My search for community in eating disorder recovery—is body positivity for me?
by Grace McGrenere
The national anthem plays as I go through the day’s itinerary in my head—grade six has become pretty routine. I sit down as the last words of O’Canada play, waiting for my teacher to begin the lesson. To my surprise, he says we’re going to try something different today, a fun exercise. He tells us to rip a piece of lined paper from our notebooks and have a friend tape it on our back. With a coloured marker, we are to go around the classroom and write one nice thing about each classmate. On the count of three, I walk around the room, racking my mind for the best things to say about my friends. With each marker swipe, I grow more and more eager to read what my peers think about me.
After about ten minutes, the exercise is over. I watch my classmates peel the paper off their backs and reveal what I thought meant everything about who we all were. As my friends start to read their now colourful pieces of paper, they begin to say what people wrote out loud. “Pretty” comes from the mouths of two girls with hair as long and thick as Goldilocks. I look down to read my compliments, hoping to be able to say the same thing.
But what I read is different. My page is filled with what I did not see as compliments: “smart,” “good friend,” and “kind.” No one said anything about my appearance.
Five years later, I’m at the hospital, sitting in a room that is meant for serious conversations, but the hot air balloon murals on the wall do not effectively convey this intention. My body has been under investigation all day—by doctors, psychologists, nutritionists, social workers, psychiatrists. They ask me if I’m tired, what I eat, and if I think my eating patterns are healthy. Yeah, I think I eat well, I tell them. I’m just trying to stay in shape.
In the oddly happy looking conference room, I sit beside my mom and dad. They’ve been here all day too, under their own sort of investigation. The social workers ask them what life is like at home. I feel bad; this is my fault. If I had just kept it more discreet they wouldn’t be in this situation.
Across from us, a group of physicians sits in silence. My mom tells me I’m going to have to start coming home for lunch so she can monitor my eating. The doctor interrupts our quiet discussion to deliver some news: things are much worse than we thought.
I have anorexia nervosa and it has gotten so bad that my body has begun to eat its own muscle in order to survive. Standing at 5’10 feet tall, I weigh 109 pounds. If I am to continue down this path, my heart will stop working.
I have since recovered (or so I like to think) from my eating disorder. Spending my first month of grade eleven at home, I gained the required amount of weight to be able to return to my regular daily activities. From there, I made quick strides towards recovery.
But what treatment doesn’t prepare you for is life without your eating disorder once you are released from the hospital. Three weeks after my last day of therapy, I started my first year at a university seven hours away from my home. While my classmates were deciding who they were going to be in the next chapter of their life, I was figuring out how to let go of my eating disorder.
According to The National Eating Disorder Information Centre, a survey conducted in 2002 indicated that 1.5 percent of Canadian women aged 15-24 years had an eating disorder. Of all mental illnesses, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate.
The University of Toronto conducted a study in 2013 which found that the relapse rates of anorexia nervosa range from 9 to 65 percent. “It is different for everybody,” Christine McPhail, the program coordinator at Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre, tells me.“Some people will say ‘I’m recovered and I don’t feel like I’m bothered by my eating disorder voice anymore. I don’t feel like that’s a part of me’ and other people will live with it for a long time, but they still say they’re in recovery.”
I only became aware of my eating disorder again recently, when I was deciding what I wanted for dinner. Growing tired of cooking the same old things in my tiny apartment kitchen, I decided to order in. When the food arrived and I took my first bites, I felt its presence once again. There it was, reminding me of how disgusting and ugly I am. At that moment I was taken back to my high school bedroom, in front of my wall length mirror, imagining I had a knife that could strip the non-existent fat away from by body.
My recent struggles led me to look for a community of people who understand what I’m going through. McPhail tells me community support is important for those dealing with body image-related issues and while I know that peer support groups are available for those who have finished treatment, I think I’m ready to move past traditional therapy. In my search, I came across the body positivity movement, which has roots in the fat acceptance movement and has gained traction on social media platforms with its hashtag #bodypositive.
“I think it can be helpful for those who are struggling with an eating disorder,” says McPhail of the movement. “Sometimes those types of messages are really helpful for people who are getting rid of their fear of fat or fear of weight gain.”
But as I scroll through my Instagram feed I become less and less sure that it’s a movement in which my experience is relevant. Arguments unravel in the comments sections underneath photos that use the hashtag. Many blog posts echo the same sentiment: according to some members of the community, skinny women shouldn’t be at the forefront of the movement because it is was created by and for fat women. They say skinny women who describe themselves as fat are problematic, and discourage them from using body positive hashtags without recognizing the privilege they have as conventionally attractive women.
Popular feminist account, theguerrillafeminist, captioned a reposted photo about body positivity, writing, “Skinny and averaged-sized people should NOT be centered in Body Positivity! BOPO was created by and for fat folx!”
The body positive account, bodyimage_therapist cautioned that body positivity is not a replacement for health care in another post, “Body Positivity is not a treatment approach for eating disorders, disordered eating, trauma or mental health challenges. Body positivity is a sociopolitical movement that may have influences on your overall health and wellbeing, but it’s not a replacement for personalised therapy.”
Marissa Matthews, a body positivity advocate and content creator, says thin women do not necessarily belong in the movement.“There is nothing wrong with thin women loving their bodies and there is nothing wrong with thin women who don’t have eating disorders loving their bodies but as a thin body, you have enough privilege elsewhere in the world that they do not need to take over this space that is meant for women who are fat.”
