• on March 8, 2018

Why women are more affected than men by food/body issues

This is my offering for International Women’s Day.  This is my telling of my version of the story: why women are hurting in the particular ways we hurt: through food and body issues.

I know that men are hurting too. Imbalance, inequality, and a misogynistic and patriarchal culture hurts us all.

I also want to state clearly that I do not speak for all women.  I am a cis-gendered, heterosexual white woman.  Most of the women I work with are too.  I have held space for hundreds of women and heard their stories: as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a circle leader, a bodyworker.  I speak from my lived experience, from the time and places I have lived in, from the patterns I have noticed in the women who have trusted me, from the books I have read, from the wider culture and society I live within.

Women are conditioned differently to men. We are told different stories – about our identity, our bodies, and what it means to be a ‘good woman.’ These stories, being false, lead to disorder – disordered eating, body image issues, and mental health problems. Men of course experience these issues too, but the fact remains that disordered eating and poor body image remain majority-female issues.

The basic message from mainstream culture goes like this –
Stay small.
Be pleasant.
Serve others.

Culture teaches us to stay small by holding up images of small women and telling us that this is the acceptable version of femininity. I don’t agree. Weight is not worth. Weight is not health. We must unhook our psyches from these beliefs. We must recognise body diversity in all its forms. We must recognise that all bodies have permission to exist as they are, now. We must recognise that over a lifetime bodies change. We must recognise how we have internalised these cultural beliefs and practices, so that we are, in effect, policing ourselves. Fear of fat, feeling like we are not entitled to eat, and a general obsession with food and weight are the internalisations of a culture that is deeply sick and presents a distorted image of womanhood to us. These cultural representations of women also, very conveniently, drive consumption of the very products that are meant to ‘fix’ us. Don’t consume products where the basic premise is that your natural body is not acceptable as it is.

Culture teaches us to be pleasing and nice by rewarding compliant behaviour from childhood. The expression of challenging emotions, such as anger, sadness or anxiety, is met with a wave of suppression. Keep those feelings down. Emotional expression is linked to a weakness of character. Women (and men) are openly encouraged to act in deeply inauthentic ways. Stay strong and unmoved at all times. And definitely don’t mention the fact that you’re bleeding. That would not be pleasant at all. It’s preferable for all of us if you put of the mask of niceness, keep smiling, no one wants to deal with the fact that you’re human, that you bleed and feel, and that your body needs to express these feelings. It’s inappropriate and unwelcome. I say f*** you to this emotional policing. I say that my emotions and my authentic expression is perfectly appropriate and safe. I say that my ability to feel and work with my emotions makes me a warrior woman of huge strength and capacity. I also say that my lack of authentic expression correlates exactly with my dysfunctional eating patterns. When we are not deeply seen and heard for the vulnerable and sensitive human beings that we are, we turn to substances and numbing behaviours. Food and TV becomes a refuge from a world that can’t hold our true expression, that has no space for our emotions and our sensitivity. Authentic expression, often uncomfortable at first, liberates us to be who we are, which relaxes the psyche, and makes it easier for us to stop relying on old coping mechanisms.

Culture teaches women to subjugate their own needs by praising the women who prioritise others. What a good mother/sister/wife/friend she is… Women who have almost no discernible needs at all are lauded and applauded. She needs no rest, no food, no quiet space for herself, no time off when she’s bleeding… well done that woman! She’s become invincible. Women are conditioned to unhook from their own inner signals of pain and discomfort. There is no space for them to be held, as we’re so busy checking that everyone else is OK. Many women have learned to endure painful or unsatisfying sexual relationships in order to please their partners. And
women have no idea that they do actually have permission to disappoint others, to put themselves first, to prioritise their own mental and physical health. It actually makes good common sense to do so, as we all know that trying to support others when we are in fact fully depleted leads to resentment, irritation, and relationship breakdown.

And to top it all, many women live inside a mind that it constantly telling them that they are not worthy, that they are not safe, and to doubt and question everything they feel inside. This is deeply stressful, to feel that you are never quite meeting the expectation that was set for you. This chronic stress sends us directly into our numbing and coping strategies of choice. Again, thank the lord for food and TV. Without that sweet numbness at the end of the day, we would probably stop functioning at all.

We can change our conditioning. We can heal the hurtful attacks on our femininity. We can become the fully embodied, fully authentic women we were born to be. Especially if we work on the core wounds at the heart of our womanhood:

Safety – women’s bodies have not been safe.
So make your body safe. Go home. Get cosy. Lie in darkness. Breathe slowly and deeply. Slow breathing slows the mind, and down regulates the nervous system. Tell your body – you’re safe here, with me.

Self doubt – women have been told, for centuries, that their feelings and their intuition are not to be trusted. That their emotions are best controlled or suppressed. The female experience of life is rarely validated. The male voice, and the male experience, dominates all areas of public life.
Stop questioning yourself. Tell yourself that your feelings are trustworthy, valid, and hugely valuable. If you feel something, validate that feeling. It is right and appropriate that I feel this confusion. It is right and appropriate that I feel this anger. It is right and appropriate that I feel this sense of unease. You do not need to act on your feelings, or blast them onto someone else. You can validate them yourself, by simply noticing them, and valuing the wisdom that comes from your emotional intelligence.

Unworthiness – women have been told, again for centuries, that they are unworthy. That they lack something. That they must prove their worth by being helpful in the roles and relationships they engage in.

You lack nothing. Your basic nature is pure goodness. Your human nature overflows with love and compassion for yourself and for all beings. You only need to tap into it. Notice and continue to drop any thoughts along the theme of ‘I’m not ——— enough’ or ‘I’ll be worthy when ———‘. You were born to be here on this earth. You are as you are, as a result of your lived experience, and the everyday trauma of living a human life. Perhaps you have a fat body. That’s ok. Perhaps you do not earn a lot of money. That’s ok. Perhaps you feel unable to keep up with the pace and demands of a modern life. That’s ok. Your humanity, your worth, and your existence on this planet does not depend on someone else validating who you are. You are already valid, because you exist. Agree to being who you are, now, in this moment. Give yourself permission to exist as you are. And notice the deep relaxation and embodied settling that comes when we simply agree to be ourselves. When we forgive ourselves.

The beautiful Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponopono can be helpful here. Four simple sentences to say and feel into. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

Humanity, men, women and people of all gender expressions – I’m sorry we’ve all suffered beneath a system that dictates in such a rigid way who we should be. That places us on a binary of beliefs and behaviours that doesn’t reflect the richness of our experience and our authentic expression. Please forgive me, because I haven’t always known how to be or what to do with the weight of these expectations.  Thank you for your deep inquiry, your compassionate heart, your willingness to listen. I love you, I love this earth, our home.

May today be a day to celebrate the deep wisdom and knowing at the heart of the feminine lineage. May today be a day of compassionate curiosity, of listening, of witnessing another’s truth, even if it doesn’t correspond to your own experience. May today be a day to honour the feminine principle, alive in all beings.

May the feminine rise!
Emily Holden on International Woman’s Day, 2018

Want to explore these issues with me and my mum Jan?
We’re doing three events on Feminism and women’s issues – eating, body image, and #metoo. The first event is in Brighton, on 3rd May. Tickets are available through the event on our ‘I eat what I need’ Facebook page.

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