Dear KJ: How I keep college classes from unraveling my recovery?
You may have heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” Usually, this is a true statement, but not always. SELF-knowledge, I would argue, is almost always empowering, but school learnin’ can occasionally push you in the opposite direction. I should know—between kindergarten and finishing my PhD I’ve spent about 25 years (!) of my life taking classes. Out of those years, over half were shared with an eating disorder, in recovery or post-recovery. Here are a few things that have been challenging to me along the way, specifically in relation to recovery, and how you might be able to address them.
Some classes can be triggering. Remember what I wrote above about SELF-knowledge being the most empowering? It’s self-knowledge that will help you avoid or at least disengage from classroom experiences (or entire courses!) that are triggering. While you’re still in active recovery, be wary of courses on topics that overlap with your eating disorder experiences. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t ever take a course on, say, nutrition, but having an honest conversation with yourself (or your therapist) might reveal that some courses appeal to you precisely because they allow you to continue obsessing about food, exercise and body size stuff. I remember buying nutrition textbooks, thinking, “I’ll just replace my eating disorder with a 110% perfect ‘normal’ way of eating,” not realizing that in order for eating to be normal it cannot be anywhere near 110% perfect!
But here’s the thing—it’s rarely the course topic itself that is inherently problematic, but the style in which it is taught. If you’re interested in taking a course or two with triggering potential, it might be a good idea to get your hands on a syllabus. Some professors will provide "trigger warnings" to draw attention to course material that might be triggering to students who have had traumatic experiences, but don't depend on this. Many instructors strongly prefer to not provide them. Ultimately it is your responsibility to know the difference between course material that is challenging (good!) and course material that is triggering (not so good!). If you have concerns, speak with the professor to ask her/him whether or not any of their course material could be difficult for a person in recovery from an eating disorder. Even without specific training in body-positive teaching styles, most instructors will have a sense for how to answer this question.
Depending on the answer, you may opt to avoid the course, or you may become even more excited about it. You may also decide that most of the course sounds great, but that you’ll need to skip a day or two of class (I give you my permission!) if the lecture or readings seem triggering. Again, best to have a good conversation with yourself and/or your therapist.
The second challenge that classes present to recovery is simply that going to school, whether part time or full time, adds stress to your life. You’ll be managing lectures, homework, deadlines, grading, as well as the social elements of school. Having some stress in your life is normal and usually healthy, but this is not the best time to overwhelm yourself. Start out with what you think is a realistic course load, but don’t hesitate to drop a class if you notice that you aren’t able to keep up with your classes and also take care of yourself. Don’t forget to have some fun, too!
What is the best thing I can do as a 20-something woman who has recovered from eating disorders to help young girls establish good body image? (originally posted here)
The best thing you can do to help young girls establish good body image is the same as what anyone else can do: be a role model for healthy body image and for having a healthy relationship with food. This means committing to talk about your body and other women's bodies in nonjudgmental ways, resisting fat talk, resisting diet talk and openly embracing and celebrating a wide variety of body shapes and sizes. Sometimes, this means faking it until you make it by resisting negative body talk and diet talk, even when you're struggling with negative body thoughts yourself. But, believe it or not, committing to being a role model for younger women can also empower you in your own health.
Learning to view myself as a role model for other women—particularly for my female college students—has been one of my most powerful tools for staying healthy and appreciating myself. To me, being a role model has never meant being "perfect." We have plenty of “perfect” role models out there in our popular culture of fables, fairy tales and romantic comedies, telling young women and girls that success, happiness and love can only be theirs if they look like Barbie dolls and make it their life’s work to please others.
Weird, nerdy girls don’t get the guy until they've had a makeover, which for some reason always involves ditching her glasses (What is it that they say? “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”)! This is not what I want for my students and other young women. I want them to take their unique lives, unique bodies and unique minds and stride confidently along their own paths. I want them to find love and embrace it, rather than doubt it. I want them to revel in their quirks, and say PHOOEY! to people and media who tell them they need to look or act a certain way in order to be happy. I can't truly encourage my students to do this while being a slave to the same systems I'm critiquing. (And it's not like students don't notice when their teachers are trying to look like Barbie dolls!)
