Let me set the scene. I am a thirty-something female. Educated, employed, relatively attractive, slightly neurotic – and recovering from a chronic eating disorder.
To help me along this bumpy journey, I started to try and understand myself and my relationship to the world; to gain some insight into what had happened and why it had happened. The pen was my probe and my head, the subject. Or so I thought. Somewhere along the way, my psychological exercise stumbled into a sociological debate and took on a life of its own – particularly in relation to being a woman.
Whether career woman, ladette or a Bridget Jones-esque twenty-something, girl power, in its many guises, experienced a notable – and much noted upon – surge at the end of the last century. It confirmed and consolidated the dramatic transition that women, as a sex, were undergoing; provided a new way of being for the younger generation – and raised a whole host of questions for those of us who fell on the tipping point.
It is impossible for one person to understand or resolve the complexities of what went – and is going – on for women today; to explore the impact of the past century’s lightening speed race along the social evolutionary scale. One article cannot communicate or clarify what it feels like to be a woman within this wider historical context – but it might shed a little light on the relationship between what’s going on out there and what’s going on for me and, possibly, many other women in the UK.
Joining the Dots
What it meant to be a woman in the UK in the twentieth century has been a persistent interruption to my soul searching. It cropped up when I was considering identity; made another appearance when I got to body image; bounced into my biological or emotional debate: basically, it seemed to take a lot of space for something that I had considered to be, in the context of things, of little relevance. With my curiousity piqued and my frustration heightened, I decided that a little attention was evidently required – and opened a minefield.
My eating disorder seemed to be intricately and complexly connected to my gender; it had resonances with women today, yesterday and years ago; appeared to be informed by traditions and ingrained patterns that I had never consciously recognised; and, strangely, made a lot more sense from this perspective, as I will explain.
As you move out of the grey cloud of an eating disorder and, probably, many other mental health illnesses or addictions, one of the biggest challenges in the recovery process is working out who you are, re-discovering and re-claiming your identity. My exploration of the interplay between being a woman and eating disorders did not begin at the obvious point, i.e. the much discussed female form and the equally well discussed preoccupation with the female form; it started, instead, with identity, my contemplation of how we work out who we are and how we define ourselves to others – and introductory speech seemed the logical place to begin.
The female identity
Today, we are defined as much by what we do as who we are – “I’m so and so and I am a ….”. Our career is synonymous with our identity and, whether our career is reflective of our character or not, it is an easy and concrete starting point. Men are probably used to this; but, for the female species whose historical identifiers were mother, daughter or wife, this question has acquired a new significance. Now I’m all for equality and empowerment in the workplace; but I also wonder whether they have forced the question of how women define themselves to the forefront. If they have introduced another dimension into the female identity which has confused and complicated how, and where, women locate themselves.
So, where does this confusion rise from? Why should it be harder for women to identify themselves in this way than it is for men? And don’t the fathers and husbands and sons out there experience the same conflict in how they define themselves? No, I don’t think so. Men, as a species, are used to this way of things; women, on the other hand, are coming from a totally different state of consciousness. The conflict is heightened because our roots lie in an ‘other’ state which, while absent from our individual memories, seems somehow ingrained in our collective history.
If this argument feels too airy fairy for you, let me add some biological and sociological padding. Now I’m no historian (or doctor, for that matter) but it doesn’t take a scholar to map out the role of women through the centuries.
The Role of Women
Women have typically occupied a few select key positions: mother, home-maker and nurturer. Why? Because biology dictated this role for them in the evolutionary process: the smaller female physique is not as suited to the hardcore hunting/fighting/building initially needed for survival; women’s bodies and psyche are designed for motherhood and nurturing the young – and pregnancies are not conducive to a stable income.
Whilst times, circumstances and behaviours may have changed, if we consider the idea that our fundamental nature shaped a very different role for us to the one that we are trying to fill today, we’re getting closer to understanding the conflict around self-identification.
If we take this line of thought one step further and combine the biological make-up with the career identifier bit, we can also see that it is only the fortunate few whose careers bear any meaningful relationship to who they are. Pregnancies, maternity leave and the school runs aside, it can be difficult for women to really connect to a career or a vocation in the same way as men can.
Thus, defining ourselves in terms of what we are do, as society so often dictates, jars with our sense of self; yet we are negated totally if we return to our original identifiers.
So that sorted that out a bit – if I put myself and my confusion in a bigger context, the difficulties I was experiencing in working out who I was, whilst unresolved, started to make a bit more sense. And so did the issue of women and food or, more precisely, the powerful relationship between women and food. I have often wondered why food was my weapon of choice: what was it about food that was so difficult? Why did it seem so much harder for me and my female counterparts, to manage than for men? Back-tracking through the female experience again shed some light on the question.
Women and Food
It is difficult to imagine today’s constant debate over diet and body image having much place in early societies: if you’re just looking to survive or keep your family fed or meet society’s idea of femininity, I suspect that counting calories or exchanging waist measurements is not on your radar. Food, however, probably was: women and food seem to be intricately and intimately linked from the beginning.
Biological make-up, ie. breast feeding, is the most obvious illustration of this connectedness; but then there’s also the nurturing role, the cook function, the home keeper and, later, the supper on the table for the hard-working husband. Food has always been a central part of the female role and, consequently, the female identity. Could this, too, explain why I, as a woman, seemed to put more emphasis on food and find it more emotive than my male counterparts?
Let’s follow this argument a little further because it also seems to encompass the other side of the coin: eating. Back to caveman and the home keeping woman: if males had been out fighting or hunting or cavorting around the countryside, then they physically required more sustenance than their female counterpart and, thus, the differentiation between what women and men eat (in terms of how it looks, and not simply physiological need), is established. Speeding along again to Scarlett O’Hara squeezing into her corset; or the working class women donating their meat to the men; or the notion of dainty female behaviour: it’s not difficult to dismiss an evolutionary trend emerging around women and the act of eating.
The female form
So, finally, we move smoothly on from eating to the female form and, taking a walk through any art gallery demonstrates the long-standing obsession with women’s bodies. Whether the fashion has leant towards thin or fat figures, the female form, historically, seems to have attracted fascination and scrutiny – and we’re back to identity again. Whilst the position of men was informed by money and occupation, these avenues were limited to women: looks operated then, as they possibly still do now, as an asset or selling point.
My lightening bulb moment happened at this point: traditionally, women were defined by food in terms of both their value and their function. No wonder it caused so many problems.
It’s all interesting food for thought, to excuse the pun; but things have changed and, you may well be asking, what’s the relevance now? Possibly nothing more than a few minutes of contemplation or a little introspection before you rush back to the office or feed your own brood their overdue tea or head off for a night on the town with the girls; but, for me, the relevance comes from learning about myself through going back to my predecessors. It comes from gaining a little of that often lacking empathy with and connectedness to the female race. And it helps my journey.
Through putting my personal battles in a wider context and adding a little rationality to an irrational experience, I am moving away from the isolation and confusion that governed my illness, and gaining a little of that empathy and compassion which has also helped to define our gender.