You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2009.

This post was sparked by this discussion.

I have a lot of thoughts about privilege. I will try to be concise, though I may not succeed. I am perhaps, well, privileged when it comes to thinking about privilege. Both my B.A. and M.A. are in Women’s Studies, and I’m now working toward a Ph.D. in WS. This means that I have read A LOT about privilege. It means that I am talking about privilege on an almost daily basis. I teach about privilege. I think (and worry) about privilege and my own privilege pretty much incessantly.

I was first introduced to the theoretical concept of privilege as an undergrad WS student. The article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh was my first encounter. If interested, you can find it here.

Privilege is not an easy thing to come to terms with. I struggled with it, for sure. My initial reaction to the concept of white privilege was, “But, I’m not racist! I don’t want this privilege! I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t condone it!” And, all of those things are still true. I’m not racist. I don’t want this privilege. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t condone it. AND I still have it. It’s not my choice. Whether I approve or not, our society treats people differently based on the color of their skin. My skin color, being white, affords me certain privileges as I move through my day to day. Some privileges I can perhaps acknowledge and work to change – I can, for example, choose to study and learn the history of groups other than white (male) Americans. I can then work to combat privilege further by sharing what I’ve learned, whether that is in the class I teach, with a child, or with a peer. I also think that acknowledging, interrogating, and being willing to discuss systems of privilege – and this includes owning up to our own privilege – is a way to combat it.

I am privileged in many ways, and I am disadvantaged in others. In the US, I am privileged because of my race, my class, and my physical and mental abilities. I am very privileged in regard to education. I have conflicted privilege in regard to sexuality – I am bisexual (not privileged), yet my partner is male (heterosexual privilege). I am disadvantaged in regard to gender. Globally speaking, I am among the most privileged.

And there is still another way in which I am privileged. I’m thin. I have thin privilege. For example, when getting on a crowded bus this morning, I did not have to worry about getting dirty looks because my body took up “too much” room. 700 Stories did a great job of outlining some concrete examples of thin privilege in her blog post on the subject.

I can add some more. Because of my thin privilege:

A) I can walk down the street without fear of being harrassed about my weight. (I might be harassed for other reasons, but that has  to do w/ the fact that I don’t have male privilege).

B) I don’t have to worry about being fired from a job due to my weight. I don’t have to worry about not being hired due to my weight.

C) I don’t have to worry that a desk at school, a seat on the bus, a seat in the movie theater, a seat on an airplane, a seat on an amusement park ride, etc., will be too small.

D) I don’t have to worry about people eyeing what is in my grocery cart.

E) I don’t have to worry that – when being introduced to new people – they will make judgements about me or my lifestyle based on my size.

F) I’m not stared at, snickered at, or self-conscoius when I work out.

G) People don’t assume that I’m not physically fit or that I’m lazy because of my weight. In fact, people might assume that I am fit, or at least active.

H) I can wear a bathing suit in public w/out the fear of being scrutinized.

I) If I (hypothetically) had a child and treated her to ice cream or sweets, my parenting skills would not be judged.

I could go on. But you get the point.

Personally, for me, my thin privilege is in some ways the hardest to come to terms with. This is true on a number of levels. I was a chubby young child, and an overweight pre-teen, early teen. Since the age of 16, I have ranged from underweight to obese, and everywhere in between. My body’s set point is somewhere around a bmi of 24/25. So, on the high end of normal, low end of overweight. I am not at my set point now. I am not underweight, but I am certainly “thin” by pretty much any definition. And I know how much  privilege it affords. I can walk into any store (unless it is a “specialty  store” for “plus-sized” women), and know without a doubt that they will have my size. I also know that – more often than not – the employees at that store will be helpful, will approach me with a smile, and will not rush me out because I do not fit their store’s “image.” I know that – on a day to day basis – people are MUCH nicer to me when I am thin. I wish it wasn’t true. But, it is. I wish that I wasn’t bolstering the system by maintaining a lower weight than my body wants. But, I am. I wish that thin privilege didn’t make my recovery more difficult. But, it does. It’s not fun to admit.

What we need to keep in mind is that, privilege (thin or otherwise) is NOT about placing blame. It is not about faulting the individual. It’s not really about the individual, actually. Yes, of course oppression and privilege have very concrete ramifications for individuals, don’t get me wrong. But privilege really operates at a much larger level. Privilege and oppression are rooted in societal ideologies, values, structures, and institutions; they are systematic. In many ways, oppression and privilege are two sides of the same societal coin. They are beyond the level of the individual, though individuals, often through no fault or intention of their own, are implicated.

