The Social, Relational and Political Context of Eating Disorders: A Feminist-Informed Grounded Theory Analysis

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Virginia Tech


Although subclinical eating disorders are more common than clinical eating disorders, they have received significantly less empirical attention. Subclinical symptoms of eating disorders often surface during adolescence and young adulthood and are far more common among females than males. Despite knowledge that the larger sociocultural context may contribute to the development of eating disorders, few studies have examined feminist-informed factors that may serve as protective mechanisms for young women who are influenced by Western capitalist culture and exhibit some symptomology, but do not develop clinically disordered eating. Using the feminist-relational model (feminist-relational Model (Jordan, 1997; Maine and Bunnell, 2008; Surrey, 1991) as a guide, this study sought to fill this gap. Informed by feminist grounded theory methodology, this study qualitatively examined socio-relational and socio-political contexts as potential protective factors for young women ages 18-25 whose subclinical eating disorder symptoms had not yet developed into a clinical eating disorder. Using constructivist grounded theory methodology, an emerging model was developed which demonstrates how participants spoke of their eating disorder symptoms in an externalized way. This was termed the "eating disorder voice." Findings highlight how feminist-informed protective factors helped participants resolve the tension between their genuine voice and eating disorder voice, and act in accordance with their preferred values. Participants were then more likely to be open about their symptoms and invest in their relationships. The main protective factors that emerged included, support people who provide emotional and tangible support, support people who challenge the eating disorder, a personal sense of agency, and community activism and involvement. The present study adds to the feminist theory and the feminist-relational model by providing a conceptualization of the symbiotic relationship between feminist-informed protective factors, suggesting through supportive relationships, individuals experience increased empowerment and agency. Clinical findings indicate that protecting symptoms, misperceptions regarding subclinical symptoms, and stigma served as barriers to seeking treatment. Implications for future research and practice are discussed.



eating disorders, subclinical, protective factors, feminist theory, grounded theory