On Situating my Narrative in the Personal and the Cultural

A short disclaimer before jumping into the post: It has been a minute since I blogged last and I started drafting this around that time and then forgot about it. But I wanted to finish this out before moving on to other topics.

I don’t often share but I am a recovered bulimic. Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by cycles of binging and purging. In working on my recovery back in my early 20s, I explored and worked through in psychotherapy how my bulimia related to my individual story (my depression, family history, sense of perfectionism, disconnection with my emotions, etc.).

The field of social work utilizes a person-in-environment (PIE) approach. The individual is often portrayed at the center of concentric circles representing individual, family, relatives, friends, community, and then the more macrosystems of government, economy, culture, etc.

Once again, I was given the seed for another life lesson in Dr. Michael Sheridan’s Diversity Class. (I referenced this class in my last blog about working on my ableism.) In talking about Sex and Gender, we watched a documentary that looked at the impact of modern media on women’s self-image. (I think one of the versions of Killing Us Softly). Included in the documentary was information on a study looking at how the introduction of media in Fiji impacted behaviors and attitudes about eating among adolescent girls. The gist being disordered eating increased significantly after increased exposure to television.

I wrote in my learning journal following that class:

“I feel upset. … The video made the argument that the media caused eating disorders. As a recovered bulimic who struggled with bulimia throughout undergrad, I have an experience that is way more complex than the video suggested. The causes for my experience with bulimia had almost nothing to do with the media.”

I thought I had completely pieced together my own eating disorder story and it didn’t include the media or consumer culture. But Dr. Sheridan challenged me in her feedback on that learning journal to think beyond the concentric circles of person and family to that of culture and society.

Since then, my viewpoint on how my individual narrative fits into the broader consumer culture has been continuously growing and changing. But my current personal conclusion (not grounded in fact or research but based in my own experiences and story) boils down to one simple idea. Our current consumer culture doesn’t want women (some would say more broadly people in general) to be happy or confident. Self-confidence cuts into sales.

Instead, it’s better for sales if women have within themselves a gaping hole of inadequacy and self-loathing that they try to fill with various products and services (clothing, shoes, face wash, toner, make-up, gym memberships, hair products, nail polishes, diet products, etc). Advertising and media are there from birth to help shape the way we think and feel about ourselves and to give us the ‘answers’ to our problems.

Perhaps it’s oversimplified. But for me, I can honestly say that as my self-confidence increased throughout my 20s, I found myself making purchasing decisions based on a self-awareness of what brings enrichment and happiness to my life (food, drink, and travel) and not an overwhelming urge to cover-up my self loathing. I consider it counter-culture to be self-confidant and to love myself.

Just one last slightly off-topic thought on this journey. While my years of psychotherapy have been essential and vital in giving me a space to grown into the person I am today, I can’t help but feel that my understanding of my narrative would have been less rich if I hadn’t been pushed to connect my individual story to its societal/cultural context. It’s empowering to identify the ways in which one’s personal narrative has been shaped by oppressive systems like sexism. As a social worker, it has left me yearning for a therapeutic approach that simultaneously engages in individual psychotherapy and consciousness raising.