This past fall at The Seattle School, I had the privilege of teaching two disciplines close to my heart—Critical Social Theory and Interdisciplinary Methods. As part of their work in the course, students were asked to ground their learning by choosing a concrete, contemporary issue that was important to them and to which they could apply the theories and methods they had engaged throughout the term. At the end of the trimester, students had the opportunity to share with their colleagues the work they had done for their final projects. The room filled with an array of reports ranging from domestic violence in immigrant Latinx communities to food insecurity and the pastoral ethos of feeding the hungry, from reparations for students of color in higher ed to ethically and culturally informed practices around death and dying. The systems and structures that students chose to take on were wide and deep, and their interrogations matched the import of the topics they researched. Into the room came heartfelt laments and frustrations as well as surges of hope as students described how their inquiries both showed the enormity of systemic oppression and the power of interconnectedness, relationality, and critical engagement.
Here, Emi Sigrist offers her passion for how interdisciplinary studies and critical social theory contextualize and ground the issue of eating disorders. It is both humbling and illuminating. Unraveling race, class, and gender as they inform and impact eating disorders, Emi teaches us not only about the effects of systemic inequality, but the opportunity each of us has in understanding how social transformation is possible when we unveil structures that keep us from connecting to self and neighbor.
When I first began seeking recovery from an eating disorder over a decade ago, I heard the same phrase over and over again: it is about so much more than eating and not eating. As a teenager, I intuitively understood this to be true. After all, the fog that permeated my own path had often been murky and disorienting, and I knew that I did not simply have a problem with dieting and exercise. I knew I wasn’t just going through a phase. The isolating chaos that took up residence in my mind would not be quieted by merely adjusting my eating patterns, and whatever was happening within me was about so much more than being thin. I knew this much was true.
The more I learned about eating disorders, the more I began to see their pervasiveness. It was comforting to know I wasn’t alone in my experiences, but I also grew angry as I discovered just how many of us there were. As time wore on, I began to unravel the relentless intricacies of eating disorders, and began wondering about the systems that allow them to thrive.
It was in my Critical Social Theory class with Professor Jennifer Fernandez where I had the opportunity to explore my ideas in a collaborative, academic context. We spent the trimester discussing the value of interdisciplinary and critical social theory, and how they help us see the expansive complexity of social issues which are too often understood within narrow boundaries. I immediately found myself thinking about eating disorders again, and the work that still needs to be done in how our society approaches them.1
The dominant culture has been unwilling to look beyond simplistic and clinical definitions that focus on food, exercise, and body size. As a result, eating disorders are often thought of as mere vanity efforts of white, privileged young women, and are often mistakenly viewed as simply a phase. 2As a white woman who grew up quite privileged myself, I was ignorant to how this ill-informed stereotype had costly consequences.
This rigid perspective ignores the complex interactions of systems and cultures that make bodies on the margins dangerous ones to inhabit.3 When we are able to recognize and name the ways that social institutions such as race and gender regulate our lives, we have the power to shine a spotlight on how they also regulate our bodies. 4An interdisciplinary approach in tandem with the application of critical social theory illuminates possibilities for eating disorders to be seen as not only a disorder of regulating the body, but one that exists within a society that oppresses individuals through the regulation of their bodies.
America’s tendency to view eating disorders in the realm of the individual, rather than within larger societal contexts, is akin to our “ahistorical tendency to mislabel the result of social injustices as individual pathologies.”5 However, if we are willing to defy this detrimental practice, we can wonder how eating disorders, in which people are overly concerned about their bodies, might actually be connected to people facing injustices related to “being able to reside comfortably in their bodies.” It is possible, then, to question whether desire for control over one’s body through an eating disorder could be related to a larger society where people on the margins have been robbed of their bodily autonomy.
Viewed this way, I began to learn about how eating disorders can be seen as a “response to a myriad of injustices including racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, the stress of acculturation, and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.”6 What we know of this remains limited, not only because of the lack of access that marginalized groups have to expensive eating disorder treatment, but also because the important questions about how eating disorder symptoms are situated in a larger culture are not being asked by the people with the power.7
Through my work in the Critical Social Theory class, I learned to articulate the need to think systematically about these issues and place eating disorders in the context in which they occur.8 I’ve begun cutting through the fog that permeated my adolescence, revealing truths that echoed in my bones, although I couldn’t name it then. It is the people who suffer from eating disorders, and particularly those on the margins, who pay the price when we don’t acknowledge the oppressive systems that they exist within.9
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness: some statistics quote their mortality rate at roughly one in ten.10
I am grateful that I am among the other nine. It is not a group I chose to belong to; but we are a resilient bunch, one I have come to be quite proud of. I am still here, and I know I am lucky to join behind the others who have led the way.
In all of these years, I have never been able to shake the stubborn hope I had as a teenager who was desperate for recovery. It is a hope hard won, the kind that proved itself in the liberation of my own life. This hope proclaims loudly: if we do this work, not just as clinicians but as a community, then more people will live. More people will thrive. It’s a hope that has become more complex, but also more grounded, because of this place and the people here who have shaped it, and it is one that I will carry with me far beyond the walls of this school.
Resources to Go Deeper
- Thompson, Becky W. A Hunger so Wide and so Deep: a Multiracial View of Women’s Eating Problems. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 4
- Thompson, A Hunger so Wide and Deep, p. 12-14
- Thompson, A Hunger so Wide and Deep, p. 4
- Agger, Ben. Critical Social Theories: Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Thompson, A Hunger So Wide, p. 6
- Thompson, A Hunger So Wide, p. 1
- Thompson, A Hunger so Wide and Deep, p. 12
- Repko, Allen F. Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies. S.l.: Sage Publications, 2019.
- Thompson, A Hunger so Wide and Deep, p. 5
- Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., & Nielsen, S. “Mortality rates in patients with Anorexia Nervosa and other eating disorders.” Archives of General Psychiatry. (2011): 68(7), 724-731.