This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.
Being force-fed will always be one of the most traumatic, violating experiences of my life. To have a tube rammed into you, painfully, without your consent, and to witness your body change into one that repulses you is deeply humiliating. Eating is personal, as is safeguarding the boundaries of one’s own flesh. When I yanked out the tube, it was pushed back in. When I stopped resisting, I learned to be ashamed. For months afterwards I couldn’t raise my voice above a whisper. For years afterwards I couldn’t eat in public and simply wanted to disappear.
Anorexia is a complicated illness. Without force-feeding, I might have died. I know this and hence, since I want to be alive, I feel the need to come to terms with the feeding. Nonetheless, I’m wary of admitting to this. I don’t want it to sound as though I condone the force-feeding of other anorexia sufferers. I don’t feel I have the right to do that. A person’s body is his or her own and freedom of choice is integral to maintaining a sense of self. And yet, while force-feeding might have made me a lesser person – a more damaged person – without it I might not be a person at all. It’s a circle I’ve never quite managed to square.
As a feminist, I believe that one of the greatest sources of inequality lies in the belief that women don’t own their bodies. Viewed as sexual objects, incubators or foils against which masculinity defines itself, they are seen as less than human, as things to be used, shaped and sliced. In this context my battle with my own body could be seen as anti-feminist. I am ashamed at my failure to feel at one with myself; I have let the side down. And yet if feminism values choice and the right to self-definition, perhaps I shouldn’t feel this way. Women’s choices under patriarchy are rarely pure and our responses, like the feeding tube, may never be wholly good or bad. Even so, this doesn’t excuse us from having to make decisions, both about our own lives and the lives of others.
In recent years the focus of mainstream feminism has shifted somewhat from structural critique to an emphasis on respect and self-validation, something Rosalind Gill and Ngaire Donaghue call “the turn to agency”. There is obviously some value in this; it questions the notion that women are cultural dupes, following patriarchy’s rules without any degree of investment or engagement. It tells women that they are not victims and creates a sense that they can influence their own surroundings.
However, there is a downside. If any critique of meaningful responses to oppression is understood as a critique of individuals – a denial of agency – then what tools do we use to judge the choices women make? Are we permitted to judge at all and, if not, is there any form of acceptable intervention when women do harm to themselves?
I think, within a patriarchal culture in which women’s bodies are exploited, objectified and ridiculed daily, an eating disorder is not an irrational choice. The beliefs and rituals that maintain an ED are irrational (since that is how the mind responds to starvation) but to want to control the boundaries of one’s body and take up as little space as possible seems to me a perfectly logical response to trauma. Hence I am somewhat defensive of pro-ana websites and irritated by “body acceptance” drives. As a student, I remember being annoyed by a slogan touted by our college women’s officer: There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only eight who do. Don’t think thin, think different. “But,” I’d think, “being like 3 billion other women isn’t being different!” While I didn’t want to look like a supermodel, neither did I want to be told to be “normal”.
In some ways anorexia felt like a great big “fuck you” to everyone’s values. In those days I didn’t wash my hair or wear makeup. I wore children’s clothing. I knew I looked unpleasant but it was an unpleasantness I owned (whereas now I merely fail to be beautiful; there is no active rejection, I just glide into the failing that is the lot of most women).
When people told me anorexia was controlling me, I felt outraged. Anorexia was me. How dare they deny my agency! And in this way I see difficulties in the line choice feminism seeks to tread. Whether we’re talking about behavioural trends in parenting or sex work or body modification, no woman wants to be told she is a victim – and yet some of us are. You can be a victim and an agent at one and the same time. You don’t even have to feel like a victim.
Mental health is a fuzzy area, particularly in terms of how diagnoses have been used against women. To be told you are mad is to be told you cannot judge your own reality. Women are told this time and again. It’s rarely true and there’s no definitive test that will tell you when it is true. Even so, it doesn’t mean madness can’t kill you.
I don’t know what happened to most of the women I met during my later treatments. Those that I am aware of have either died in their thirties or spent the past two decades drifting from one hospitalisation to another. I’m the only one who is relatively unscathed, yet part of me believes this is because I am a sell-out or a fraud. At the same time, I am furious that these lives have been wasted (and yes, to talk of “wasted lives” is judgmental, but it is a waste, a terrible one). But what would I do? Tell these women what bodies they should occupy? Hold them down and force in a feeding tube myself? Or endorse their reality, since perhaps that’s all they’ll ever have? As feminists we need to admit that sometimes, the answers aren’t clear-cut.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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