**Content warning: 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, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
Elizabeth O. is a writer, doula, and identity navigation specialist from Pennsylvania who loves thinking and talking about how to make our relationships places to heal from oppression.
The role of gender and whiteness in the development of my eating disorder
My maternal grandmother passed away from cancer three years ago. All within less than two weeks, she went from healthy to gone. She was a Minnesota Baptist minister’s wife, and five days before she passed, she lay in the hospital with her end-of-life care pastor and me.
She stated, “I have never really known what my gifts are, or if they even exist.” The pastor replied, “Oh, your gift is hospitality! Cooking and entertaining and making others feel comfortable!”
My grandma’s eyes fell a little, and I knew that it had confirmed something for her, something she had taken one last stab at questioning. She didn’t feel that it was a gift. I felt for her, but I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say.
Even her passing was “hospitable”—quick and fit neatly into the time I was home in Minnesota and had taken off from work. When the oncologist asked her about the choice to attempt chemo or not, she immediately passed the decision on to us, her family. What did we think?
Throughout her life, food was the central tenet of this hospitality. Her book of recipes was one of the last Christmas gifts she ever gave me. She hand-copied each one of her favorites from her Pillsbury and Betty Crocker cookbooks. She meant it to be a handoff of traditions, to remind me of her when making them in my kitchen for my future family when she’s gone.
What do I do with these? I should be able to tolerate the occasional chicken hot dish, cheeseburger casserole, cheesy party potatoes, or Swedish meatballs. But it’s like a door I don’t want to open. These recipes are all the things I am responsible for giving, for making, but I’m not “supposed” to have myself. All across the media, we see that there’s a new progressive era for women. But that’s not what I know, what most Americans know. My world, my place, is still the kitchen of the 1950s and 60s.
My middle and high school eating disorder is still unknown (or at least unacknowledged) to almost everyone in my family: another unspoken problem, a standard for Minnesotan white families. Once, my paternal grandmother mentioned to my dad that I was looking too thin. He “hadn’t noticed.” When news of that comment made its way to my mother, the conversation turned immediately into a slew of descriptors of my grandmother’s nebby, meddling ways. And the message was clear: there would be no concern or investigation into my health, and bringing it up would only bring drama. Not that I wanted to discuss it anyway.
The women on my mom’s side have always struggled with weight. The women “are emotional eaters,” as my aunt would say. But to me, it seemed that these women were stuffing away not their emotions, but the oppression of the men in their lives they’d learned to swallow.
My grandpa would tell my grandma she had to wear turtlenecks to cover up; she reached for another slice of bread. My dad would tell my mom we were “ruining his opportunities for dating” by having my sister and I spend the weekend nights with him; she’d order McDonald’s. My aunt would tell us a story of being pushed out of a church mission trip because some pastor didn’t like her; she’d grab another round of mashed potatoes. We indeed stuffed down our emotions, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The bigger problem remains unaddressed.
Weight loss as a result of my bulimia and anorexia put me at once on a pedestal and simultaneously created resentment with the women in my family. I was the “lucky one,” another example of how life was unfair. They watched me go to school dances in small-size dresses and date boys and go to parties with friends. I was the “perfect” girl, the perfect white girl that they couldn’t be. It created a wedge between us, a wedge they both wanted and hated. A wedge that I also wanted and hated.
A couple of years ago, I finally told my sister about my eating disorder. What once seemed like an impossible comparison to strive for was revealed in fact to be self-abuse and dysfunction. I realized in telling her the truth that I had partially closed a gap between us.
I still have weird ticks related to eating and leftovers from my anxiety about weight gain. But I am getting there. After years of gastrointestinal issues, no doubt a leftover vestige of depriving myself, I have an almost entirely functional relationship with food. I am a reasonable weight. I have worked and suffered (read, years of therapy), and come out on the other side to be in this space.
The challenge of accepting the women in my family has, in reality, been the challenge of accepting myself. It has been the work of identifying the brutal way that whiteness and gender intersect to form a sickening ideal and how the messages about that ideal made their insidious way into my psyche.
These same messages impact all feminine people. It is the message that appears to put white women on a pedestal of beauty. My experience is only part of the story of eating disorders and yet is often the only story we tell: white girls striving for perfection and control of their lives. It is often the primary face of eating disorders, even though the same systems of oppression that fueled my experience also shape the experience of queer and trans folks, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income people, elderly folks, adoptees. . . any and all people who have a complicated relationship with food.
Rather than isolating my experience and the experiences of those who share my identity, we should work to uncover the messages and systems of oppression that uphold those messages and ultimately dehumanize us all.
Systems of oppression that render some as “less than” only separate us from our humanity; finding connection through our stories restores it.