One of the highlights of the recent 20th annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference in Philadelphia was the keynote speech by Gloria Steinem. The trailblazing feminist discussed four decades of feminist reflections on women and eating disorders, a fitting topic for a conference that was dedicated to looking feminist perspectives both past and future.
Steinem commands respect and attention for the writing she has done, but also for her tireless speaking schedule. Her constant presence on the lecture circuit keeps her feminist message of equality and democracy afloat in an age when it is so taken for granted, yet not always heeded. The word "feminism," she noted has been demonized just as the word "liberal" has.
Her frequent speaking engagements are also important, Steinem said, because she learns from the young people she speaks to. She doesn't like the word "mentor," she said, because it is a one-way street. Instead, at 75 ("It's important that we say our age," she noted), she tries to relate across generations and learn from as well as teach those she speaks to.
The fact that eating disorder sufferers are predominantly female, Steinem noted, makes it an issue very much about gender. She took a historical perspective, explaining that "all male-dominated cultures have tended to value weakness in women," and that "strong women have been made to envy [thin and weak] upper-class women," as a way to perpetuate male dominance. In the late 1880s, perfectionism "would have meant that we weigh three-hundred pounds," she noted. The lesson: "What perfectionism is attached to is profoundly culturally determined."