There has been a lot of talk in the Twittersphere lately about feminism and eating disorders. Because I live and breathe my feminism and my eating disorder research and activism, I’ve been struggling to reconcile my commitment to making sure people feel heard and my commitment to clarifying what I feel are misconceptions about the links between feminism and eating disorders.
Certainly, it can’t be denied that some have adopted the name “feminism” and supported some decidedly shady claims or research. Then again, people of all stripes have done shady research with questionable motives and outcomes. Science and research are never neutral. Everything from what is seen as being “important enough” to study to how results are interpreted and used takes place in a socio-political context. Try as we might, we can’t fully remove ourselves from our research, whether we research micro-RNA or eating disorders (or both? It’s probably possible to research both…).
Part of taking a feminist approach is putting the values, spaces of belonging, and experiences that drive us to conduct research and that lie behind our interpretation of “evidence” on the table (see also England (1994) for a discussion of the concept of self-reflexivity, and Hesse-Biber (2006) on feminist research). A common misconception seems to be that if people are not talking about their values and the impact of these values on research or science, they don’t exist or don’t impact what is found. And sure, it is harder to imagine how values might impact a genomic study than how they might impact, say, a study of family dynamics and eating disorders. But influence they do: none of us live abstracted from sociocultural conditions.
Right now, there is a big push toward evidence-based practice. On the surface, this is great: OF COURSE we want to be delivering therapies and treatments that have the weight of well-conducted research behind them. “Evidence” is an illusive concept, however. Sometimes, as I’ve written about before, this means that researchers have been able to find the funds to design and implement a study that is actually deemed well-conducted enough to separate what is really helping from what is “extra.” Randomized controlled trials, the “gold standard” for evidence, are incredibly expensive and require an enormous amount of resources. And this is aside from the fact that it is notoriously difficult to recruit and retain eating disorder patients for treatment studies.
I recently came across a fascinating debate article about social values and scientific theory. In it, Ingo Brigandt offers examples about how governing political ideologies impact the conduct of science. Until very recently, we have had a conservative government here in Canada. Under this government, we experienced a relative silencing of certain scientific voices by way of restricted funding and requiring governmental researchers to run any discussion of their findings by politicians before sharing them (if they were shared at all) (see also Harris, 2014; Rollman, 2014; Turner, 2013). And this in a country considered to be “developed” and democratic.
You could argue, as many have (e.g., as Brigandt cites: Davidson (2012) and Pedwell (2012)), that this reflects a “death of evidence,” and you might be right — we’re smarter than that, you say. We recognize that that is a squashing of evidence, but true evidence and unbiased science still exist. You could argue that this means that politics, a category into which you might lump feminism, therefore has no role to play in research. I think this might be a major moment of divergence I’ve been experiencing in these debates, coming as I do from a feminist perspective on science itself. For me, there is no way of separating the science of we do from the world be live in.
Denying that politics can and do impact the conduct of research is incredibly dangerous. As Donna Haraway wrote in 1988, unpacking “evidence” and “truth” in science involves more than just unearthing bias — it involves “showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions” (p. 578). Bridgandt suggests that the resistance to political control over evidence seems to be met with a demand that we supply more evidence to support theories to make them acceptable to put into practice. We forget that our individual and collective values impact which evidence we will see as valuable or convincing.
What the heck does this have to do with eating disorders, you might wonder? Why am I waxing not-so-poetically about the challenges of disentangling values from evidence when it is quite clear that I don’t believe this is possible? I’m doing this because I think it is important that we don’t unfairly scapegoat feminism as the harbinger of non-objectivity (or, moreover, treat non-objectivity as if it were somehow dirty, sullied, or avoidable).
Not to be melodramatic, but the way feminism has been the target of debates lately has affected me on a visceral level not least because I think feminism has actually offered and continues to offer us much. Further, in my opinion many of the arguments against seeing eating disorders as a feminist issue are actually, to me, very concordant with feminist perspectives. I don’t believe that those arguing intend to lump all feminisms into a singular perspective, but I also see “feminism” being treated as though it were a dirty word, or as though all feminist eating disorder researchers were interested in is informing people what their experiences are.
