Systemic Barriers to Recovery

Nearly every time I mention that I am an eating disorder researcher and activist, I am met with one of two responses: I have struggled, or I know someone who has struggled. Distress around food, in bodies, and in relation to weight and shape are ubiquitous in our society – so common as to be nearly “normal.” That this is a sad state of affairs goes without saying. Regardless of whether or not it is diagnosed, this distress is endemic of a culture that continually holds us each individually responsible for maintaining unachievable bodily perfection inside and out.

I research recovery from eating disorders, trying to better understand what it is – because after over 30 years of research, we still don’t have a good answer to give to those who ask us if eating disorder recovery is possible, and if so, what it looks like. I entered into this work thinking that I understood what eating disorder recovery was. I had experienced an eating disorder, received treatment, and went on to live a life where I dive into new experiences and live in happy relation to my body and to food. The more I talked with participants, the more I realized that recovery is multi-faceted and far more nuanced than I could have imagined.

Recovery is challenging on a good day, and in a situation where one has lots of love, support, and resources. As I’ve continued my research, I’ve begun to explicitly call out the privilege I have in being able to call myself recovered. I was largely able to recover because of my privilege – that is, my whiteness, my middle-class-ness, my sexuality, and my normative body size – and my geographic location. Others face innumerable barriers to even obtaining a diagnosis that would enable them to access needed support. We know, for instance, that doctors are less likely to recognize eating disorders amongst those who do not fit the stereotype of what an eating disorder “looks like.” If marginalized folks do seek and obtain a diagnosis, there is no guarantee that the treatment available to them will resonate culturally.

The strategies we offer to those in recovery so often rely on shoring up the self, without attending to shifts in our broader society that would enable people in diverse bodies to live their lives with minimal distress. Socially, we code bodies marginalized along the lines of size, race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and more as problems, if not moral failures. How can we expect people to be healthy and happy in a society in which some people are told that their bodies are wrong and unwelcome? We cannot simply feed people and push them back into a world that stays unchanged. We need not only to provide treatment that people can access and that resonates personally and culturally, but also to make major shifts in society to support diverse people. Recovery is systemically situated – we need to recover as a society, not only ask those who’ve struggled to rise above.

~ Andrea LaMarre

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