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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Series Part 3: Eating in the Grey: Living in the Space between Healthy and Disorder

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Feb. 21-27, 2010 Paradigm Shift is seeking blog, graphic art, and video submissions related to eating disorder recovery. Please let us know how you would like to be credited (by name or anonymous)- deadline, Friday March 5th.

Email submissions to: blog@paradigmshiftnyc.com

by Jennifer Potter

I have never been diagnosed with anorexia or hospitalized for bulimia. Whenever eating disorders are discussed these extreme illnesses are at the forefront. I do, however, struggle every day due to my horrible relationship with food and my body. The Mayo Clinic defines eating disorders as, “a group of serious conditions in which you’re so preoccupied with food and weight that you can often focus on little else.” Extreme cases of eating disorders manifest as the diagnosable mental illnesses anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. This is not to say that if you do not have one of those illnesses you do not have some kind of preoccupation with food and weight. While there is no medical term for people who do not have a healthy relationship with food, these people are affected by the same biological, emotional, and societal issues that can lead to anorexia or bulimia.

There are many people living in the grey area between a healthy relationship with their bodies and the food they eat, and those struggling with disorders.  For me it’s an endless cycle of eating and beating myself up.  Each day I say today I will be “good”.  I usually start out strong with yogurt and oatmeal.  As the day progresses the temptation gets harder to deal with.  There always seems to be “bad” food everywhere.  Whether in the form of cookies someone brought to work to share or going for a quick drink with friends which results in chicken wings and nachos on the table.  Just one can’t hurt right? Don’t starve yourself or deny yourself of food.  That’s no way to live and not a healthy diet.  So I eat.  On the subway ride home my mind starts going.  Why did I eat all those wings? Why couldn’t I resist half that chocolate bar? I’m never going to reach my fitness goals and never going to have the body I want.  I then resolve to try again tomorrow.  Each time I look at myself in the mirror I feel disgusted by my inability to only eat “good” foods.  On days I manage to do that, I feel like I shouldn’t have eaten so much of it.

One fundamental problem with the concept of “good” versus “bad” food is that it sets me up for a mental beating later.  I’ve already labeled what I’m eating as “bad” and therefore should be punished for not being strong enough to resist eating it. This seems to be a commonly overheard conversation: “Should I be “good” and get salad or “bad” and get that cheese burger I really want?”  So how can this mentality be combated? The first step is to stop labeling everything I eat as “good” or “bad”.  Yes, there are horribly unhealthy foods out there, such as deep-fried pizza, but a healthy diet includes having a bit of chocolate in my daily routine without beating myself up for it later. In this sense knowledge is power.  The more you know about food and what daily requirements your body needs ,the easier it is to be “good” all day even while incorporating supposedly “bad” food.

The problem is that this knowledge is not easily derived for every individual. Everyone’s bodies are unique and the healthy caloric intake of food varies based on age, gender, height, weight, daily physical activity. Even internet research can only go so far. With personal nutritionists beyond of the economic reach of so many, myself included, we are left with few options but our own research and hope we’re doing it right.  This leaves too much room for error for many. Also the results of improved diet and exercise can take months to make a noticeable difference.  This is not very conducive to a culture of instant gratification and “Lose 5 pounds in 5 days” weight loss products.  The simplest solution becomes “I just won’t eat.!” More accessibility to complete and accurate nutritional information will help people in the grey gain a better understanding of foods and develop a healthy relationship with what they eat.

Besides my unhealthy relationship with food, I find that I exhibit the same kind of mental anguish over my body’s appearance. Every time I look in the mirror, change my clothes or take a shower I feel more and more frustrated by what I see.  In the last six months I have made improvements.  I’ve gone to the gym two to three times a week and am starting to see muscles develop.  This is not enough to quiet the voice in my head.  No matter how much weight I lose or how toned my arms look I’m never satisfied.  If one aspect of my appearance is acceptable I immediately find something wrong with another body part. At the gym I can never do enough.  Similar to my behavior with food, no matter how hard I workout I still punish myself afterward for not doing more. So why do I feel this way?  I am aware that there are improvements and if nothing else I am healthier for working up a sweat and getting blood flowing a few times a week.  Why am I not satisfied with the effort I put in and the results I have seen?

