Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fat Talk Week

I love the idea behind Fat Talk Free Week (and wrote more about it here). I love how it lays out specific actions for women to take, because so often the supposedly compassionate response to "I'm so fat" is "No you're not." But that response doesn't help, because it A) assumes the position that fat is awful, B) might not be true, and someone who is genuinely fat will only feel pandered to if you tell them that they're not, C) keeps the focus on what may or may not be "wrong" with the person, and D) doesn't make anybody feel any better anyway. (The response that the sponsors suggest is to form a pact with a friend and to call them out on the pact whenever they break it.)

But the thing is, I hardly ever engage in fat talk. Even before it was a conscious feminist effort, I just felt stupid doing it--saying "Oh, I look disgusting" is an invitation for reassurance, which never helps me feel better. (It can help with momentary anxiety over something fleeting--like, being assured that my zit does not overtake my entire aura--but that's not fat talk.) I hate forcing other people to compliment me as much as I hate being forced to compliment others. Nowadays when I hear fat talk from someone, I just say, "Oh, stop that." If I'm in a situation where it makes sense to have a real conversation about body image, I'll invite that--but the people with whom I have that rapport know better than to throw around "Oh, I'm fat" in my presence.

So fat talk isn't exactly the issue for me. My words reflect someone with an intact bodily self-esteem; my thoughts do not. I'd like to be able to just do this with myself, but that makes me feel like one of Eve's three faces. I'm almost wondering if I should start saying what I say to myself out loud, to other people. Not because I want to get into the oh-you-look-fine game, but because it might help me recognize how ridiculous what I am saying is.

The larger issue is one I've come up against repeatedly: how to reconcile my feminism with my body issues. One of the big reasons I'm so vocal about being feminist is because of the body issues I've had all my life; reading about the sociology surrounding body issues and eating disorders has informed me well, from recognizing the unrealistic standards I'm held to as a woman to getting more deeply into recognizing the link between the tightening of the Iron Maiden and the emancipation of women during the second wave. I'm no longer at the point where I feel like a Bad Feminist for having body and food issues, but the fact remains that what I say ideologically is miles away from where I am with my most private thoughts and actions. I've always known that the personal is political--now I want to invert it and make the political, personal.

But you know what? A lot of bloggers are playing along and saying what they like about their bodies on their blogs. So I will too:

I love my legs--I'm probably even vain about them. They're strong and curvy, hard in the places I want them to be, soft in the places I want them to be. They help me look good in a dress; they show the world that I'm active; they bring me pleasure to look down and see strong, long calves. Even the burn I got on my right calf this spring in Vietnam, I love: I got off on the wrong side of a motorbike on my second day there and got an enormous burn, a perfect circle the size of the bottom of a pint glass. Every time I see it, I am reminded of an extraordinary time in an extraordinary place. I laughed to myself that my father and grandfather both fought in Vietnam and I'm the one who came back wounded--a joke I'd never say out loud, because certainly they were wounded in a much different way, despite the lack of physical marks. But it ties me to one of my main reasons for going there, which was them and their times of service; it's almost like a little nod toward them, and how, a generation later, I needed to have my own marks of that long, skinny, hot little county on me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Genes and Eating Disorders

Sunny at Healthy Girl brings up the role of genetics in eating disorders. I tend to have an irrational gut reaction against thinking that my issues could stem from a brain-wiring issue; I prefer to think that my problems stem from some sort of murky thing that happened circa 1979 or so and can be unearthed through therapy alone (which is why I was in therapy for 7 years before I quit). But it's obviously a worthy question.

One sort of offshoot question about genetics and eating disorders, though: What did people with ED genes do before eating disorders were, well, "invented"? I mean, I know that eating disorders go way back--Freud writes of patients with symptoms we now term anorexia, for example. But EDs have become a sort of handy place for people with generalized "issues" to turn. The "hysteria" epidemic of the 19th century wasn't actually an epidemic; rather, it was a way for culturally restricted women to act out in a way that, though it wasn't exactly understood by the establishment, was at least recognized. In the same way, EDs are far from understood in our culture, but we recognize them as requiring care.

It makes sense that there's a good amount of ED sufferers out there who turned to restricting or bingeing or purging not because some synapse organically told them to, but because in a culture that A) has an abundance of food and B) therefore treats food not as nutrition but as a thing of cultural and familial significance, and C) has a strict standard of beauty that requires thinness, food seemed like a pretty good way to deal with personal issues. In much the same way that hysteria became nearly a fad in the 19th century--not because it was to be aspired to, but because it was a recognizable funnel for one's social and personal issues--eating disorders can spread like wildfire in our environment.

What the studies linking genes with eating disorders are actually saying isn't exactly that there's a gene that makes you want to starve. ED sufferers are more prone to irregularities in mood-regulation hormones--the same hormones that play a role in depression and anxiety. And one way to spike a low serotonin level (linked to depression) is to eat lots of sugar (a common binge target); similarly, a way to calm a perpetually high serotonin level (linked to anxiety) is to starve it to death. But plenty of people have messed-up hormone levels--some just deal with it, others go on medication, others self-medicate through addictive substances or behaviors. Not all of those people go on to develop eating disorders.

And that's where images come into play for people who develop not just unhealthy body image, but eating disorders. When your mood regulators aren't regulating themselves and you find something that "works" for you (e.g. bingeing or restricting), you do that thing. And you have reinforcement on every billboard and magazine cover around you.

It's much more complicated than what I'm saying here, and it varies patient by patient. Few people in the ED community would argue that EDs are caused exclusively by genes, brain chemistry, family, or culture. The combustion point of all these factors (and more) is where EDs spring from. I'm just wary of jumping too heavily on the "it's genetic" bandwagon. If the "it's in the genes" theory comes to dominate ED research, it's not too far-fetched to think that ED treatment can be written from a general practitioner's prescription pad instead of from the comprehensive therapy that currently comprises ED treatment. (Which is the case with several other psychiatric and mood disorders.) And if an ED sufferer opts not to swallow a pill, then what are they complaining about? There's a "cure," after all. And then we're still left with the cultural images that tell overweight women that they're not really worthy; images that exclude an enormous proportion of beautiful people. We're left with associations with the words "thin" and "fat" that have nothing to do with being thin or being fat (like pretty, or slovenly, or loved). We're left where we are. A pill might be nice for ED patients, but it'll suck for everyone else.