It is well recognised that controlling weight and eating can be motivated by the desire to appease a general sense of not being good enough. If you have unrelentingly high standards, weight loss is measurable evidence that you’re doing ok somewhere. This is especially relevant in a society where women are socialised to value thinness as attractive. I know for me, controlling food became tangible proof that I could definitely achieve something, albeit in a very distorted way. These are the ‘usual’ issues we hear about. However there are other important themes. Things we don’t often hear about in the media. Oppression, for example.
For me, growing up in an environment coloured by addiction meant that I rarely felt safe. Addiction often brings with it a sense of chaos. Even when things are quiet, you are hyper-vigilant, waiting for the next explosion. And if you have no alternative way of coping, it’s natural to find some avenue to create that sense of safety, because somehow you have to keep going. You especially have to keep going if you also feel responsible for making sure others are ok. The overriding imperative is to keep things together. And the thing about restriction is that it effectively dampens down anxiety. It also provides a clear sense of control, and in this kind of environment, the need to have some sense of autonomy intensifies. The problem is that blocking out feelings like this can leave a person disconnected and cut off from their body and increasingly unaware of what they actually need. So it’s a self perpetuating cycle. Unfortunately, it’s not one I know how to fix.
Of course, cultural messages matter. But maybe not only in the stereotypical ‘thin ideal’ way we often associate with eating disorders. Women have historically been silenced and taught to dismiss their own needs. We have had limited avenues to speak up when things are not right. The justice system, education, can all contribute to this. Within families, issues can be ignored or dismissed. Years ago, aged fourteen, and caught in the middle of an aggressive, frightening situation, I dialled 999. The response of the (male) officer; ‘Are you playing a joke? You know it’s an offence to waste police time don’t you’. I wasn’t joking. It was a tiny incident but it gave me a message about whether I would be taken seriously. And so I didn’t speak up, even when I knew things were very wrong. My stories are not unusual, nor are they as glaringly damaging as many I often hear in my role at work. It sometimes isn’t what happens but the way in which we are responded to that leaves an impression.
We have moved on since the ‘90’s, but we have a long way to go. Experiences like mine aren’t ok. They often occur at an age when people are forming their view of themselves and their place within the world. When people develop confused ways of coping, to then label that person as having something inherently wrong with them (‘depression’, ‘personality disorder’) or in the case of eating disorders, to blame the drive for thinness solely on ‘vanity’ or the media doesn’t make sense. I don’t think the ‘thin ideal’ is helpful, but focusing on it as a ’cause’ only detracts from the broader issues. I don’t want it to be ok for girls today (and it too frequently is girls) to have experiences of being dismissed or silenced. I don’t want their options for coping or feeling in control to seem so limited that the only option is to turn to or away from food. That is the true breeding ground for eating disorders, not magazines or skinny models.