I’ve been hoping to find a topic to write about for MeaningfulWomen.com ever since the site got up and running. I can think of no greater honor than contributing to a site dedicated to celebrating, inspiring and empowering women. In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I’ve decided to write about eating disorders, a subject very near and dear to me.
I am a Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles, and have spent most of my time practicing in eating disorder treatment facilities. Ever since graduate school, I’ve been drawn to eating disorders. I did my research projects on the topic, and worked for years at an eating disorder facility in Brentwood. I’ve had the good fortune of working with some of the most brilliant and talented therapists in the field. Here, I found my passion: working with women and helping them overcome this serious, often life-threatening, problem.
Conventional wisdom holds that eating disorders are about power, control, perfectionism and chasing the thin ideal. While this can be true, through my work, I have witnessed that for many women, these are only a small facet of a much more complicated experience. In fact, every eating disorder is different, and there is a huge variety of things that come into play including fear, desire to meet external expectations of success, feeling a lack of identity, isolation, self-sacrifice for others, feelings of inadequacy compared to peers, punishing one’s self for feeling not good enough, people-pleasing, attempts to rebel, and the list goes on.
Losing weight can offer the promise to help an individual feeling trapped by one or more of these issues. For example, someone feeling a lack of identity or inadequacy can use weight loss as a way to feel exceptional, to stand out, a way to be admired, and accepted. If someone is struggling with feelings of fear or anxiety, dieting can lure individuals in by offering them an escape hatch from those feelings, by giving them the illusion of safety or the relief through the resulting feelings of numbness.
These promises can be very inviting and people can experience societal affirmation and emotional rewards for a short period of time – but only until the honeymoon is over and the eating disorder is exposed. Then the individual suffers the effects: life-threatening health risks, alienation from friends and family, powerlessness, depression, fear, anxiety, and so on. And as the promises fall through, an individual can feel increasingly sad, lonely, scared and hopeless.
On top of what might be going on for someone individually, unfortunately, our society is of little help for someone struggling with an eating disorder. As a culture we actually promote, invite, and recruit women into seeking the thin ideal. That is, up until someone has an eating disorder, and then something is wrong with them, and the individual is to blame for being “sick.”
I’m not saying society is the reason for eating disorders, but our collective obsession with thinness, focus on the external, and the drive for perfection certainly doesn’t help. It is my hope that by shining a light on eating disorders and bringing a little more awareness of how really destructive they are, it is one small step in the direction to change our society’s views.
Now that I have a daughter, the goal of fostering women’s self-acceptance is even more important to me. I want to find ways to support my daughter in navigating the treacherous territory of beauty and body, and the relentless media hype that will continually bombard her with images about who she should be, what she needs to measure up to, and what she should look like. I need your help. Can we switch gears? How about fostering a little acceptance for our looks? What about finding beauty within, and actually celebrating it? Can we broaden the idea of beauty and body? How about health coming first? How can we appreciate our diversity instead of trying to be the same size? And how can we support ourselves and each other to find our own preferences about who and what we want to be instead of being funneled into such a narrow mold of what a woman should be?
I am hoping we as women can start with ourselves, trying to find more acceptance, love and compassion for our bodies and looks. Let’s be more thoughtful about how we talk about beauty and body to others (especially other women and girls), and let’s be more discerning about the media and entertainment we choose to consume. It’s the baby-step changes we make for ourselves that can provide positive effects for women as a whole.
What are you going to do today that will contribute to a more nurturing society for women?
Molly Richardson is a Marriage and Family Therapist based in Los Angeles, California. She lives with her husband, Erick, their daughter, Lily, and their three dogs, Kiwi, Coconut and Kajos.