I think this is a shame.
I’ve written several posts about feminist eating disorder research that has offered us interesting perspectives and possibilities for addressing some of the systemic issues that don’t cause eating disorders but that impact all of us who live in bodies and yes, how we conduct research and gather evidence.
- In this post about an article by Helen Malson and colleagues, I write about the authors’ research highlighting how we can look beyond individual factors influencing poor prognosis for eating disorders (think treatment resistance, hostility, opposition, ambivalence) to look at how the way people are treated in and beyond treatment might limit their ability to see themselves as able to recover
- In this post about Maree Burns’ illuminating article on polarizing constructions of anorexia and bulimia, I take up the author’s perspective on how those with AN and BN are treated and understood in social context; this research revealed how limiting popular understandings of eating disorders can be
- In my very first post I looked at Boughtwood & Halse’s article about how people with AN think about their disorders and how they relate to clinicians; one of the main implications of this work is an understanding of how people with eating disorders aren’t simply passive sponges for clinical direction (just like they aren’t passive sponges for cultural imagery or thinness ideals) but interact in clinical settings
I find that when I get into arguments about the role of feminism in eating disorder research, older works by people like Orbach and Chernin get thrown out as if they were the be-all-end-all of feminist work on eating disorders. But, I think it is important to acknowledge that these authors were writing, as we all are, at a very particular time and in particular positions; people’s lives (in all of their shades and complexities) and gender politics have evolved and shifted as has our understanding of human bodies and science. Of course we shouldn’t accept 20-30 year old research or theory at face value — that’s true across perspectives and approaches to research. But if we think about what groundwork these earlier perspectives have laid, we might take a more generous perspective on feminism and eating disorders.
Some early feminists may be interpreted as having over emphasized the role of thin ideals and poor body image in the development of eating disorders. However, this is not unique to feminism: mainstream researchers like Eric Stice and colleagues have been the most vocal in promoting this perspective, through the dual pathway model of bulimia nervosa (e.g., Stice, 2001; Stice, Shaw, Black Becker & Rohde, 2008). Meanwhile, critical feminist scholars like Kate Gleeson & Hannah Frith have complicated the notion of body image itself, raising questions about the construct (Gleeson & Frith, 2006; see also this post I wrote about this).
Overall, I fear that many perspectives and voices are missing from the debate about feminism and eating disorders. In the polarizing, there has not been much to be heard from those who have experienced stigma and marginalization as they have lived in their bodies and/or tried to seek help for distress around food, weight, and shape. This is a major issue; when it really comes down to it, we’re a bunch of relatively privileged folk who agree on a lot in-fighting about a term that has many shades and stripes.
Why I am a Critical Feminist Researcher and What Saying EDs are a Feminist Issue Means to Me
Given all of the hullaballoo about this of late, I felt I needed to clarify, if only for myself and others I’ve heard from behind the scenes, what I think the value of applying a feminist lens to the study and treatment of eating disorders is. I speak only for myself and my own perspective on feminism, as there really isn’t “a” feminism so much as many feminisms. So, here it is:
1. That people of all [pick one or more*] get eating disorders
- Genders, ethnicities, ages, abilities, shapes, sizes, sexualities, socioeconomic statuses, cultures, religions, levels of education, family situations, marital statuses, political affiliations, housing statuses, and more
2. That people’s experiences of having an eating disorder and of recovering will necessarily be shaped by their spaces of social belonging including their belongings to the above
- And not only that, but recognizing that within every single group we designate, there will be shades of grey and individual differences untethered from group belonging (including within feminism)
- These are not additive categories that accumulate to create hierarchized experiences of oppression. Each individual experience will be unique.
