and ain't i a woman?: Sexism and anorexia


and ain't I a woman?

Sexism and anorexia

“I want to be thin. I want my cheeks to sink and my bones to stick out. I want my skin to sit over my bones like cling-wrap on clay, mimicking every shape. I want to be thinnest... And I want it now.”

I wrote these thoughts down last May. Looking back on them now, I am shocked by what I wrote. They seem so desperate. It's so hard to comprehend how anyone can become so focussed on the impossible goal of “the perfect weight” that they are more than willing to lose their life in pursuit of it.

Three years ago, at age 14, I developed Anorexia nervosa. Contrary to popular belief, this was not a diet gone wrong, but stemmed from my own feelings of inadequacy. The capitalist society we live in is one which forces women to aspire to and seek a body shape that is often unattainable. This pressure is felt strongly throughout adolescence. It is not surprising then that so many young women develop feelings of failure and worthlessness, which can lead to many serious mental and physical health problems.

Sexism is the root cause of the rising rate of eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression among young women. Although women today have more liberties than ever before, many do not feel free at all.

Capitalist society acts as though it owns women, our bodies, our lives and has the right to tell us what we can do and when we can do it. Its cultural stereotype of attractiveness is one that portrays beauty and acceptance as being reserved for those who are thin.

It is difficult to separate one's self from the ideals which society has created. This may cause women to try to overcome their natural tendency toward a fuller figure.

Despite playing a big part in the development of unhealthy body images and eating disorders in young women, this society takes little responsibility for their rehabilitation. One of the most painful moments throughout my battle with anorexia occurred after being hospitalised for sudden weight-loss, only to be told by the hospital that it didn't have enough resources to help me.

Disregarding the information my doctors had given, the hospital couldn't deal with my situation. Like many women with eating disorders who go looking for help, I felt abandoned and more alone than ever before. Just when I had reached the stage of accepting help, I was sent away. This left me feeling that not only had I failed everyone by developing an eating disorder, I had failed at being important enough for my eating disorder to be treated.

On seeing my doctor after discharge, I was informed that my situation was nothing unusual. Similar situations frequently happen, the public health system coming across as uninterested, uncaring and unconcerned, the private health system often not an option due its cost. No-one should have to pay the thousands of dollars required to receive treatment they desperately need.

While in hospital, I met another young woman of 14 who was repeatedly cutting her wrists so she could return to hospital. This was her way of crying out for help. But when she had asked for help, she was cast aside, and she therefore saw hurting herself as the only way that anyone would take her seriously. Still, she was not receiving the help she was so desperate for.

As women continue to fight for liberation, we need to address the issue of ridding society of circumstances which make women feel inadequate or worthless.


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[The author is a member of the socialist youth organisation, Resistance.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.
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