I have worked with hundreds of women who struggle with disordered eating and poor body image. Some clients obsessively track calories or Weight Watcher’s points. Some try to restrict their food intake all day then order large quantities of food to binge on at night. Some purge after meals or excessively exercise. Others restrict entire food groups. Some have tried every fad diet. Some say mean things to themselves when they look in the mirror, in hopes that this will motivate change. Some have found a community—in weight watchers or Overeaters Anonymous-- to hold them accountable or to reinforce their guilt after a weekly weigh in. Some have convinced themselves that a juice cleanse is necessary for detox. Some only eat “clean” foods. Some only eat purple foods. Some never eat purple foods…. (Those last two I haven’t come across, but I imagine someday I will).
The form of an eating disorder varies from person to person; but I’ve identified a common desire, which magnifies or underlies, many of my clients’ obsessions and compulsions around food and their bodies. The desire is for deeper, more authentic, wholehearted connection.
I often ask my clients who struggle with disordered eating and poor body image, “What will happen if you change your body?” Usually I hear “I would just look better and feel better.” Then my client and I might give each other a knowing glance. She and I both know it doesn’t stop there.
“So what would it say about you, what would it mean if you were to look and feel better?”
My client tells me, hesitantly, “I might be more likable...?” Now we are getting somewhere. Now we are talking about the desire to belong.
“What would people like more about you?”
For one woman, this exploration led us to a deeper understanding of how gender norms, her childhood history and even religion have played into her struggles with food and body image. She described how she’s always felt like her personality is “too big.” She goes on to describe Jewish women on TV whose personalities, she thinks, are depicted in an unappealing way. “I don’t want people to see me that way. I feel like If I take up less physical space, maybe that would balance out my personality."
My client is as surprised and saddened by this narrative as I am. “I never recognized that how I feel about my personality had anything to do with how I feel about my body.”
She also didn’t realize how so much of her behavior was geared at wanting to be accepted.
Decades of research has shown that social connections are as important to our survival and wellbeing as the need for food, safety, and shelter. It makes perfect sense that we are motivated to do whatever we can to fulfill our need to belong.
In fact, recent studies have shown that our brains process physical pain and social pain in the same way. Matthew D. Lieberman, author of Why our Brains are Wired to Connect speaks to this idea: “A broken leg and a broken heart seem like very different forms of pain. But there are evolutionary reasons why our brains process social pain the way they process physical pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Social pain signals that we are all alone—that we are vulnerable—and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there.”
The irony is this: eating disorders breed disconnection. Food takes precedence over people. Celebrations and social events come second to diet and exercise. One client said she used to tally Weight Watcher’s points in her head over dinner with friends and would completely lose track of the conversation. Another client described fights with her boyfriend each time she refused to go out with him after trying on clothes and not liking the way they fit. They eventually broke up over this. People with eating disorders are disconnected relationally as well as from themselves. Mind and body are not on the same page; rather, energy is spent using one’s mind to control the body rather than allowing the body to inform the mind.
The quest for connection according to researcher Brené Brown, begins with this:
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are. True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. ”
Perhaps the key to connection has nothing to do with changing our bodies or what we eat. Perhaps the key to connection begins with giving ourselves permission to be who we really are and allowing our true selves to be seen.