What the Heck is Gender Inclusivity?
A December 2012 search on Amazon.com for “eating disorders” revealed the following: out of thirty books, only five were authored or co-authored by men. Take away the more academic writings such as clinical handbooks or guides tailored to professionals and only include books written for a general consumer audience (such as parental guides, self-help books, memoirs) that number drops to three out of thirty, or ten percent – which is, coincidentally, the same estimated percentage of male anorexics.
While the sex of the author(s) doesn’t necessarily determine the content or focus of the writing, the more noteworthy finding is that of the first thirty results, fourteen out of thirty books (essentially half) either specifically had words like ‘woman’ or ‘girls’ in the title or, despite a gender-neutral title, featured a female on the cover. The latter is especially concerning because the titles and descriptions of these books without mention of women or girls sound as though they written in a gender-inclusive or gender-neutral fashion, but then through their cover art or imagery implied that they were actually written for or about women. I don’t mean to criticize any authors or their work, though. I just see it as a byproduct of a feminized recovery culture.
Maybe you’ve never considered the idea that we have a gendered recovery culture. As a male who suffered from anorexia, though, I know it all too well. While the search results on Amazon weren’t surprising, they’re still disappointing. They also provide proof of how little has changed since I was in recovery – much of my own recovery from anorexia required me to squeeze into a recovery culture which had been tailored and designed for women. To create space and dialogue which is gender-inclusive means we need to examine the reasons that negative body image and eating disorders have historically been associated with women or regarded as a “women’s problem.” Given that it’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, this seems a fitting topic. After all, we have a huge recovery culture which has a cursory awareness of eating disorders in males but rarely includes them in a visible way.
After all, females make up the statistical majority of eating disorder patients. Women are also targeted far more by the beauty and diet industry, which has a special knack for making up solutions for problems that don’t exist: Dove, the same company which has received so much praise for their ads highlighting women of all manner of size and shape simultaneously markets deodorant to make your armpits less ugly. This is like wrinkle cream (which, to this day, has never been proven to work) on steroids, not to mention rather hypocritical.
Yes, we are bombarded by so many messages about fixing bodily “imperfections” (which, by the way, I maintain don’t actually exist) that I think it’s often assumed that all women, by sake of being female, harbor insecurities over their body and appearance. This cultural common knowledge creates an atmosphere that frames body image and, by association, eating disorders, as ontologically feminine concerns.
As a result, males with eating disorders must also face the cultural backlash of a heteronormative masculine ideal which rejects typically feminine traits or behaviors in men. Homophobia and male gender policing converge here, and a male with an eating disorder is a person who’s sexual and gender identity are threatened and called into question. These additional barriers no doubt prevent males from seeking help sooner than they might otherwise, which is a very worrisome thing when you consider how serious and often deadly an eating disorder can be.
So what do we do? I think we are capable of constructing a recovery culture which is gender-inclusive, one which does not disregard the experiences of anyone based on their sex or gender identity, but also one which does not exclude anyone based on those things. We do it first in our daily lives, when we write and talk about eating disorders. We don’t exclusively use male OR female pronouns in our discussions, as well as our blog posts, research articles, or books.
There are many valid reasons why females have been the primary focus. Women’s bodies are still inequitably scrutinized, and far greater value is placed on women’s appearances. I think a truly gender inclusive approach to recovery culture has the potential to deconstruct the arbitrary value placed on appearances. It also has the potential to be a unique space to redefine masculinity by acknowledging that males can struggle with negative body image and are susceptible to eating disorders.
I’d love to search for “eating disorders” on Amazon in a few years and get results which are inclusive and representative of people with eating disorders. As it stands, there are too few resources available which, to the average consumer, appear to be relevant to a diverse population.
And only we can change that.
Matt Wetsel is an eating disorder survivor turned activist, based in Richmond, VA. He’s a regular volunteer lobbyist with the Eating Disorders Coalition and currently serves on the EDC Junior Board. You can keep up with him at http://arenomore.wordpress.com or on Twitter.