Politically, and in popular culture, feminism refers to the idea that women should have equal rights to men. However, feminism has also spawned its own brand of psychology and its own method of therapy, which, though based largely on psychoanalysis, has a confused relationship with it.
What causes eating disorders?
The feminist approach provides a logical answer to the question ignored by most other schools of thought within psychology: if eating disorders are caused by problems within early relationships, as psychoanalysis claims, or by problems with how the brain processes serotonin, as neuropsychology claims, then why is it that ten times more women than men suffer from them?
Drawing from psychoanalysis, Susie Orbach has an answer. If psychoanalysis shows us that eating disorders are related to a failure to provide the infant child with enough nurturing for him/her to recognise and gratify his/her desires, and/or a failure to provide the infant child with the opportunity to gain his/her own independence, then research also shows us that we are more likely to treat infant girls in this way than infant boys.
The reason, says Orbach, is the division of roles our society imposes on each of us depending on whether we are male or female. The social role set aside for females is one where they are expected to both be less independent than men and also to put others first in a way that men, stereotypically, are not expected to. This cultural stereotype subtly influences the way in which we raise our baby girls: we are less likely to give them physical comfort or gratification than baby boys, and less likely to allow them the independence to explore their environment in ways that we would encourage in boys. Given the processes identified by psychoanalysis that can lead to eating disorders, it is easy to see how, if Orbach is right, our different treatment of girls would lead to more of them developing eating disorders later in life.
There is another psychological process that needs to be considered here: projection. "Projection" might occur when you unconsciously identify another person with yourself and begin to treat them accordingly. You might then "project" your insecurities onto them. For example, if you were insecure about your body, you might start treating that other person with the same kind of fuss and worry about appearance with which you treat yourself. What is important here is that this process occurs mainly when we identify with that other person.
We live in a culture where being female is experienced as synonymous with being valued mainly, or only, by your looks, and where many women police themselves on whether they look good enough. If a baby girl enters the family, it is possible that the women in the family will identify themselves with this baby girl and project their body insecurities onto her in a way they wouldn't with a baby boy. This projection need not be insidious or even conscious: what matters is that this baby girl grows up receiving the message that appearance matters in a way that it does not for boys. This is what Orbach calls the "psychology of femininity", which gets passed from mother to daughter through the generations.
A caveat before I continue: the source of this "psychology of femininity" should be seen as the culture we live in. In just the same way that the daughter's psyche and self is being shaped by this "psychology of femininity", so also was the mother's, and so also was the grandmother's, etc. The fault lies in this cultural role itself, and guilt should not be felt towards oneself for passing this attitude down to the next generation; rather, you should turn this guilt into anger at the social forces that created this "psychology of femininity" in the first place.
This analysis, so far, has only covered early life when the child is living with her parents. However, that is not the whole story. The psychological processes so far have only weakened the sense of self in the daughter when compared to that of the son, and made the infant girl more body-conscious than she would have been if she were a boy. To fully understand the feminist perspective, we need to look at what happens once the daughter leaves her parents and goes out into the big, wide world.
The sum total of all these psychological processes is that once adolescence is reached, the teenage girl's mind is open to the constant bombardment of messages telling her that her appearance matters and she needs to buy product x and product y to improve it. The message she learns, both on the billboard and the playground, is that acceptance comes through appearance. Had she had a more solid first few years of life, she might have the strength of mind to withstand these messages- but this is the same kind of message that has been projected onto her from the beginning. It has prevented the strengthening of her ego and it has become her internalised moral code. The same processes described by psychoanalysis apply, and eating disorders remain an attempt to gain self-control- but this particular "psychology of femininity" identified by Orbach means both that the daughter is more likely to lack self-control than the son and to seek self-control through appearance and diet.
Where can I go to find out more?
The Women's Therapy Centre in London specialises in offering feminist therapy for all manner of things, including eating disorders. There are also books you can buy about the feminist viewpoint on eating disorders. Personally, I have found Hunger Strike by Susie Orbach to be the best book I've read on eating disorders: partly because it's so concise and easy to read, and partly because her theory seems to bring two seemingly contradictory and incomplete theories (psychoanalysis and feminism) into one coherent whole.
Books: Orbach, S, 2001. Hunger Strike: Starving Amidst Plenty, Other Press: New York Journal Articles: Young-Bruehl, E, 1993. "On feminism and psychoanalysis - in the case of anorexia nervosa", Psychoanalytic Psychology, 10(3), 317-330