Food, Feminism, and Eating Disorders

Jun 23rd, 2014 | By | Category: Blog

I want to diverge from the blog prompt. In the Q&A after Eric Holt-Gimenez’s talk at the UVM Food Summit, he mentioned the importance of confronting sexism and racism implicit in the environmental movement, and especially the food movement. This comment was one of two during the day that earned immediate applause from the audience (the other being a proposal that higher education should be free). I want to use this as a jumping-off point to bring up an issue that is inextricable from food studies, feminism, mental health advocacy, and youth empowerment: eating disorders.

If we’re going to talk about food, we have to talk really seriously about the fact that some people have deeply uncomfortable and unhealthy (and unsustainable – for their bodies) relationships to food. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:

  • 24 million Americans have an eating disorder. That’s around 7% of the general population.
  • Only 10% of those with EDs seek treatment. Men are less likely than women to seek treatment. This is likely because it is seen as a feminine, and therefore less serious, problem that they should just be able to deal with on their own.
  • 95% of those with EDs are between the age of 12 and 25.
  • EDs have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

And this one feels very relevant to my work this summer:

  • Over 80% of 10-year-old girls are “afraid of being fat.”

My job includes working with kids, most of whom are in elementary school, and many of whom are girls. Just this morning, I weeded a garden with the help of two girls who are about to enter middle school. They have an unbelievable amount of pressure put on them to look and act in certain ways, at all times, from all angles. (Welcome to womanhood!) The wording of the phrase above really gets me – girls are afraid of being fat. This fear carries over to eating almost immediately. How can we hope to instill in anyone a love for growing and preparing and eating and loving food if they fear it?

All social issues are intertwined. We must, must, must confront sexism (not to mention the stigma surrounding mental health) if we are to get kids to love gardening and cooking. Girls can’t think it’ll make them fat (code for unattractive), and boys can’t think it’s girly (code for bad). But it goes so much deeper than that – girls shouldn’t think that being unattractive is a social death sentence, and boys shouldn’t think that the effeminate is inherently icky or unworthy of their attention. Thus: feminism. Boom.

If you’re interested in reading up more on EDs, check out the link above, in addition to the National Eating Disorders Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and Mayo Clinic’s page on the issue. For more on feminism, read bell hooks, Judith Butler, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler… but most of all, keep your eyes open and be thoughtful and critical and respectful and for the love of god don’t tell a young girl not to eat too much at dinner.

2 Comments to “Food, Feminism, and Eating Disorders”

  1. Maggie Danna says:

    This is such a relevant discussion to be having. FoodWorks is all about connecting with food and respecting it, two things that are hard to do for people who are afraid of “getting fat” and view food as the problem. Food is being feared and demonized, but the actual issue is our society. As you said, a girls’ value shouldn’t be based on attractiveness, and attractiveness doesn’t need to be based on thinness. It’s so sad this problem affects girls while they’re still just young children. Eating should be joyful, and not a source of fear and guilt. And much of the fatness that is so feared isn’t caused by food because it’s food, but by food because of the way we have changed it. There are added sugars in so many food products (ketchup, bread, sauces, dried fruits, juices, etc.), and complex carbs are frequently replaced by simple carbs. Thus, we have the incompatible issues of girls’ belief they need to be thin coupled with our culture’s promotion and rampant consumption of sugary, high glycemic foods. As Alison said, coming up with a solution for this is going to be tough since these behaviors are so deeply engrained in our society.

  2. Alison Surdoval says:

    I think you make some really important observations about the relationship between the food movement and sexism in particular. The part from your post that stuck with me most is your interactions with the young girls you work with. Before this year, I hadn’t ever put much thought into the inner workings of eating disorders or disordered eating, but after watching a friend battle the issue, I’ve started to pay more attention as to how societal functioning interacts with eating disorders. I too can’t believe the ways in which young girls feel pressure regarding body image, which is directly related to food. And how can the community goals of the food movement ever be reached if food has a bad rep with members of the community? Encouraging people to develop healthy relationships with food is vital to the success of the food movement. How to do that? I’m not quite sure..

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