Monthly Archives: November 2006

Politics and Recovery

Laurie and Debbie say:

An extremely thoughtful post from Feral Scholar got us thinking about how profoundly the disease metaphor was a very successful 20th century way to depoliticize the oppression of many groups, including women. Stan Goff at Feral Scholar focuses mostly on anorexia and the problems of returning soldiers to make a point which he generalizes some, and we can generalize even further. We especially agree with what he says about control.

Childhood sexual abuse, rape, body-image obssession cultivated for profit, and war all attack real human bodies, and they are all exercises of power. The woman who purges, as well as the veteran who self-medicates with alcohol, are both caught in the paradox that they have experienced a fundamental loss of control over their own lives, that they attempt to re-establish control in these highly circumscribed ways, and that even this “control” is lost as it becomes an obssessive ritual. Suddenly, one day, they discover that the ritual itself has become their prison.

The disease metaphor, starting to replace the religious worldview in the late 19th century, had the initial virtue of saying that “[your problem, whatever it is] is not a sin – you’re not evil,” which could be an enormous help to queers, drinkers, rebellious women, and others. From that good start, it transmuted into an amazingly effective tool of social control.

Women literally had to shake off the bonds of Freud in order to realize that disliking passive submission to their husbands, just to give one example, was not their fault. This growing understanding helped build the second wave of feminism. Pressure from the women’s movement at that time forced the psychiatric establishment to revise some of its basic assumptions about what made women “crazy.” The same phenomenon happened a decade or so later with the first wave of queer liberation, after which psychiatry admitted that homosexuality was not a disease.

Remarkably soon after these silences were broken and the discipline of feminist therapy seriously developed, the backlash began. And the medical establishment (as a reflection of the culture) responded by reconstructing a better-fortified version of individual disease-oriented therapies. When the message of the medical profession to an unhappy person is that they should turn their attention completely in on themselves, they are left isolated and, however “supportive” the therapy may be, in some ways profoundly alone.

If “I have cancer” is a statement about a disease, then “I am deeply unhappy and in pain because of my personal history,” is not. Using the word “disease” to cover both of those statements, and the entire spectrum in between, does great harm.

The fact that 50% of eating disorders are believed to be associated with early sexual abuse, the fact that the most common origin for PTSD is rape, the fact that rape and combat are situations where there are sudden and terrifying losses of control… these connections are always turned inward for resolution, approached with an individual therapeutic orientation, and medicalized with the treatments commodified… this should alert us to something. Beginning with the fact that were women not sexually abused and attacked, and socially subordinated in ways that associate their intrinsic worth with appearance, and stripped of any agency… and begining with the fact that men don’t just take the wrong turn on the way to work one day and end up in combat zones, we might assume that there is a social-power dimension, and therefore a political dimension to all these “disorders.”

Knowing that you need to get help is obviously an important step towards change. The original post is, in our view, too broadly condemnatory of 12-step programs. AA, NA, and the other community-based, free 12-step programs vary widely. As a result, some of them pay major attention to the social change aspects of the problems as well as the individual life changes. And the ones that create real community are doing extremely good work.

To say that our agonies are caused by a society that mistreats and frequently tortures us in childhood (not to mention later in life) is not to say that help is not possible. It is rather to say that help which ignores or denies the context of the larger social issues will frequently tend to be both palliative and limited.

If you’re an incest survivor, saying “My family was abusive as an isolated and detached phenomenon” isn’t nearly as helpful as saying, “My family was abusive as part of a system that encourages and supports the abuse of women and children.” (If you’re interested, read Alice Miller.) Understanding the social system does not make the individual situation less dreadful, but it provides both a sense of community and a relationship to others who share your history. This allows your process to be neither palliative nor limited. Also, it gives you a way to deal with patriarchal society without feeling that this is personally about you. Yet another way in which the personal is truly the political.

Thanks to Marcia for the pointer.

disease, recovery, social control, therapy, Alice Miller, feminism, anorexia, 12-step,psychology,PTSD,post traumatic stress disorder, child abuse, eating disorders, Body Impolitic

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Academically Fat

Laurie and Debbie say:

Fat: It’s not just for the diet ads any more.

Immediately after Thanksgiving, the New York Times ran an article about the growing fat studies movement. Although the article focuses on a conference that happened six months ago at Smith College, if you read it carefully, you’ll see that it’s actually about fat studies: conferences, journals, books, experts, courses … and, of course, naysayers.

It has taken a few decades for the subject to shift from public finger-wagging by fat advocates to study in the classroom. Susan Koppelman, a retired professor of women’s studies and editor of The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe, a collection of essays on body politics, likened it to the other social and political movements of the last century that gained credence on college campuses.

“How far back does the black civil rights movement go in America before we have a field called African-American studies?” Ms. Koppelman said. “The academic world, like the American government, has a system of checks and balances that makes change very slow to happen.”

For us, reading this article is like visiting old friends: we’ve worked many of the people mentioned, including Marilyn Wann, Sandra Solovay, Esther Rothblum, Kathleen LeBesco, and Elena Escalera. It’s very exciting to see our work gaining this kind of legitimacy, and national attention.

We agree with Susan Stinson about the bookshelf illustration: “It’s symptomatic of a kind of visual smirking that the mainstream media regularly indulges in when the subject is fat … that I find gratuitous and insulting.”

As for the anti-fat commentators quoted in the article, they are (as usual) underinformed, wrong, and just plain boring:

“People sometimes use the fact that there are controversies in science to disparage all of science or to neglect the fact that there’s also a lot of consensus in science,” Professor Krimsky said. “Sometimes people on the margins that are critiquing the mainstream can be right. You have to have permeable walls in science. But that doesn’t mean the critics of today are going to be the mainstream of tomorrow.”

We know that “consensus in science” has, at various times in the past, been sure that tomatoes were poisonous, that the four-minute mile was a physical impossibility, and that African-American brain cases were physically smaller than European-American brain cases. (P.S. None of these things are or were ever true.)

Sometimes the critics of today are the mainstream of tomorrow. Which is why it’s important to see us getting attention today.

Thanks to Lynn Kendall for being first with the pointer.

fat, weight, size acceptance, body image, body positive, college, fat studies, Body Impolitic

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