Hunger, Food and the Body are Symbolically Loaded with our Human History.
Hunger, food and the body are symbolically loaded with our human history. So too is gender, place, culture, family and the person with an eating disorder’s specific formative experiences. While hunger, food and the body are simple in that each is necessary for survival they are also simultaneously of archetypal resonance and therefore nuanced, powerful, evasive and complex, especially in the case of disordered eating.
As discussed in previous posts, for those with an eating disorder what is emotionally too much for direct conscious recognition is sublimated through a destructive, symptomatic relationship to hunger, food and the body. It is this symbolic interaction that connects it with myth, metaphor and story. This is due to context being needed to recognise the meaning and significance of what lies behind what seems to be. We have text — the literal presenting problem of food, hunger and the body — and the subtext — the myth that is being lived out through an eating disorder.
An individual with an eating disorder is not their eating disorder but they are in a sense consumed by it and must eventually, bite by uncomfortable bite, undergo a process of recognising and metabolising the mechanisms at play before they not only disappear too much within the addiction but die from it.
Eating Disorders are Stories of Great Pain and Self-Hate
Eating disorders, in essence, are stories of great pain and self-hate, not the security, desire, happiness and love they aspire to. Understanding the story informing one’s disordered eating and appreciating the positive role it initially tries to fulfill and indeed may appear to satisfy for a brief period, creates mental and emotional space upon which to intervene and rewrite the unsustainable perversion disordered eating is.
Through story the person with disordered eating can fabricate a set of events and experiences that conclude in a resolving of the problematic relationship to food, hunger and the body. By knowing the meaning of what is being externally played out in anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, the perversion can be addressed and contested through narrative in ways that food, hunger and the body are in turn healthily integrated into daily life.
For example, in cases where an individual’s destructive relationship to food acts as a metaphor for feeling starved of love, acceptance and being good enough, these primal nurture needs are played out through the denial of essential nourishment via anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.
The compulsive eater typically consumes calorie dense food lacking in nutritional value which in effect keeps the body starving for what it actually needs. In the case of anorexia, it might manifest as mirroring core beliefs of not being loved or good enough. It is acted out or externalized with the inability to take in or keep and nutritionally benefit from food.
The way eating disorder stories of self-hate and pain can be rewritten is if, for example, we take the insatiable hunger for food as being the hunger for love and work through it via fiction writing. This is done by metaphorically questioning, through the protagonist, whether it is true, valid and of any credible value to perceive this character as unlovable and devoured by such pain.
- Can the protagonist have a life beyond it that involves loving and joyful experiences? If so, what would that look like?
- What would have to happen in order for this to be a credible outcome considering the world s/he inhabits; the circumstances, constraints and forces s/he is up against; and her/his way of looking at, reacting to and understanding the world, self and others?
- Does it really matter if one character or a group of people rejects the protagonist? Are there other characters, groups, communities that love, accept and value this protagonist and if so why?
- What is it that others can see, value and practice that the protagonist can then come to see in his or her self; own; and experience the liberation of self-love, confidence and conviction?
In short, by writing a fiction, the person suffering from disordered eating can imagine a story and self that works through the lack of love, injured sense of self worth and elusive identity by problem solving a way out of the protagonist’s relationship with their wounded self and other characters.
On an unconscious level the person with disordered eating will indirectly address this lack of love, emotional starvation, self-hate, pain and harmfully inaccurate self-perception. Through story, events, encounters and narrative, s/he will replace the story of how certain experiences created core beliefs of being irrelevant, invisible and not good enough with a narrative arc that acknowledges the protagonist’s capacity, inner beauty and inherent love-worthiness. How this works is explained further in previous posts such as:
Acting Out Unworthiness and Punishment
The consumption and ingestion of adequate amounts of nutritious food is an essential and loving act towards the self. It sustains life and health but if a person’s core belief is that they are unlovable, the hardest thing for them to do is to sit and consume food that will love their body back. To say they don’t feel worthy is a gross understatement of the degree to which these individuals are compelled to hate, deprive and punish their body.
