The Fiesty Feminist

Rachel has been calling herself a feminist since she was 18. Bold, bright and sharp as a needle, she philosophizes and writes about women, bodies, society’s rather bossy view of women’s bodies and other musings on her brilliant blog. She’s a much-loved and respected voice in the Sydney Morning Herald, NYMag.com, Cosmopolitan and TEDx talks, and her intriguing book, The Sex Myth, is due out in 2015—far too long to wait in my opinion.

We have a mutual friend in New York who introduced us. I was fascinated to interview Rachel because she likes to call herself An Inappropriate Woman. From what I’ve read she’s terrifically appropriately BANG ON with her opinions, plus she’s refreshingly real and honest. Rachel says things others only dare to think in the privacy of their own minds.

Below is my phone chat with this sassy gal:

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R: I’m excited about your site because nobody calls bulimics “fucking awesome.”

BB: Well, we are fucking awesome.

R: But not because we had bulimia.

BB. No! Far from it, but many fucking awesome people have had bulimia. How common do you think it is?

R: I’ve noticed that there tends to be a certain openness amongst people who’ve had an eating disorder (ED). People will admit to it fairly casually to me, perhaps because I admit to it fairly casually myself these days – at least in the past tense. But that openness about eating disorders in the broad, abstract sense doesn’t translate to an openness about bulimia. And that’s not just a fear of triggering people. It’s also about shame. Bulimia isn’t just a disease, or mental illness. It’s a mental illness which is thoroughly unglamorous and uncool.

BB: Definitely. I loved that line you wrote that anorexics are seen to have a tragic real disease and bulimics are thought of as attention-seeking nut jobs.

R: Exactly. Obviously it’s incredibly wrong and socially destructive that we do so, but I think that on a cultural level we glamorize anorexia. We admire its restraint. But there is nothing glamorous or admirable about deciding to throw up what you eat. It just makes you gross.

BB: When did it start for you?

R. It started around my twentieth birthday. It was kind of a perfect storm of triggers. I’d had a bad couple of years – a couple of my close friendships had fallen apart, and the guy I was in love with had basically told me I wasn’t hot enough for him to date. At the same time, I was dealing with the usual high school fears about finding my place in the world, and wondering how I would make my mark. I was very unhappy, and I put the blame on my body.

I remember a friend telling me that if I wanted to lose weight I should try this diet her friend was used. It was one of those crazy, extreme diets that are thankfully out of fashion right now, and basically involved spending your days eating egg whites and drinking lemon water. So, you know, not really “eating” in any real way. But it was supposed to help you lose 15 or 20 pounds in a couple of weeks.

One of the biggest issues I have with the public dialogue around eating disorders is that we make out like there is a clear divide between sanctioned “dieting” behaviors and “sick” eating disorders, when in fact they exist on a continuum with an awful lot of overlap between the two. For me, it didn’t seem like a huge leap to go from drinking lemon water to sticking my fingers down my throat whenever I consumed anything other than lemon water.

At first, I treated bulimia like a grotesque diet; a temporary measure I’d engage in only until I didn’t hate myself anymore. But bulimia only made me hate myself more, which in turn only made me more inclined to engage in bulimic behaviors.

BB: And how long did it go on?

R: About a year and a half in its most acute form. At that point, I freaked out and made a concerted effort to stop. But just as the lines between dieting and eating disorders are blurred, I think the lines between “eating disordered person” and “recovered person” aren’t as clear cut as they are often portrayed either – and that’s another of the things I love about your site. Being “recovered” doesn’t mean never tripping up, never returning to familiar patterns when something goes wrong. For me, it means not letting those familiar patterns become habits again. It means not letting them become the norm.

BB: Did bulimia become a coping mechanism for you to squash or swallow bad feelings or was it just about getting rid of food?

R: Both. You don’t throw up three times a day unless you’re very unhappy with yourself. But getting rid of the food also felt like a way to get rid of my bad feelings, and to turn myself into someone I and other people might like more.

BB: You mentioned you kept a diary during your recovery. Did it help you?

R: Yeah, I think so. I’m at the older end of the internet generation – I like to call us the “Original Gangster Millennials” – and expressing myself online and through writing has always felt very natural to me. When I was actively trying to recover, I kept a Livejournal. It was just about the ED, but it was one of the topics I wrote about. Livejournal had fairly complex privacy settings that allowed you to control who saw your posts at a person by person level, and I knew that there were other young women who read my journal who had also dealt with eating disorders.

As you’ve said elsewhere on your site, people with EDs have a series of codes they use to identify each other. So, if someone lists the name “Marya Hornbacher” under the online interests, for example, you know they’re probably friendly. So if I was having a relapse, either in terms of what I was doing or what I was thinking, I would write about that in my online journal and share it with a small selection of other young women who could commiserate with the situation.

BB: Was that beneficial?

R: It was, actually. In terms of how it functioned, it was the opposite of the pro-ED sites we hear about every now and again in the news. The point of the sharing wasn’t to validate the behavior. It was to have a space where you could talk about what you were experiencing without fear of stigma or punishment. It was exactly what I was craving when I had an ED, and when I was in the early stages of recovery. You feel like you are going through something that no one else around you understands, and that would make people think much less of you if they did know about it. The kind of honesty I was able to find on Livejournal is so important, because eating disorders thrive on secrecy. When it’s no longer a secret, it’s much harder to justify.

