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By contributor Dr. Gordon Hak

“By challenging contemporary understandings of eating disorders. I invite you to think more critically about our pervading cultural current of ‘healthism,’” Janis Ledwell-Hunt says.

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Dr. Janis Ledwell-Hunt

Although most of us would never question the value of “health,” one of the most important things that a university does is create a space to question the things we generally don’t even think of questioning.  Ledwell-Hunt’s presentation entitled “Disordered Eating: How Can Feminism Help?” promises to do exactly that. The talk will be held in the Malaspina Theatre on Friday, February 13, beginning at 10 am.

As Ledwell-Hunt’s recent doctoral dissertation has shown, the idea, and the ideal, of “health” has a cultural and political history: “‘Health’ continues to act as a potent political metaphor ensuring normality and morality. When employed as a political construct, health reinforces racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, and ageism. So perhaps we need to find ways to think about life that don’t make recourse to health. But this is incredibly difficult, especially when we’re trying to deal with (treat and cure) illness.”

Ledwell-Hunt suggests that “another way of approaching the problem of healthism is to ask how we can begin to understand ‘eating disorders’ without ever insisting on, relying on, or even implying the possibility of an ‘eating order.’ Her analysis draws on the important feminist literature of the past decades: “feminist scholarship on eating disorders has moved us away from a focus on the lone sufferers of medical and psychiatric readings, and helped us to understand the role of our cultural obsessions with weight, fitness, beauty, and restraint,” says Ledwell-Hunt. “As a result, we tend to understand that anorexia and bulimia are caused and prolonged by patriarchy: women starve so they can fit into narrow and punitive beauty ideals; women waste away because they have been taught to occupy less space; women strive to control hunger as a misguided attempt to assert autonomy over that part of themselves that never feels free from competing socio-cultural demands—the body.”

However, “these interpretations of anorexia (and less often, bulimia) still depend upon assumptions about health and normalcy: assumptions that are often radically discordant with the ways self-starvers express themselves.” Ledwell-Hunt’s feminist approach looks at those assumptions and the omissions in earlier feminist scholarship on eating disorders, calling for “different sorts of feminist inquiry into disordered eating.” How can feminism help? “By what it has always done: performing thought experiments that invite us to think more critically and carefully about what we think we already know, and continuing to see its own complicities in reproducing stagnant logic.”

The Colloquium Committee is very pleased to sponsor Dr. Ledwell-Hunt’s talk. Dr. Dawn Thompson, chair of the committee, notes “we are thrilled to present emerging scholars like Janis, who are willing to share their thoughtful and original perspectives with the community.” Ledwell-Hunt completed a PhD in English at the University of Alberta in 2013 and is in the process of turning her dissertation into a book, tentatively entitled Anorexic Affect: Trans-Ordered Eating and Posthumanism. Drawing on her research, she has recently contributed a chapter to a book on the relationship between Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy and Samuel Beckett’s literature and has presented her work internationally. In the classroom, she says, her teaching “usually involves impassioned jumping, hand exclaiming, questioning, and listening.”

The Colloquium presentation on February 13 promises to be both illuminating, insightful, and lively. The illustrated talk is open to faculty, employees, and the general public. Students are especially welcome and there will be refreshments.

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