We hear a lot about how controlling weight and eating can be motivated by the desire to appease a general sense of not being good enough. If you have unrelentingly high standards, weight loss is measurable evidence that you’re doing ok somewhere. This is especially relevant in a society where women are socialised to value thinness as attractive. I know for me, controlling food became tangible proof that I could definitely achieve something, albeit in a very distorted way. These are the ‘usual’ issues we hear about. However there are other important themes. Things we don’t often hear about in the media, because they aren’t convenient and they don’t fit the (more palatable) narrative of the white, appearance focused, over achieving young woman. 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 life that really matter. Turning to, or away from food can be a way to manage feelings of worthlessness, an attempt to ‘fix’ a constant, nagging sense of never quite measuring up.
Of course, 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 power sits heavily. But not everyone exposed to the ‘thin ideal’ develops a consuming eating disorder. Often, it is where difficult relationships or experiences outweigh our ability to cope, that weight loss all too easily comes to provide tangible, measurable evidence of achievement. ‘At least I’m doing ok somewhere’. People with the psychological and practical resources to manage difficult experiences and painful feelings usually don’t develop eating disorders. But for some, controlling food is the only available way to manage an overwhelming sense of confusion. It isn’t a choice, it is about survival.
For me, growing up in a world dominated by addiction meant that I rarely felt safe. Even when things are quiet, you’re hyper-vigilant, waiting for the next explosion. So life feels chaotic. And if you have no other way of coping, it’s natural to find some avenue to create the sense of safety we all need, because if you want to survive, you have to keep going. You especially have to keep going if you also feel responsible for making sure others are ok. The overriding imperative is to keep things together. And the thing about significant dietary restriction is that it effectively dampens down anxiety. It also provides a clear, measurable sense of control, and if things around you feel chaotic, or your space isn’t your own, the need to have some sense of control or autonomy really matters. So in some ways, it works.
The problem is that blocking out feelings like this can leave a person disconnected and cut off from their body and so increasingly unaware of what they actually need. So the restriction, denial, guilt, and sense of not being allowed space, a voice, or food, become a relentless, self perpetuating cycle. I’m not 100% sure how to fix that. Of course it involves food and eating and truly normalising weight (and I don’t mean just sitting on the edge of ‘healthy’, either) but it also requires so much more than that.
Cultural messages do matter. But maybe not only in the ‘thin ideal’ way we often associate with eating disorders. Women have historically been silenced and taught to dismiss their own needs. We have had limited avenues to speak up when things are not right. The media, the justice system, education, can all contribute to this. Things get ignored or dismissed. We are given messages all the time about whether we will be taken seriously. Whether we can trust our own judgement about how things seem. Whether it’s worth trying to explain what we think we need. And sometimes it isn’t only what happens but the way in which we are responded to that leaves an impression.
We have moved on in recent years, but we have a long way to go. And the trouble is that adverse experiences often begin to occur at an age when people are forming their view of themselves and their place within the world. When people develop confused ways of coping, to then label that person as having something inherently wrong within them (‘depression’, ‘personality disorder’) or in the case of eating disorders, to blame the drive for thinness solely on ‘vanity’ or even the media doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the reality is much closer to home. I don’t think the ‘thin ideal’ and our society’s increasingly intense focus on physical appearance and distorted ideas of ‘clean’ eating are helpful – in fact, they are corrosive – but focusing on this as a ’cause’ only detracts from the broader, more unpalatable issues. We don’t want to think we need to address how we manage things as a society, because that will cost us and it challenges the foundations upon which many of us build our (relatively comfortable) lives.
I don’t want it to be ok for girls today (and it too frequently is girls) to have experiences of being dismissed or silenced or worse. I don’t want their options for coping or feeling in control to seem so limited that the only option is to turn to or away from food. That is the true breeding ground for eating disorders, not magazines or skinny models.