Feminism and food

Earlier this week, Samara posted about how some women feel the need to apologise before eating “bad” food, such as cake. Philomela wrote the response you are about to read, which I think articulates a perspective that needs to be heard. She kindly gave permission to republish her words here as a guest post. This post originally appeared at Reweaving.

After this, and some comments on her original post, Samara wrote some extra explanation, which you will find at the end of this guest post, and you can also read on her original entry – Editor.

Sometimes my body disgusts me, sometimes I despise it, sometimes I am so repulsed by it I want to run razors across it, to burn it, to deny it food, to overload with food and then throw it up again, but you know these feelings can’t be real they must just be a front, according to Samara’s post I can’t really feel guilty or negative about my body and food.

The attitude in this article really angers me, it is both ignorant and dismissive of women with eating disorders/disordered eating.

In the second to last paragraph of the post Samara writes: “We’ll only stop this madness if we refuse to join in.” I can’t refuse to join in, I can’t suddenly not have issues with food just because I want to. I would love to not have issues with food, but I can’t magic them away and nor can other women. It’s good that Samara doesn’t have issues with food, that she has a healthy attitude to food, that’s excellent but its not okay for her to belittle other women, other feminists who have issues with food.

Also food issues are not by and large about food, they are about control, power, space, unacknowledged emotions. From piecing together my own personal narrative my food issues come predominantly from three places:

1) Severe physical neglect in infancy. Studies show that people neglected during infancy have a much higher rate of eating disorders than others because the brain doesn’t lay down the right pathways that regulate your food intake, (for me this means I don’t get hungry till I’m about to faint, and I don’t know when I’m full so I eat too much).

2) My main care givers through most of my childhood were power freaks over food and removed food as a punishment.

3) Severe sexual abuse during my adolescence.

My issues with food are complicated and, unless I spell it out, I don’t think its immediately obvious that I have food issues – but I was borderline anorexic for a really long time, with a bit of bulimia thrown in there, and now I tend to binge eat, and eat things that I know are really bad for me as a kind of self sabotage.

Now I need to lose weight, not want to, need to – I am edging up to a size 18, and that’s not comfortable for me. I have a history of heart disease and diabetes in my family, and I need to take some pressure of my joints, but I find this really difficult to talk about in feminist spaces, because of attitudes like the one in this post and some of its comments. If I talk about healthy ways of trying to lose weight, will I get told that its somehow anti feminist to want to lose weight, even though I have good reason for it?

Then we come down to, actually we do live in a society that expects women to be a certain size and shape, and penalises bigger women. Maybe we should be critiquing why there weren’t any women at that press conference who were over a size 12 – are women over size 12 incapable of being journalists?

I also find the thought of someone making “observations” on someone else’s eating really disturbing. If I know people are watching me eat and making judgments on my food intake, I either stop eating or finish what I’m eating and then go and throw it up.

Yes, we do live in a society where almost all women (whether they are technically eating disordered or not) have an unhealthy relationship with food but I don’t think essentially telling them to buck up and get over it is particularly helpful.

Women will stop having issues with food when we are allowed to take up the psychological and physical space we are entitled to, when we are allowed to display negative emotions rather than repressing them, when we stop having our body boundaries breached, when we stop being told both overtly and subtly that our bodies are messy and out of control and need disciplining.

Working towards these things is much more radical and useful than dismissing women with food issues as being involved in “madness”.


Believe it or not, I was a fully-fledged anorexic by the age of 12, so it’s not as if I’m a stranger to eating disorders! I had an utterly horrific childhood, which I won’t go into here, but let’s just say I’m not quite the privileged middle class type I seem. So I was really horrified that people thought I was referring to women who really did have serious issues with food! The thing is, I had been pretty much unaware of this “I mustn’t eat this and that” culture until such time as I started making a massive effort to get better permanently. When I had promised myself that I would never again restrict what I eat, suddenly the whole world seemed to be telling me that I needed to police my eating habits. The fact that I was trying very hard to no longer police my own consumption really opened my eyes to just how “disordered” most women’s relationship with food seems to be, or rather how disordered the relationship with food that we are “supposed” to have is. It makes me angry that perfectly healthy women feel the need to feel bad when they eat “bad” things, and it makes me angry that if I hadn’t had an eating disorder, if I hadn’t been forced to examine my own attitude to food in order to get better, and if I hadn’t been forced to swear to myself that I would never, ever diet or restrict my food in any way unless I got overweight, perhaps I’d be participating in it too. I’m really sorry if I’ve offended anyone, but I do stand by what I said – I think that most of the time, saying things like, “I shouldn’t eat this, I’m being really naughty” is a frivolous female bonding exercise, but it just doesn’t help any of us. And it especially doesn’t help people who really do have genuine issues. I’ve lost friends over this – for years I was too fragile to be around girls who talked about their restrictive eating habits all the time. I really regret not saying this in the original post, but it seemed a bit too personal at the time. I now realise that a bit of context would have been appropriate! Seriously, I really am sorry, and extend my heartfelt sympathy/empathy/best wishes to anyone of any gender struggling with any kind of eating disorder.

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