Thoughts on NEDA

Writer Naomi Wolf was the keynote speaker at NEDA this year, and I honestly wasn't sure I was going to hear her speak.  Not because I'm anti-feminist (I'm not) but because I've read her book "The Beauty Myth" and I didn't find it that relevant to my own experience of an eating disorder.  I'm glad I went as a) it wasn't as bad as I feared and b) I found that many people had a similar response to what Wolf had to say.

I've heard Wolf speak before, and she is a phenomenal, engaging speaker.  She's super-articulate, very intelligent, and she knows her stuff.  I very much respect her and what she has to say.


Although I think our cultural ideas and beauty obsessions and diet mentality are absolutely toxic, I don't think that if you eliminated them, you would eliminate eating disorders.  Most women feel bad when they're looking at Photoshopped models.  Most women diet at some point.  Most women don't have eating disorders.

(Not to mention, what about men?  What about people who live in cultures when thin isn't overvalued?  What about people with non fat-phobic anorexia?)

It's not uncommon for an eating disorder to start with an effort to "tone up" or "lose a few."    Yet once the disease process starts--once it kicks in--appearance is the last stinking thing most people with EDs are really thinking about.  People told me that my ED was making me look atrocious.  I was aware, on some level, that they were right.  By that point, the ED had a life of its own.  I was terrified of eating.  Even if it didn't have calories and exercising didn't burn any of them off, I would have still felt compelled to starve and exercise.  I couldn't stop.  That's why it's an illness.

I'm aware that the only evidence based prevention programs for eating disorders have focused on improving body image, and I'm not saying they don't work.  The research literature shows they do work.  But in a survey of 6000 eating disorder sufferers, no one said that their eating disorder had anything to do with vanity or cultural ideas (I heard this in a presentation by Susan Ringwood, the CEO of the UK charity B-EAT).  They did say that cultural ideals made it harder to recover, something I definitely endorse.

Eating disorders existed before thin was in, and they will probably exist after Size Zero seems as antiquated and misguided as chastity belts and foot binding.  The cultural language of fat and thin and dieting are what we have to put our experience into words.  They are how we frame what is happening to us.  People in the Middle Ages framed anorexia has an effort to be more spiritual.  Now, we look at it as an effort to be thinner or look like some supermodel.  But the way we make sense of an illness is different than the illness itself.

It just fundamentally bothers me that fighting eating disorders is seem as (in large part) fighting the fashion and cosmetics industry.  They use our obsession with being thin and such to sell products, it's true.  They make lots of women feel insecure about their looks, and then go on whackjob diets.  The body dysmorphia that accompanies an eating disorder isn't just a really bad version of wondering if these pants make your thighs look fat.  Being beheaded isn't just like a really bad paper cut, either.  An eating disorder isn't a really extreme diet.  It might look like that, but it's fundamentally different.

Wolf mentioned nothing about underlying vulnerabilities like anxiety and depression to eating disorders.  She did say that restricting in and of itself is crazy making, which is good.  Although she said that "parents don't cause eating disorders," she also said that her own mother's bitching about her thighs primed her for anorexia.  None of her other siblings developed an eating disorder, yet I'm sure they all heard the kvetching and comparing.  Why Naomi?  Why only her?  It's fundamentally not okay if your mother is diet-obsessed and tells you you're too fat.  Not okay.  And that sort of environment is certainly conducive to the development of an ED, but it's impossible to say that had this person grown up in a different environment, they never would have developed an eating disorder.

It was...frustrating at times to hear no mention of science and biology.  My friend Sarah Ravin asked Wolf afterwards why there was no mention, and Wolf said "I don't really do that science stuff."  I understand that science might not be everyone's little pet, but seriously?

The emphasis on beauty images only reinforces the idea that EDs are an expression of vanity, or just a bunch of beauty-obsessed kids who need to stop reading magazines.  And they're not.  Our focus on this does everyone a disservice.


the letting go said...

I'm a feminist and think the sociocultural factors that promote eating disorders are very important, but I come down heavily on the side of science/genetics. Because you're right -- if society caused eating disorders, then everyone would have eating disorders. In reality, they're quite rare. And the more I meet people with eating disorders or recovering from them, the more I come to believe that there is something intrinsically different about them, something I can't put my finger on. There's this strong sense that the person didn't go on to develop an eating disorder for no reason.

