Obesity Moral Panics and the Gendered Presentation of Disordered Eating

The news here recently reported on a new study suggesting that eating disorder rates in Australia have more than doubled in the last decade, and the rates of “regular disordered eating” (that doesn’t necessarily coincide with a diagnosable eating disorder) have nearly tripled.

One of the researchers indicates that the issue spreading to ‘groups not typically affected by weight issues’. Whilst I think it is a problem that the sort of weight-and-food-obsession that drives disordered eating is spreading, what Professor Hay’s comment suggests is that disordered eating and eating disorders aren’t a problem if it only affects those we believe to be ‘typically’ affected – that is, women. Of course, this presentation isn’t only about the researcher’s comments, but how they’re framed in reporting.

Women were five times more likely to have a disorder than men, but the study found a sharp rise in males with the problems, particularly bingeing.

“It’s a clear problem when it’s spreading into groups that weren’t typically affected by weight issues,” Prof Hay said.

Eating disorders double, The Courier-Mail, 29 April 2007

Of course, when you frame ‘groups typically affected’ as women (which, incidentally, obscures the class and race issues that also tend to shape the notion of which women are affected), the idea that “it’s a clear problem when it’s spreading” suggests that it wasn’t a problem before. Which of course is perfect fodder for the idea that eating disorders and disordered eating patterns are just about women being weak and silly.

That said, the study isn’t all bad news. Despite my issues with how it frames the issue in terms of gender, the study does do some good things. I’m not sure precisely how it distinguishes between ‘full blown eating disorders’ and ‘regular disordered eating’, but I suspect that’s largely because I’m not trained in psychology or psychiatric research. And despite my lack of knowledge, my intuition is that the distinction is important (if problematic), because whilst eating disorders are obviously quite serious, I think the prevalence of ‘regular disordered eating’, and the very naming of the phenomenon that way, says a lot about how warped our relationships with food can be, and how normalised that problem can (and has) become.

The researchers also, albeit cautiously, suggest that the rise in eating disorders and disordered eating is at least in part related to the public moral panic about obesity. I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether the obesity epidemic is real or not, because that discussion gets old really quickly, but this research goes some way to pointing out just why panicking about obesity isn’t the way to go about combating the problem if you believe there is one. Making people feel bad about themselves tends to reinforce the bad relationships with food and undermine any solutions to ‘the obesity epidemic’. Those who don’t take heed of these warnings run the risk of looking like they’re more interested in making fat people feel bad about themselves.

Reasearch: Call for Participants

So, I’m taking a class on Iranian Society this semester, and our major assessment item is a small selected-sample study on outsider (ie, people not in Iran) perceptions of Iranian society. Given my postgraduate study plans (whilst being somewhat uncertain at the moment given the state of my university department) involve exploring feminist blogging and community, I thought I’d take the opportunity to actually explore that area to some extent.

To that end, I’d be most appreciative if the feminist bloggers among you would help me out by completing a short survey. The questionnaire has been provided by my lecturers, but if you have any concerns that come up in completing the survey, I’ll be happy to hear about them.

Whilst I don’t really want to get into credential-checking, I’ve agreed with my lecturer that asking those who wish to participate to include a link to their blog is, though imperfect, a good screening mechanism. I know that cuts out regular commenters, but for the sake of simplicity, I want to stick with those who have their own blogs or participate in groupblogs which have a significant focus on feminist issues.

Of course, all identifying information, including links to blogs, will be kept confidential, and whilst the research is for assessment purposes only, I’d be happy to e-mail the final assessment to those participants who are interested, once it’s been submitted.

If you are interested in participating, please e-mail me at ariella.drake@gmail.com with the subject “Iran Study”, including a link to your blog, and I’ll forward a copy of the questionnaire. I’m running on a bit of a timeline, so I’ll need completed questionnaires back by May 14th.

PS. Anyone who feels like passing this along to others who might be interested in participating, I’d be most appreciative.

Ability Perception and Privilege

My partner recently alerted me to a recent study which examines attribution theory; the effect of what we see as the cause of our successes or failures. As Moore indicates in his summary, the short version is that if we see our success or failure as the result of innate attributes, we’re less likely to improve.

