Responding to Cultural Pressure
This is one person's story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
By Liz Rognes, a former Emily Program client in recovery. She is a teacher, writer, and musician who lives in Spokane, WA.
There is great pressure on women to gracefully and effortlessly do it all—to find the elusive, delicate balance that will keep everything in its place. As a working mother in recovery from an eating disorder, I am very aware of those cultural pressures. It's hard to measure up, and it can feel sometimes like I'm being judged from all directions: a student gives me a scathing evaluation, another mom thinks I plan to wean too soon (or not soon enough), someone in the grocery store glares at me when my baby starts screaming, a visitor to our house remarks that our lawn looks too dry, and so on. Some of those pressures come in the form of explicit messages, some of them come from societal presentations of femininity and motherhood, and some of them come from my own lingering feelings of insecurity.
The truth is that some people do make judgments, but those judgments are the exception; most people smile at my noisy baby in the grocery store, most students give positive or at least respectful evaluations, most of my friends who are moms are supportive of my decisions relating to mothering, even when they disagree. And the truth is that I can't find a delicate balance where I'm able to independently do everything without flaw. I'll never be perfect, and I'll never be able to please everyone—nor should I. Part of my struggle with an eating disorder was centered around this idea that I had to please everyone else, and that happened at the expense of my own health and happiness. I looked for external validation because I didn't know how to be okay in my own skin, with my own decisions. I didn't trust my own insight, and, in fact, I didn't think my own feelings or opinions or insight mattered. I didn't know how to love and accept myself for exactly who I am, mistakes, imperfect wobbly balance, and all.
I would love to say that entering recovery erased all of that, but the pressure on women to do it all (spotlessly, and while smiling) is deeply embedded within our culture. The push to put everyone else first and to never say no remains. We are still often encouraged to be deferential, apologetic, and to second-guess ourselves. Recovery has not taught me how to completely tune out those messages, but it has taught me how to respond in a healthier way. I've learned that striving to please everyone is exhausting. I've learned that I have valuable insights to contribute, and it's okay that sometimes people disagree with me. Sometimes it's important—sometimes it's necessary—to be the dissenting voice in a room. I've learned how to trust my intuitions, how to advocate for myself and for others, and how to be an active agent in my own life to a degree that I couldn't when I did not yet know how to take care of myself (and I still continue to learn how to take care of myself). I've learned how to ask for what I need and seek and accept help when I need it.
Luckily, I don't have to balance by myself. I have a partner, a family, and friends who help to keep me going and who help to support me as a mother, as a partner, as a teacher, as an artist, and as a friend. I know that I can reach out when I need a babysitter or an extension or a listener. I can share the work of parenting, I can say no, I can ask a colleague to help with a project. And, when I need a break, sometimes I can let the others hold on to those things I'm working on and caring for. I am wildly grateful for the life I have today, but sometimes I still feel overwhelmed or get caught up in the pressure to find that impossible balance.
When I do get overwhelmed, I think about the women I admire, the models in my own life of people who are not afraid to be the dissenting voice in a room, who know how to draw healthy boundaries, and who have demonstrated an unapologetic practice of self-care. I want to be like those women, and I want to help construct a world where it's not unusual for a woman to care about her own well-being, where women's voices are heard and valued, and where everyone, regardless of gender, is afforded the space to create healthy boundaries and lean on their communities for help so that they, too, can be supports.
The word "balance" implies precariousness; if, instead of trying to find that impossible balancing point, we can lean on our communities and also work to hold those communities up, we will build toward something much more stable.
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