Psychology is responsible for a lot of damaging health messages that lead to victim blaming, especially within the victim him/herself. One example of this is how we think and talk about eating disordered girls. They’re all attention seekers from achievement oriented families, who can’t get enough of the privilege they were born with, right? They care about their facade, because there’s nothing much behind it, right? Anorectics are exerting control over their eating, because they don’t have control over their soul, and bulimics are filling an inner void with lots and lots of ice-cream. Right?
It’s always a pleasure to read articles like this article that deconstruct how these messages came to be, why they made it into the public discourse, and how they might be replaced through more helpful ways of speaking about mental health. I only dared thinking the thoughts contained in this particular article on anorexia recently, after a looooooong process of building up a spine that can withstand some rather powerful common discourses around women, achievement, and weight.
I jumped on the anorectic train when I was 13. If my thoughts had been more self-directed and honest at the time, and not as much determined by my ambition to please everybody around me, my explanation for my decision to starve myself would have probably sounded a little bit like this:
“You guys ask me to be a good student, daughter, friend, a pretty girl by unrealistic beauty standards, a tough cookie, a smart cookie, but always a sweet cookie, nothing more problematic than that. From what I can tell from the media, you expect me to be a whore in the bedroom, which scares me, and a saint everywhere else, which bores me. As far as I can tell from the way you talk about women in pantsuits vs. aprons, you don’t let me be the boss, but you also look down on me, if I don’t try to be the boss. I can’t really see myself succeeding at any of your expectations, but I’m terrified about what will happen, if I ever openly fail, because I’m sensitive to the way you speak about failing people, and it’s rather nasty. Being fat would be one of the first signs of failure as a female, so there is no way in hell I’m going to let myself get fat. In fact, I will show you how strong I really am, by torturing myself more than you ever could. You won’t be able to call me ‘weak’ after this. This is my resistance. If you don’t lower your expectations, then I’m going to destroy the very thing you expect so much of: myself. Ha!”
Now: Does that sound to you as if I was rejecting the responsibilities of adult life out of spite, immaturity, or laziness (to give some of the words that permeated my mind at the time, thanks to discourses like the one described in Malson & Ussher’s article)? Is it helpful (or even just coherent) to frame self-destructive behaviour like that? Or would it have been more helpful to start looking at my surroundings, rather than me as an individual, in order to help me?
Eating disorders (and as far as I’m concerned all disorders, because what would the Disordered be without the Ordered?) are systemic failures, not individual ones. Thinking and talking about them as what they are – a collective societal failure – is going to lead to better, more sustainable strategies for getting rid of them.
But that’s just my humble opinion as someone who went through that shit. Obviously psychology is fully entitled to reject everything I just said, and keep on solely engaging in discourses about ‘impulsiveness’, ‘attention seeking’, ‘lack of resilience’, ‘low self-esteem’, ‘perfectionism’, ‘self-efficacy’, ‘body image disturbance’, ’emotional dissociation’, ‘helper’s syndrome’, and all those other terms, which always seem to place the whole responsibility on the skinny little girls’ shoulders. Better wipe up the mess society creates time after time after time, rather than start looking for effective prevention, like de-objectifying women in the media, banning underweight models, restricting the diet industry, etc.
I met a l o t of eating disordered girls over time, and I was as prejudiced against them as I was against myself. I thought of them as superficial attention seekers that LOVE power and control, while being rather clumsy, short-sighted, and lazy in their choice of strategies to retain control over their life. Also, what kind of a person cares so much about their looks, when there’s people dying in Africa??
Ha. With time I learned that it’s more like: eating disordered people seem to be people who generally care SO MUCH that all they end up being able to deal with is their weight.
So, yes, my own story confirms what my friend Bourdieu once observed: the subordinate and the stigmatized contribute to their own marginalization by buying into the dominant discourses that blame themselves for their mal-adaption (by the way: yeay for mal-adaption in a far less than perfect system…). It’s easy on our collective conscience to blame the miserable for their misery. But it doesn’t actually make any sense.