Eating disorders are not always about ‘body image’. They aren’t about wanting to look like skinny models, either. Believe it or not, sometimes, they aren’t even really about weight.
Contrary to the popular myth that anorexia is narcissistic, it is more often about a person being silenced, feeling unheard, or having a lack of control in areas of their life that really matter. Turning to, or away from food can be a way to manage feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy, an attempt to ‘fix’ a constant, gnawing sense of never quite measuring up. It can be a scramble for autonomy or a desperate attempt at boundary setting in the midst of experiences that deny us this. In short, eating disorders are often about oppression.
Dominant narratives around being female prime us early for a disordered relationship with food and our bodies. The message that thinness is synonymous with attractiveness and success can weigh heavily. But not everyone exposed to the ‘thin ideal’ develops an eating disorder. It is where difficult relationships or traumatic life experiences outweigh our ability to cope, that weight loss all too easily comes to provide tangible, measurable evidence of control. ‘At least I’m doing ok somewhere’. People with the resources to manage difficult experiences and uncomfortable feelings usually don’t develop eating disorders. But for some, controlling food is the only available way to manage an overwhelming sense of chaos or confusion. It isn’t a choice, it is about survival.
I suppose you could say that the fact we don’t really like to talk about this, is itself, oppressive. As a society, we close down some stories and make space for others. Teenagers who want to look like models – it’s a convenient media story. Abuse, trauma, the uncomfortable complexity of family dynamics, the ever increasing expectations on young people, which are so often at odds with their emotional development, are not so palatable.
My own formative years were fairly complex. Addiction dominated our home life, unseen by those around us. And addiction brings with it a sense of oppression, chaos and uncertainty. You never feel safe, and it’s natural to find some other way to create that sense of safety. Perhaps this is why for me, anorexia often felt like a positive thing. I needed it, and I clung to it. Setting rules around food, watching the numbers drop – it felt satisfying, comforting. It rapidly became my way of reassuring myself that I did have some degree of control. It was something I did ‘for me’. It helped me to feel contained in a chaotic environment, clean, rather than contaminated. Numbers are predictable. They don’t let you down. And restriction conveniently dampens down emotions, it numbs the corrosive anxiety which frequently accompanies trauma.
The irony is that what begins as a desperate attempt at survival rapidly turns on us. Starvation numbs emotions, but this leaves us disconnected from our bodies. We lose sight of what we need – nourishment, space, the opportunity to name our experiences. When we cling to our eating disorder, when we talk of being ‘too fat’, ‘greedy’, ‘undisciplined’ we silence ourselves because we do not acknowledge what we really feel or need. We attack ourselves, and in doing so, assume the role of the oppressor.
In this context, recovery involves beginning to untangle ourselves from something which at one time felt essential for survival, something that all too often becomes an intrinsic part of who we are. It attaches itself to us and whispers that we still need it. Recovery requires a fundamental shift away from the belief that self denial and restriction are necessary for survival. Far from being evidence of control, in starving ourselves, setting absolute rules around food and tormenting ourselves when we step outside these, we enact the same critical, punishing role that we experienced at the hands of others. Recognising this and beginning to challenge it, is part of reclaiming our space. And if, rather than closing down discussions about trauma and oppression, society could listen and respond, we might prevent the onset of eating disorders in some vulnerable people.
What won’t work, is talking about ‘narcissism’, focusing solely on body image, or taking skinny models off the catwalks.