Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

From 'Disorder' to Political Action: Conversations That Invite Collective Considerations to Individual Experiences of Women Who Express Concerns about Eating and Their Bodies

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

From 'Disorder' to Political Action: Conversations That Invite Collective Considerations to Individual Experiences of Women Who Express Concerns about Eating and Their Bodies

Article excerpt

I work in a small community counselling service mostly with women, many of whom are in their teens or twenties, and are students at school or university. Describing themselves as 'high achievers' in academic and other realms, many hold a variety of privileges fitting in to Western ideas of appearance, family resources, and access to opportunities, which might reasonably invite predictions of leading fairly robust and 'successful' lives according to dominant Western criteria. Yet they all speak of experiencing pervasive and disruptive anxiety, stress, and sadness; concerns about eating and their bodies that have them engaging in practices that become named 'anorexia' and 'bulimia'; and sometimes self-harm and/ or thoughts of hopelessness and suicide, usually relating to some sense of personal inadequacy or possibility of imminent failure2. In this article, I describe my conversations with two of these women, Ruby and Natalia. The conversation style, an interweaving of narrative practices, seems to show promise in finding ways forward.

Introdu cing Ru by

Ruby was 17 years old. She attended a local high school and came to see me at the request of her mother, who had a number of concerns about her daughter's increasing sadness and withdrawal from her usual activities, and hoped that counselling would help. Ruby, on the other hand, held out no such hopes, but agreed to meet with me in an attempt to alleviate some of her mother's concern. Ruby herself did not see the point, and was very clear about this from our first meeting. I enquired what she wanted us to do about that. I am not in the habit of coercing people into counselling; so I tried to ensure that Ruby did not feel pressured. We discussed whether there was any point to our conversations. We agreed that at least for one or two sessions, we would chat about 'life' and her mother's concerns.

In our initial conversations, by following Michael White's Statement of Position Maps (White, 2007), Ruby was able to externalise and name 'severe depression' and 'bad body image'3 as being problematic for her, describing their increasing influence on her life. 'Severe depression', Ruby determined, was due to a chemical imbalance in her brain, having already been prescribed medication, but given that she did not believe in taking medications, she held out no hopes for any improvement whatsoever. She also told me that she regarded 'bad body image' as a permanent companion, an inevitable part of 'not matching up to high personal standards'. But 'it' did present a problem because it often spoiled or excluded her from activities and social events she might otherwise have enjoyed, persuaded her to skip meals and was now trying to prevent her from attending school. 'Severe depression' often hung around at those times, too, and supported 'bad body image' in curtailing her activities.

Ou r dile m ma

I had enquired of Ruby whether she had any ideas about how 'bad body image' had insinuated itself into her life, inviting the possibility that there were pressures for her to look a certain way. As part of being transparent in my practice, I do tell the people I work with if I have some ideas about how problems may be constituted, but also that I do not hold a monopoly on ideas, and although Ruby agreed these external pressures existed, she was quite sure they did not apply in her case. She was a photographer herself and knew a great deal about Photoshop, critical media literacy, and the persuasive tricks of advertisers and marketers that have girls and women feeling inadequate about themselves and their bodies. She was adamant that she was not taken in by this. Nor did she hold any beliefs that she had to limit herself to prescribed ways of looking or being as a young woman. She had evidence of this because she found many of her female friends' conversations 'annoying and boring'. She was very clear, however, that as a photographer and an artist she knew what beauty was. …

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