Feminism and food

// 1 June 2008

Earlier this week, Samara posted about how some women feel the need to apologise before eating “bad” food, such as cake. Philomela wrote the response you are about to read, which I think articulates a perspective that needs to be heard. She kindly gave permission to republish her words here as a guest post. This post originally appeared at Reweaving.

After this, and some comments on her original post, Samara wrote some extra explanation, which you will find at the end of this guest post, and you can also read on her original entry – Editor.

Sometimes my body disgusts me, sometimes I despise it, sometimes I am so repulsed by it I want to run razors across it, to burn it, to deny it food, to overload with food and then throw it up again, but you know these feelings can’t be real they must just be a front, according to Samara’s post I can’t really feel guilty or negative about my body and food.

The attitude in this article really angers me, it is both ignorant and dismissive of women with eating disorders/disordered eating.

In the second to last paragraph of the post Samara writes: “We’ll only stop this madness if we refuse to join in.” I can’t refuse to join in, I can’t suddenly not have issues with food just because I want to. I would love to not have issues with food, but I can’t magic them away and nor can other women. It’s good that Samara doesn’t have issues with food, that she has a healthy attitude to food, that’s excellent but its not okay for her to belittle other women, other feminists who have issues with food.

Also food issues are not by and large about food, they are about control, power, space, unacknowledged emotions. From piecing together my own personal narrative my food issues come predominantly from three places:

1) Severe physical neglect in infancy. Studies show that people neglected during infancy have a much higher rate of eating disorders than others because the brain doesn’t lay down the right pathways that regulate your food intake, (for me this means I don’t get hungry till I’m about to faint, and I don’t know when I’m full so I eat too much).

2) My main care givers through most of my childhood were power freaks over food and removed food as a punishment.

3) Severe sexual abuse during my adolescence.

My issues with food are complicated and, unless I spell it out, I don’t think its immediately obvious that I have food issues – but I was borderline anorexic for a really long time, with a bit of bulimia thrown in there, and now I tend to binge eat, and eat things that I know are really bad for me as a kind of self sabotage.

Now I need to lose weight, not want to, need to – I am edging up to a size 18, and that’s not comfortable for me. I have a history of heart disease and diabetes in my family, and I need to take some pressure of my joints, but I find this really difficult to talk about in feminist spaces, because of attitudes like the one in this post and some of its comments. If I talk about healthy ways of trying to lose weight, will I get told that its somehow anti feminist to want to lose weight, even though I have good reason for it?

Then we come down to, actually we do live in a society that expects women to be a certain size and shape, and penalises bigger women. Maybe we should be critiquing why there weren’t any women at that press conference who were over a size 12 – are women over size 12 incapable of being journalists?

I also find the thought of someone making “observations” on someone else’s eating really disturbing. If I know people are watching me eat and making judgments on my food intake, I either stop eating or finish what I’m eating and then go and throw it up.

Yes, we do live in a society where almost all women (whether they are technically eating disordered or not) have an unhealthy relationship with food but I don’t think essentially telling them to buck up and get over it is particularly helpful.

Women will stop having issues with food when we are allowed to take up the psychological and physical space we are entitled to, when we are allowed to display negative emotions rather than repressing them, when we stop having our body boundaries breached, when we stop being told both overtly and subtly that our bodies are messy and out of control and need disciplining.

Working towards these things is much more radical and useful than dismissing women with food issues as being involved in “madness”.