BB: Were you successful at hiding your ED?

R: Well, I thought I was successful in hiding it at the time! In retrospect, I’m sure I left a trail of clues behind me. Disappearing to the bathroom when out to dinner with friends at a restaurant. Leaving splashes of vomit in my parents’ toilet. Losing a dramatic amount of weight over six or so months. That said, I don’t think most of my friends or acquaintances had any idea.

I did talk about it with a couple of close friends. I was a very cynical eating disordered person, and one of the coping mechanisms I used to disassociate myself from my behavior was to contextualize what I was doing in broader issues around women, bodies and dieting. [I’d say things like] “So, what I’m going is an extreme version of what society tells me I should be doing anyway. Our society is fucked up for telling me I should be dieting in the first place. But it’s even more fucked up and hypocritical for saying one version of this self-loathing and starvation is okay, but this other version isn’t.” That’s how I would talk about it with my friend. “Ha! I’m getting really thin, huh?” And I’m sure that wasn’t pleasant for her.

I also had friends comment on how great I was looking and say they wanted to be more like me in terms of my commitment to dieting. A couple of them told me I was their “dieting role model.” That made me sad.

BB: Did it make you feel guilty?

R: No, because I knew they didn’t actually want to emulate what I was doing. They wanted the outcomes, not the lifestyle. But the idea that an eating disordered person could be a “dieting role model” made me angry—not at my friends, but that societal framework that says that level of thinness is desirable.

BB: I loved your comment on your blog…You don’t make girls stop starving themselves by telling them not to starve themselves anymore. You do it by making them not sad anymore; by giving them something else to value, to hope for, to aspire to. How did you pull yourself out?

R: I knew that if I continued doing what I was doing, death was a possible outcome. It wasn’t likely, maybe, but it could happen. I remember being on the website Something Fishy  and reading about the dangers. I didn’t want my esophagus to tear. I didn’t want to have a heart attack. My skin had already turned a fleshy shade of grey, and I’d had to go to the dentist to have my first cavities filled. So, it wasn’t hope that made me stop, so much as fear. But I do think that hope and happiness have played a big role in stopping me from sliding back into my old behaviors, and I think they are vital to prevention. Would it be too sweeping a statement to say that happy people don’t get eating disorders?

BB: Yes! But it’s harder for eating disorders to get their grubby mits on your life when you’re in a happy place/state. Admitting to an eating disorder can feel like it’s in direct opposition to being a feminist—so vain, so obsessed about the body. How do you feel about this?

R: I was definitely afraid that some of my feminist friends would think me silly and vain – I recall one of them making an offhand remark about “bulimic cheerleaders.” And like I said, it wasn’t something that I talked about, except to one or two people. But I also think there is a lot of empathy towards eating disorders within the feminist community. It feels to me like I know a disproportionate number of feminists who have had EDs, but it might just be that feminists are more likely to be open about the fact that we have had them. We seem to be less likely to see our eating disorders as personal defects, and more able to put them into a political context.

The period I developed my eating disorder was the same period I was coming into my feminism. I remember reading The Beauty Myth over and over again, feeling grateful for the way it took what I was feeling as an individual, and the screwed up behaviors I was participating in, and put it in the larger cultural framework.

BB: I dived into The Beauty Myth at the peak of my ED too, as I tried to grasp what was happening to me. So how do you get on now with your body?

R: Better than I did. I definitely still have my insecurities. I know on an intellectual level that being thin doesn’t get you the things you want in life. It might give you a popular fashion blog but it doesn’t make you feel loved, and it doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. But the idea that it does is so pervasive, and to separate yourself from that is really different. We’re told that you need to be thin in order to be a successful person, and especially to be a good woman.

My feelings on this subject are evolving, though. Last year I gave a TEDx talk on the same issues my book is about, which was a fantastic opportunity. But when the video went online a couple of months later, I was mortified. I hated the way I looked, to the extent that I still haven’t watched the whole thing.

I felt like in order to be seen, I had to look like the women I saw on TV. I was convinced that I was going to be flooded with comments from internet trolls about my appearance. But nearly a year later, I haven’t had one. I probably will eventually, but knowing that the first 18,000 people who watched my talk couldn’t care less about the way I look – or at least, don’t care enough to write a comment about it on YouTube – has made me realize that the people who do care are in the minority.

But it’s a struggle for me to think of any  women who are totally cool with their bodies or food. That doesn’t mean they are starving themselves because for the most part they’re not, but they have weird ideas of what is OK to eat. We deprive ourselves of things we want, or eat things we don’t want. My husband has a good relationship with food: he enjoys it, doesn’t worry, over or under eat. It’s kind of animalistic in a way. I would like to be like that.

BB: Same! My husband would never eat because he’s upset about something. Is there anything else you want to share?

R: You asked me what rewards I believed I was getting from dieting and bulimia. I think the message that thin equals love was definitely driving me at the time; I thought I would be more attractive and people would like me if I was thin. But when I was thinking about our interview earlier today, I realized even when I thought I was fat there were cute boys who did like me. But I denied this information because it didn’t fit with the unattractive picture I had of myself.

BB: People don’t fall in love with somebody’s body shape (or three quarters of the men in this world would be single!) but it’s hard to believe that when you’re 19. Thank you so much for talking, I can’t wait to read your book.

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