In September 2016, Psychology Today ran a cover story about narcissism. The accompanying visual was of a young, white, conventionally attractive woman preening into her cellphone. She was wearing a tight little mini skirt and had the body of a fashion model. Leaving aside the tedious misogyny of this image — with some difficulty, but that’s not what this article is about — I do want to say something about the host of assumptions about women and their bodies encoded in this image.
What are those assumptions? That stereotypically attractive women (that is, women who are white, young, small, and in clothing that reveals their bodies) are vain and narcissistic; and that such women gleefully use their physicality as a commodity to promote themselves. The image both uses and enforces the idea that female-bodied beauty takes a specific form. It also both uses and enforces the connection between women and their bodies as social capital, and moreover as social capital that women themselves delight in and profit from. The realities of rape culture, of the ways women are objectified and commodified and tacitly understood to be cultural property, and the toll this takes on the personhood of so many women, these realities are actively denied by this image.
Given the strong associations made in our culture between women’s worth and their bodies, it’s no wonder that the DSM-V notes the prevalence of eating disorders in women is 10 times greater than in men.
Twenty years ago, Becky Thompson made the point that eating disorders are not illnesses of middle-class white vanity. Women of all ethnicities, classes, and sexualities, deal with childhood trauma by internalizing what they cannot control in the world: how their bodies are seen, how their bodies are treated, how their bodies are used. So many of my clients who struggle with eating disorders have been managing years of abuse through the ways they manage their relationships with food. As Thompson says, disordered eating, whether starving, binging, purging, or any combination of the three, can be a coping strategy. It’s not only white women who struggle with how they look and feel in their bodies, and that struggle is not about narcissism.
Why do women use their bodies in this way? Because, as the Psychology Today image reminds us, we are taught from the moment we are born that our job is to be an object as well as a subject. Because girls and women’s bodies are public property, available for commodification and consumption in ways that remain gendered, even as certain privileged women have profited enormously from this exploitative system. Hell, you can proclaim outright that because you are rich and powerful you are entitled to access to a woman’s body regardless of her consent, and millions of Americans will agree with you and want you to be president. Women of color have additional burdens to manage, additional meanings projected onto their bodies as legacies of slavery and colonialism, an additional layer of object status, of objectification, to fight their way through. The relentless message to girls and women is that we are our bodies, that we are worth what our bodies are worth, and that our bodies are worth as much as their desirability in the terms of a specific visual system that relies on a reductive definition of femininity.
Most of my female-bodied clients are not middle class. Many of them are not white, or cisgender, or straight. And so many of them struggle with their relationship to food. It’s an issue of self-care, and self-esteem, and self-actualization. Although the clinical presentation can show up quite differently, it seems to me the underlying causes are similar: how do they achieve a felt sense of inner worth, of inner beauty, of self-ownership, when throughout their lives their families, churches, partners, social and other medias, have told them that they are their bodies and that their bodies need to change? To be politer, quieter, more feminine, more heterosexual, less disruptive of the status quo.
One of my masculine-of-center transgender clients who grew up female-bodied in a religious context that shamed bodies, desire, enjoyment, and yes, their love of food, has begun living with a bevy of straight men in a house-sharing situation. They remarked to me in wonder the other day, “Men take up so much room, and they don’t think about it or notice it.” Of course not all men are like this, and different men will carry their gender privilege differently in different contexts, depending on their other, intersectional, identities. And I have some men in my practice who are cisgender and heterosexual, and either non-normatively gendered in their identities or struggling with the strictures of binary masculinity. I know these men exist. Equally, men do also suffer from eating disorders, and their suffering matters as much. And 10:1 is encoding something highly significant about the gendered nature of embodiment in our culture, and the ways many women are responding through internalizing the violence.
I wish for my client, amazed at how easy it is for their housemates, who struggles so much to occupy relational space without feeling responsible for anticipating the needs of the other, just a little iota of the ability to take up space without thinking about it. I wish this for all my female-bodied clients, or those who grew up female-bodied, who cannot fathom being entitled to their appetites, and to their own flesh.