Believe it or not, I was a fully-fledged anorexic by the age of 12, so it’s not as if I’m a stranger to eating disorders! I had an utterly horrific childhood, which I won’t go into here, but let’s just say I’m not quite the privileged middle class type I seem. So I was really horrified that people thought I was referring to women who really did have serious issues with food! The thing is, I had been pretty much unaware of this “I mustn’t eat this and that” culture until such time as I started making a massive effort to get better permanently. When I had promised myself that I would never again restrict what I eat, suddenly the whole world seemed to be telling me that I needed to police my eating habits. The fact that I was trying very hard to no longer police my own consumption really opened my eyes to just how “disordered” most women’s relationship with food seems to be, or rather how disordered the relationship with food that we are “supposed” to have is. It makes me angry that perfectly healthy women feel the need to feel bad when they eat “bad” things, and it makes me angry that if I hadn’t had an eating disorder, if I hadn’t been forced to examine my own attitude to food in order to get better, and if I hadn’t been forced to swear to myself that I would never, ever diet or restrict my food in any way unless I got overweight, perhaps I’d be participating in it too. I’m really sorry if I’ve offended anyone, but I do stand by what I said – I think that most of the time, saying things like, “I shouldn’t eat this, I’m being really naughty” is a frivolous female bonding exercise, but it just doesn’t help any of us. And it especially doesn’t help people who really do have genuine issues. I’ve lost friends over this – for years I was too fragile to be around girls who talked about their restrictive eating habits all the time. I really regret not saying this in the original post, but it seemed a bit too personal at the time. I now realise that a bit of context would have been appropriate! Seriously, I really am sorry, and extend my heartfelt sympathy/empathy/best wishes to anyone of any gender struggling with any kind of eating disorder.

Comments From You

Emma Athawes // Posted 1 June 2008 at 10:22 pm

Well the Sex and the City film will make you lose your lunch, making all women everywhere feeling inadequate about their size, their job, their location, their romances as well as their size

As Orbach once said “Fat is a feminist issues” but isn’t it so very much our idols?

Anna // Posted 2 June 2008 at 12:56 am

thankyou, thankyou, thankyou. excellent post.

and, samara, I know you weren’t trying to dismiss eating disordered people in any way – erm.. sorry if I came across as rude/dismissive in the last post.

Rachel George // Posted 2 June 2008 at 9:39 am

Thanks to both Samara and Philomela for sharing such personal stories – it’s so brave to step up and state these issues, but I think no one’s really talking about it enough. I run a compulsive eating group at the Uni. of Sussex, which I started a few months back, using Susie Orbach’s templates in Fat Is A Feminist Issue. I’ve had an eating disorder from about the age of 5 or 6, overeating pretty much my whole life, with a period of anorexia, then bulimia between the ages of 16 and 19. Since then, I’ve been attempting to get better, and overcome my compulsion to eat instead of feel emotions, however I felt like I couldn’t really discuss recovery with many people for the reasons stated above – that restricting and guilt is part of our culture, and also that many people find food issues unsavoury (pun unintended, honest!) – that it’s somehow too shameful to talk about food in public.

Which is why I started the group, and it’s going surprisingly well. I’m moving back to London in August, and am going to start up another group there, possibly at LARC, but I’ll have to wait and see. Basically, we talk about our week, how our attempt to eat according to our hunger has gone, and identify upcoming potential binge events. We also discuss body issues and the media, and how we can counteract its effect. For the first time in my life, surrounded by amazing feminists, I can feel myself starting, very slowly, to get better.

I think we need to stop judging everyone, and keep working on getting the message of love and acceptance out. A few years ago, writing this would have been almost impossible, and I still have so many bad days and down days. But in a world where Nuts exists, I kind of forgive myself… ;)

Rachael // Posted 2 June 2008 at 12:46 pm

Although I totally agree with the comment in the above blog – “Women will stop having issues with food when we are allowed to take up the psychological and physical space we are entitled to” I think that this comment on Samara’s article was quite unfair. It assumes that all of these barriers are totally out of women’s control.

I thought that Samara’s article was refreshing in that it makes women realize that WE need to change the way we see our bodies – and the way society still denegrates us.

Like many women here, I was also sexually, physically and emotionally abused in childhood and have had the attendent eating disorders – and now I am angry.

