Eating Disorders, Feminism, and Psychology: A Compelling Combination

All three of my memoirs, read and annotated, alongside 8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder.

All three of my memoirs, read and annotated, alongside 8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder.

After finishing Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi, I read Appetites by Caroline Knapp, which blew me away on so many levels. Although the book looks like just another memoir about a woman who overcame an eating disorder, it contains so much more: Knapp analyzes eating disorders in the context of feminism, sexuality, and psychology. She uses her personal experiences to extend her commentary on various topics such as how emptiness or a need for control can contribute to eating disorders, how women derive their sense of attractiveness by “looking sexy” for men instead of “being sexy” for themselves, and most importantly, how to heal after a battle with one’s own conflicting hungers. If I could quote every page of this book I would, but in this post I’ll include two passages I found particularly poignant. The first pertains to how Knapp failed to appreciate the world around her when her eating disorder overtook her life:

“In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, I was struck by many feelings, but one of the more bitter and lingering was a kind of deep embarrassment about my own complacency: my blindness to the depth of hatred harbored in other parts of the world toward the United States; my ignorance about our role in fomenting it; my eminently comfortable remove from the circumstances in which so many others live, the poverty and desperation that drives women to madness and men to homicidal rage. I’ll put it this way: in the late 1980s, when American troops pulled out of Afghanistan, leaving legions of Afghanis in the sea of chaos that would give rise to the Taliban, I was worrying about whether my jeans were too tight.

I care about women and their thighs for precisely this reason: because so many women care, and because that care is so devastatingly blinding.”

I proceeded to read Life Without Ed by Jenni Schaefer. Schaefer used a much lighter tone to discuss her experience than de Rossi and Knapp, but her book still spoke to me. It centered on how, in therapy, Schaefer learned to view her eating disorder as an entity separate of herself – she perceived her illness as a man named Ed, who she later learned to manage and communicate with in a healthy way. As I read Life Without Ed, I kept thinking about the psychological concept of dissociation and how people can separate certain parts of themselves when experiencing trauma. Overall, reading Unbearable Lightness, Appetites, and Life Without Ed while thinking about therapeutic techniques has made me more confident in terms of how I would approach the recovery process if I were working with someone, and this project overall has made me see so many connections between the fields of mental illness, feminism, sexuality, and sociology.

The latter part of my project – my creative writing – has had its ups and downs. I started a story about a young man who develops an eating disorder due to his insecurities and family issues, but I hit a block about two chapters in. I developed a new strategy: after every chapter I will add a paragraph or two explaining how the events in the chapter relate to eating disorders, and I will also allow myself to skip around in the plot and write scenes that stand out to me. Also, because I felt bad for not contributing to my story last week, I wrote a short piece of creative nonfiction that involves my own experience with eating disorders and family life. Perhaps I will alternate between writing creative fiction and creative nonfiction to keep my mind fresh.

I have about 4000 words of creative writing at this point, and I cannot wait to add more over the summer. I’ll conclude this post with another quote from Appetites, probably my favorite passage from the entire book:

Being known. This, of course, is the goal, the agenda so carefully hidden it may be unknown even to the self. The cutter cuts to make the pain at her center visible. The anorexic starves to make manifest her hunger and vulnerability. The extremes announce, This is who I am, this is what I feel, this is what happens when I don’t get what I need. In quadraphonic sound, they give voice to the most central human hunger, which is the desire to be recognized, to be known and loved because of, and in spite of, who you are; they give voice to the sorrow that takes root when that hunger is unsatisfied.”


  1. skinniburgh says:

    Hey Thomas!

    Although your research focuses on memoirs, Jenni Schaefer’s method of recovery reminded me of some corners of the Internet (discussion boards, Tumblr, etc) where anorexia and bulimia have become Ana and Mia. For every platform devoted to recovery, it seems like there is another devoted to keeping Ana and Mia at the center of your life. No matter the medium, I think the personification of eating disorders (and really, illness and disease as well) is a fascinating topic. As Schaefer found, Ed is a manageable entity that is not entirely in her control; I’m sure for others, naming an experience (and separating it from the self) can provide a sense of companionship and peace that may be painfully absent.

    Also, I love the compassion in all your posts so far, and how you’re approaching this topic from both a scholarly and creative point of view. Can’t wait to see where you go with it!

  2. Thomas,
    I really like how you used your creative writing skills to complement your research. Oftentimes, writing provides us with the opportunity to explore experiences in a personal, insightful manner. Also, reflecting on a particular chapter’s connection to eating disorders is an ingenious way of integrating your research with your creative work. I hope I get the chance to read your story.

  3. ajmeredith says:

    This is a fascinating project. I love how you are tackling intersectionality so fervently. I think a lot of students would benefit from some greater understanding of the effects of negative body image–especially in a college setting. I look forward to seeing more of your writing!