders as somehow an ‘inevitable’, naturalised and expected discourse in female celebrity culture at least gives space to the argument that eating disorders are culturally produced (by, for example, the pressures placed on female celebrities in terms of the dominant corporeal norms of the entertainment industries, which in turn reflect back upon the cultural norms and pressures surrounding the feminine body more widely). Although medical explanations of anorexia do not entirely exclude the presence of cultural or social factors, their definition of the eating ‘disorder’ – itself a medical term – as a mental illness places greater emphasis on psychological and ‘individual’ causes. In addition, mainstream treatments of anorexia – the limited success of which is widely noted – invariably pay no attention to gender at all.

I never really thought about this fact when I spent the summer of 2009 in a residential clinic for the treatment of eating disorders, a period which marked my 20th year as a sufferer of anorexia. Working as a lecturer and scholar in Media, Television and Cultural Studies, I had long since been aware that there existed a large body of feminist research on anorexia, but despite identifying as a feminist since my undergraduate  days, and adopting a feminist approach in many aspects of my research and teaching, I saw this as an academic terrain to avoid. I understood that feminists preferred cultural rather than biological or psychiatric explanations of eating disorders, and I imagined that the media was presented as a prime causal factor here. I felt insulted by the suggestion that I was simply pursuing an excessive imitation of the slender ideal, which simultaneously positioned me as a vulnerable or ‘passive’ media reader. I also didn’t want to give any more headspace to anorexia, which already dominated my every waking hour: to me, it was my life, my everyday hell, and not an object of scholarly enquiry or debate.

But in 2014, and five years into my recovery (the clinic worked for me, although sadly not for many of the friends I made in there), I got curious, and I began to read about feminist approaches to anorexia, staring with many of the foundational books in the field  (e.g. Orbach, 1978, 1986, Lawrence, 1984, Chernin, 1985). The work was more rich and complex than I imagined, yet despite the fact that some of the early books were penned by women who had experienced anorexia, or who had worked directly with sufferers, I baulked at the apparent assumption of commonality between all women, as well as the tendency to insist on one particular political interpretation of the anorexic body and experience. This was particularly so given the suggestion that the anorexic was seen as essentially unaware of the political contours of their problem or ‘protest’ (e.g. see Bordo, 1993: 159). This tension between how feminism speaks to the experience of ‘woman’, and the ways in which it cannot ‘be taken as a password misleading us into false notion of “oneness” with all women purely on the grounds of gender’ (McRobbie, 2000, 127) has been widely discussed within feminism. But it remains the case that the emphasis on political solidarity and common experience has historically retained an effective political charge within the feminist movement. Indeed, whilst I felt angry, frustrated (and initially somewhat patronised) by the feminist literature on anorexia, I also began to feel a sense of growing identification as I recognised myself on page after page. I realised that much of the feminist claims rang true for me and my own anorexic trajectory, and as a result, I got angry about how my two decades of suffering might well be explained by recourse to gender subordination.

I felt that this apparent tension between my identities as (former) anorexic and feminist, and the complex, uneasy, frustrating and rewarding fit between them, was worth writing about, and in using authoethnography, I wanted to capture the contradictory ways in which the critical feminist work on anorexia spoke to me. Yet in writing this blog now in February 2015, I am aware of how my perspective on the feminist work has changed yet again: I now harbour even less anger and ambivalence about my own relationship to its claims, and I find the work increasingly persuasive, illuminating and even empowering. Such research has enabled me to undertake a political re-evaluation of the ways in which I was treated (and mis-treated) as an anorexic, seeing the medical definitions and interventions as deeply ideological, subjective and thus open to challenge. Indeed, writing the original article made me remember – although I had never really forgotten – the political travesty of the fact that thousands of girls and women are starving themselves, every hour of every day (and that many more are developing anorexia as I write these words).  Why such sufferers are unlikely to encounter feminist interventions of anorexia, why they should and how they might do so in the future, is the ambitious focus of my next piece.

[For the full article, see Su Holmes, “Between Feminism and Anorexia: An Autoethnography,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication: http://ics.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/19/1367877914561831.abstract]


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