The body is essentially the representation of all that we’re experiencing internally. No, this does not mean the body has to appear a specific way, i.e. emaciated or malnourished. Let’s not forget that anorexia exists in all shapes and sizes, and it is never ultimately about what one appears to look like to determine if they’re “sick enough.” The body as an outlet simply means that the body is the “vessel” in which all behaviors are acted out on in order to achieve a certain feeling or state of mind. This post holds importance for several reasons: 1) it argues against the common assumption that the main (or only) struggle experienced by “anorexics” is that we feel fat and 2) if you’re not the one experiencing the internal battle that is at the core of anorexia, then its time that battle becomes more clearly explained.
When we report that we’re going through “food-anxiety,” it is not solely because we “feel fat” or that we don’t accept ourselves. This is sometimes the last reason why we’re experiencing anxiety. I personally have come to a place of self-acceptance where less and less of my anxiety I sometimes still experience is related to what my body looks like. No, it is not always consistent. Yes, I do have days where I feel a little “less of my worth” I felt even the day before. However, when the assumption is made that we MUST be feeling anxious because of a reason directly related to our external appearance, it minimizes everything else that could be possibly going on internally. Once again, I will say: the body is simply the outlet.
One of the best things supporters can do for their loved ones who are struggling with anorexia is to understand that the body is a symbol for everything that they’re actually going through. Recognize that when your loved one restricts, purges, over-exercises, weighs themselves obsessively, or perhaps does a combination of all of these things (and more), that there is a reason behind these. While I cannot generalize how the body serves as an outlet for every single individual, I can identify a few common ones:
- Control. The mindset is that food is something that CAN be controlled. And when everything else feels so out of control in one’s life, controlling food intake seems to (falsely) gain back the control that felt lost. For me personally, food was always the easiest thing to act on. It is something I have complete control over. I can choose to eat, or I can choose not to. I can choose to go out for brunch and eat food that tastes really frickin’ good, or I can choose the safety of my apartment. And when I choose the latter of both of those previous choices, I am left feeling an instant relief. Everything I was worrying about just moments ago “disappears;” of course, this is only temporary relief.
Remind your loved one that if control is what they are seeking, their eating disorder is actually stripping them from the last bit of control they may feel they have. Encourage your loved one to identify what other aspects of their life they feel a sense of control in, and to focus on this control instead. Also, challenge them to think about what role control even plays in their life, and what leads them to think they need it?
- Numbing. Focusing on food allows your loved one to “forget” about every other feeling that they may be experiencing. It is far easier to focus on food (or lack of food) than to fight other struggles that are going on in life. Focusing on food and choosing to restrict has a numbing component to it. And for an individual with anorexia, it feels much better not feeling anything at all.
Encourage your loved one to sit with discomfort, and offer to sit with them through it. Remind your loved one that simply “feeling” is a normal human experience, and that it is OKAY to feel sad, or to feel guilty, or to feel lonely. Normalize their real human emotions to re-iterate that they are allowed to feel emotions.
- To feel cared for. When we decide to restrict a meal, it hardly ever goes unnoticed. People seem to show concern pretty instantly. And a lot of times, this feels pretty good. We don’t want that to go away. So this is where it gets tricky for supporters: they are in what may feel like a lose-lose situation. They can give attention to their loved one and show concern and care, at the risk of their loved one enjoying the care too much (and falsely believing that they need to continue to restrict just in order to continue receiving love). Or they can choose not to pay attention to these behaviors, at the risk of their loved one feeling like their efforts aren’t “good enough” and feeling like they need to take it to a higher level of restriction and behaviors. So, what now?
Confront your loved one. Maybe this is attention-seeking behavior, maybe it isn’t. The best suggestion I can give is to have an honest (but warm) conversation about what reaction they are hoping to get when they use such behaviors.
- Self-worth. It is easy to not give your body the nourishment it needs when you personally don’t feel like YOU are worth much as a person. Harsh way to feel about oneself, right? I can vividly remember feeling like there was no purpose to recovery because I didn’t really deserve it. I didn’t feel like I was worth much value, so ignoring my body’s needs was just another way I continued to fulfill what anorexia wanted for me at the time. I’ve heard multiple patients state over and over again: “I don’t deserve recovery.” The body serves as an outlet to feeling a lack of self-acceptance by continuing to harm it.
Empower your loved one to think about their pre-ED self. What did you previously value? In what ways did you positively contribute to the environment around you? If they’re struggling to identify their pre-ED value, ask them what they would LIKE to value in life. They may need some help identifying things depending on what stage of recovery they’re in. In this case, offer some values they possess that are NOT appearance-based.