So I came across this post today, through a long circle of links upon links upon links, and it really hit hard for me. The post is from 2006, but it clearly is still relevant now. I think the advice in it is vitally important, and not just for when you're around people who might/do have eating disorders.
It was two things in the post (and the comments) that really got to me. One was this (italics in the original, bolding by me):
Model comfortable eating. Cook for them. Invite them over for dinner. Take them out to dinner. Make them pancakes or waffles for breakfast. Stop for snacks. Carry snacks. Go to farmer’s markets and festivals. Start potlucks or movie marathons or bakeoffs. Engage in activities which build appetite, like hiking or long walks on the beach. Make eating routine. Make cooking artful. Connect it to good company and conversation. Create safe space for food.
On the other hand, Calm down. Do not press food on your friends. Do not make your friends feel guilty for refusing food. Do not override their decisions about what, when, and how much they will eat. Do not scrutinze their portions or their leftovers. Do not harangue them about starving themselves, or make passive-aggressive comments about how they eat like birds. Most women are humiliated by this treatment; women with full-blown eating disorders live for it.
And this one, from a guy in the comments:
When I was dating, I used to worry about the women who would order small and eat sparsely: “Is she worried about becoming what she sees as ‘too fat’? Does she think eating is unladylike (and if so, what other sensual pleasures does she consider herself unworthy of)? If we end up in a relationship, am I going to have to put up with this three times a day?” This has nothing to do with a woman being at a particular size.
I want to come back to these in a minute, because I think the guy in the comments is missing something vital that is in the original post, and it's something that is integral to my own experiences. Which I will now elaborate, in order for this to make sense.
For five and a half years, I struggled with disordered eating (rather than an eating disorder). I was never anorexic, bulimic, or body dysmorphic--my "eating problem" (which is what I still call it) stemmed from social anxiety rather than from body image. When I was in public, when I was with friends, and even sometimes when I was with my family, I felt like I was constantly being evaluated by everyone else in the room. But the manifestation of that social anxiety in my relationship to food and eating specifically is, I think, is directly related to the discourses and social practices that also play a causal role in a whole host of body- and eating-related disorders.
For as long as I can remember, I have been skinny. I was skinny when I was six, I was skinny when I was 12 and I was skinny at 18 when I left for university. I'm still skinny now. I use the word skinny because I am not just thin--I am boney and often knobbly and I don't have many curves to de-emphasize that. When I was a kid, I didn't really care about it. I actually don't think I ever really noticed, until one day in grade five, a friend of mine told me that I was an anorexic. She said her mom said that skinny girls were anorexic and that they hated their bodies, and her mom was a nurse so she should know. At the time, I ate a lot and played soccer and ran around on the playground, so I told her her mom was full of it and that I wasn't. But I remember that moment distinctly, because it was the first in a long line of moments where my body and my eating habits were subject to scrutiny. I have received comments from friends and from teachers, from employers and colleagues, from significant others and from family members. And this is to speak nothing of the media, which consistently tells women that their bodies can never be good enough.
I didn't start out a disordered eater. I was picky eater, but I ate enough and until I was full, and I ate loads and loads of snack food as soon as I figured out how to sneak into the kitchen when my parents weren't looking. I just never weighed a lot. And even that would have been ok, because this society tells women that they shouldn't weigh a lot, that they shouldn't weigh a normal amount, and that they shouldn't really weigh anything at all. So I fit into that mold, just by genetic happenstance. Being thin exempts me from the effects of living in a world where "attractive" doesn't mean me. But it doesn't exempt me (or any woman) from living in a world where our bodies are up for public scrutiny at any time. And while I might have ended up with a social anxiety about public speaking or meeting new people, I didn't get those. My--sometimes overwhelming--anxiety was directly attached to eating, specifically in situations where people could see me or watch me. The anticipation of eating in public was enough to make me nauseous and lightheaded, because people would be watching me and evaluating me. And because I was so anxious I couldn't eat, and because I couldn't eat people thought I was anorexic, and because people thought I was anorexic, I got more anxious. While I'm in a much better place now than I used to be, there are still situations, comments, and moments in which I am completely overcome with anxiety in relation to food.
So what's the connection between this personal narrative and body image related disorders? I think it can be seen quite easily in quote from the guy who commented on the Feministe post. This man, whose comment went on to say that he was worried his stepdaughter would develop body image issues because of the culture we live in, opened his comment saying that he worried about women who ordered small and ate sparsely. He wanted to know if they were worried they would appear unladylike or fat, and he pondered whether he would have to "put up with this" at every meal. And this is where the problem is. Whether we are fat or thin or somewhere in between, whether we eat salads or hamburgers or steaks or soup, and whether we like our bodies or we don't, our bodies are always up for public comment and judgement. If we are thin, it's because we are anorexic or bulimic; if we are fat, it's because we're lazy or we're slobs or we don't "care enough" about our "health". Women's bodies (and our eating habits along with them) are subject to constant media scrutiny, to constant social scrutiny, and to the scrutiny of those closest to us. And we're not allowed to forget it, because if we eat "too little" someone will comment, and if we eat "too much" someone will comment, and if we don't eat the right food, someone will comment, and if we avoid the situation entirely, someone will comment. Hell, if we walk down the street, someone will comment.
That's what I loved about this article: it doesn't just apply to ways of talking or dealing with people who have body image issues or eating disorders or whatever crazy mishmash I had going on. It applies to everyone, all the time. Modeling comfortable eating is something we should all do, for everyone. We shouldn't press food on our friends, or sanction them for eating what we think is too much. We shouldn't comment on portion size or tell someone to eat (or not eat) a sandwich or try to underhandedly evaluate whether or not their choice of a salad (or a cheeseburger) reveals something sordid about their personality or their mental health. And most importantly, we shouldn't talk about weight so damn much, at least not the way we do right now. Not our own weight (unless in a safe, supportive context) and not about other people's. Certainly not about the weight and eating habits of strangers. Because part of--and it's definitely not the only cause, but it's at least significant--the reason that we have body image issues, and part of the reason we have eating disorders, and part of the reason I didn't want to eat in public is because we know, even before it happens, that we are always already up for evaluation and judgement. And we all know that in this society when women (and especially their bodies and bodily practices) are up for judgement, they very rarely come out on top.