June 6, 2014

Six Reasons Why The ‘Real Woman’ Conversation Troubles Me. ~ Annabel Lang

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Every so often the blogsphere turns up posts in which women assert that they are real women despite society’s imputations that they do not qualify.

A new twist over the past couple of years has been articles written by thin women responding to discrimination they have faced, often at the hands of other women, for being too thin.

For the record, I think this is an important version of the conversation, I’m glad we are having it (I’m also depressed that we are still having any version of this conversation at all, but here we are). However, the real woman conversation—in general and particularly this iteration of it—also troubles me because of what it reveals and because of the way we are having it.

Again, I like the conversation, but I have some issues with it. Here are my issues:

1. Anorexia as a moral indictment.

Defending against accusations of eating disorders seems to be a common thread among the ‘thin-women-are-people-too’ blog posts and the responding comments. Obviously, thin women should not have to do this, but for me the larger point is that having an eating disorder should not be an accusation.

People who have eating disorders aren’t doing anything wrong in a moral sense. Their behavior is harmful and destructive and hard to watch but it is a symptom of a mental illness. The fact that we are aggressively accusing people of having eating disorders, beyond being rude and hurtful, is profoundly disturbing because it demonstrates that we believe eating disordered individuals are at fault for their suffering.

Given what we are learning about the genetic and environmental and personality factors that make a person vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, this is absurd and moreover it is dangerous. When we attach a moral stigma to eating disorders, we discourage people from seeking help and we heap more shame onto an illness that thrives on it.

2. Overcorrecting on thin silence.

I will reiterate, thin women should not have to talk about how they don’t have eating disorders all the time. However, I think that, while we honor this, we should also emphasize the importance of not shying away from talking to (not accusing) our loved ones when we have concern about their eating/exercise behavior.

Again, this is not the same thing as telling some random woman on the street to gain some weight. If that random woman does not have an eating disorder, you have needlessly ruined her day and, if she does, you likely made her problem worse by shaming her. So, while I think it is all good and well to celebrate naturally thin bodies, let’s not ignore the fact some people are unnaturally thin, that eating disorders are dangerous and real.

If you are concerned about someone you love, you can find tips on how to have a helpful conversation here. Most importantly, be compassionate, focus on behavior over body, and be patient and humble because, yes, you might be wrong, and, even if you’re not, you may not have the power to convince someone to get help.

It’s really hard. I’m a recovered anorexic and I have still f**ked up this conversation, but, we have an obligation to the people we love to try because eating disorders kill. Living with an eating disorder is it’s own special kind of walking death, and yet, recovery is so possible.

3. Evidence.

If you tell me you are thin, I am going to believe you. You do not need to prove it with numbers. There are numbers in a lot of these posts and all over the comments and it makes me, as a recovered anorexic, want to scream.

For one, by discussing our bodies in terms of our dress size, weight, and BMI, we are objectifying our selves. Numbers are what we use to discuss our new high efficiency washing machine, not our sacred divine vessels. And further more, numbers are so triggering for a person with an eating disorder. I try not to get angry about this because people really don’t know, but seriously numbers are the worst for someone who is trying to recover.

We should tread carefully here as everyone has a right to tell their own story, but I don’t think asking someone to keep things qualitative rather than quantitative is silencing them, especially since our eating disordered friends have so much to lose.

And pictures. This is tricky. People who are naturally thin have a right to be seen and celebrated as they are, both in real life and on the Internet. Are pictures of thin people triggering to anorexics? For sure, but, unlike eliminating the numbers, asking thin people not to post pictures would be asking too much.

However, and this is slightly off topic but so important, asking recovered anorexics not to post pictures of themselves pre-recovery along with their recovery stories is not asking to much.

This happens all the time and it shocks me because we, those in recovery, know what impact of those pictures can have on someone who is still sick. Eating disorders are mental illnesses that radically alter perceptions, so while pre-recovery pictures might inspire pity or morbid curiosity in someone who isn’t sick, they inspire further disordered eating behavior in someone who is.

To my recovered sisters and brothers: please tell your story. Please, please tell your story. The world needs your victorious warrior voices. But do it in a way that is mindful of our friends still fighting it out in the trenches.

And, FYI, it is also irresponsible of media outlets to post those pictures too.

Okay, that was a lot. Thanks for bearing with me. Just a couple more:

4. Who does this conversation serve?

In the comment section of these thin articles, there a little bit of hostility between women who are pushing back against thin discrimination and women who are like, yeah that is rough, want to trade? And both sides have a point for sure but again, there is a bigger question here—who does this debate serve? Who profits when women argue amongst themselves within (thereby affirming) a culturally given framework that defines women as real or not real, worthy or unworthy, based on the size of their bodies? Hint: the answer is not women.

The answer is……

The patriarchy!! Duh dun dun. Duh dun dun.

5. Being a woman isn’t biological.

When we spend so much time expanding and policing which female bodies belong to the category of real women, I am afraid we risk losing sight of the fact that having any kind of female body is not what makes us women and not having a female body does necessarily mean that someone is not a woman. Sex is biological, gender identity is not.

Acknowledging this is not incompatible with the ‘real women are fat thin, and medium’ conversation, I just think we need to be explicit about the fact that fat, thin, and medium females do not necessarily identify as women and fat, thin, and medium women also sometimes have male bodies or bodies with some male characteristics.

Ok, that’s all I’ve got. Let’s keep having these kinds of conversations, but let’s be mindful of how we have them and let us not forget or shy away from examining how we talk about these issues as way learn about ourselves and our community.


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