Although it is generally thought, and is certainly so that teenage females suffer from eating disorders, this addiction can and does effect males as well as females of all ages, classes, ethnic groups, religions, vocations and sexual orientations.
Many with an eating disorder and wanting to recover describe their condition as something that they hate and wish to break free from. A significant number have been known to name their eating disorder either ED (eating disorder), Rex (anorexia), Ana (anorexia), Mia (bulimia)… or even Ursula and describe their personification of the condition as an ever-present, critical and relentlessly demanding voice that is experienced as separate to them.
Disordered eating often begins as a means to feel in control and calm from the euphoria induced by either severe restriction, over-eating comfort foods and compensatory behavior such as laxatives, vomiting, fasting and excessive exercise. What begins as an aspiration towards control with the aim of reshaping the body paradoxically proves to be a means through which the individual incrementally forfeits all control without realizing.
There does however come a point of acute distress or crisis that forces those with an eating disorder to become conscious of no longer being able to choose to eat favorite foods, attend social events that involve eating or allow days off from an excessive exercise regime. This does not necessarily mean they will admit it or seek help. To be clear they know on some level that they aren’t in control or at liberty to be as they are. Yet they continue to deny to themselves and others that they are unable to practice any variation on the particular restrictive routine or ritual their eating disorder has become without profound shame, guilt and fear of unbearable consequences.
By this stage the relationship with their eating disorder has evolved into an unhealthy, isolated and secretive way of life that requires lies, omission, secrecy and deceitful strategy in order to maintain, nurture and protect the eating disorder’s survival. Therefore it is not possible for affected individuals to truly connect, be intimate and wholly share experiences with others because their primary allegiance is to their addiction to disordered eating.
The lying, hiding and consequent alienation over time results in the individuals losing their voice, identity and the capacity to fulfill their potential to engage with and thrive in all aspects of life. Please be aware that these consequences are not unique to disordered eating but apply to all addictions.
95% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder are female. Those that personify their eating disorder as either ED, Rex, Ana or Mia experience a peculiar relationship to their addiction. ED, for example, typically lives inside sufferers’ heads as a toxic boyfriend they’re unable to break with or as Ana, an over-idealized best female friend, role model or idol. It seems that when the eating disorder is personified as the male ED or Rex, it features as a powerful force to be overcome as opposed to the worshiped female personification of Ana or Mia, commonly held in sanctioned regard and esteem.
Of course there are exceptions such as the young woman Rachel who refers to her eating disorder as Ursula, a name inspired from the antagonist in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Rachel describes her eating disorder as though she were caught between the octopus Ursula’s tentacles like Ariel is depicted to be in the cartoon.
Ariel’s desire to become human, explore life on land and meet Prince Eric compels her to make a contract with the sea witch. This resonates with those with an eating disorder who pursue their hunger for calm, perfection, love and thinness (anorexia and anorexia bulimia) or warmth and nurture (binge eating) by entering into an unspoken and unwritten contract with their addiction.
Both Ariel and those with an eating disorder learn after the fact that they have unwittingly set themselves up to be robbed of their voice, identity and everything that they didn’t realise they had. For example Ariel loses her beautiful and unique voice, without which Prince Eric cannot identify her. She loses her visibility, connection to her underwater world, life and family, and almost causes her father his kingdom.
Those with an eating disorder lose energy, passion, personality, friends, honesty, interests, ability to follow through with commitments (ie: school, work, sport, family, social) the capacity to plot and strive towards attaining goals and leave the house without having to schedule around the demands of their eating disorder.
In the opening or setup of The Little Mermaid, Ariel sings about longing to be part of the world above water and the story unfolds her coming of age experience that colorfully and dramatically depicts her transition from adolescent life into womanhood. This involves her breaking away from her easily angered father, King Triton who rules his kingdom by the fear of his rage and exploring the unknown shore where Prince Eric enjoys a happy-go-lucky approach to life.
