Systemic Shame: Exploring How Exclusion Impacts Eating Disorder RecoverySep 16, 2022
This blog is part of a special 12-month series titled, “Inclusive Eating Disorder Recovery: How Yoga Therapy Can Help” written for Yoga for Eating Disorders. Through my blogs and related social media posts, I will explore how we can use the ethics of Yoga, personal practice, movement, breath, focused attention, and meditation to create recovery spaces that are inclusive and reflective of diverse lived experience. Join in the conversation on Instagram by following along @yogaforeatingdisorders and @holisticyogatherapist.
Shame (noun): ( ʃeɪm) a painful emotion resulting from an awareness of having done something dishonourable, unworthy, degrading, etc. Capacity to feel such an emotion ignominy or disgrace
2020 research indicates that dietary restraint is an obvious parallel between eating disorders and food insecurity but is often overlooked in studies when it is not motivated by body image concerns. How does this oversight in perception shape how we think about eating disorders in systemically excluded and often food insecure, and how we reproduce social inequality and systemic exclusion when it comes to recovery? In this blog post, we’ll explore how the experiences of systemic exclusion and shame around not fitting in the “skinny, white, affluent, girl” (SWAG) stereotype of those affected by eating disorders, impact how people seek help for eating disorders and how yoga therapy can support inclusive recovery.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia are ingrained in the white-supremacist patriarchal systems that shape our lives. They also influence which communities are systematically excluded from participating and are more likely to experience poverty and food insecurity. In systemically excluded communities, the practice of intentionally restricting food intake by skipping meals, not eating when hungry or reducing the size of meals is more often associated with a lack of access to safe, nutritious culturally appropriate food than it is with eating disorders because it does not seem primarily motivated by weight or shape concerns. This difference in motivation can result in lower representation in research around eating disorders because the research question may not be inclusive of additional motivating factors.
Shame & Intersectional Identity
Becky Thompson, a professor of African American studies and sociology has conducted research with multiracial groups of women. Her work suggests that eating disorders are a way of responding to systems of oppression and the life stresses that come with them. In some cases, body size can be the one aspect of their identity that someone experiencing systemic oppression can change, unlike hair texture, facial features or skin colour, and it may serve as a protective factor against other forms of trauma - including racism, or sexism.
In addition, her work goes on to suggest that for people who come from cultures where a larger body size is historically associated with wealth and prosperity, or where food is an indicator of wealth, or a method of celebration, developing or seeking help for an eating disorder comes with a deep sense of shame, and potentially one of betrayal. Further, admitting to or seeking help for an eating disorder may trigger shame in people with intersectional identities who don’t see aspects of themselves represented in the SWAG stereotype.
They may also be ashamed to admit to disordered eating because it may be associated with an admission to the trauma of existing in exclusive systems and the impact it has on their wellbeing. There may also be shame associated in admitting that experiencing multiple systems of oppression simultaneously has negative health impacts for people whose identity includes being perceived as a leader or professional or other higher status position.
How Yoga Therapy Can Help
How can yoga therapy support a more inclusive eating disorder recovery for people who live with an eating disorder and who may be seeking care that includes addressing the impact of multiple systems of oppression on those with intersectional identity markers?
We have already explored how the yamas (yuh-muhs) can generally be helpful. In this post we are going to learn more about how we can apply the yama of satya (s-uh-t-y-uh) which is generally translated as truthfulness. But what does truthfulness mean in this context?
Satya in this context requires complete honesty with ourselves. It requires us to create a little bit of space, stillness or at least some slowing-down of the mind to start to recognize the systems we exist in, the influences like patriarchy that shape them, and the impacts those systems have in our lives. When we do not make time to slow down and observe, we tend to react quickly to situations on compulsive and often internally biased level. This can prevent us from recognizing the truth of a situation, because we may be motivated by fear, or relying on stereotypes.
Engaging from a place of truthfulness has a positive impact internally, and on those around us because they can perceive when we are honest towards them, and when we are aware of the truths of our collective reality. This helps restore trust in relationships because people we interact with feel safe in the knowledge that we will provide our honest perspective from a compassionate place.
The practice of yoga, particularly when it is a customised practice co-designed by your yoga therapist will help you reconnect with your capacity for truer perception and cultivate your capacity for truthfulness to yourself and those in your community. It might also help you better appreciate the experiences of others, to be open to hearing the truth of their experience and to recognizing how you can influence change on oppressive systems and structures when the time is right so you can restore your relationship with food and community.
This is done with the eventual focus of achieving your goals. Since the practice of satya includes pausing, reflecting and habit change, your yoga therapist will help you (re)build this capacity by suggesting an accessible daily practice that includes self-reflection, observation and study. Your task is to tap into your capacity for truthfulness and compassion to motivate yourself to complete it.
This deliberate way of deepening your awareness and where you might struggle with it, as well as which techniques help you change over time is particularly helpful in recovery because it gives us the space, and the attention to observe where we might limit our success by responding from a place of bias, or relying on stereotypes. As our capacity to see the truth of ourselves and our communities grows, we are better able to practise new habits, and restore our relationship with food and community.
This approach is critical because as we deepen our awareness of the truth, we are better able to share this with others and to either support or facilitate research, education and care that understands the complexity of the experience and enables inclusive recovery for our communities.
Call to Action
As a researcher, you might use the practice of satya to explore how you account for systemic causes for ED that go beyond individuals and extend to communities - particularly those that are impacted by systems of oppression. Over time, you might examine how the systems you work within centre specific experiences of eating disorder, or motivations for food restriction and examine how you can use your privilege to shift the culture, or the policy. You could also choose to deliberately model inclusive practices for your colleagues - including ways to include more culturally appreciative and inclusive approaches to food, or by specifically adding an analysis of cultural foodways to your work. The practice of satya when it comes to how you see the world might also help you decolonize your approach when working with systematically excluded colleagues or change how you work with communities to a more generous approach.
If you are a care provider, you might use a satya practice to explore how you design care plans and structures that support individuals who experience multiple forms of oppression. You might also look for ways to engage care seekers, so they do not feel like they have to choose what to address instead of working to address issues holistically. You may also explore how the language you use around food and food choices contributes to the inclusion, or exclusion of the people you support. You might also ask questions or policy and decision makers and become clearer about what inclusion means in your organisation, and how you can remove barriers that exist as you support recovery.
If you are seeking care for yourself, or someone else, your practice of satya might include finding ways to address the breadth and depth of your experience, including systemic oppression that contributes to eating disorders.
You might work with your yoga therapist, or other care providers to explore ways to address traumatic experiences into your healing journey. Or you might name and appreciate the barriers you experience in learning more about how to navigate oppressive systems as they relate to eating disorder recovery to your care team and community so they can help work to address the systems that maintain and enforce those barriers.
If it feels comfortable you might also use the practice to inform research and to help change systems at a more fundamental level. You might be truthful in your choice to share which forms of care or support to address eating disorders within the context of multiple barriers, or ongoing exclusion were most helpful so that other community members, care providers and system builders are aware and can integrate that information into their decision making.
If you are already using the practice of satya to deepen your self awareness and reconnect with aspects of your identity and cultural practices to support your recovery, we would love to learn more about what you are up to.
Please share how it is going so far, what has worked well, and what you might set aside. Tell us in the comments, or message us on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/holisticyogatherapist/ and https://www.instagram.com/yogaforeatingdisorders/
Resources to Support Your Exploration
ED as a response to systemic oppression
Food insecurity and ED
Food insecurity and binge eating
Food insecurity and ED in a nationally representative sample
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