A feminist critique of our culture has played a large role in my recovery, though. The feminist notion that I deserve satiety and weight and fullness has been helpful, and it's always nice to have an ED community that's welcoming to those voices.

Danielle said...

Hmm... you bring some strong points. But I think that if size wasn't an issue in our soceity AND if people ate dinners with their families every night then a lot less people would have eating disorders. My family and I never eat dinner together and I was often sometimes ignored by them, which sparked the eating disorder and made it easier to starve myself.

hm said...

I don't think society breeds EDs any more than all the hip hop songs about drinking breed alcoholics. Might they TRIGGER ED responses in ED prone people? Sure. But they don't CREATE them. Or, you're right, the bulk of society would have an ED, b/c we all live in this society.

Anonymous said...

All I have to say is that it's impossible to separate nature and nurture. I know all sorts of things about how the cells that make up my body use the molecular components of food. I know how cellular metabolism works. That's not enough to convince me that I need to eat, though. I understand that last statement doesn't make sense. If knowledge of the data of what is required for cell survival won't convince me to eat, is it REALLY just my point of view and my being influenced by my environment? Just a different side to the whole "it's all society" argument. If "society" shows me data that cells need X, Y, and Z to survive, that's no guarantee I'm going to want to consume X, Y, and Z.

That being said, some great motivation for me has been the requirement of fuel for my body to train at a level to support my athletic goals.

It's both. Nature AND nurture!

Kou said...

I always end up angry when EDs are blamed on the beauty ideal or the media. I didn't notice or pay any attention to those things until after I had been starving myself for several months. After that they started to trigger me and make it easier to focus on my weight instead of dealing with any real issues in my life.

Amanda @ HopeHasAPlace said...

"People told me that my ED was making me look atrocious. I was aware, on some level, that they were right. By that point, the ED had a life of its own. I was terrified of eating. Even if it didn't have calories and exercising didn't burn any of them off, I would have still felt compelled to starve and exercise. I couldn't stop. That's why it's an illness."

You have hit the nail on the head, so to speak. I couldn't have said this better, so thank you for sharing your thoughts and expressing this so clearly. This entire post is spot-on to my experience with anorexia; although I know that some eds are more about culture and fashion, those things do not resonate with me as strongly. I also come from a more scientific viewpoint, and have been criticized for it... but I have never meant to use the biological predisposition as an excuse. I don't think it should be. But I do think it is a huge factor that must be taken into consideration. I've heard this phrase regarding other disorders, but it seems equally applicable here: "biology loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger." There is a very complex interplay, but without one AND the other, I don't think an ed can develop.

Missy said...

Thank you SOOOOO much for finding word to express something I feel very strongly about...but have failed to communicate so precisely.

It was like a massage for my I have always felt this way but couldn't find the words to express it.

It really has so very little to do with thin or fashion and all that schlock.


Anonymous said...

In brief, right on for blogging about this.

As a feminist male who has battled eating disorders I say: yes, the media and culture can contribute to EDs but are not responsible for them.

Such a superficial, materialistic summary does no one - both sufferers and non-sufferers - any favours and is detrimental. Good grief - that doesn't sound promising so I just hope that there are a lot more wisely-considered and useful things coming out of NEDA. (I get the sense that there are, so that's reassuring)

Renee said...

I appreciate hearing your perspective on this - it's so different from my own and causes me to think about my ED more. I still do feel that the culture of thinness plays a huge role in EDs. I was a dancer as a teenager, and there were at least 4 of us in my dance company of about 20 who had EDs. I doubt there would be that many in say, a teen hiking group. The simple reason being that we dancers were all trying to fit into a very slim mould.
I was also a little chubbier as a little kid than my stick-thin sisters and mom, and I recall feeling at 3 years old that I was too fat. So for me it's hard to seperate my ED from the environment in which it came into fruition.
And still, to this day, I see my ED as 99% about body image and wanting to be attractive, fashionable, beautiful and desirable. And feeling I am not any of those things unless I am slim. I like reading your blog because you offer anothe perspective on it.

Anonymous said...