Bulimics may allow themselves to eat but only in a punishing way that leaves them starving. For example, they typically over-eat nutritionally lacking but calorie dense food that pains the stomach to the point of purging. After the feast is the emptying or elimination process that results in famine.
In cases of compulsive binge eating the act feels unstoppable because regardless of how much is eaten the driving hunger for love, safety, acceptance and self-worth is ravenous, desperate and a primal need that cannot be satiated with food.
If the individual has not had a formative experience of receiving unconditional love from a significant other, it makes sense that this unmet primal need for nurture might be acted out via one’s relationship to food, the body and appetite. In each type of disordered eating, the sufferer is in need of establishing an inner sense of security, validation, self and effective resources with which to process adverse emotions.
Food and disordered eating will never be able to give them this nor will a certain body shape or external validation. Like the bulimic, the binge eater over-consumes on calorie dense, nutritionally poor foods that leave the body starving for the vitamins and minerals it requires as much as love, acceptance and to be positively seen for who they are, what they think, how they feel, what they’re passionate about, what their dreams are and not what they look like. The emphasis on the body is a physical way of expressing the true desire and need to be seen for the beauty, depth and great capacity for a complex inner emotional life within.
The anorexic and bulimic may initially believe that to be worthy of love, acceptance and value they must have the ‘perfect’ body shape. It seems as though this is something they can take action to achieve by changing and therefore controlling their exercise and food intake. However the idea of ‘perfect’ and ‘value’ are illusions constructed through society, culture, media and in some cases the family. ‘Perfect’ isn’t real, therefore to ‘achieve this ideal image’ can’t happen so eating disorders in every conceivable and most dangerous way, don’t, won’t and can’t work.
Love, acceptance and value has nothing to do with how one looks and everything to do with how one perceives oneself and therefore allows others to behave in relation to their person. So when treating the presenting problem in the person with disordered eating a questioning of the meaning of food, hunger and the body in the specific personal, social, familial and cultural context must respectfully and empathically take place. This inner exploration alongside specific creative writing exercises and lessons will propel the sufferer to inadvertently begin to establish a core self, identity, authority, confidence, voice, visibility, purpose, sense of worth and self-love independent of their looks, the perception of others and social expectations.
Addressing Negative Core Beliefs
Another aspect of identifying what the meaning and significance behind an individual’s eating disorder requires exploring and renegotiating their core beliefs.
For example: I am bad. I am useless. I do not matter has to go and be replaced with I am good. I am useful. I matter.
By understanding a person with anorexia’s negative core beliefs it becomes evident that dieting to be beautiful, accepted and loved is not really what those with anorexia are doing. However, initially on the surface, it does seem to be. Only the person with anorexia continues to lose weight after their initial goal weight has been achieved. Whatever weight individuals with disordered eating reach is never enough. It can’t be. Weight and image can’t satiate their emotional needs. Consequently their body becomes increasingly painful to look at. How they look mirrors how they feel, fatally hungry for that which they are unable to obtain.
Those with anorexia reject their body by physically erasing it, treating it with deprivation, hate and punishment. Because one with anorexia cannot see her/his body as beautiful, acceptable or lovable on its own terms, s/he is incapable of accepting or feeling admired, loved or accepted by another. No weight, small dress size or glamorous photograph taken can ever be enough. As long as their emotional needs remain unmet, nothing can.
The person with disordered eating only seems to want to look beautiful, what is actually wanted is to feel beautiful. In adolescence and adulthood, this feeling of beauty can only come from within first, otherwise it’s always dependent on how unreliable and transitory external factors and the opinions or attention of others are. For children it is different. At this formative stage of human development they learn how to see the self and worth through the way they are seen, spoken to and treated by primary caretakers.