A large part of my body hate comes from constant bombardment of media and social ideals of unrealistic body expectations.  The media’s influence is considered so substantial that libraries of books, articles, and documentaries have been created to explain exactly how and why it’s damaging.  Most recently in the UK The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ (RCPsychs’) Eating Disorders Section called for the media to portray images of more diverse body shapes to help people feel positive about their bodies. Not having to stare at so called “perfect” bodies at every turn would be helpful, however the issue is not strictly external.  There is an internal struggle with perfection that would be there with or without the external images.  Low self-esteem, perfectionism, and impulsive behaviors are all linked to eating disorders. While media standards can be misleading and dangerous, our own personal standards can be damaging as well.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having lofty expectations for yourself.  The desire to do better and be better is important for people to push themselves and not be content with whatever their current situation is. It is far too easy for this perfectionist drive to become self-destructive. Physical appearance is an easy marker for perfection and ability to exhibit control.  By being “thin” I am seen to demonstrate self-control by going to the gym and by not overindulging in food. There is a negative connotation associated with people who are not super thin and their perceived lack of control.  The only reason they aren’t perfect, according to this outlook, is because they are too lazy. This is a very harmful attitude. In order to demonstrate we are not lazy we must be perfect in every aspect. Since such perfection is not attainable we are never comfortable in our own skin. For every goal I meet, a new one takes its place. The biggest obstacle in creating a positive relationship with my body and the food I eat is my mindset.  I must learn to forgive myself and be comfortable with my flaws.

Despite my acknowledgment that I do in fact have a very unhealthy attitude towards food and my body, I continue to struggle every day.  It is important to remember that eating disorders can affect everyone regardless of age, gender, or size, and the struggles come in all different sorts.  I will continue to look for ways to overcome my destructive behavior and hope to one day really and truly feel comfortable in my own skin.


Mayo Clinic Website:


Medical News Today:


Martin, Courtney E. Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. Berkley Group, 2008.

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Series Part 2: a piece on anorexia by Gabrielle Pope

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week Feb. 21-27, 2010 Paradigm Shift is seeking blog, graphic art, and video submissions related to eating disorder recovery. Please let us know how you would like to be credited (by name or anonymous)- deadline, Friday March 5th.

Email submissions to: blog@paradigmshiftnyc.com

by Gabrielle Pope from Vancouver, Canada

Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I always feel a pull to submit, to voice, to contribute. But the hushed silence I held strong to while suffering, while recovering, while seeking identity separate from the disorder, still makes me hesitate to give my story a voice.

But then, silence due to shame was the most dangerous setback in fighting my illness. I was deep into anorexia and ready for hospitalization by the time those close to me became fully aware of my diagnosis. Fear of judgments, appearing superficial, lacking intelligence, immaturity, and (mostly) selfishness saw me fiercely secretive. When purging forced its way into my disordered habits, I was even more guarded. I saw what I was doing as obtusely pathetic and disgusting.

Well, I’m alive and healthy.

At 21, Anorexia at last completely took over my life, after several years claiming my happiness while my intellect fought for logic. As in many stories you’ve heard, I lost a lot of weight, enough to threaten my life and weaken my heart. Doctors gave my parents a bleak prognosis. My parents and I sought out a cure, and found something resembling one, or at least thought we did, in a not entirely legal private operation that could offer much more than any government-funded program. Even at my sickest, I was certain. I wanted to heal completely, not “cope”. As hard as it may be to understand, I wasn’t consciously concerned with looking right, being thin. I was so incredibly absorbed in self-loathing that I wanted to be as small and unrecognizable as possible.

As they say and as I hesitate to admit, I got worse, far worse, before I got better. A part of me resisted treatment so vehemently that I took pills, rode in ambulances, swore off life, made foolish financial decisions and hopped from hospital to hospital. I wanted to stop causing so much pain and suffering, financial hardship. I wanted to disappear. I hated, still hate, the overly dramatic sentiment I felt daily: I wished I’d never been born. Why couldn’t I undo that?

It’s so much deeper than physical insecurity it’s painful to try to explain, because it’s never made much sense, even to me. Sure, it may start with insecurities. Certainly, I stared at myself in the mirror in ballet and saw my body grow in what looked like a grotesque way. Certainly, despite my rational mind screaming otherwise, I’d compare myself to those around me, and despite my weight—normal or severely underweight—I’d feel that something was fundamentally wrong with my person, that I could never survive this world. And because of those seemingly superficial thoughts, I didn’t feel like I deserved the gift of living.