Also keep in mind that the acknowledgment of thin privilege – or oppression generally – does not negate individual suffering. OF COURSE thin people can internalize messages of self-doubt or self-hatred. OF COURSE thin people can be victims of abuse. OF COURSE thin people may feel self-conscious sometimes. OF COURSE a thin person with an e.d. is genuinely in pain. Every person is going to have some suffering, some pain, some hardship – and hopefully lots of joy – in her or his lifetime. Acknowledging and interrogating privilege does not deny or undo that.

And, also keep mind, these systems are not isolated. They weave an incredibly complex web. Like I stated above, I may not be harrassed walking down the street because of my weight, but I may very well be cat-called because we still live in a patriarchal society that normalizes the sexualization and objectification of women. I may even been judged because I am thin – and this can connect to thin privilege too. This judgement may come from others who notice my thin privilege and are (rightfully) hurt that they do not share it. This judgement might be out of concern if someone knows about my eating disorder (which ties into society/oppression/privilege in a number of ways). Or, this judgement might be outside of the realm of privilege/oppression. Not *everything* fits; there are always exceptions. Or, something may seem like it doesn’t fit, and upon further inspection we realize that it is the result of an different and/or interlocking system of disadvantage/privilege. Thin privilege doesn’t operate in a vacuum. No privilege does. These societal structures, systems, and ideologies are always mediated by each other, by individuals, by subject positions, by material realities, and by the fact that they are constantly in flux.

As far as I’m concerned, denying privilege – whether that is thin privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, beauty privilege, ableist privilege, Christian privilege, class privilege, etc., etc. – is not helpful. If we do not interrogate these systems and acknowledge our own position in them (even if that position is difficult to reconcile with), we allow them to continue unquestioned, unchallenged, and unseen.

Okay. I don’t eat herring. But, I am worried about herring. It’s a red herring, actually, that’s bothering me. This is something I’ve needed to get off my chest for a while. Hear me out. Please.

I am worried about the recent and extreme focus on eating disorders (specifically AN) as biologically based illness – AN as a  “brain illness” that needs to be treated first and foremost by nutrition and weight stabilization.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that the research coming out on the biology of anorexia is absolutely fascinating. I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle. But, that’s just it; it’s a PIECE of the puzzle. I think that it’s premature to claim that “genetics load gun; environment pulls the trigger.” I don’t think one thing loads the gun. I don’t think that one thing is primary. And I think that each person has a different combination of factors and reasons that affect her/his development of an eating disorder.

If eating disorders are first and foremost biological brain diseases, why so many women? Why the increase in anorexia among gay men, another sector of the culture that so values thinness? Why the social contagion aspect? Why the rise in rates in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? Why the “social contagion” aspect? Why the continually earlier onset? Why the continually later onset? We have SO many unanswered questions, I fear that in latching onto the new research regarding the brain, genetics, etc, we might be latching onto a red herring.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not ABOUT latching onto biology only. There have been many red herrings in the search for a “cause” for eating disorders – the media, the fashion industry, our countries nutritional woes, histories of sexual abuse, trauma, perfectionism, parents, intelligence, overscheduling children, pro-ed sites, and on and on. The idea of anorexia as a brain illness just seems to be the most recent one, and is gaining ground as new research comes out.

And this is not to say that these factors mentioned above aren’t important. Rather, this is to say that they are ALL important. I think it’s simplistic to say, “Here. It’s a biological brain illness. That is what we need to focus on.” I also think it’s simplistic to say, “Here. It’s the media.” Or, “Here. It’s the diet industry.” Or, “Here. It’s trauma.”

Because, in my opinion and my experience, it’s all of these things. So, yes, it is important to acknowledge that eating disorders *can* be biologically based illnesess. AND they can be reinforced by societal/media messages. AND they can be reactions to life experiences. AND they can be a manifestation of family dynamics (which is not the same as “blaming the parent”). AND they can be strengthed by pro-e.d. websites. AND they can be a symptom of a patriarchal society in which women often find themselves in circumstances where they have little or no control in regard to what happens to their bodies. Anorexia and eating disorders can be manifestations of all of these things. Or some of them. Or one or two. Or maybe something else entirely.

My own experience of having an e.d., as well as the experiences I’ve learned from people I’ve worked and recovered with, point to the fact that eating disorders are almost always multi-causal. Instead of thinking them as biological illnesses, or brain illnesses, I think of them as biopsychosocial illnesses. How important each factor is varies, as I see it. Each person is unique. Each eating disorder is unique. So, yes, perhaps for some, the (neuro)biology or the genetic predisposition is the biggest factor. And for others, that may not be the case. I suspect that for me, personally, genetics and my personality type may have predisposed me to have an eating disorder, but the primary cause of my e.d., as far as I can tell, is due to life experiences and trauma. And my e.d. has stuck around regardless of my nutritional state or physical health. I have had periods where I have eaten well and healthily, I have eaten intuitively, I have been at my set point. Yet, my e.d. was there, lying in wait, and it came right back when another traumatic event happened. And sometimes it has come back without that. Sometimes it has been force of habit. Sometimes it has been unexplainable. I think that is because there are many “reasons” for my illness, and so it may strike differently each time. I can say that, since doing trauma work, my recovery has never felt so hopeful, so solid.

