Body Politics

By Madigan, Stephen | Family Therapy Networker, November/December 1994 | Go to article overview

Body Politics


Madigan, Stephen, Family Therapy Networker


The Anti-Anorexia League turns patients into activists.

I WAS EMBARRASSED BY HOW MANY times I had to ask the caller to repeat herself. In a barely audible voice, Rose, a 28-year-old woman who had suffered with anorexia for 12 years, was calling for help. She lived in a remote area 600 miles north of our clinic where there were no therapeutic services for "eating disorders." Not sure of what else to do, I asked her to write me a letter outlining the effects of anorexia on her life and her attempts to combat it.

1 ended our conversation by asking Rose not to correct any spelling errors and to include cross outs and improper grammar in the letter. The year before, in a similar situation, another woman struggling with anorexia had stayed up for 36 hours, far past the point when blood was trickling from her hand, trying desperately to write me a perfectly sculpted letter.

I was bothered by how little I had to offer Rose and by the lack of therapeutic services available to her. Later that day, I decided to pose my dilemma to members of an inpatient anti-anorexia/ anti-bulimia group I was running. To my delight, the women in the group came up with the idea of a letter-writing campaign. What followed was a monthly exchange of letters with Rose in which group members described their experiences with anorexia and bulimia and offered strategies on how to resist everything from anorexic guilt and women's magazines to the debilitating effects of medication what the group calls "spychiatric" drugs.

This exchange of letters turned out to be the first activity of the Vancouver Anti-anorexia/Anti-bulimia League, which enables group members to make the shift from patients to community activists and consultants. In helping at the level of community, they assist other women and families, and in turn, they are helping themselves.

Years before we began our League, narrative therapist David Epston started collecting what he called an "archive" of audiotapes, letters and artwork contributed by former clients that offered unique solutions to an assortment of longstanding problems, such as temper tantrums, night fears, school refusing, asthma and, of course, anorexia and bulimia. With the permission of the contributors, David circulates these materials among people who seek his help. In addition, he frequently uses former clients as consultants, regarding them as experts on problems they have overcome. The Vancouver Anti-anorexia/Anti-bulimia League works in a similar way, although we have established ourselves more as a grass-roots organization with regular meetings, a newsletter and specific membership committees and responsibilities.

The League has grown to well over 300 people, and new members enlist each week. League membership is open to women and men struggling with the effects of anorexia and bulimia, as well as therapists, families, lovers and friends. We have joined together as citizens to fight against those institutional conditions that keep people struggling with anorexia and bulimia trapped inside their problem stories, and in problematic "helping" systems that keep them in the patient role.

Beginning with the correspondence to Rose, the League became increasingly interested in establishing anti-anorexic/ anti-bulimic networks. The League has compiled a collection of reading material and personal stories for preventive education and offers consultation to community and professional groups. In addition, it has put together a recommended referral list of mental health professionals who League members feel are accountable and responsible practitioners (and those they feel are not! …

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