I’ve come a long way from the fragile woman I was at the height of my anorexia at the age of 19 — 117 pounds, bruises blooming across my hips from the unbearable violence of my backpack straps against my waist. Obsessively counting every calorie that passed my lips; salads without dressing; hours and hours and hours of exercise. That was, as I’ve written before, a shadow life, and one that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s no way to live a life in this glorious world. Half-starved and mad with hunger.
I believe what many say about eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder — they are all rooted in an unhealthy relationship to our bodies and to food. Two sides of the same coin: at the root, it is about power, control and a deep-seated need to punish yourself for your perceived failures or flaws. Some people turn their anger towards others. Those with eating disorders turn their anger inwards. As a friend astutely pointed out, restrictive eating disorders are one of western society’s most openly acceptable forms of self-harm.
Over the thirteen years that I struggled with disordered eating, I’ve come to realise a lot about human psychology, power, patriarchy and misogyny. The way we define, categorise and conceive of beauty and attractiveness, value and femininity have nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with controlling women (and men), making them malleable, silencing them.
Now that I am recovery (much like an alcoholic, you never fully leave disordered eating behind, you just learn to mitigate its hold over you and find other healthier behaviours to compensate for whatever it was in your life that triggered the disordered eating to begin with), I finally have the energy to scan the social and political environment I had so quickly succumbed to and say “WAIT A MINUTE”.
One of the most difficult aspects of recovery is not only adjusting your sense of yourself, but also how others are discomfitted with your changing body. And you will hear the whole gamut of ‘concern-trolling’ as you exit the anorexic/bulimic cycle and establish a healthy and loving relationship with your body and with food. “Why are you letting yourself go?”. “I’m worried you are going to become morbidly obese”. “I’m worried you’re holding on to the weight to keep people away”. These are all things I have heard about my body at its current size.
These kinds of statements are different in tone and meaning from insight from people who have a genuine knowledge of health and diet who are offering constructive thoughts on how to maximise your health as you recover. Who genuinely want you to recover and be strong and healthy. It’s one thing for someone to offer reflections on your health when they know what you’re going through, have experienced recovery themselves or have medical training. That’s one thing. But when people just blurt out statements about your body to emphasise that your body is unacceptable or unattractive to them — these serve a different purpose. Amber Rogers of the fitness/wellness site “Go Kaleo” talks about this phenomenon. As she has shown, statements and judgements about women’s bodies at ALL sizes, which are often rooted in flawed body metrics, are meant to inform you that you, as a woman, should NOT be taking up space. Because women are meant to be shadows, shadows that don’t threaten men in the work place, or the street or the boardroom or the bedroom or in media or anywhere that patriarchy sets the rules.
Why do I know these statements about my body are different from genuine concern for me as a human? Because when I was still anorexic (photo below) I heard exactly the same commentary! The tiniest fluctuation in my weight when I was a size 4-6 would garner unsolicited feedback from others. People would police me and my body, not because they were worried about my health, but because they were threatened by the fact that I am good at what I do, I am articulate, and I fight hard for social justice issues. I achieve things in my life because I work my ass off for them. This threatens people. IT was never (and still isn’t) about my body, my health or my beauty. It was and is about the fact that I am an Indigenous woman who refuses to occupy the tiny little corner of society ‘allowed’ for me.
I realise, now, that whether you’re 200 lbs or 120 lbs, you’ll hear the same derogatory and judgemental comments about your body as a woman. Because it isn’t about your well-being. I offer a caution here, too, in terms of efforts to decolonise our lives as Indigenous people. Some, in a well-meaning attempt to outline tools to use to decolonise Indigenous realities in North America, argue that we should adopt ‘decolonised diets’ in order to reassert relationships to land, foodways, legal orders and enact nationhood. In principle — I agree. Reclaiming foodways is a fundamental step towards resisting colonial notions of what land is good for and how we should relate to the land and one another (ie: viewing land as a source of food through hunting and fishing versus a place to enact destructive ‘economic development’ projects). However, I qualify this idea as an Indigenous woman who has struggled to assert myself in the landscape of eating disorders and immense pressures on women to adopt increasingly rigid and restrictive habits to gain approval of our male peers. As Rogers argues with her concept of ‘taking up space’, whenever we start to set rigid rules about diets, bodies and the ‘perfect’ way to inhabit a way of being — these are easily co-opted as tools to make sure you do NOT take up space and threaten the male gaze or male dominance in society. I’ve come to realise that rigidity, whether couched in righteous rhetoric or not, is rarely rooted in love — it is rooted in fear. And women are almost always the biggest losers when we adopt rigid notions of how to perfectly enact, perform, or embody our sense of being without making simultaneous efforts to acknowledge and dismantle how women succumb to pressure to take up as little physical and intellectual space as possible in patriarchal societies. Any kind of ideology that involves a ‘perfect’ way of eating (whether you ascribe to veganism, paleo or try to adopt enthusiastic and thoughtful eating of bison, venison and other foods like I do) has to acknowledge that women are continuously under pressure to not take up space.
I have written elsewhere about how my reclaiming of my body has been a dual battle, because I am not only reclaiming my body but also re-asserting my right as an Indigenous woman to take up space, to root myself in my ancestor’s territories, and to speak loudly and strongly about things I have directly experienced as an Indigenous woman. So, my suggestion is not that we become obsessive about the act of decolonizing our diets (which can slip into the same dangerous food fundamentalism that has fueled many an eating disorder), but rather strive to decolonise our relationships between our bodies and food and land. This allows us to acknowledge that eating disorders can be one tool that is applied in a patriarchal AND colonial way to control women’s occupation of space, and enables us to work to support healthy and loving relationships to our bodies even if we cannot access as many of the traditional foods we wish we could (due to geography, access, pollution, lack of access to a hunter within our kinship networks (for example a cherished and dear cousin who hunted in our family passed away this year, leaving my urban Michif family without someone to hunt for us until us younger folks learn to hunt safely and wisely), or a host of many other things that can restrict access to Indigenous/traditional foods). It is not about being perfect, it’s about embodying the relationships that counter and resist colonialism and patriarchy to the best of your abilities, within the circumstances you find yourself. Are you a single mum raising your kids in the city? Then I’m not going to shame you for not being able to feed your kids caribou or moose all the time. Rather, I want to make space for YOUR knowledge, your body, your ways of being to be held in just as high regard as anyone else’s.
‘Your body, your business’ is my new motto, as someone who has endured the painful journey of eating disorders and their poisonous magic. I will love my body fiercely. I will love your body fiercely. But I will never place conditions on how it needs to perform, look, behave, act or occupy space to my own liking. I just want you, all of you — your spirit, your mind, your body, your story — to resonate with however you need it to. And to ensure you have access to all the tools you need to be strong, well and fierce. And all I ask is that I am offered the same dignity in return. Loving accountability. Loving reciprocity. And love for our bodies in their myriad ways of behaving, breathing, living, running, singing, dancing, thinking, nurturing and loving.
So I say: to heck with all of the conditions that are placed on women’s bodies across the full spectrum of society. Take up space. Be loud. Critique things that don’t work. Speak your mind. Don’t back down. Be the badass tigress or tiger that you have always been. Love ferociously, use loving accountability to keep people honest, transparent. Fight for what you believe in. Treat your body with kindness and gentleness. Fuel it however it best operates. And never, ever, ever feel like you need to live your life to please someone else. And if you want to wear galaxy leggings and a dress that shows off your soft body, go for it. Because you’re more than a body — you’re a force of nature here to leave the world a bit better than you found it.