Not just at my abusers but at society for STILL insisting that I control my body!! And it’s that anger that will change society – not waiting and hoping for change. I wish to not offend anyone with what I am saying but I will not apologize because all women – and all of society – need a refreshing kinck up the bum on this issue.

Torygirl // Posted 2 June 2008 at 1:11 pm

The original post made some really good points. It didn’t strike me as in any part about actual eating disorders.

It also struck me that, yes, this does happen with women in the workplace, but it’s never seems to me about having to have bad feelings about eating the foods which are bad for us but taste so good. It’s more about being seen to make a show of having those feelings. Almost as if saying ‘Oooh, I shouldn’t…’ is a necessary part of just eating it and enjoying it.

I think it would be a great pity if the sensitivities of a VERY small group mean that valid comment about a phenomenon affecting a large group is undermined.

On a side note, I really wanted to call my daughter Philomela but soldier boy ruled it out.

Anne Onne // Posted 2 June 2008 at 1:47 pm

I think that both Philomena and Samara are right.

On the one hand, life is a struggle in which we are trying to survive, and strengthen ourselves, hopefully working through our issues and learning more about ourselves. I interpreted Samara’s comment to be about personal growth, about trying to understand how much society affects you, and trying to work against it when you can.

But it’s also important to remember that not everyone is able to be strong, all the time, and everyone has their own issues to deal with. There’s nothing wrong with needing help, or struggling, particularly in a world that really does assault us with negative imagery and penalises people who don’t fit the mould. I haven’t had experiences like this, and I would never tell someone with an eating disorder that they just aren’t trying hard enough or it’s their fault. It’s a long battle with any kind of physical or mental illness or complication, and it is not a personal failing to struggle or to have problems. We need to support people who need support, whatever their relationship with food, and make it ever clear our issues are with the pressures, and how they affect people and make their lives more difficult, and not blaming people themselves. I don’t think Samara was blaming people with eating disorders, but her clarification reply was important.

Feminism has a problematic relationship with weight loss because of the normally aesthetic value placed on keeping women slim, and the treatment of people who don’t conform, and I do think it important we rail against current attitudes to people of all sizes. On the other hand, scientifically and health speaking, we need to recognise the physical benefits of excercise and a moderate diet. Problem is, these reasons are often co-opted by the fat-shaming crowd to make fat people feel guilty, or used by perfect strangers to ‘show concern’ about their weight, something they would never do to a smoker.

I can’t say that any decision I (or anybody else) will ever make to lose weight will be entirely a health issue, because the patriarchical fat-shaming is always going to be present to some extent. But we each need to find our own paths to live, whatever our reasons, and ‘giving in’ to the prevailing pressure may be the right thing for some. It should be about trying to be happy, trying to make the best of what you can.

Anyhow, a really thought provoking reply.

Jennifer // Posted 2 June 2008 at 2:40 pm

Thank you so very much, Philomela.

Samara – I really appreciate your taking the time to further address your original post. But – I still take issue with your distinction between those women who you perceive as ‘bonding’ over ‘naughty’ eating and those who have ‘genuine’ issues. Is the line so clear? Is feeling the need to apologize or berate oneself, to constantly remind oneself that one’s doing something naughty in eating a treat that one wants to eat, not a ‘genuine’ issue?

As I write this, I’m thinking of one particular friend of mine, whom I’ve known for something like 8 years now. Throughout this time, she has often engaged in the types of behaviour you perceive as ‘frivolous female bonding’. It was only last year that she begain binging and purging. How does one mark the beginning of food issues? When she was voicing concern over her ‘naughty’ eating, was she merely putting on a front? I don’t think so.

I feel like it would be infinitely more productive and helpful if we encouraged people to enjoy their food. If we tell them that it’s okay. That they don’t need to work it off or pay for this pleasure by sacrificing another. That they don’t need to restrict themselves and that they deserve to enjoy themselves. Not to just get over it and stop being so unhelpful to those people with *real* issues. It feels like a form of shaming, and really misplaced, to me.

