Regardless of cultural interpretations anorexia, I believe, has always been with us in the 5% or so of the population. It may seem to be triggered by a conscious decision to adhere to our cultures over-valuing of slenderness and demonisation of fat. But in the anorexic individual it comes from much deeper, it’s the result of arrested or damaged psychic development. Rejection of food is the unifying symptom but let’s not misattribute it to a desire to be thin.
We are all subjected to our culture’s love of slenderness and not all of us develop anorexia. Anorexics don’t develop anorexia because they are the popularly imagined cognitively-deficient weak women who believe everything the fashion and diet industry tells them. And the sooner we get over this misconception the better for us all. Lets assume that the anorexic is predisposed to starve and treat them as a soul and mind, rather than treating them with this current fascile approach where we try to culturally re-educate them. Oh no dear, thin is in but emaciated isn’t – you clearly just didn’t understand the message.
People say why can’t you eat without all this silly angst? Why can’t you just eat? “What’s the worst that could happen?”
The always undefined Worst is psychic demise. The sky will fall in, everyone will be doomed and suffering will wash over all in existence. It will all be my fault and I have to stay strong and avoid food to ensure the continued existence of the universe – at least from my point of view. I can’t emphasise it enough – eating is psychic death.
This isn’t often, if ever, a consciously articulated belief, it comes from deep in the subconscious. The subconscious is infantile and thinks its own point of view is reality. It thinks if it dies, reality ends. And what it believes, is reality. Which is what makes every subconscious conflict such a monumental battle of emotions and produces almost insurmountable blockages in our behaviour – blocks we can barely perceive, let alone ‘reason out’.
Fundamental to the anorexics subconscious, psychic, soul makeup is a lack of boundaries. We have a weak sense of identity and little distinction between ourselves and our environment. This is no nirvana-like surrender to being one with the universe, it’s a cause of much pain and anguish.
On a conscious, day-to-day level we measure ourselves and our self-esteem by what others tell us about ourselves. We don’t know where our minds begin or end because we internalise cultural messages. We feel unable to say “no” and bend to others’ wills until we snap and say “no” to everything because we never learned moderation, we live in a binary, black and white world. It’s a childish way of thinking and until we snap our arrested development is hidden because intellectually we are mature, we put on a good show of developing normally. Of course, you cant support an adult life when internally your internal cognitive and emotional life the one-dimensional life of a young child.
Almost always, the anorexic has perceived a relentless assault on her boundaries during her life, and what is more she is overly-sensitive to her boundaries because she is aware they are so weak. Sexual assault is the most dramatic example, but there are other culmulative and minor boundary invasions which can damage a person, some examples which come to mind are:-
Over-protective parents who hover and never let the child truly test herself against her environment or develop confidence in her own abilities and separation from the parental unit.
The current cultural obsession with judging people on their bodies and making assumptions about the character of a person based on their appearance.
Having too many people dependant on herself – whether this is perceived or real dependence. Even young children sometimes take on responsibility for their parent’s emotional needs so this can be a lifelong burden.
Simply an overriding desire to please or avoid conflict - to the point of denying all her personal opinions and feelings.
Anorexia has often been characterised as the “good girls’ disease”, it’s the disease of people pleasers and over-achivers. Often these girls are so good because they feel they have no other option. To displease or disappoint is such a fearful prospect they will martyr themselves. Bound up with this is their inability to feel a sense or reward or achievement yet a strong sense of failure or disapproval. Imagine a life spent scrabbling to be perfect and never pausing to enjoy the moments when perfection is achieved. That’s the internal life of an anorexic. It wears you out.
I should make the distinction that the anorexic isn’t simply ignoring her own will and opinions to conform with her social group. She is actually sacrificing her sense of self and existing purely in the will of the group, she is whatever washes over her and never herself. A person with weak boundaries has a weak sense of self. They are always at the mercy of their environment and have no reassuring anchor. Nothing can reassure the anorexic, and she certainly cannot rely upon her self.
Naturally, this lack of a concrete sense of self becomes a festering wound, a sense of great trauma.
And in response to this, sometimes gradually but often suddenly, she will begin to fear everything, especially the physical world around her. It is all threatening to wash her away like a tidal wave. In this context, I think the refusal of food is very understandable. Confusing the physical and the psychical boundaries she will not allow the foreign body of food into herself. She becomes a fortress in response to lifelong attack.
I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that food is analogous to rape, when its forced upon the anorexic patient in a family or clinical setting. There’s no reasoning with the subconscious. Sadly, the disease anorexia gives us the choice of force feeding or death. Rape or death. Psychic death or death. Death or death. Submit and forsake the self now for the chance of rebuilding the self in the future when your body is healthier or retain your flaky sense of self and die intact.
That’s what you’re asking of the anorexic when you ask her to eat.
I could say more about the effects of starvation on the brain, Fight or Flight, exposure to oestrogen in the womb predisposing you to worry and stress, Freudian takes on anorexia (oh god Freud) and western cultural attitudes to fat and the body. Oh, and the Maudsley approach. But I won’t. This is a pretty rough bit of writing and its something I might expand on but for now I just wanted to get it out there. Hopefully it’ll encourage thought, even if the reader totally disagrees with me. Thats why I blog.