Because of this, I think that imperfect women who have fabulous lives make great role models. So, when I consciously try to be a role model, I relish in being as vibrantly imperfect and quirky —yet successful, loved and happy—as possible. I believe that being a role model in this way is good for my students and the other young women in my life, and I know that it's been good for me. Numerous times when I’ve been tempted to go on a crash diet—or to otherwise look perfect and act perfectly composed and put together—I’ve talked myself out of it simply by reminding myself of how badly I want to prove to my girls that quirky, chubby, bossy, outspoken, clumsy, weird girls can absolutely achieve professional success, wonderful friends and fabulous love.
(originally posted HERE at the Gender & Society blog)
Last fall, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece (here) about beauty, or really, about ugliness. The Gender & Society blog Erynn Casanova and me, to write responses to the article and comment on the 2013 book that prompted the NYT commentary. Both of our responses are below. What a fabulously fun intellectual conversation!
By Erynn Masi de Casanova
Ugly. Some words sound like what they mean. We avoid calling people ugly in polite conversation, but are usually bold enough to whisper it behind their backs. Julia Baird’s recent op-ed in The New York Times raises the question of how children are socialized into beliefs about and reactions to a less-than-lovely appearance. As a case study, she chooses a children’s book based on the real-life experiences of its author, Robert Hoge, which is a memoir recounting his childhood with a large facial tumor and distorted limbs. His book is simply titled Ugly. Baird wonders how children come to learn about and take part in a system of “looksism,” and “why we talk about plainness, but not faces that would make a surgeon’s fingers itch.”
Surgery came immediately to my mind on reading Baird’s column. Elective surgery to alter the human body’s appearance goes by many names. Plastic surgery emphasizes the malleability of the body and its parts. Aesthetic surgerymakes it sound as if we can turn our bodies into works of art. Cosmetic surgeryconjures makeup rather than sedation and scalpels. And while Baird acknowledges that surgeons might want to fix faces like Mr. Hoge’s, she doesn’t mention that the possibilities cosmetic surgery opens up also affect social judgements of appearance in everyday life.
If we stick with the example of “distorted” facial features, but consider adults’ rather than children’s reactions, we can imagine people thinking, “Why doesn’t he fix it?” Surgeries exist that can help people in their quest for a “normal” appearance, which some research has shown is a more common goal for patients than achieving drop-dead gorgeous glamour . Eschewing elective surgery seems like a conscious choice to live “with flawed features in a world of facial inequality,” as Baird puts it in her op-ed.
Here’s where the rise of what sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor calls “cosmetic wellness” comes in. In the United States and other wealthy countries, taking care of our health—and all the bodily practices that it involves—is now a requirement to be a moral person. Contemporary health morality pressures us all to monitor our health: this pressure and the blame it spawns are clearly visible in pop culture’s portrayals of obese people. We interpret an attractive appearance as evidence of physical and mental health. If looking good is health and being healthy is being a good person, then unattractiveness becomes an even bigger threat to social acceptance. Ugliness becomes as immoral and irresponsible as fatness or smoking cigarettes—also frowned on by the devotees of the new health morality. Good patient, good consumer, and good person are coterminous.
But “facial inequality” doesn’t exist outside of other kinds of inequality. Our financial resources limit our ability to participate in cosmetic wellness and health morality. Sometimes the answer to why he doesn’t fix it is that he can’t afford to. Elective surgery is expensive. Yet middle-class and working-class people pay in installments, take a second job, or cross national borders to be able to afford it. If a normal appearance can be bought, then those who aren’t able to buy it can be shunned. We begin to contemplate a future in which the high price of compulsory cosmetic wellness means that only the poor will be ugly. There’s nothing attractive about that.
Erynn Masi de Casanova is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. She is the author ofMaking Up the Difference: Women, Beauty, and Direct Selling in Ecuador, winner of the National Women’s Studies Association’s Sara A. Whaley Book Prize, and most recently, Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity. She is co-editor (with Afshan Jafar) of the books Bodies without Borders and Global Beauty, Local Bodies.Casanova and Jafar also co-edit the book series Palgrave Studies in Globalization and Embodiment. She is a member of the editorial board of Gender & Society.
By Kjerstin Gruys (me!)
