There can be no reasoning with an eating disorder.
Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, orthorexia, pica: it can feel as though the person consumed with these experiences lives in an entirely different world than the people around them.
It is a nightmare for all involved.
The stigma, and isolation of disordered eating is a constant challenge to helping those affected, but the common experiences we all have with food can shed light on how we pull ourselves and the people we love out of this nightmare.
Consider that the very idea of “food” is quite a bit more complex than any of us give it credit for. It involves willingly letting something into your body, where it will be allowed to affect you, profoundly: in the best case, sustaining your life; in the worst case, inviting the potential for illness, even death.
Eating, for anyone, is a necessary act of vulnerability. And the need for food is culturally influenced, multi-layered, and filled with story.
One common narrative is that food is fuel, like gasoline in a car, or wood on a fire. Food is “burned” for “energy.” Indeed, our mitochondria break the carbon bonds in our food to power our muscles. This is a true story, but not the whole story.
Another story we tell about food is that it nourishes us. By this we mean that the components of our food, like vitamins and minerals, must be consumed to support our health: vitamin C helps maintain the body’s connective tissues, tryptophan is used by the body to make the melatonin that regulates our sleep.
“You are what you eat” is a common enough story to be a cliche. When you were a child, you occupied a certain amount of space and, as an adult, you occupy more. There’s only one place all that adult “you” could have come from: you are literally built out of the food that you have consumed.
Food serves as ritual, allowing us to participate in our beliefs, signify our relationships, even mark the passage of time. Nobody eats mashed potatoes for breakfast, they eat hash browns. Eating pizza with a fork is odd, as is eating a chicken breast with your hands. That’s storytelling.
Even the science behind “healthy eating” cannot be divorced from trendy food narratives masquerading as objective facts. Educated professionals rail against high-carb diets despite the fact that Okinawans have among the longest lifespans on earth and eat 10:1 carbs to proteins. Many of us are still terrified of high-fat, high-cholesterol diets, while Inuit communities eat frozen whale blubber as a dietary mainstay. It’s complicated.
Closing the Distance
If food can be fuel, and nourishment, and ritual—if it can be healing, or harming, or both at the same time—then our food stories are there to help us navigate the decision of how to eat. It’s far too complex a system to rely on facts alone—so, we build our food narratives on memory, culture, history, tradition, and emotion.
Our stories about food dictate what, when—and if—we eat. Reason will always come second. All of us—all of us—tell stories about our food. The only difference is what story we’re telling and the degree to which it compromises our lives.
When someone has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, we believe that this means that they are somehow fundamentally different from someone who hasn’t, the way a person with dyslexia is different, or color blindness.
The story they tell about food is different—and dangerous—but they are engaged in the same fundamental relationship with food as the rest of us.
The centerpiece of any story is threat.
The nervous system is not easily fooled. Blood sugar crashes and spikes, digestive distress, inflammation, dehydration, cortisol flooding, failing tissues and deteriorating health do not go unnoticed.
But what if there was something worse than all of those things? What if starving, or binging, or relentless vomiting felt less scary than the alternative? How terrifying would a thing have to be, to allow for such tortures?
Disordered eating is threat management. There is something worse—or at least, believed to be worse—than the hazards of an eating disorder, and the disorder is an attempt at a solution to that problem. When a person with an eating disorder confronts food, they are not telling the fuel story, or the nourishment story, but something far more harrowing.
If we are to effectively manage the violence of disordered eating, we must understand the problem it is being used to solve.
As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, The Reembody Method will be tackling issues around food stories. Stay tuned in the days ahead for tools and practices for understanding the relationships we all make with our food.