Academic journal article Outskirts

Disordered Eating and Choice in Postfeminist Spaces

Academic journal article Outskirts

Disordered Eating and Choice in Postfeminist Spaces

Article excerpt


This paper explores the rise of eating disorders in a postfeminist world. The prevalence of eating disorders in the general Australian population is increasing (The Butterfly Foundation, 2012; NEDC, 2012) and it is estimated that 90% of people with anorexia and bulimia in Australia are female (The Butterfly Foundation, 2012, p. 20). While the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC) reports that lifetime prevalence of eating disorders for males and females of all ages is 9%, there are higher estimates of 1 in 5 for students and women said to be suffering from eating disorders (NEDC, 2012, p. 6). In data taken from a large national sample of young women from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Women's Health (ALSWH) it was found that '23% of respondents in this sample were categorized as having disordered eating', while 'body image was ranked of highest personal concern by 40.3% of 20-24 year-olds', suggesting that 'disordered eating is potentially a major public mental health issue which continues to be underestimated in many countries' (Wade & Wilsch, 2012, p. 356). Due to the severe and chronic nature of disordered eating, the long term course of the full spectrum of eating and body problems that exists in the community, and the difficulties with treatment, it is vital that we understand why the prevalence is increasing and the cultural parameters that support disordered eating (Wade et al., 2006; Hay, et al., 2008).

Drawing upon interviews and ethnographic fieldwork with women with disordered eating in Adelaide, South Australia, we examine how postfeminist positions of 'choice' and 'individual responsibility' were embodied. We argue that postfeminism, neoliberalism and healthism represent a constellation of contemporary forces which have created an environment for disordered eating to flourish. Within this setting of lifestyle choice, postfeminist sensibilities support and disguise women's endeavours in their disordered eating practices.

The paper begins by tracing the work of 1980s and 90s feminist scholars (Orbach, 1986; Bartky, 1988; Bordo, 1988; 1992) who introduced cultural and gendered analysis into eating disorder studies. They critiqued pathological causes of disordered eating, pointing to the oppressive relationship between patriarchy and the gendered nature of eating and body issues. While these analyses were (and remain) foundational in bringing Foucauldian and post-structuralist analysis to explain key relationships between particular constructions of feminine beauty and bodily discipline, new developments in feminism have led to new theoretical debates concerning femininity and gender relations. As the previous scholars highlighted, constructions of femininity do not occur in vacuums, and shifts within feminist research and theory reflect dominant historical and socio-political changes. Hence the postfeminist era of personal choice, individualism and the commodification of 'girl power' (Bail, 1996; McRobbie, 2009) is deeply entangled with the rise of neoliberalism.

Using Rosalind Gill's (2007) concept of postfeminist sensibility as an analytic lens we investigate how the ideology of choice positions women as a source of subjective empowerment and agency. We argue that this renewed interest in personal choice in popular feminism (or what Hirshman (2006) originally referred to as 'choice feminism') has been problematically embraced by women with disordered eating, in that choice and responsibility for one's limited food consumption has become a legitimate 'lifestyle choice'. Considering that denial of eating disorders is common (Wade, 2007; Vandereycken & Van Humbeeck, 2008), it is important to understand the politics of choice and the role it may play in why young women might resist and reshape psychiatric explanations to maintain their practices.

Following a description of the study and research methods, the paper describes how participants frequently used the language of choice and empowerment to present their everyday eating and activity practices as part of their health and fitness routines. …

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