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As a disability justice activist, I am a strong advocate for the social model of disability.
The social model of disability posits that disability does not only result from a biological condition but also from the social and environmental exclusion and barriers to access that people with that condition experience. Advocates of the social model believe that disabled people should not only be provided with medical treatment but also with accommodations to make their environment more inclusive and accessible.
One example of a community that strongly advocates for the social model is the Autistic community.
Rather than advocating for treatment for or a cure of autism, Autistic activists view being Autistic as a cultural difference that should be accepted and accommodated through environmental changes like providing alternative models of communication besides verbal speech, offering sensory-friendly areas, and not requiring individuals to make eye contact or perform other neurotypical social cues.
The Social Model of Disability and Eating Disorders
While I have seen many disability communities embrace the social model and advocate for acceptance and accessibility, I find that this is less common within the mental health community, and even less common among those in eating disorder recovery.
In my experience, it sometimes feels like these communities predominantly adhere to a recovery model that leaves little room for chronic disability or long-term need for accommodations.
The narrative of mental illness that we commonly hear is one of a period of struggle followed by complete recovery, either through medication, therapy, alternative modalities, or some combination of these.
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For me personally, this narrative does not ring true for my experience of mental illness and has in fact felt harmful in some ways. In both mental health and eating disorder spaces, the expectation of attaining a “perfect,” complete recovery has added a great deal of pressure to my already existing struggles with illnesses based in perfectionism and self-criticism.
The social model of disability has felt much more liberating.
As I have written about previously, I don’t feel that the identity of being “recovered” from an eating disorder will ever quite fit for me. Although I engage in significantly less disordered eating than ever before and am much closer to being an intuitive eater than I ever thought I could be, I still struggle a great deal with body dissatisfaction and tremendous self-doubt over whether it really is okay to give up all forms of dieting and restricting.
This is largely due to the fatphobic, nutritionist culture we live in, which assumes that our body size, eating habits, and exercise habits are indicative of our character, moral worth, self-discipline, and health.
Our bodies and food/exercise choices are often scrutinized and subjected to all kinds of judgments based on misconceptions and stereotypes.
While I have thin privilege and am not at all subjected to the same structural violence and systemic oppression that people in larger bodies are, I feel that widespread diet culture and body policing are inescapable within our society. It feels nearly impossible not to struggle with body dissatisfaction or some form of disordered eating as a result of this.
The social model of disability has helped me conceptualize my eating disorder as a reaction to and injury from these societal norms and beliefs.
It is not a purely biological illness that can be solely treated with medical or psychological intervention. While psychological and dietary counselling have been helpful, I feel that I need so much more than this.
The frequency and intensity of eating disorder symptoms I experience can shift dramatically based on the environment I am in.
Being inundated with body shaming and food shaming messages often leads me to experience distress around eating and my body, while being surrounded by people who do not make judgments based on body size or food/exercise choices (and who do not assume that the two are linked) significantly reduces my distress.
My social environment is a major part of my overall well-being and my ability to have freedom with food, and changes need to be made to my social context, not just me as an individual, as part of the recovery process.
How I Apply the Social Model of Disability to my Eating Disorder
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For me, applying the social model of disability to my eating disorder has meant not only participating in therapy, dietary counselling, and support groups, but also being active in advocating for social change and a society that respects and honours all bodies.
I now work to respond to disordered eating thoughts and body dissatisfaction by sharing anti-diet content on social media, supporting policies that advance size equality and weight stigma education, signing petitions to cancel fatphobic media, and writing blog posts or giving presentations on the devastating effects of diet culture and sizeism.
I’ve also learned to state my needs and set boundaries with others around diet talk and body shaming.
Recently, when I registered for an event, I was asked on the registration form to share how the event hosts could make it more inclusive and address any access needs. I stated that as a person in eating disorder recovery, I needed for the event to be free of diet talk, moral judgments of food as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” and language equating thinness/weight loss with health and fatness/weight gain with lack of health or self-discipline.
This request was honoured by the event hosts and the event was a very welcoming space. I plan to continue asking for this accommodation in the future.
What You Can Do
As a future counsellor, I plan to support people with eating disorders (and other diagnoses) in exploring how they might want to apply the social model of disability in their own lives.
For some, this may include the forms of advocacy and education described above. For others, it may include asking for accommodations to be able to take more breaks at school and work for meals and snacks, to receive meal support or assistance with grocery shopping, to be able to have flexible attendance requirements at school and work in order to participate in therapy or dietary counselling, to abstain from workplace “wellness” programs that focus on food choices and wellness, or something else.
I believe the social model of disability can help to free us from the idea that successfully navigating life with an eating disorder or another mental health condition is 100% our responsibility.
It has helped me let go of self-criticism and self-doubt over whether I am “recovered enough” or “doing my treatment the right way.” It has instead allowed me to ask for help and support in bettering my social context and environment.
I feel strongly that the social model of disability can help make our world a safer, more inclusive place to live.
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