Attic Press 1990 ISBN 1 85594 007 81 £4.99
It would be hard to name a more important subject in women’s therapy than food. This Attic Press Handbook is a very useful contribution of a practical sort to this extremely complex and ramified subject. The authors’ intentions are primarily practical and they suggest many exercises which I think would be useful for any reader, not just for people who fear they may be suffering from identifiable anorexia or bulimia. I tried many of the exercises myself and I was impressed by how effective they were. For instance, the authors suggest the reader should make up a “pie chart” of the balance of time spent on food (thinking about it and so on) with time spent on other activities. My own “pie chart” surprised me – as a woman who feels no special problem around food, I discovered that it engrossed a far larger amount of my attention than I had realised, once I added up all the hours of shopping for it, planning and preparation for myself and my family. The authors’ claim that there are very strong social pressures on all women around food was swiftly illustrated. I felt that this inclusiveness of all women was a vital part of the authors’ strategy: they were not intent on “labelling” certain women as deviant or “diagnosing” them as anorexic or bulimic, but on empowering them to change.
The handbook is intended to be useful in several ways: self-help for “those struggling with eating disorders in isolation” (though the authors continually stress that support from a friend, a group or a counsellor will help); as a handbook for use in a self-help group; and as a back-up for a guided group. They also have a chapter “For partners, friends and relations” which includes lucid lists of “do” and “dont”, concluding by saying directly, “Treat her like a fully grown-up and functioning person.” I would add that I think that anyone involved in counselling should also find the book useful, not just because the exercises suggested in it are so varied and effective, but also because the basis for everything the authors suggest is plainly experiential. They do outline briefly various theories in the course of the book (stress, family relations, feminist, etc.) but they never prefer any single theory and they never suggest that theory can provide solutions. The theories are used integratively.
A lot of different women’s stories are reported in their own words, the fruit of counselling and group work conducted by Singh and Rosier themselves. There is a commendable lack of repetitiousness, so that the reader never feels that the women’s stories are “case histories” included merely to illustrate the authors’ general ideas. In short, there is throughout the book a strong encouragement to the reader to try the exercises out and to discover things for herself about her anxieties around food. Thus I feel that the book could be of service also to counsellors as a possible further support to offer to their clients if appropriate. I should also like to add that I would consider very few self-help books to be really useful in this way.
Naturally there are aspects of the book which I would criticise. There is occasionally a certain jollity of tone which sets my teeth on edge, like the “lion Voyage!” at the end of the opening chapter. There is the virtual exclusion of the few men who suffer from these eating disorders. However, I must emphasise that, in spite of my general dislike and distrust of self-help handbooks, I found this one impressive. The basic quality of “unconditional acceptance” offered to the women the authors want to help shines through.