Superwoman doesn't exist: Femininity, identity, and eating disorders
I've been trying to write a post about femininity and eating disorders for weeks, but I've really struggled with where to begin. I want to talk about the female body, puberty, periods, pregnancy, motherhood, the symbolism of being a woman, and gendered pressures and expectations - all within the context of disordered eating. I want to talk about it all, because it's SO important. But in reality, it's too much to cover in one post. I've also realised that I was trying to write about femininity without incorporating too much of my own experience, because I got caught up in thinking that this is the most 'professional' thing for me to do. Ultimately, it just didn't feel authentic for me to write in this way, so it's no wonder I've scrapped about ten different drafts! This in itself is hugely ironic, because so much of my own experience of embracing my femininity has involved letting go of perceived expectations. So, that being said, that seems like a good enough place to start.
As a woman who was born and raised in Western culture, I constantly feel pressure from my sociocultural landscape to be, act, look, and feel certain ways. I wanted to find a way of articulating this, so I sat down and compiled the most obvious ones (for me) and painted a picture of the woman that I would be if I were to live up to them. Here's a description of what I got:
I'm thinner and fitter. I love spending time at the gym.
My stomach is flat, and my skin is smoother and brighter.
I don't wear my Nike's and activewear whenever I please because I'm a professional and I dress like one.
My hair is longer and shinier.
Cellulite? What's cellulite?
When I'm cranky and tired, I keep it to myself and smile instead.
My living space is always clean and tidy, and laundry always gets put away as soon as it's dry.
When I'm angry, I always voice it in an adult and kind way that takes into consideration the feelings of the other person.
I rarely raise my voice, except in excitement.
I never drink too much, and I hate beer.
The thought of having children doesn't scare me.
Heavy metal music, on the other hand, terrifies me.
I never go to a meeting with spinach stuck in my teeth.
I never snort when I laugh.
I am always cool, calm, and collected.
I rarely feel overwhelmed, because all of this comes naturally to me.
I could go on and on about what I would be like, look like, and how I would act and feel if I embodied all of this as a woman. It would be easy for me to compare myself to this list and feel anxious or not good enough because I don't tick all of the boxes. I could easily beat myself up in an attempt to motivate myself to become that woman - and I used to.
I spent a long time trying to be a Superwoman, because I thought that it's how the world wanted me to be. But the harder I tried, the harder I felt I needed to work in order to achieve it - and the more I felt paralyzed with anxiety. Why? Because I used to believe that I had to become my idea of Superwoman in order to be loved, to be successful, and to find true happiness.
But here's the thing: It's bullshit. That superwoman doesn't exist, and cannot exist, because she isn't me. I like beer (and my non-flat stomach); I listen to Black Sabbath; I often feel bored at the gym; I get anxious sometimes; and for all I know I could have spinach stuck between my teeth as I'm writing this! The picture that I painted of myself as a woman was based on other people's expectations, patriarchal ideals, gendered stereotypes, and a fear of vulnerability. What's more, striving to embody it all came at the detriment of my happiness, wellbeing, relationships, and spontenaity. Trying to be Superwoman ultimately distanced me from my authentic self and kept me focused on what I was lacking instead of the myriad of qualities that make me unique and amazing. Once I realised that I am accountable only to my authentic self, things started to shift. Now, that doesn't mean that I've stopped trying to achieve things in my life. It simply means that I no longer base my happiness on whether I tick everyone else's boxes. Some days it's easier to stay true to this than others, but that's ok too.
The reason why I'm sharing this with you is to highlight what I mean about the symbolism of being a woman, and the difficulties that can arise from internalised gendered ideals and stereotypes. This is so important within the context of eating disorders, because they're fundamentally a way of trying to cope with difficult experiences and feelings. Coming to terms with, and finding a way of embracing our gendered identities can be painful and difficult. It's hard for heterosexual cisgender individuals, and I believe that it can be even more painful for homosexual or transgendered individuals. I could write a whole post about this, but for now I'll stick to women...
Gendered identity is one of the reasons why the onset of disordered eating often begins, at least for many woman, at puberty. It's terrifying and overwhelming when we put in to context everything that happens during puberty: Our bodies are rapidly changing; hormones are starting to pulse through our veins and brains, having an impact on how we see ourselves and our emotions; we are flirting with ideas of independence, belonging, and connection; and we open ourselves up to the reality that we are becoming a woman - with all of the pressure and ideals that come with it. For women, the physical changes associated with puberty, especially the onset of menstruation, are also deeply symbolic of the responsibilities bestowed upon us by Mother Nature to be caregivers, creators of life, mothers. For some women (and for various reasons ranging from personality to abuse) the symbolism of developing an eating disorder can be rooted in the fear of this responsibility. It can feel safer to stay in a small, child-like body that's unable to menstruate because that body has the power to communicate the fear of bearing children and taking on adult, maternal responsibilities and sacrifices, without needing to articulate and voice it. For others, the eating disordered body and mind can symbolise a rejection of the caregiver role and it can be a way of communicating a desire to be cared for.
Intimacy is also a deep-rooted symbol in the context of eating disorders. By having an all-consuming relationship with food and body image, it's difficult to have deep and meaningful connections with others. For some, this can be a way of creating distance from others in order to protect from rejection and pain. For others, it can symbolise self-punishment for deeply rooted negative self-beliefs about not being good enough.
Everybody's experience of their gendered identity is different, and it's shaped by the various contexts that we live in. It can also be symbolic of how we see and feel about ourselves. Every woman has a different experience and understanding of femininity, and many women have their own version of Superwoman that could be holding them back from embracing their authentic selves. Trying to create meaning from this within the context of the eating disorder can be painful, but it can also be hugely empowering. And it's a process that is only possible when look below the surface, and symptoms, of the eating disorder x
**photo courtesy of Google search, but credit goes to: https://dehsvl.nl/superwoman/