Thursday, September 8, 2011

Classism and Eating Disorders

Eva Rivera is a proud lesbian Chicana, daughter, sister and sex worker who can walk in 6 inch heels and twirl naked on a pole in front of total strangers but is still viciously afraid of moths. You can catch her more of her here
I didn't envy the models in Cosmopolitan. I didn't even have a scale in my bathroom to track my weight loss. Looked into bathroom mirrors briefly,not obsessing or pulling flesh from my stomach to prove how "fat" I was. I never thought I was overweight or needed to achieve that perfect number. Still, I counted how much I ate everyday. Skipped meals, ate leftovers from friends plates, nothing after school. I slept to avoid feeling hungry. I ate all my dinner- small plates because I "had a big lunch". I was anorexic on and off for years during high school. Somehow I survived between my boyfriend force feeding me pizza and several bouts of major depression.

Books couldn't explain it. I read them all. Read every article, blog and account of anorexia nervosa that I could find. But nothing explained or confirmed my experience. They all told me that I was trying to conform to the oppressive and unattainable myth of female beauty and body that makes girls think skinny is the only way to exist. Experts in the field wrote that I was a product of pop culture and need for control. I was supposed to be white and middle to upper class. I was supposed to cry over calories and munch on celery sticks.

But I wasn't trying to fit in with the other skinny girls in my class

I wasn't middle to upper class dieting my way into the media images that catered to my income status
I was a working class Chicana who had a problem with food and too much guilt. Perhaps it came from my strict Pentecostal upbringing or from living in a constant state of change or from my own depression. Whatever it was, my view of food stemmed from the fear of food scarcity. My mother fed us three meals a day like clockwork. We were poor and I was often hungry, but we had food. It was the guilt that was the problem. I saw how much my parents struggled to find us shelter, make sure we had supplies for school. I saw my mother counting money and looking at numbers, sighing with her head in her hands. It was never enough. As a child I thought I could help. So I would do small things to cut expenses. Not tell my mom that my shoes were too tight- she could save that money for part of the light bill. Save, reuse, steal, and borrow school supplies, clothes, anything that I thought would spare them the expense.

Eventually that segued into a food problem. Food is expensive. Especially for my parents who tried their best to get us quality food, organic when they could. Three active girls ate up food fast. We were always arguing with each other about who ate the last apple, calling each other pigs for eating more than one of anything. My youngest sister would sneak food into the bathroom to eat. We never let our parents see any of this. If it slipped my mom would scold us- "Never fight over food, always share". She had grown up in extreme poverty and wanted us to be able to count on each other for anything. So sharing food was a must.

So when I started skipping meals, eating paper to dispel my hunger and feeling satisfied when the food supply lasted just a bit longer, I felt like i was doing my part. I knew I had a problem when I couldn't eat at all. Not when offered free food, not when at a friend's house. I had made myself so sick and shrunk my stomach so small that eating became painful and I became scared for my life. So i turned to those books and I read what the psychologists had to say and I wasn't healed by any of it. None of my experiences were reflected in those academic papers. I had to treat myself by first learning that I was worthy of health and food and sustenance. I had to learn that living in poverty was not my fault or any moral failing of my parents. The system simply refused to support my family and instead worked at keeping us in this cycle. Society simply did not see working poor as lives worth healing, sustaining and growing.

It would be too easy to blame my parent's for not "protecting" me from the depression of poverty. It's also easy and narrow in scope to blame only the media for the cause of eating disorders.  What we must look at now is how our culture that creates food deserts, has inadequate safety nets for poor and working families and victim blames those who find themselves in these situations, is putting us at risk for illnesses like eating disorders and depression.

The practice of diagnosing and treating eating disorders leaves out those of us who don't live in or come from upper and middle class families. Treatment is focused on rescuing white middle class women from a damaged and certainly fucked up media. I won't deny that women are affected by mainstream and unrealistic body images but to treat and care for all of us who are at risk for eating disorders, or any mental illness, we must consider all the intersections of the individual. It makes me wonder who all slips through the cracks. How many of us go untreated for eating disorders because we don't fit the mold of who is supposed to have this illness? Treatment wasn't made for us, it was made to recover more valuable bodies. In the face of all this we still find ways to save ourselves and each other but at what cost and how far do we have to go before it's too late?