Ariel, against the rules of her father, takes control of satisfying her hunger for life on land by seeking out Ursula who can grant her access to the forbidden world on land among humans. However Ariel is not from the outset privy to the consequences of signing the contract that gives her a highly compromised taste of life above water where she could otherwise fully discover who she is, where she wants to be and belong and romantic love.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid oversees the archetypal transition from adolescence to young womanhood which is a significant and unique milestone in the stages of human development. This period is about change on all fronts, including major physical metamorphoses that can be most anxiety provoking, especially for those who have experienced childhood trauma and abuse.
Considering that disordered eating is a mechanism for dealing with fear it makes sense that females and males during this age of physical, social, emotional and hormonal uncertainty are particularly vulnerable to adopting this maladaptive behaviour. Unfortunately eating disorders commonly have a ten year life span where the disorder evolves (from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, anorexia bulimia, to orthorexia…), disappears and returns at various points.
Further contributing to this high level of susceptibility in female as well as male adolescents to early twenties is the degree to which feeling attractive, connected to peers and the sense of belonging is of primary value. This phase of life also oversees a time in which such individuals are most impressionable to the beauty myth saturating our media and culture. However it must be noted that while a thin obsessed culture can and does contribute to developing disordered eating to the meaning, significance and value attributed to body size this only plays a small part to a highly complex and nuanced condition.
How exactly does an eating disorder help a person cope with fear?
Starvation leaves the individual without the energy to be anxious and induces a state of euphoria that has a calming effect. Binging eating puts one into a ‘food coma’ where for the briefest moment nothing matters and all forms of purging leaves the individual biochemically altered, high and temporarily removed from all pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, pressure and obligation they do not have the effective means to cope with. In other words, eating disorders enable those with one to dissociate to the degree that they are no longer emotionally touchable or present. The problem of this is threefold:
- They must continually practice disordered eating and intensify it to maintain their inability to feel their fear.
- While they may have found an antidote to fear they don’t feel any other emotions either.
- They dissociate which means they are not conscious to the present and therefore lack agency over their life.
In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ariel physically transforms from half fish to human. Her pact with the deceitful witch Ursula leaves her without a voice, identity, visibility and means for authentic self-expression much like the implicit contract between individuals and their eating disorder. Like Ariel, these individuals believe that if they live according to their eating disorder’s demands (or in line with Ursula’s contract) they will in turn receive an ideal body type that is noticed and loved but what it actually does is get them into life threatening trouble and eliminates everything authentic and unique about them.
For Rachel recovery meant reclaiming and enunciating her voice as well as re-feeding and being at liberty to live uninhibited by the strict eating and exercise regulations which meant she had to be home at certain times for food preparation and consumption.
Life lived according to ED, Rex, Anna, Mia and Ursula gradually strips these typically very smart, sensitive, high achieving and conscientious sufferers in all areas of life such as socially, professionally, financially, intimately, sexually, academically and physically.
Regardless of the gender attributed to the personified eating disorder, the eating disorder attacks, reconfigures and ultimately erases feminine curves symbolizing womanhood, fertility and sexuality. For example anorexia and bulimia anorexia starve or purge away a woman’s voluptuousness and fertility whereas binge eating buries or blocks it out in excess flesh. The disorder in turn seeks to restore the body to its pre-pubescent, infertile form.
ED, Rex, Ana, Mia and Ursula are all conditional companions that only ever seem to give payoffs which contribute to why the disorder is such a hard addiction to break and constant to let go of. Without ED, Rex, Ana, Ursula or Mia there’s nothing but the silent unfilled hours of the day that ‘he’ or ‘she’ had filled with an overbearing routine and preoccupation.
The payoffs in anorexia, bulimia anorexia and bulimia are part of what make it considered egosyntonic or hard to break. Ego syntonic means the disordered eating behaviour upholds the sufferer’s sense of identity, for the condition is in line with their ideals and congruent with their beliefs. For example: to be thin and eat less may be considered by those with an eating disorder to be good, a sign of self-discipline and control. They may have been raised with the implicit message that to take up as little space as possible is feminine and to be the smallest size in clothes makes them acceptable, successful, lovable, admired valued and beautiful.
