Eating Disorders, Body Image and the Women’s Rights Movement
How we can control the narrative
Posted Mar 12, 2015
Twenty years after the landmark Beijing conference on gender equality, the UN this week issued a depressing report that details the uneven, and in some cases backward, direction the fight for women’s rights has taken since then.
It brought to mind a similar tale of promises dashed, Debora Spar’s book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. In it, Spar, who is the president of Barnard College and a political scientist, notes that despite being essential to the advancement of women, the feminist movement also added more items to our already-staggeringly long to-do list: to be enlightened, empowered women on all fronts, including fighting for equal rights and competing with men in the marketplace.
Speaking before an audience of eating disorders professionals at the last Renfrew Center Foundation Conference, Spar said, “Before, we raised girls to be wives and mothers, but now we’ve expanded the realm of what we want them to do.” That realm stretches from soccer and scholastics to baking and writing briefs, all while “we’re sexualizing the heck” out of them, she added
“I see them at the back end, at seventeen or eighteen, the perfect girls, the ones who have done everything right, and they’re exhausted,” Spar said, adding (I hope hyperbolically), “I haven’t seen a girl apply to Barnard who hasn’t started an NGO.”
Instead of putting a stop to women being evaluated on appearance alone, Spar argues the opposite has happened, with the ideal size of women thinner and less realistic than it’s ever been. We’ve “upped the ante,” she asserts, making women feel they have to starve themselves, spend more hours at the gym and then go run their NGO. There’s even a modern equivalent of the corset, she pointed out: Spanx.
There’s Photoshop now, too, and even though young girls know it exists, they still believe that with just a little more effort they can look like those digitally (we won’t say enhanced) altered models. Although magazine editors and advertisers will periodically make an effort to portray more diversity of shape and size (the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty comes to mind, now already a decade past), she calls those efforts “about a minute-and-a-half”-long trend. And the saddest part? Editors are aware of the fables they’re telling and Spar claims “it kills them.” It's just that super-thin models are what readers want to see. Really?
Spar also questioned what has come of the sexual liberation movement: today’s hookup culture, which she views as “the greatest thing to happen to young men ever,” but not the “committed, long-term relationship” that most women want.
Her solution: to not tell young women that they can have it all, that inevitably there will be trade-offs. In other words, “to give up on the idea of perfect,” to “change the narrative so we’re not trumpeting perfect people, but real people.” This will resonate with many eating disorders sufferers, since as Spar says, “eating disorders are the disease of perfect girls, the girls who are trying to do everything right.” When you can’t control everything, you can always control your body, a sort of malignant mutation of the feminist ideal of women controlling their own reproductive systems. Patients suffering from anorexia can do that, too, shutting it down completely.
But how, in the face of a culture that is in love with impossible ideals, do we “trumpet real people," and how can we change the perception that what readers want to see is paper clip-thin spokesmodels?
I’ve written about a few people who are doing their part, including a Pittsburgh artist who created his own real-sized doll, the founder of an online positive body image magazine, even two 13-year-old girls in Colorado who made a powerful short video about a girl their age suffering from an eating disorder. And if you’d like reminder of what Photoshopped images do to our self-esteem and how we can protect ourselves, check out this post with advice from my co-author Dr. Marcia Herrin. Come on, in the spirit of true feminism, let's effect some change here.