My immediate response to this was to apply it to part of how privilege works, and the tendency of people to get defensive when their behaviour is pointed out at sexist/racist/etc. I think many of us have faced the “But I’m not a sexist/racist/etc.” response, and the often difficult task of clarifying to someone that telling them that something they did was sexist/racist/etc. is not calling them a KKK member. I’ve seen some interesting discussions as to whether the separation of calling someone’s behaviour sexist/racist/etc. and calling them sexist/racist/etc. is a useful one. This research suggests to me that it may well be, from a practical perspective.

What I suspect, drawing from Dweck’s findings, is that someone who considers sexism/racism/etc to be an innate attribute is less likely to believe anti-oppression work is either necessary or useful. As made clearer in Guy Kawasaki’s discussion, such a person would be considered by the research as possessing a ‘fixed’ mindset; wherein they believe they are ‘set’ as either good or bad, in this case, not sexist or sexist. Assuming ‘not sexist = good’ for the moment, since this is likely the majority case, what the research suggests is that someone who believes they are ‘set’ as ‘not sexist’ will not believe they have to work at being non-sexist, whilst someone who believes that they are ‘set’ as ‘sexist’ will believe that any work they do towards being non-sexist won’t make much difference.

Perhaps the key indicator of the applicability of Dweck’s model comes from some of her own efforts to apply the model in areas other than her original area of schooling ability:

Many kids believe they’re invariably good or bad; other kids think they can get better at being good. Dweck has already found that preschoolers with this growth mind-set feel okay about themselves after they’ve messed up and are less judgmental of others; they’re also more likely than kids with a fixed view of goodness to try to set things right and to learn from their mistakes. They understand that spilling juice or throwing toys, for example, doesn’t damn a kid as bad, so long as the child cleans up and resolves to do better next time.

Marina Krakovsky, The Effort Effect Standford Magazine

Dweck believes in the importance of encouraging the growth mindset. I tend to agree. I don’t always engage with people at this level. Sometimes I just really don’t need to be dealing with people who are going to be defensive in this way. Plus, that experience can be pretty harrowing if you take it on for too long without giving yourself some room to just not have to do that for a while. However, when I do engage at this level, I can already recall those who would fit quite clearly into these two mindsets. I can also recall that those who fit in the growth mindset were much more able to get past defensive behaviour and take a look at their privilege.

I suspect a copy of Dweck’s book, Mindset will eventually make its way onto my bookshelf.

I'm not going to be judgmental, I'm just judging you.

Australia’s Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is one of my least favourite people. He’s been on an anti-abortion kick for the last few years, and the recent jewel in his attack is a government-funded pregnancy counselling hotline which allegedly aims to help women make informed choices.

This doesn’t sound like a bad idea, right? A big part of feminism is about making sure women have the ability to make informed choices, and the resources available so that ability can be utilised in the fullest manner. So why do I have an issue? Well, let’s talk about that. Continue reading

Theory Link for the Academically Inclined or Interested.

For those who may be interested in academic journals and and don’t already have access for other reasons, Sage Publications is currently offering some Free Trial Online Access, which includes free access during February to all online journal archives, and free access to selected other journals for longer periods (including their ‘Gender Studies’ collection). With journals like Men and Masculinities, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Race and Class, and Games and Culture among a long list, I could be here for days. I’m so glad I cleaned out my hard drive recently.

Full List of Journals can be found here. Details of the Free Trial Access can be found here.

Childcare in Australia

So, the media here has been all over a recent report released by the Federal Treasury Department that supposedly counters years of claims that there is a childcare crisis in Australia, and claims that childcare is ‘accessible and affordable’. One of the key claims is that there’s oodles of childcare available to parents, “just not of their preferred type”.