The fact is size six clothing, a ballet dancer body or glamour photographs can’t love you back and therefore to satisfy the need for admiration, acceptance and love remains in the form of compliance to ED, Ana or Mia who promise to but can’t give the individual the nurture they want and will slowly dying without.
Pros and Cons of Personifying an Eating Disorder
Among those recognized as authorities on eating disorders there are conflicting views on the value and benefits of personifying an eating disorder when it comes to treatment and recovery.
- To conceptualize an eating disorder as separate from the self helps those with an eating disorder process that they are not their addiction to disordered eating. That while it is part of who they are it is not the sum total of who they are which helps with the shame and guilt many feel about their condition.
- By referring to an eating disorder as a separate entity it helps those suffering to articulate and put words to a very confounding experience.
- The personification of an eating disorder makes it visible, conscious and therefore easier to question, challenge and disobey. It invites the suffer to distinguish that this compulsive behaviour is what ED wants, not them. For example: “My eating disorder wants me to go three days without eating but I’m afraid that my body doesn’t have enough flesh to live on by fasting for three days and I don’t want to keep hurting myself or die. I know I need to eat to live but ED won’t let me and I’m terrified of food. Even the safe ones.” This ability to distinguish what belongs to the eating disorder as opposed to one’s core self is very helpful because we can see the mechanisms at play within the disordered eaters mind and work with the non-ED part of the mind, to help it grow in strength, influence and assertion to eventually shrink ED’s destructive power and transform it into constructive behaviour.
- This way of talking about and understanding an eating disorder can help loved ones understand their child, partner, friend’s problem.
- Individuals with an eating disorder have a divided psyche. The eating disorder is like a bully or tyrant that despite doing a lot of damage is actually doing the best it can to protect how vulnerable the individual is. Unfortunately part of doing so is attacking the parts that remain vulnerable. What needs to happen is a de-polarisation or balancing out of the psyche so that it can be integrated. There are many ways to do this and working effectively with the personification of an eating disorder is one of them.
- Personifying the eating disorder can help those suffering from one get to know, articulate and engage with the story of their disordered eating. For example: when ED first entered their life, the different roles he played, obsessions he had, rituals… what happened when he first disappeared…came back…turned from anorexia to bulimia.
- The personification of an eating disorder can result in the sufferer not taking responsibility or being accountable for their actions. For example: “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
- Seeing themselves as helpless victims to a condition they have no control or power over when this is simply not true. They are as strong and powerful as their eating disorder. In fact an eating disorder demonstrates the individual’s inner capacity being used to self-destruct than self-empower.
- The personification of an eating disorder can be exploited to sustain the addiction. For example: “ED made me throw it up. ED won’t let me eat it.” While the person with an eating disorder occupies this kind of ‘victim’ or ‘helpless’ mentality there’s going to be no steps towards recovery.
- In instances where the person with an eating disorder considers the eating disorder as totally separate to who they are recovery becomes problematic. The eating disorder is not the sum total or true reflection of who the individual is but it is a split off, injured and ill part of their mind that holds all the qualities (wit, persistence, attention to detail, determination, desire, energy, focus, conviction) needed to transform the individual’s life into something truly beautiful. If it continues to express itself as an eating disorder it will however kill the individual who simply must own and take responsibility for their eating disorder. To be clear if the healthy part of them doesn’t stand up to, challenge, question and disobey the eating disorder because they give it all their power nothing can change. If personifying one’s eating disorder isn’t used in a productive way to articulate the war taking place within then personification has the potential to do much damage.
Ultimately the phenomena of personifying one’s eating disorder is neither inherently good nor bad, better or worse but should be observed on a case by case basis. How it is working for and is used by the individual suffering from an eating disorder is what matters. Bestselling author, Jenni Schaefer has written on how naming her eating disorder ED and thinking of her condition in this way helped her recover whereas fellow former eating disorder sufferer and expert, Carolin Costin, does not encourage personifying an eating disorder because of the potential dangers listed under cons.
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Dr Angelina Mirabito
PhD on the therapeutic value of reading and writing trauma fiction and its potential value in the post-traumatic growth process.
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