Naomi Wolf isn't trained to discuss science. It's not her "thing." It would be like asking LeGrange to speak on feminist culture. Not his thing. Media/social factures may not cause eating disorders but they sure do make it hard to recover from them. I'm half-way recovered in a way. I'm still very thin and eat very little to stay that way. I get sooo many compliments on my body and appearance. I argue with nutritionists who want me to gain more when of course I want to maintain this standard of "beauty." I'm constantly praised for these looks - why would I want to give that up? It's not their fault I still have an e/d, but it does play a factor in it. I was never complimented at my "set point" size. Intellectually I get that I need to eat more. Psychologically I know that I prefer this smaller, admirable body and it's hard to let go of that. I'm not at a sick emaciated weight, but it's awful hard to go the distance when one is constantly being praised for being Vogue thin. It makes me feel good to be complimented and letting go of that is not easy. My therapist tells me I need to find "acceptance" at my healthier weight. Yeah, maybe. But I sure as heck am "accpted" (and admired) where I am right now. It's so confusing. Sure, food is medicine. But psycho-social/feminist aspects also play a role in recovery.

Cathy (UK) said...

Sooo glad you blogged on this Carrie.. As some of the UK FEAST parents know I 'let rip' in a few emails when I heard that Naomi Wolf was giving a keynote... My comments were:

"Why-oh-why are NEDA including all this cultural stuff and inviting Naomi Wolff to deliver a Keynote? Those of you who know me know that I speak my mind... but seriously, this 'beauty myth' stuff (IMAO) is a complete 'red herring' - at least as far as AN is concerned. [Don't get me wrong; I am sure that Naomi Wolff and others, like Susie Orbach are very nice people and certainly well-meaning, but what they are talking about is irrelevant and 'off-the-beaten-track' with regard to AN - in my opinion. EDs, and especially AN, are not about fashion and beauty"


"I think that the difficult issue is that EDs appear to be all about desiring thinness/a 'perfect' body/being pressured by culture, and AN is usually accompanied by thinness. But what drives AN (and sometimes BN) is obsessive-compulsive behaviours or extreme adherence to rituals and routines. Sometimes the body is treated as an 'object' upon which the rituals are imposed, but EDs are not vanity. In addition BN has an addictive component in many individuals.

To have some concern about physical appearance is normal human behaviour, but the whole body image paradigm around EDs inaccurately pathologises normal behaviour and views ED behaviours as an extension of normal concern about appearance. Perhaps this is true for some sufferers, but even if so, I don't think it is caused by culture and has nothing to do with feminism."

Soooo glad your talk went well too :)

hm said...

Carrie- Are you going to give an update on how YOUR talk went???

Anonymous said...

I agree that the culture makes it so darn hard for women to accept their natural sizes, but my real problem with focusing on diet and beauty is that it makes it seem that the sufferer has chosen to have an eating disorder out of vanity! And can unchoose it at will! And that not getting better is just selfishness. Rather than taking a wrong step (such as losing a few pounds at first) and then falling into a deep well and not being able to get out again.....

Angela Elain Gambrel said...

I believe both sociocultural and biological factors play a role in developing eating disorders. I think *only* focusing on the fashion and cosmetic industries does a disservice to those of us with eating disorders. I also was told I looked atrocious when I was in the throes of anorexia, but I didn't care, because looks didn't matter and if I wanted to be thin I would have stopped a long time before. Being thin was just the outward manifestation of my inner pain, obsessiveness and anxieties.

But I can't say that the media, fashion, and our culture's overall obsession with weight and looks hasn't played a part in fanning the flames of my AN and making it harder to recover (if I have to see or hear one more diet ad . . .) It does plant a little worm of doubt in my brain as I try to gain weight while the rest of the world is obviously trying to lose it.

There also have been studies done linking the exposure to Western culture and values (i.e. thin equals beautiful) to other cultures that previously had few cases of people with eating disorders. Read Michelle Lelwica and her studies on post-colonial cultures and how girls in particular were impacted by the onslaught of Western culture. One example is Fiji islanders, a group that used to value voluptuousness and curves as the ideal for women — until television and magazines from America arrived and Fiji teenagers began to develop eating disorders (again, this in a culture with very few cases of eating disorders.)

To me, culture can be the gun that when loaded and the trigger is pulled, can impact those who already have a propensity toward having an eating disorder.

Still, I think Wolfe could have balanced her talk, but knowing her work and her focus, I'm not surprised this was her focus.

