by Emma Staffaroni
“Whenever woman’s spirit has been threatened, she has taken the control of her body as an avenue of self-expression. The anorectic refusal of food is only the latest in a series of woman’s attempts at self-assertion which at some point have descended directly upon her body. If woman’s body is the site of her protest, then equally the body is the ground on which the attempt for control is fought.” -Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike: The Anorexic’s Stuggle as a Metaphor for our Age
“The thing with Sarah Lawrence students is that they are very often intellectually, politically, and theoretically rejecting it–rejecting these narrow standards of beauty. And yet…they are asking themselves, ‘What is going on that I still feel more in control when I’m not eating?’”-Dina Nunziato, Director of Counseling at SLC Health Services
It’s a windy day over October study days and I am talking about eating disorders on campus with the Director of Counseling at Sarah Lawrence, Dina Nunziato. Dina was hired by the college in 1994 to run the Eating Disorders Support Group, a group comprised of students that still exists today. Coming from a private practice and a feminist-psychoanalytic perspective in her work, Dina brought her years on the Westchester Task Force on Eating Disorders to the campus, which in the early 90s was woefully under-resourced on this issue. I wanted to talk to Dina first and foremost to get her expert’s insight on the epidemic and its impact at SLC in particular; but secondly I wanted to hear from her about the potential for feminisms to address this issue–not only to bring awareness around body image through campaigns (like NOW’s well-funded Love Your Body Week), but to truly heal ourselves and our loved ones, and to do what feminism does best: shift the paradigm. Change the narrative.
Courtney E. Martin, author and feminist blogger emeritus at feministing.com, says in her TED talk that she needed this book, so she wrote it.
In 2012 it is a daunting task to write about body image and disordered eating among college students. According to the National Eating Disorders Association’s most up-to-date information, 10 million women and girls and 1 million men and boys have experienced an eating disorder. But those statistics are less meaningful than the dozens of personal encounters with people who hate their bodies, constantly diet, and/or have been hospitalized for self-starvation. As feminist author Courtney E. Martin calls it in the title of her book on the subject, the last 40 years have heralded a “frightening new normalcy of hating your body.” I came to write this article because of the women (in particular although many men struggle as well) I love whom I witness in the grips of this self-disgust, this perpetual fear of fat and sense of empowerment and control through starvation and/or over-exercise.
But even as I write this, I am intellectualizing a problem that is deeply visceral and personal. As a feminist, I know that the personal is political; but does the political shroud the personal in this case, making it harder to access the individual woman and her struggle? “‘It runs counter to everything I believe in,’” Dina says, parroting the students whom she counsels. “‘And yet. And yet.’”
Sarah Lawrence’s Health Services department employs a bio-psycho-social perspective for evaluating and serving students who need help around this issue. In the support groups, for example, young women and men are not seen within a “deficit” model. “We start with the assumption that everyone’s doing their best to manage their emotional health,” Dina explains.Thinking of the acts of binging, purging, or self-starving as discrete behavioral solutions to emotional and psychological states, students delve into the questions, How did I come to this solution to whatever I’m going through? How and why isn’t this solution working? It is a process, indeed, of analyzing, as objectively as possible, the steps one normally takes to heal oneself, and the possible alternative strategies for dealing with emotional distress. The goal, Dina says, is to understand what happens in that process and eventually help the student learn to tolerate her emotions rather than fall back on unhealthy and/or self-harming eating patterns.
These emotions vary from student to student, and Dina insists she could never generalize. There is, however, a thread that runs through many discussions with those who come to support group or seek help through counseling: the feeling of being at war with one’s body. The work then, is teaching students to “work with their bodies instead of against them,” Dina says. Only then can these young people move from a place of “self-loathing” to “self-caring.”
So what role can feminism play? In fact, it is the process of learning self-empathy that makes a person start to link the personal and political– or, as Dina puts it, “to start to recognize their relationship with food as symbolic.” Dina’s theoretical influences include second-wave feminist Susie Orbach, writing in the late 70s and 80s about the battle with the body as a feminist issue.
Orbach’s first book on the subject, Fat is a Feminist Issue: A Self-Help Guide forCompulsive Eaters, may sound vulgar to third and fourth wave feminists who see “self-help” as a consumerist conspiracy to make women spend money on elusive ideals of self-perfection. Yet when Orbach was writing, no one had yet articulated the link between the personal–the individual dieting woman–and the political–the fight against patriarchy.
She defines “compulsive eating” as the following: “Eating when you are not physically hungry; Feeling out of control around food, submerged by either dieting or gorging; Spending a good deal of time thinking and worrying about food and fatness; Scouring the latest diet for vital information; Feeling awful about yourself as someone who is out of control; Feeling awful about your body.” She describes her initial response to her feminist consciousness-raising group that focused on the issue of dieting and body hatred: “I was confused, having anticipated a discussion of nutritional standards in the United States
and the Third World, or perhaps a look at the food and fashion industries or the incidence of obesity in ‘rich countries,’” she explains. “I was hesitant to explore the topic of compulsive eating outside the context of a political vocabulary… I was uneasy but held on to the slogan that the personal is political.”
Over time, as feminists have noted the pathologizing tone of the term ‘compulsive eating,’ Orbach’s book has been retitled ‘the anti-diet guide.’
Of course, today it is unthinkable to imagine dieting NOT being a feminist issue. Forty some-odd years after the fact, I feel reassured to know that the politics of the body and body image are at home in the feminist activist and intellectual landscape. But there is still a lot to glean from Orbach’s discovery process. “Women…are brought up to conform to an image of womanhood that places importance on body size and shape,” Orbach writes. Employing a psychoanalyticlens that emphasizes childhood and adolescent development as a crucial time, she draws the line between objectification by society and the process of treating one’s own body as a object for control. It is through this line of reasoning that feminists can begin to discuss the ways in which fatness and thinness are symbolic and gendered in our social world.
The impulse, I think, for those of us that love and respect women, is to intellectualize or
politicize the woman’s experience of her fraught embodiment. But as Orbach reminds us,
feminism has given us tools and vocabulary NOT so we can distance ourselves from the
personal, but so we can draw closer to it. At the end of her 1986 book, Hunger Strike, Orbach writes, “Each woman has a difficult struggle before her. Firstly she is working towards experiencing her body as the place in which she lives. At the same time she has to find a way of reconciling the body as owned and lived in with the opposing cultural thrust of the female body as object.” Yes, this is indeed the challenge: to reconcile the juggernaut of fat-shaming, photo-shopped, white-supremacist media images with the very daily experience of nourishing oneself and inhabiting a body.
Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God links disordered eating to the personal and spiritual.
Which brings us back to Dina, whose work is helping people develop self-empathy in the battle for peaceful embodiment. It’s not easy, she told me, to get beneath the powerful intellects of students like those at SLC. Oftentimes the behaviors are hidden–behind specific food choices, like vegetarianism or raw food diets–but always they mask a much deeper emotional or psychological wound, one that is in part personal but also largely societal and political. It is, like all feminist issues, a group solution, employed in the campus support group, in groups beyond campus, and–yes–in intentional communities of feminists. “Turning off one’s judges–mothers, women’s magazines, husbands, lovers, friends, diet doctors, and nutritionists–requires trust in one’s self. Being in a group with other women going through the same process can be of great assistance and support,” Orbach’s book reads. I would add: not just turning off the judges, but talking back to them. Challenging the script about fatness and thinness. Recognizing when we are hiding behind jargon or intellectual rationales when in fact there are political and emotional messages to be heard. And asking our loved ones, classmates, and colleagues to talk about it. Then, listening.