I remember just before Christmas one year at my sickest, shivering in my parents garage with jutting bones and sunken cheeks, sucking on a cigarette and cursing the fact that I’d been let out of the psych ward, a safe haven, days before in order to be with my family for the holidays. My family were, and are, nothing but tremendously loving and giving people, the best parents and siblings one could ask for, furthering the assumption of some health-care providers and counselors that privileged eating disorder patients are frivolous brats. I wanted to suck the cigarette’s cancer into my lungs, let it kill me right away. It couldn’t take long. I was already starving to death.

If you’re cringing with skepticism, so am I. It’s so surreal now that it took nearly dying to finally rebuild my psyche to the point where I could do something for myself; go for a walk, draw a picture, read a book, eat a muffin—without feeling nearly suicidal and unbearably not worthy. I learned valuable lessons from yoga, and experienced utter compassion from one or two key unconditionally committed counselors (unfortunately, something rarely available to eating disorder sufferers), as well as the occasionally infuriating and eventually life-changing support of my family.

I was lucky. I am lucky. I am so very fortunate, however I have to tell you that recovering from an eating disorder was the hardest thing I could possibly imagine. Despite my desire to be incredibly positive about future prognoses for sufferers, the fact remains; few sufferers fully recover. Many die. Many ‘cope’. Everyone is frustrated. Medical professionals, sufferers, family members, treatment-providers, the general public, those who protest the objectification and impossible standards expected of women and men in the public eye.

But I did get better. And I was one of those cases—I was as sick as I could have been. Today I am grateful for life. Today, with effort, I seek to ignore all the body-negative images women are faced with. I try to focus on my studies, intellect and spirituality, but I’m not immune to wanting to feel beautiful. Beautiful was defined and reinforced for so many years by such a negative mindset that I have to work hard to check myself in the face of everyday experience. But it is worth it, and I am more fortunate than I can explain.

I’d venture to say that nowadays, everyone will know someone suffering with an eating disorder. Likely that person will feel there is little chance they will fully recover, or they will act as though they don’t want to, don’t deserve to. But it is possible, and it is up to all of us to save lives by believing that a disease can be reversed, a mindset can be changed, an extreme sensitivity can be directed elsewhere, to a more positive place. Sufferers of eating disorders will likely all share a lifelong ultra-sensitivity, but that can be transformed in a sick, suicidal shell of a person to a strong, empathetic and responsive individual looking to help anyone who needs it.

My goal is not to explain where eating disorders come from, nor suggest a surefire treatment. Unfortunately, neither has been thoroughly defined. But I do know that change is possible, and that if you or someone you know is suffering, the most immediate way to fight is belief: for sufferers, your life can change. You don’t always have to feel this way. For friends/family, your loved one is dealing with a deep psychological issue, but it’s not one that can’t be addressed and reversed. Be compassionate, be firm, be there.

The shame needs to be the first to go. There is so much hope, so much mercy.

Sexuality, Virginity & “Purity” Series Part 6: A Literary Analysis of Twilight and its Message about Purity

This series of posts from the community is in preparation for Paradigm
Shift’s next event, “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women”
A Discussion with JESSICA VALENTI, Author & Feministing.com
Founder/Editor on TUES, FEB. 23rd, 7pm, NYC. We want to hear your
stories. View call for submissions- deadline 2/19- Click here!

by Miriam Rabinovich

– Imagine a world without the concept of virginity and “purity”- what would that look like?

It would be a world without white wedding dresses, and wedding nights without blood-stained sheets, crimson marks that prove purity only through loss. It would be a world without Eve and her daughters, women who can bring the world to its knees by seducing men on theirs; a world without Mary and the cult of female guilt that surrounds the ideal woman – a son’s mother who has never slept with his father. A world without the narrative of children’s innocence might well be a place without pedophiles. A world without “good girls” is a world without snuff films, as the myth of purity perpetuates apathy and aggression toward “loose women.” It would be a world far less invested in the policing of symbolic and embodied boundaries, a world without homophobia, honor killings, eating disorders, and clitorectomies. It would be a world without the sexual hysteria that created the fantasy of the hypersexual black predator out to hunt white virgins cowering in every corner. A world without the concept of virginity and purity is a world without hate.