Now, I’ll admit to not being an expert on childcare, particularly since I was never in childcare (I was lucky enough to have my grandmother move to Australia from my mother’s country of birth, China, when I was a toddler, so she looked after me when my mother went back to work), and I have no children, so I’ve never had the need to access childcare. Maybe I’m just being strange, but childcare always seemed like something one should be able to exercise a reasonable amount of discretion over, given, y’know, you’re trusting these people with the care of your children. Basically, the report claims that the perception of a childcare crisis is masking the fact that parents just aren’t getting the type of childcare they want, and there’s no mismatch between supply and demand. I mean really, it sounds like “People who want Coke are having trouble getting Pepsi, and people who want Pepsi are having trouble getting Coke, but there’s lots of cola, so there’s no supply/demand problem.” except with something that I’d like to think is rather more important than cola preference. Now, even with my rudimentary understanding of supply/demand, which mostly comes from my partner, who’s a marketing academic, I’m not seeing how that’s NOT a supply/demand problem. Really, as far as government reports are concerned, I’d see it as a reason to encourage further research into what kinds of childcare are lacking and wanted with reference to other specific variables, like location that’s more specific than ‘urban/inner-regional/outer-regional’. Unsurprisingly, instead we’ve got a bunch of handwaving and data-massaging in order to pretend there’s not a problem.

As for affordability, the report goes from “affordability has remained fairly constant for middle and high income families, and decreased slightly for low-income families” in the bulk of the report, to a blanket statement about child care being generally affordable. Those more knowledgeable in this area are free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d think that affordability of child care was a particularly crucial factor for low-income families, given affordable and accessible childcare is likely to be fairly important if one is attempting to increase one’s income above poverty levels. I imagine it’s rather difficult to get a second (or third, or fourth) job, or get more training if you can’t afford to have your kids looked after whilst you do that. So, y’know, if anything, I think the decreasing affordability for low-income families outweighs the stability for middle and high income families. Now, the report does indicate that the data doesn’t account for a recent expansion of a government-provided childcare assistance payment for low-income parents, but I’m not really a fan of the assumption without exploration that this expansion would sufficiently address the problem. If later research indicates the further government assistance is addressing the problem, that’s great, but the assumption is just lazy undeserved pats-on-the-back.

Now, the television reports have taken great joy in summarising the report as claiming parents are being picky. Whilst I think the report is more subtle than that, the ‘picky’ claim will probably pick up a lot of momentum, particularly from conservatives. But honestly, particularly given the amount of criticism that’s often thrown at women if their children are in childcare at all (unsurprisingly, men get much less of this criticism), I’m not really seeing why being picky about where and how your children are looked after if you need to work/study is such a horribly bad thing.

Blog For Choice Day – Links, and a story of my own.

So, January 22 was Blog for Choice Day, and aside from a slight gripe about the US-centrism of the choice of date (the anniversary of Roe v. Wade), talking about the importance of reproductive freedom is, well, important. And there’s a bunch of excellent posts that were made.

And hey, I’ve never been good with dates and deadlines that don’t involve grades, and all that better late than never stuff, so I’m going to start off with something a bit more personal. Particularly since this year’s topic was ‘Why you’re pro-choice’

Really, the list of reasons why I support reproductive freedom is pretty damn long, and much of it is covered by some of the wonderful people below, so I’m just going to outline a few, some of which are quite personal. Continue reading

Self-transformation and the challenges of unpacking privilege

[Hi everyone, I’m Jen/Arielladrake. Tekanji has kindly invited me to guest-blog here for a while. I’m a mixed race (Asian/white) Australian, bisexual cisgendered woman who lives and goes to university in Queensland. I’m a sociology/politics/applied ethics major with a bent towards gender studies. I have a personal/political blog on Livejournal, which can be found here.]

Something that comes up often in discussions about challenging privilege is this idea that asking someone to check their privilege is akin to expecting them to engage in some kind of Maoist form of self-criticism. This analogy almost always gets my back up for a few reasons. Some of these are quite personal, and I don’t really wish to go into them here, but aside from that, it’s about the fact that such reactions tend to betray a misunderstanding of the nature of the state, and a failure to acknowledge the particular coercive powers of the state; coercive power that non-state parties generally don’t have. However, this misunderstanding, whilst one reason for my frustration, isn’t the whole story either. Continue reading