Of course, none of this explains to me why I developed anorexia at the age of 41. I've been living in this culture and I have the same genes I was born with. So I wonder what happened, what was the trigger; but I often expect never to really have an answer.

Anonymous said...

Carrie's talk was phenomenal! It was one of the best talks I had the privileges of attending--well-organized, useful, easy to tailor to our situation and funny. It was worth the trip just for this talk alone.

Plus--there were kittehs!

Thanks, Carrie!!


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Since you recognize that most women don't have eating disorders, I assume you've seen that most-annoying blog that actually has the title "Every woman has an eating disorder".

JB said...

If it's the same one I've read, then it's "Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder?"

No, they don't. But many, many women have disordered eating patterns and I've yet to meet any woman who doesn't talk about her weight or shape or how she feels guilty about what she's eaten and that's a pretty sad society to be living in.

I have days when I feel relatively OK about myself, but as soon as I turn on the TV, flick through a magazine or see a billboard, my feelings are shot.

If I were transported to some kind of desert island where I wasn't surrounded by images of Photoshopped women then no, my feelings about my weight and body wouldn't just disappear but I do firmly believe I wouldn't feel as bad as I do. I started my career in the fashion industry and having your body scrutinised and picked apart over the slightest flaws is very soul-destroying.

Eating With Others said...

Well I have to go against the grain here, as a non-science type I saw the talk a whole different way. I was looking at it as how the media distorts the way that we look at others and ourselves. How they use those distortions to push their sales revenue (my masters is in in business and this is marketing 101).

I was looking at more as this is something that push someone over the edge. Also I gotta say as a guy the change in the way that men are displayed, especial over the last few years, has gotten me to the gym a lot more often and think that I need to lose some weight, tone up, ect, and has fueled my ED.

That said I can see where your coming from maybe it would have been better as a breakout session than a general.

Carrie Arnold said...


I think you nailed it--I do agree with what you said. I think if Wolf had been more specific, I wouldn't have had the problems I did.

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late to the discussion, but just want to say that it is refreshing to see a respectful discussion of the complexities of ED-tiology (haha!). The Beauty Myth was written when not nearly as much was known about the science & brain part of eating disorders. We've come a looooooong way in understanding and treatment. What I love is that everyone can read all these opinions and hopefull have more ideas about what is going on for her/him.

And Carrie, I'm only sorry I never commented on your post about the red suede shoes, but was delighted to see you purchased them!


Anonymous said...

To piggyback on much of what has been said, many of the world's foremost experts on eating disorders, particularly anorexia, have been doing a multi-site study for several years regarding the science of genetics of ED.

As they've analyzed the results over the years, they have shown one of the most important factors is temperament. That does not mean personality, at least not the lay definition, but more the biology of our personality structure. For example, things like being a perfectionist, being inherently anxious or nervous, or having difficulty adjusting to change.

It seems that a core temperament needs to be there first in order for other factors to "trigger" the ED. In order words, the whole "genetics is the gun..." is pretty accurate.

Scarlett said...

Having lived with anorexia and bulimia for 10 years, I am thrilled to read this post. You've almos perfectly paraphrased my opinions on EDs, disordered eating, and the media. So many sources--even fairly reputable ones--grab at the media as a convenient scapegoat, because it's easier to nderstan than the complex psychological illness that EDs really are. And that's frustrating, as someone who understands on a personal level how completely irrelevant models, media, and "size zero" have to do with my restriction and overexercise and purging.

Thank you!

Julie said...

Carrie, thanks for posting this. I have long admired Naomi Wolf and have always wanted to hear her speak in person. I developed anorexia in the tail end of the 1970's. I had never heard of anorexia and I didn't think there was any such thing as eating disorders. I thought nothing was wrong with me until I binged, and then I thought I was a freak. But cultural influences? Nope. I was surrounded by "health food" types. None of us read fashion magazines. We didn't own a TV. Folks did yoga and meditation, went to therapy, joined communes, hitch-hiked around the country, smoked pot, grew our own sprouts and herbs, made our own bread, wore cotton clothes and bell-bottoms, ate brewer's yeast and took vitamins and ate plenty of natural food and didn't care about what we weighed. People were just beginning to take up running for exercise. I felt like I was the only one in our circle that cared about what I weighed as far as I knew. I kept my scale secret. I kept it hidden. To my recollection, I've never read a fashion magazine in my life.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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