3. That power plays a huge role in shaping people’s lives and bodies, including by:
- Dictating which types of bodies are seen as healthy (see Evans, Rich, Davies & Allwood, 2008, and not to toot my own horn but see also LaMarre & Rice, 2015)
- Supporting the economic relations that make it challenging for people to access services that would actually enable them to be healthy and well (see Cachelin, Rebeck, Veisel & Striegel-Moore, 2001)
- Promoting certain viewpoints and sources of expertise over others, including hierarchizing knowledge about eating disorders (for example, how a psychiatrist’s perspective is likely to be honoured before the experiential knowledge of a person who has been through an eating disorder)
4. That gender binaries are not helpful for anyone, as they are built by and enmeshed in the power described above
- Gender is a socially constructed categorizing system; so, we can’t reduce a discussion about gender to a discussion about biological sex by using men/women and males/females synonymously (never mind that according to Judith Butler sex is also likely a social construction…)
- To do that risks alienating and excluding those who don’t identify with binary genders (and see the work of Trans Folx Fighting EDs for awesome gender-binary-busting work)
5. That we need to look at “culture” as more than simply media
- Critiquing appearance ideals may be, culturally (and I mean culturally in the sense of Western culture) a very good idea on a grander scale, but appearance ideals alone do not cause eating disorders, nor are they the only factor that makes it challenging to recover from one
- Critiquing why appearance ideas are appearance ideals may be a more productive goal; i.e., is a focus on bodily outcomes obscuring a discussion of other sociopolitical and economic (constructed) realities?
- Culture also entails questioning the pursuit of productivity and success as we’ve come to know it in a neoliberal, capitalist culture (for more on neoliberalism see this and this and Sugarman, 2015)
- People do not all experience dominant culture in the same way, regardless of whether or not they are equally exposed to it; it is filtered through the lenses of social location noted above (see also this article by Kwan, 2010)
6. Understanding that science is not, and never can be, neutral: all science is created in a social context, and carries historical, cultural, political, and personal baggage
- Science has been used to justify very problematic things, including but not limited to eugenics, warfare, so on and so forth
7. That we need to honour people’s lived, embodied experiences and recognize that people have the right to understand their experiences however they wish, regardless of whether we agree with them
- Importantly, this does not give anyone the right to tell anyone else what their experience is or was
In my opinion, some of the most useful parts of an intersectional feminist approach to eating disorders is in working at a systemic level to challenge the dominant power structures that make it challenging to:
- Access treatment for an eating disorder
- Recover from an eating disorder
My interest is not, and never will be, to tell someone what their experience is or was. If someone does not identify with the term “feminist,” I will not attempt to make them claim that label. However, the feminism that I support is about social justice; it is intersectional (though that term carries its own legacy of problems, in how it has been used to draw boundaries around groups and suggest differences are additive), empowering, and inclusive.
To reiterate, a feminist approach to eating disorders, in my view, is NOT about telling people what their experiences are. Some may not even identify with the label of “eating disorder,” or may disrupt the categories imposed by pathology-oriented language and labels. We need to honour diverse perspectives on the inciting factors, lived experiences, and recoveries from distress around food, weight, shape, and bodies. To clarify, as I know that this point may be debated, this does not mean that it is ok for anyone to say all eating disorders are caused by x, y, or z. What I mean is that on an individual level, each person has the right to make meaning of their own experiences of eating disorders, regardless of how these meanings fit with the dominant perspective.
On a grander scale (i.e., for advancing approaches to understanding and treating eating disorders that will be effective in helping people recover) there is value in exploring the science of eating disorders (i.e., in investigating the complex intermingling of genes and environment that lead to eating disorders). Neither environment nor biology alone will cause an eating disorder, so why do we binarize our debates in this manner?
I suspect this binarizing might have to do, at least in part, with the legacies each of us are bringing to the discussion. Many of those I’ve engaged with about this have felt marginalized from discussions, or trounced upon by those who claim more expert knowledge. But the paradox here is that in reducing eating disorders to being solely about genetics, perspectives are once again being squashed. Further, in the splitting, in-fighting and arguing, we are all using up the energy we might better put to advancing the cause on a broader scale: truly increasing access to treatment, building a continuum of treatment models that are personally and culturally resonant to folks seeking it, and cultivating a culture of safety and respect where people can feel that their perspectives are heard.
I understand that this debate is not really about me. Still, I think it is important to clarify our positions and to discuss. As much as I love the Twitter, 140 characters aren’t always enough.