I think that, instead of trying to figure out the primary cause for eating disorders, our efforts and energies might be better spent acknowledging an studying the multi-causal factors that underly eating disorders and working to develop treatment methods that can accommodate as many of those causes as a client needs.

My name is Sarah. I am a graduate student, Quaker, animal lover, hippie, quasi-cyclist, feminist, partner to a wonderful man, (mostly) vegan. I’m also an e.d. survivor. My eating disorder started at age nine, with compulsive overeating. My family often used food or comfort, so I learned that food was a way to numb and “deal with” difficult or unpleasant emotions. My eating disorder switched to anorexia at age 15. Since that time, I have been bouncing back and forth between anorexia, bulimia, ed-nos, and recovery.

I’m now 26 and back in outpatient treatment. I relapsed last year (when I relapse, I tend to go all out. My relapses don’t typically last for days or weeks, but rather, months or years), and got back into treatment at the encouragement of a friend. My various rounds of treatment have always been on an outpatient basis, sometimes with specialists, sometimes not; sometimes with a whole treatment team, sometimes not. As a teen/young adult, I was not about to suggest residential or inpatient treatment (though I desperately  needed it), and my parents did not take steps in that direction. This past February, my treatment team suggested I go into the intensive outpatient and/or partial hospitalization program at my treatment center because I was having medical problems, my progress had stalled, and it was clear that I needed more support. My insurance company (through my job as a TA at my university) denied coverage. They also informed me that my mental health benefits were used up. Thankfully, my treatment center figured out how to make this work, and I have been able to consistently see my treatment team.

My current treatment center has shown me e.d. treatment like never before. I have never met treatment providers that are so compassionate and knowledgeable. I have been introduced to the use of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) in e.d. treatment. I have also been shown that there are treatment providers who will commit to clients for as long as it takes (we don’t even talk about time frames unless I want to), and will do whatever they can to make sure that clients can continue treatment (i.e. reduced payment plans and pro bono appointments for those of us with no insurance or crappy insurance). I now have treatment providers who acknowledge but *never* focus solely the amount of work that I still need to do to recovery. They always focus on the progress that I am making, even as I continue to struggle. I now have treatment providers who refuse to write me off as “chronic” and whose unfailing belief that, not only can I recover, but I can maintain recovery, has helped me begin to believe that myself. My treatment team has shown me what truly unconditional positive regard looks and feels like. They have let me be an active player and collaborator in my treatment process, and they have always treated me like a competent, intelligent, knowledgeable adult, rather than a child who needs treatment decisions to be made for her and who needs to be “educated” about her illness. I could go on and on. And I probably will! But not in this post.

This blog is going to serve a number of purposes. First, I am so delighted and encouraged to see all of the pro-recovery/e.d. awareness blogs out there. When I was working in e.d. education and advocacy a few years ago, this virtual community did not exist. I’m just itching to join the dialogue! I also think that one of the things that sparked my relapse last year was the fact that I pulled out of the activist community both in general, and related to e.d.’s specifically. It’s incredibly difficult to manage graduate school and, well, a life. Grad school does not promote balance. And, yet, balance I must. Being active in the pro-recovery/e.d. awareness world was so important to my recovery. So, this blog is my way of re-entering that.

Also, I am constantly considering the possibility of going into e.d. treatment as a clinician. Obviously this will only happen after a full and sustained recovery on my part. But, my treatment center has really opened my eyes to what a positive and self-affirming experience e.d. treatment can be, and I would like to someday practice based on their model. So, this blog will also give me a space to “theorize,” think, brainstorm, and dialogue with others about eating disorders and their treatment.

This is also my “coming out,” so to speak. Most people in my life know about my eating disorder. However, many do not understand what an ongoing struggle it is. Though I will not be sharing extremely personal treatment details on here, I will not hide the fact that a I am someone with an eating disorder.** Because I am a college instructor and my students could potentially stumble upon this blog, I don’t think it’s appropriate to divulge a lot of personal information. However, it’s time that I “out” myself and stop worrying that someone in my graduate school life might find this and find out I have an eating disorder. While I firmly believe in healthy, professional boundaries, I also believe that there is no shame in having an eating disorder and that it is something that people should not have to hide for fear of stigma, etc. So, here I am!

We’ll see how this goes . . .

** I do have another blog that traces my current recovery/treatment experience much more closely and in detail. It is a “friends only” blog, so you will need a livejournal account to read it. It can be found at http://formyed.livejournal.com