A study says that anorexic people feel less to blame for their condition after reading feminist theory. In my case, I have Susie Orbach to thank
According to a new study, feminist theory can help treat anorexia. That comes as no surprise to me, based on my own experience of trying to vanish, one skipped meal at a time. Researchers at the University of East Anglia trialled a 10-week programme with seven inpatients at a centre in Norwich. They used Disney films, social media, news articles and adverts to talk about the social expectations and constructs of gender, how we view women’s bodies and how we define femininity. They spoke about the way we portray appetite, hunger and anger, as well as the ways we objectify women’s bodies.
Researchers published a paper in the journal Eating Disorders that suggested patients improved because they felt less to blame for their own condition. This makes complete sense. When I was 15 years old, I spent six weeks in an eating disorders clinic in Sydney. Staring at those pallid pistachio-coloured walls on my own in a cell-like room, I felt as though I may never recover. My emaciated companions and I were under the care of a former prison warden turned eating disorders nurse, who made sure we stuck to our strict daily routine of three meals, three snacks, two therapy sessions, no taking the stairs. I wasn’t alone in that fear of eternal sickness; recovery is elusive for many sufferers, and perhaps the cruellest part of the process is that anorexia convinces you that you don’t even want to get better.
Then, one day, we were allowed to go on a group outing. We filed in, rather miserably, to an enormous top-floor book shop. We were directed to the self-help section, but I took a sneaky detour to gender studies. There, among the Naomi Wolfs and the Germaine Greers, I felt strangely safe for once. I cherished books, I always have, and I remember stroking the spines tenderly, wishing for some sort of guidance. We were told we should get one book that day. I chose Hunger Strike by Susie Orbach.
Originally published in 1986 (just a year before I was born; a serendipity that appealed to me), it is a seminal feminist text about “the anorectic’s struggle as a metaphor for our age”. In it, Orbach argues that anorexia is both a deeply private struggle, and a very public one. Women’s bodies, she wrote, are still considered public property and so long as that stands, our desire to diminish them is a feminist issue.
Reading that book in hospital affected me in a way that no group CBT session ever did. It gave me permission to look outside myself for the causes of my illness, and so, just like the participants of this new study, I dared to think that I was not to blame. The single most helpful revelation in my journey to recovery was this very idea: that anorexia existed outside of who I, as a person, fundamentally was. It was an exorcism of sorts, then – something had taken over me and must be overpowered.
Anorexia is a complex interplay of genetics, personality traits and experience. Some scientists suggest that we may be genetically predisposed to the illness; a biological sort-of fatalism that doesn’t necessarily take into account how profoundly we may be affected by something like the cultural perception of gender. Sometimes, less conventional treatments help – art or music therapy, for instance, as well as medical supervision and a nutrition plan. For me, that balm was feminist theory.
Anorexia is notoriously difficult to treat. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and it can take an average of three years to get proper treatment for it. There are 1.25 million people in the UK living with eating disorders, and on their behalf, I hope that we can get more funding to trial novel treatments like this one.
But until then, here’s a reading list for anyone who may need it: • Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach • Fat is a Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach • Bodies, Susie Orbach •The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf • The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer • The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood • Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo
Source: The Guardian