Eating Disorders and Privilege

Before I begin: I have hours of thoughts on this topic beyond what I’ve shared below so…I would love to talk more with anyone who is interested. Please message me if you want to talk; it can be as general or as personal as you wish.

A few other prefacing notes/disclaimers:
The podcast I talk about in this post is eating disorder-themed, but its messages are universal and I imagine anyone who has struggled with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions will resonate with them. While I consider myself recovered from my eating disorder, my eating disorder was nothing more than a manifestation of certain harmful beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. I have been in therapy for years and am still working to address the “bigger issues” and foundational beliefs that may no longer result in disordered eating but present themselves in other ways.

I spend so much time struggling to figure out how I fit in in the world: where to take up space and where to make room for others; when to listen and when to speak up; how to find purpose, and how to act in a way that spreads love and compassion rather than violence and hate.

I listened to a podcast last month and – I never thought I’d say this about a podcast – it changed the way I view myself and the world.

In working to find my purpose I look for the intersection of “things I know about” and “things I care about.” So when this podcast explained the relationship between something I know about (white privilege and white supremacy) and something I care about (eating disorders and social justice) I felt compelled to share my experience. I hope that, in reading this, I give you at least one of four things: 1) knowledge to take with you, 2) a framework for your own experience if this resonates with you, 3) a place for contemplation and discussion about how we can better the world going forward, 4) an affirmation that the work you are doing on yourself (whether it be from a place of privilege or from a place of oppression) is important and brave.

The podcast begins with the interviewee, Elizabeth Scott, LCSW, CEDSS, highlighting that the purpose of the conversation is not to center it around privileged white people, but rather to acknowledge the ways in which we are implicitly taught racism and the importance of breaking from this model so that we can bring justice and equity to those who are oppressed. She then goes on to describe my personal experience in an eerily accurate way (picture me listening to this podcast with my mouth open, wondering if my therapist had secretly been disclosing what I have shared with her in our sessions). She says:

“Over the years of working with many quite privileged white teenagers, I’ve discovered that underneath their eating disorder and the ways that their self care is disrupted, there is often a terrible guilt and self loathing. And when we explore more deeply, they have so many conflicts about the excesses they enjoy, the privilege, the money, the education, the lessons, the training, all of the freedoms they enjoy, while they are really sensitive and in touch with the suffering in the world. So these are women who are attuned and sensitive and who care about the world and who can’t reconcile their own privilege.”

I mean…ok…wow. If there’s a word that comes up more than all others in my journals (except “grateful” of course) it’s “guilt.” I’ve tried to move beyond the phrase “I hate myself” but that was certainly a staple in my high school journals. But other than knowing I am a “sensitive” person, I had never been able to make sense of why I hated myself so much and why I have never been able to shake the guilt and shame. Scott goes on to present the answer in the form of a metaphor perfectly apt for someone who spent their whole childhood playing sports: children’s soccer.

“We win and we get more. We win because we are extra good, extra special, which is … training our kids to numb themselves against the loser, and teach us this competitive model of self-worth that is inherently problematic and fragile because we have to always be above average in order to be eligible for our privilege.

So these kids, as I did myself, produce a drive to be “more competitive, more supreme, more perfect, in order to make sense of the fact that things are really unequal and we can see that they are.” As I listened I started to understand how my perfectionism and competitiveness (both traits which lent themselves perfectly to an eating disorder) have been ways of trying to reconcile the inequality I saw with the privilege that I had. It was this constant desire to have “earned” the privilege, to fight against the idea that there was something inherently bad about me, to – in Scott’s words – “balance the equation, or not take too much.” And, more importantly, I saw how this idea itself – that I always had to be above average; this competitive model of self-worth – is white supremacy. We take the parts ourselves that we hate and we project them on to others. Racism quite literally developed as a result of white people afraid of being less worthy than other white people and projecting that violence and hate onto black and brown bodies. (Quick note: you might be reading this and think to yourself, “Sounds like capitalism!” which…yes…but that is for another time.)

Everything Scott talked about felt like holding a mirror up to myself. And it became perfectly clear to me why I developed an eating disorder (and anxiety, depression, etc.): “Many times people with eating disorders are just the most obedient to what we’ve been taught, which is that we must always be special and supreme and apart from ‘those people.’”

Growing up, I don’t think I understood who “those people” were. In fact, in my community, there were so few minorities that the only people to whom I ever compared myself were other privileged white people! But the fact remains that I had internalized this cultural and societal message that I had to get rid of the “bad” parts of myself, the parts that I didn’t want, the parts that didn’t make me eligible for my privilege. The same parts that white people have tried to get rid of for centuries and have instead projected onto black and brown people.

And therein, of course, lies the biggest impact of all of this: “people who are in black and brown bodies are dealing with a tremendous amount of negative projection and violence. It’s a violent idea, to take what I don’t like about myself and push it on to your body, and to destroy you to get rid of that part. It causes this toxic violence to be internalized into their bodies, and they have to endlessly shovel this anger and criticism out of their own bodies.”

I return to an interview with Toni Morrison who (of course) puts it perfectly: “Despite (and because of) its lofty delusions, white supremacy makes things worse for everyone, white people very much included. It succeeds because the belief in “whiteness” as a category of specialness covers up deep-seated insecurity and doubt.”

White supremacy is hurting us all and that applies explicitly to mental health. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that rates of anxiety and depression continue to grow, do you?

But where does that leave us? Where does that leave me in my quest to heal myself so that I can heal others?

For white people, Scott says this: “Learn to be brave. Learn to turn towards [your] fears and turn towards that which we don’t want, and integrate it, in the same way you would integrate trauma. It’s a trauma to constantly be cutting ourselves off with scissors [trying to remove parts of ourselves we don’t like]. So the work is similar: … integrating how to inhabit our bodies with all of our parts … and for people of color, it’s having the support and protection to be free of those projections. For white people it’s about being brave…and [facing] the parts of ourself that we fear…rather than projecting them.”

A big part of my work, then, is to be brave and to practice self-compassion rather than self-loathing. It is to accept and integrate all the parts I fear or dislike in myself rather than try to push them away, or worse, project them on others. It is a radical act to accept myself as I am. It is a radical act to accept and to love my body. And it’s only when I stop being paralyzed by self-loathing that I am motivated to act, to change, and to have time and energy to dedicate to helping others.

Thanks for reading and listening. Again, please reach out if you want to talk.

Link to the podcast on Spotify here:


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