Matthews says the movement has strayed from its initial intentions to reflect consumerist tendencies. “I see the body positivity movements and hashtags attached to fitness accounts. They are using it inappropriately, which is unfair for actual fat people who want the movement for themselves.”
The privilege she’s referring to, thin privilege, is an advantage held by conventionally attractive, skinny people, whose bodies are regarded as “normal” and are not viewed by mainstream society and media as a problem in the way fat bodies are. Thin people do not have issues with accessing public transit, purchasing clothing, or being hired for jobs in the ways fat people often do.
Matthews tells me about her personal experiences with fat stigmatization, something I have never felt. “I have to shop online because most places in Ottawa don’t necessarily carry things that fit me, let alone things that I like.” She cannot embrace her body publically without being shamed.
Since my initial recovery, my weight has fluctuated. Two competing beliefs play tug of war: one remains fearful of weight gain, while the other sees my thinness as another form of unattractiveness, punishing me for my pointy hip bones and visible rib cage.
While it is a fact thin people hold privilege, it is by no means a privilege to live with an eating disorder. There are many dimensions to privilege. White people have privilege because of their skin colour. They receive unfair political, social and economical advantages because of this. But there are white people who are poor, or disabled, or other factors of disadvantage that do not stem from their race. While still holding privilege as a white person, they are disadvantaged in other areas of their life. I find my experiences similar to this. Yes, I am skinny, but my mental illness dangers my body and stigmatizes my experiences. People dismiss my fears of weight gain by telling me they wish they could be as skinny as me. No you don’t, I think. This is not sexy or cute; this is sickly. In the throes of my eating disorder I would look in the mirror and see fat where bones protruded. Now, I’m constantly dodging unwanted attacks from my eating disorder’s voice. Maybe if they knew how I got here, they would stop wishing. Mental illness is not a luxury nor a privilege.
Matthews believes thin women with eating disorders can be a part of the body positivity movement, but must leave room for the voices of those for whom the movement was founded. She referred me to nourishandeat and _kellyu, two Instagram accounts that post about eating disorder recovery, while leaving space for those centred in the body positivity movement.
She says we must apply an intersectional lens to body positivity. “There [are] lots of women with eating disorders who are a part of the body positivity movement, but the women who I follow, I follow them because they do it in a way that is respectful to fat people. They educate people and they don’t take the voices of the fat women. They use their own voice. They use their own experience.”
But still, I wonder, if I can't share my story with and find support in the body positivity community, where can I go online to find community around my struggles?
Without treatment, 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from eating disorder related health complications. In the offline world, Jill Andrew, NDP MPP for the Toronto St.Paul’s riding, created Bill 61, which declares the first week of February as Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Andrew wanted the bill to be culturally relevant, speaking to the expansiveness of who gets eating disorders. So far, the bill has had two successful readings with unanimous support. They are currently waiting on the committee for the third reading stage.
“You know, we need more beds. The wait lists are too long. People are dying as they are waiting for support and you shouldn’t have to go to the States to get service when you are right here in Ontario. In my opinion, this is something that needs urgent attention. People with eating disorders are dying while they are waiting.”
Andrew also co-founded Body Confidence Canada, an organization that advocates for equitable and inclusive images, messages, practices and policies supporting body diversity. We talked about the body positivity movement’s ability to allow us space to critique eurocentric beauty ideals, gendered performances of femininity, and fashion consumerism.
“The body positivity movement has also been appropriated to some extent where you have, let’s face it, not necessarily the racialized or Indigenous, or the quote-unquote conventionally not attractive 400 pound woman who is the star of the body positivity movement. It’s Ashley Graham, or it’s the plus plus plus size model who has a very thin face, or who has conventionally beautiful features,” says Andrew.
Andrew also spoke about some of the dangers of the movement becoming too narrowly focused on physical appearances. “I want us to have body positivity but I also want us to be focusing on intellectual positivity and financial positivity and educational positivity because what happens is, sometimes we actually reinscribe the stereotype. The stereotype that all women and girls are worried about their bodies, or worried about how they look, or that empowerment is all encompassed in how we look. There are so many other spaces that we have to reclaim too.”
In the end, I don’t think the body positivity movement is where I’ll find healing, but that is okay. Even though I have not shared the same experiences as fat women, I think we can find common ground and support one another in intersectional, respectful ways. At some point in our lives, we have been dissatisfied with our bodies—it’s hard not to be in a society that conflates good looks with success and personhood. Instead of contributing to a culture that pits women against each other, I want to uplift them and if that means respecting that some spaces are simply not meant for me, I’m willing to do that. Online forums and blogs like, the National Eating Disorders Association , Eating Disorder Hope, and the Eating Recovery Center, provide spaces for those struggling and recovering from eating disorders to post and read about each other’s experiences. Communities like these are not as accessible and well known as the body positivity movement. It is important that these communities become mainstream so those affected can find the support they need. But at the same time, as Andrew said, women must also be positive in other areas of their lives. To let go of the hurt and pain I feel, I think I must separate myself from movements focused on the body and become more grounded in other aspects of my life. While my eating disorder has taught me much about myself, it does not define me.