But perhaps most importantly, it is a world without Edward Cullen. Yes, the un-dead, devastatingly dreamy, adolescent vampire extraordinaire of the Twilight series. Others have noted that the supernatural thriller espouses quotidian views of female purity and encourages abstinence. Bella’s blood is central to the text, it is what Edward and his pale pals sniff for and run from; every look of longing drips with its promise. It’s a story even older than 104 year old Edward, the eternal saga of female “purity,” and the masculine desire to both destroy and preserve. We know this story well and all little girls learn to cross their legs when they play. What interests me, however, is the less explored twin of female purity – male prurience. Fundamentally, what makes a woman sexually pure is her lack of contact with a penis. This is perhaps an obvious point but worth thinking of – for all of the anxiety generally attributed to men when it comes to female sexuality and women’s bodies, how much ambivalence must they have about their own sexuality when it is contact with them that makes women unclean?

Edward’s fear of his impulses is evident in the first film. He warns Bella that he might not be able to control himself around her, evinced early when Bella notices that Edward’s eyes changed color. Uncharacteristically flustered, Edward mumbles something incoherent and rapidly stumbles away from her, ashamed by his lack of control over his body, foreshadowing the constant tension between his dangerous desire for her and his love for her, as though the two can never merge.

The second film is even more apparent in its handling of male sexuality. We now have Jacob vying for Bella’s body as well, but just like Edward he forces her away, fearful of what he might do to her. Jacob is a boy transitioning into a werewolf, coming into his paternalistic legacy, clearly a parable for puberty. He too possesses little control over his bodily impulses. An older werewolf in the film who ripped into his wife’s face in a moment of passion, forever scarring her, acts as the warning of what men can do to women if they aren’t careful.

So we have two adolescent boys in physical flux and for both of them adult male sexuality means lack of physical control and (possible) violence against women. They pass on to Bella what has been taught to them and insist that she be scared of what they can do to her, of the beast that emerges when a kiss lingers a moment too long, of the loss of control when she comes a shade too close, of the danger when she dare desire as much as they. With Twilight we have not only the reinforcement of the female virginity and purity myth, but also the criminalization of male sexuality, both of which work symbiotically to perpetuate distorted views of gender and eroticism. Though much has been made of Bella’s body, critics have been more reticent about the construction of male sexuality – the arguments rarely evolve past the danger these boys pose to Bella’s sanctity. We have to move past this allegedly natural sinister male sexuality and explore the cultural investments in constructing male sexuality as dangerous, impulsive, and ultimately – in Twilight literally – disfiguring to both men and women.

The mutability of the disobedient body, its spontaneous shape-shifting and surprising fluidity, most pronounced during adolescence, seems to me to be a paradigm of the way female bodies have been constructed and described through all of their phases. It is plausible that adolescent boys on the cusp of puberty come closest to the culturally constructed descriptions of female embodiment. While this small space of flux is a site of massive potential for empathy and communal experiences, it currently functions as precisely the opposite. It becomes a time of delineating your borders, summoning your troops to the front line, and defining the male body as hard, strong, stable, and in control. And when it isn’t in control, it must be blamed on the female body that causes his defenses to crumble and rapidly consolidated into sexual aggression. So long as we refuse to create paradigms for the lack of self control that are not negative and weak, instead of say playful, productive, and transformative, men will always hold women culpable for their “weakness,” and thus project on to her the dirt he discovers in himself.

If masculine sexuality were not about possession, then female bodies would not be commodities, decreasing in value as soon as they have been opened. So long as male desire is constructed as criminal and something that – at its most intense – has the power to destroy, eroticism between men and women will always hinge on the palpable possibility of violence, and so a woman who wants is so often a woman who is asking for it.

We must defang male desire and provide adolescent boys with different constructions of masculinity, one that isn’t gnarled with skewed visions of strength and power. If we begin to deconstruct cultural criminalization of male sexuality, we will begin to unsettle the pure/impure dichotomy that has haunted the desiring female body since the time of antiquity. So long as male desire is viewed as a crouching creature always about to pounce, there will always be two types of women in the world – the one who helps him overcome himself and the one to whom he flees when the moon is full and his body howls.

Ultimately, this construction of masculinity is about reaffirming the heterosexual imperative and “traditional” values – the angel in the house will cleanse his sins after he confesses to depravity. Internal strife, inevitable sin, perpetual longing, crippling guilt, cherubic absolution – Edward’s desire for Bella is a biblical anachronism. So many of the distortions and anxieties around sexuality, female purity, and male aggression find their birth in Genesis, and loyally continue their evolution throughout the bible. A world without the concept of virginity and purity is a godless world. Amen to that.

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