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How Feminism Impacts Eating Disorder Treatment

To start, let’s look at the definition of feminism. It is the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. While it mostly originated in the West, it is manifested worldwide, as shown by various institutions and their commitment to women’s rights and interests. What feminism isn’t is a bunch of male-bashing, bra-burning, angry women — despite that image so often being associated with the word. Feminists are of all genders and seek to promote social and political change for the good of all people.

So what does feminism mean for us? The belief that normative ideas are based in a white, heterosexual, patriarchal society is harmful to everyone, particularly those in marginalized populations. The effect of privilege compounds based on how someone identifies with both privileged groups and marginalized groups. For instance, beauty ideals that are based on white, cisgender, hetero-normative, and patriarchal beliefs (four groups of privilege) are harmful to all women and completely unobtainable by most women.

Clinical Studies That Take a Feminist Approach to Eating Disorder Treatment

While it’s largely accepted that sociocultural influences are risk factors for eating disorders, the impact of these influences in treatment hasn’t always been considered. A 2017 study focused on a 10-week, closed group intervention based on feminist approaches to eating disorders at a residential clinic. The groups allowed the participants to place their problems within a larger cultural context, thus protecting them from dangerous societal ideologies and reducing the feelings of self-blame.

Based on the increasing prevalence of eating disorders, especially in women, another study considered the social, cultural, and historical roots of these illnesses. Traditional models of psychology are grounded in a patriarchal, individualistic society, while feminist psychology looks at eating disorders as a reaction to the oppression of women, suggesting that eating disorders serve as a form of coping and protection for women. Ultimately, this viewpoint suggests that “eating disorders are a cultural disease” that should be examined not only from an individual context but also from a familial, intergenerational context and a larger, socio-cultural context.

The Role of Feminism in Eating Disorder Treatment

Feminism is necessary for successful eating disorder treatment. In order to establish productive, long-lasting treatment, we have to understand and acknowledge the macro-, meso- (small-group influence), and micro-influences that impact a woman’s self-esteem, self-worth, and body image as well as her relationship with food.

Below are three examples of beliefs that feminist psychologists would work to address with eating disorder clients that affect a woman’s sense of worth and, if left unaddressed, would ultimately prevent recovery:

  • Good girls eat salads. Burgers are for men.

  • A woman’s worth is based on her appearance, while a man’s worth is based on his prestige.

  • Female beauty norms involve sexualizing women and addressing the double-standard of being sexualized while being shamed for being overly sexual.

During eating disorder treatment, feminists seek a full societal change that reaches beyond the individual. Throughout and after recovery, clients are encouraged to be advocates for positive body image in women and to challenge destructive societal and gender norms that oppress them and other women. Feminists also believe that there is a need for extreme self-love to fight against the shame, discrimination, and body terrorism that women face each and every day. These components are necessary for complete eating disorder recovery and societal shifts that will be preventative factors for others developing eating disorders.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, reach out to Dr. Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, CEDS at Coral Reef Counseling, and schedule a free consultation or telehealth appointment today.


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