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Friday, February 11, 2011

debunking the beauty myth: my journey to feminism

                The French philosopher Denis Diderot once famously wrote of young women, "You all die at fifteen."  A few hundred years later, his words still contain a bitter kernel of truth, in light of the obsession that quietly, insidiously ravages the minds and bodies of Western women trapped within the golden cage of the beauty myth.*

                I first put myself on a diet at age eleven. I have been on that diet ever since, and it's less a way of eating than a state of mind: a relentless awareness of my weight, of the space I occupy in the world, of the sound of my footsteps and the ring of my voice.

                Like many women, I struggled with disordered eating throughout most of my adolescence.  For years, I despised myself for having deliberately squandered my youth in the pursuit of self-destruction, and I mourned the loss of so many opportunities I had both taken for granted and refused to accept.  I considered myself an unequivocal failure.  There’s a passage in Abra Fortune Chernik’s essay The Body Politic that changed my perspective:

"I had been willing to accept self-sabotage, but now I refused to sacrifice myself to a society that profited from my pain.  I finally understood that my eating disorder symbolized more than ‘personal psychodynamic trauma.’  Gazing in the mirror at my emaciated body, I observed a woman held up by her culture as the physical ideal because she was starving, self-obsessed and powerless, a woman called beautiful because she threatened no one but herself."

                Reading these words, for the first time, I began to understand how to forgive myself for harboring this sick obsession that compels women from all walks of life to self-destruct in the name of beauty.  Still in recovery, I know all too well that issues with weight and body dissatisfaction are incredibly difficult to overcome, especially in a culture that equates thinness with health, happiness, and moral fortitude.  But although education and enlightenment alone cannot cure clinical eating disorders, an awareness of the cultural forces that encourage women to maintain unwavering control of their bodies is one of the many factors that have helped me to triumph over my own struggles and to gain a sense of empowerment.   The beauty myth is only one of many feminist concerns, but it wasn't until stumbling upon an introductory course in women's studies that I found a new way of understanding the roots of my eating disorder and the drive to fight against it. I hope this blog will be a place for other students to confront or share their own struggles and revelations, and to find their voice in the way that I have found mine.

*Hilde Bruch's The Golden Cage, published in 1974, was a groundbreaking book on the pyschopathology of anorexia nervosa; The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf was first published in 1991 and examines how women have come to be more firmly oppressed by cultural beauty ideals even while gaining political and economic power.  Look out for future blog posts on these and similar books!

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