As an adolescent or adult, if one undergoes a process of learning to embody the beauty, peace and potential within, s/he can withstand the negative or challenging feedback from the external world intact. One will not need a maladaptive behaviour such as disordered eating to cope.
The paradox is anorexia can and often does, in one’s early teens, start out as dieting to be ‘beautiful,’ admired, important and wanted. The key words here are ‘to be,’ implying that the individual considers him or herself as wrong, insignificant and unseen. So an eating disorder is an acting out of this core conviction of being inherently negative. A person who has not had formative experiences of feeling unwanted, useless or unloved at the hands of those with archetypal power and influence over them are not typically as vulnerable to going from a diet to a full blown eating disorder.
As already stated, those who feel wrong, out of place, damaged in some way or not good enough are susceptible to this form of living out or externalizing of their internalized rejection. Again the individual is not born with such conviction, it is explicitly or implicitly taught. No achievement of weight loss goals, new wardrobe or positive attention is going to touch the negative core beliefs that will continue to play themselves out until they are made conscious, contested and replaced with affirmative ones.
What often happens is the anorexic gets addicted to the high starvation gives, the compliments received at the initial losses of weight, the one aspect in their life that they can control. Also, when one is perpetually in starvation mode they don’t have the energy to care about things or feel. This state of relief can be most addictive as it provides escape from all that is unbearable. Anorexia and bulimia can only ever seem to be about beauty and weight loss under the most reductive of circumstances. And that is why eating and retaining food is not the lasting answer and in and of itself unsatisfactory treatment.`
The Secret Those Suffering from an Eating Disorder Keep
For a person with an eating disorder to treat themselves in the hateful, isolating and most painfully restrictive ways does not leave them with the capacity or energy to feel happy, good enough, lovable or open to enjoying the present moment with others. In fact anorexia is the only company the individual keeps and it’s never beauty or the longed for image that they see reflected back at them in the mirror. All they can see are their core beliefs scowling back at them.
Anorexia is also about fear, fragility and punishment. Furthermore, it includes shame, guilt and disappearance. It is the secret a sufferer keeps, just like bulimia and binge eating. A secret of self-hate. Although anorexia and binge eating can be harder to hide because the size of these individuals can be extremely over or under weight and so visually indicative it nonetheless remains in various ways remain a secret kept from oneself.
The way this same story might play itself out in a bulimic is that this hunger for being heard, spiritually and emotionally fulfilled or safe is so strong and voracious that the bulimic can’t stop eating to fill the void within until it physically hurts them. To release them of this pain for a satiated experience they just cannot manifest in their life, they purge it in a violent expulsion from the body. Bulimia is a situation where the sufferer is always eating and yet always hungry. In essence it’s all about pain and violence to the body as well as the high from oscillating from one extreme to the next. Eat until it hurts and then abruptly empty the self.
The individual suffering from an eating disorder has to feel the pain of past experiences in which they felt unloved, unaccepted, irrelevant and rejected and take that power away from the individuals who were perceived to treat them this way. This is where it gets hard because the person with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating is so adept to hating her/himself into disappearance that in recovery s/he is challenged to, regardless of everyone and anyone else, see her/his own worthiness of love and life.
To mediate this challenge through fiction writing makes it possible, especially if it’s broken down into bite size pieces or exercises. It is a constructive way in which one’s internal life can be externalized through metaphor rather than the destructive way eating disorders are ‘pictured out’ physically, through symptoms. To challenge core beliefs of unworthiness and not being good enough they need to be addressed consciously as well as through practice and self-regard in everyday life by allowing themselves to eat, have and do things they like and that are good for them.
If this change can be introduced through a protagonist it will be met with less resistance and act as an nonthreatening mediation to what are radical concepts for the person with an eating disorder. The more familiar they become the less intimidating and more likely they are to be integrated into a permanent recovery that transforms life permanently from the inside out.
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