In the November 2014 NYT article, “Being Dishonest About Ugliness,” writer Julie Baird cites Australian author Robert Hoge, who argues that adults need to stop telling children that “looks don’t matter.” After all, he says, “They know perfectly well they do.” Instead of telling kids they’re all beautiful, we should “tell them it’s O.K. to look different,” and that, when it comes to physical beauty, children should “know that it’s just one thing in life, one characteristic among others.” In other words, it’s important for children to know that one does not need to be beautiful in order to find success, love and happiness.
Psychological research bears much of this out. Statistically speaking, beauty has only a negligible impact on overall happiness. For example, in one study, researchers found that, despite being highly-prized by respondents, physical attractiveness predicted only small variances in survey respondents’ reports of pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and life satisfaction. In another study, participants were asked questions about their levels of happiness while, unbeknownst to them, their looks were being rated on a one-to-five scale by the research team (yes, this is kind of creepy, but let’s leave the methodological conversation for another day!). Those rated in the top 15% in terms of beauty were roughly 10% happier than those in the bottom 10%. Now, a 10% increase in happiness may seem pretty meaningful (I’d take it!), but be careful to remember that this means that the most stunningly beautiful people – the breathtaking outliers – are only 10% happier than the most profoundly unattractive.
“I’m happy to concede the point,” Hoge says, “that some people look more aesthetically pleasing than others. Let’s grant that so we can move to the important point – so what?”
People often state that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but when the seemingly subjective concept – and social consequences – of “ugliness” maps again and again onto the bodies of poorer, fatter, and aging women of color, it’s time to acknowledge a broader structural problem. Yes, it’s important to help children develop healthy self-esteem and body image, but without addressing the power relations that drive our beauty standards, these efforts treat the symptoms rather than curing the disease.
Dr. Kjerstin Gruys is a Thinking Matters Fellow at Stanford University and a Postdoctoral Scholar (by courtesy) at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, also at Stanford. Her research broadly explores the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality, with a particular focus on gender as it intersects with race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, and age. She is currently developing a book manuscript, tentatively titled: True to Size?: A Social History of Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Fashion Industry.
Jane Doe Asks: How can I open a conversation with my parents about getting treatment? (posted here first)
First, congratulations on deciding to take this important step in your recovery. It can be nerve-wracking to talk to your parents about getting treatment for an eating disorder. It’s difficult to tell parents about something personal, especially if it’s something you’ve been hiding from them, but your physical and emotional health must be the priority. Every family is different, so there’s no one perfect script that will work in every instance, but here are some ideas to get you started.
First, I suggest you do some journaling to collect your thoughts. What sorts of symptoms are you experiencing? How are these symptoms making you feel? What are you hoping to get out of the conversation with your parents? Do you want to see a therapist? Do you want to see your regular doctor? (Both are a good idea!) Writing down a short list of talking points will help you remember everything, and it will help you get back on track if the conversation takes off in a different direction.
Before speaking with your parents I recommend taking the NEDA Online Eating Disorders Screening. This quiz can help you develop a stronger sense of what’s going on, and sharing the results of the quiz with your parents is a great way to start the conversation. The results of the quiz may help your parents better understand what you’re experiencing, and they will also see that you’re taking this seriously. Once you’ve described your symptoms, it’s important to mention what kind of help you need, such as “I think I need to go to an eating disorders specialist” or “I’d really like to see my doctor about this.”
With luck, your parents will already be familiar with mental health concerns, including eating disorders, and will be comfortable helping you seek treatment. However, if your parents are less familiar or comfortable with mental health issues and treatment options, I suggest directing them to the Parent Toolkit on the NEDA website.
In my experience, almost all parents want to be supportive and are willing to learn about eating disorders to help their child. However, if you’re worried about how your parents will react, definitely tell them this in advance, and ask them to focus on being good listeners. If talking to them in person is too overwhelming, try writing them a letter instead. Hopefully reaching out to your parents will leave you feeling more supported. However, parents aren’t perfect and some are downright dysfunctional.
Therefore, if talking to your parents isn’t an option (or if you speak with them and it goes poorly), there are other sources of support available to you, such as a doctor or school counselor. Also, NEDA has a great program called NEDA Navigators, which connects individuals (aged 13 and older) struggling with eating disorders, or those supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, to volunteer NEDA Navigators who can share information, experiences and resources to help you figure out where to go next and how to get to recovery. You can find more information here.
Having big, serious conversations with your parents is never fun or easy, but seeking support from the adults in your life is a crucial step to getting healthy. I wish you the best of luck with it.