K // Posted 2 June 2008 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for this post.

I have struggled on and off with eating disorders and I always felt that having issues with my eating/body image made me a bad feminist. I feel a little less isolated now.

Sarah // Posted 2 June 2008 at 4:50 pm

I have also struggled with bulimia/binge eating and know just how unhelpful it can be to be around people making such comments about food. But I agree with Philomela that it’s not OK to belittle and criticise the women who make these comments about themselves and their eating – we cannot know what issues they might be struggling with themselves. And I disagree with Torygirl’s suggestion that this is a tiny minority – yes there are fortunately relatively few women with a serious eating disorder like anorexia, however I think some degree of disordered eating and body image/self esteem problems are very common among women. This division between women with ‘real’ issues and those who are just being frivolous and silly and should get over it – that is a false distinction, and not helpful. We need to try to be all on the same side here.

I also agree that eating disorders are not just about the food – for me it was very much related to anxiety problems – the binging was a way of suppressing the anxiety symptoms and panic attacks I’d been suffering previously, though of course it wasn’t a real improvement, and led to feelings of disgust and self-loathing when I thought about what I’d done and what it would do to my weight, which then meant either purging to try to keep my weight down and of course further anxiety which perpetuates the problem.

Deborah // Posted 2 June 2008 at 5:30 pm

Thank you to both Samara and Philomela for really thought provoking posts.

Anne Onne // Posted 2 June 2008 at 5:47 pm

I would think women (and men) are on a sort of bell curve when it comes to this: most would be neither free of issues, nor have the most serious issues, but it would not be easy to tell what a particular person’s relationship with food would be like. I think all of us have issues about this to some extent, just falling at different places in terms of how much it affects us for different reasons.

But I do also think that even people who do not have serious issues with food (myself included) can fall into a pattern of blaming ourselves and policing ourselves, just like we can berate ourselves for a lot of outher reasons because of our patriarchical upbringing. I feel that if possible, it’s best to try and remind ourselves to try and not feel so guilty, if we can, though of course it’s not always possible. It’s up to people individually to try and unravel the patriarchy’s influence, though, and nobody should be blamed for having more to deal with in an area. In fact, being able to unravel influences is a form of privilege, because it’s much easier to unravel insecurities and come to terms with things that don’t really affect you, than things that really do.

Charlotte // Posted 2 June 2008 at 8:10 pm

Thank you both for sharing your opinions on this. As with my last comment on the other blog post, I am with Samara still on the distinction between different types/levels of issues- especially “I’m really sorry if I’ve offended anyone, but I do stand by what I said – I think that most of the time, saying things like, “I shouldn’t eat this, I’m being really naughty” is a frivolous female bonding exercise, but it just doesn’t help any of us. And it especially doesn’t help people who really do have genuine issues.”

I didn’t find the original message offensive as an (ex)ed sufferer, but Philomela your response offered an important perspective on the issue (perhaps something that I personally am particularly bad at is assuming that other women’s eating issues are more “normal” if they are talked about openly; but of course I too have done the “I really shouldn’t eat this..” thing in pressured public situations and hate to think that other women would, naturally, make the same assumption of me).

However, I’m still with my original comments that the prevalence of this attitude really gets to me and I see it as especially unconducive to those who have/had serious eating issues and are desperately trying to find and retain some kind of “normality”. It is sad that for many women that simply doesn’t exist but at the same time I don’t think we are powerless to do something about that and it is right to challenge these attitudes, for the good of all women.

Torygirl // Posted 2 June 2008 at 8:11 pm

It’s not the women making comments of the ‘Oooh, I shouldn’t…’ variety who are being belittled at all. It’s the ‘strange’ ones who don’t play the game that are outside.

I get quite fed up, when something affects someone, they make the assumption that every second person is affected by it too. It reminds me of all the stoner kids I worked with who were certain that all Connexions staff were smoking it up every night, when in fact most of us were tucked up in bed by 9.

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