Living one’s values are difficult for any human. Living one’s values when those values are idealistic, compassionate, and come from a deep and open heart can be extremely difficult. Life throws “life” at you and you seek to respond in the way that would make you feel proud of yourself.
That doesn’t always work.
This morning, an editor from Feministing.com Chloe Angyal published an essay confessing that she’s been starving herself. You can read the whole essay here. The tl;dr is that Chloe (I’m calling her Chloe because I’ve known her socially for years and it feels weird to refer to her in the formal “Angyal”) became interested in eating disorders awareness after she became artistic director of her all-girls dance company in college. She made a mandate within the company to stop with negative body-talk and then became involved in a campus eating disorders awareness and prevention group. (Through that group, she met the lovely Courtney E. Martin, who brought her to Feministing.) She’s been reading, blogging and editing Feministing for several years.
And for the past two years, she’s also been starving herself.
[...] I need to tell you that for the last two years, I haven’t been completely honest with you, readers. While I’ve been blogging about pernicious beauty standards, about the need for realistic images of women in media, about loving your body, I’ve been hating mine. I’ve been hurting myself. I’ve been starving.
The reasons it started are manifold and aren’t really relevant right this second. And in case you’re wondering, I’m doing much better now. The reason I want to ask your forgiveness is because feminist leaders are not supposed to fall down this hole. Feminist leaders, especially those who are former Presidents of the Princeton Eating Concerns Advisors for god’s sake, are supposed to know better. After all, we know all about the Beauty Myth and we know how photoshop works and we know that it is a radical act to resist the homogenized impossible unattainable commercial vision of what beauty is. We know all this. Which is why, when I fell down that hole, I couldn’t tell anyone about it. On top of everything else – on top of being miserable and ashamed and really fucking hungry – I felt like a bad feminist, and I left like a flaming hypocrite. I felt like I was letting my readers down.
I feel a lot of things about Chloe’s admission, including relief that she’s now getting help for her disordered eating and underlying issues — because there are always underlying issues leading to mental illness. And of course I believe that publicly writing about any type of mental illness is very brave, because we live in a society that is not as compassionate as it should be towards people who are suffering. (I know this, obviously, because I’ve written about my struggles with depression.)
But it also troubles me — troubles me greatly, in fact — that Chloe feels the need to apologize for her eating disorder because she feels like “a bad feminist, “a flaming hypocrite” and like she was “letting [her] readers down.” I don’t actually disagree that the circumstances are not hypocritical: publicly preaching one thing but privately performing another thing is the very definition of hypocrisy. It’s big of her to be able to admit that.
But I don’t blame Chloe herself, not really. I blame this Capital F Feminism concept that there is a code a “public feminist” is supposed to follow that doesn’t allow us to be fucking people with insecurities and desires and mental illnesses and a list of mistakes like any other human. The repeated apologies and self-flagellation in Chloe’s piece indicate a person whose standard for herself is “the perfect feminist.” Chloe hasn’t just let Chloe down because she has been starving herself; she’s apologizing because she believes she’s let other people down who supposedly look up to her as “the perfect feminist.” As if people care. As if people are watching. As if she’s not acceptable just the way she is. This message is judgmental of other women with eating disorders because it’s telling them they’re bad feminists too.
I call bullshit. The “perfect feminist” does not exist, nor should it. Being a feminist is about the belief that all people deserve equal opportunities regardless of their gender and sexuality. That, I think, should be enough. Adding all these other litmus test items — works outside of the home after having kids! keeps last name upon marriage! loves how she looks without makeup on! pays for herself on every date! — are just things that the folks who claim to be the arbiters of Capital F Feminism created which actually do more harm than good because they make women like Chloe feel like shit.
Life is really not that black and white for most of us. Some things are gray and we need to accept the grayness — whether it’s the “public feminist” with the eating disorder or the woman who marries and takes her husband’s name — because divided we fall. It’s more important that “public feminists” accept there are no “perfect feminists” than it is for them to whip themselves into a frenzy in fear of judgment. And believe me, I get the fear of judgment. Capital F Feminists have been some of the nastiest, most judgmental people I’ve ever seen in my life, and dudettes, I used to go to an evangelical youth group. It doesn’t need to be like this. I wish it wasn’t like this. The feminism that I want to be a part of is one that unites around our deep conviction of equality, not around what we can tick off on the litmus test. Quite the contrary: I think one of the most radical things a feminist can do is radically accept herself.
I’m sorry for anyone is struggling with body image issues. But I would never accuse Chloe — a smart, articulate, talented, clever woman — of being a “bad feminist” because her personal feelings, disordered as they may be, are at odds with her convictions. Life is complicated.
Chloe’s life is allowed to be complicated.
If you or someone you know needs treatment for an eating disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association’s confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237 and find additional resources here.
Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter.
[Photo of Chloe Angyal via Equal-Writes.org]