The refusal to eat is also a rebellion against the limits established in the family, an attempt to separate from the mother and a hunger strike against social demands on women.
Today images flood everyday life in the West. On the main streets, in shopping centers, in public and private spaces, on huge screens as tiny as those of mobile phones, without forgetting the paper support, we are surrounded by images that invade our imagination.
Female bodies, enormously enlarged or reduced to television screens, but always embodying an ideal of beauty, are an important part of this invasion. Those immaterial bodies, which we do not stop seeing throughout our lives, inevitably impact on real bodies. And they can breed an obsession with the body.
Over the past thirty years, as Western overabundance increasingly separates us from areas of the world suffering from war and famine, the alluring images of women have thinned out. The curves have disappeared to make way for marked ribs and stick-like arms and wrists. Anorexia is invading the minds of girls as young as seven, according to doctors, who already have problems with food. Meanwhile, obesity, which affects all ages, is on the rise in both the US and Europe. There is no doubt that the difference between an idealized image of femininity and a daily reality full of obese people is enormous and continues to be accentuated.
THE MAGIC WAND OF THINNESS
The constant warnings from health authorities , processed foods that propagate their low lipid and carbohydrate content – and that attach ingredient lists more detailed than a laboratory report -, the diet and fashion industries – both with a profit exorbitant – have come together to create a situation where the kilos terrify many young women more than any impending catastrophe.
Instead, thinness represents perfection, a dreamlike sphere that must be constantly pursued and where all problems will vanish as if by magic. With thinness come men, wealth and happiness. Today’s Cinderella fairy godmother carries a slimming tablet instead of her traditional magic wand.
Of all the disorders that this situation causes, one of the most important, and also the most difficult to treat, is anorexia nervosa. The enormous interest that this disorder monopolizes is verified with the fourteen million annual consultations on the Internet. Websites devoted to anorexia triple those on schizophrenia (the disease that was such a good metaphor for the sixties). On Google’s lists, only depression manages to surpass anorexia.
The statistics reveal disturbing data: in the United States the number of people with anorexia tripled throughout the 1990s; more recently and in Great Britain, claims for disability benefits related to eating disorders have increased by 130%.
It is not clear if this increase is related to the influence of the media or to more general cultural factors, but it has caused the fashion industry to defend itself against criticism or, in certain countries, to have Skeleton models are prohibited from parading on the catwalks.
The coincidence of the feminist movement with the growth of eating disorders and dysmorphia (a very common condition among those affected by anorexia that consists of a wrong perception of their body shapes) suggests that this movement, in its process of elaborating and focusing on the difficulties of being a woman at the end of the 20th century, may have inadvertently contributed, with the push of the fashion, diet and beauty industries, to increasing the number of people who have expressed their conflicts and their unhappiness, their identity , and these have done it through diseases related to the shape of the body.
GIRLS ‘PERFECT’ ON THE OUTSIDE AND FRAGILE ON THE INSIDE
In studies of the evolution of eating disorders, doctors and psychologists agree that the characteristic profile of the anorexic person is that of a hardworking, personable and often attractive adolescent, good at sports, with excellent grades and a competitive desire to do your best and to please the people around you.
Inside, like many teenagers, this budding academic or sports star feels worthless, insecure, and incapable of playing the favorite role that she perceives has been attributed to her by her parents.
An entrance exam to the university, a fight with a friend, the death of a grandfather, the irruption of a stepfather or a stepmother… any distressing situation can break that fragile shell of trust that covers it. Then you fall into a confused state, you feel empty, out of control.
That feeling of being out of control requires imposing control measures. Cultural learning tells you that you will feel better if you can lose a few pounds, rather than maintaining that plump look that you have been carrying since childhood. Exercise and diet are the solution.
You start to lose weight. She feels better, full of energy. She is convinced of having achieved success. And the reinforcement she gets from her mother and her friends gives her a sense of power, a feeling she also gets from the orderly control of her food intake, from the counting of calories, from the subtraction of calories burned through physical exercise, from restraining herself. And again, of his almost obsessive way of ordering the day and what his body consumes.
At the same time, he works even more intensely. His kind of fasting gives him a high. Now, thinness attracts all your attention, even if it is in a sickly way, it does not matter, after all, the body you have created is not really yours.
REBELLING THROUGH FOOD
But when weight loss reaches a certain limit, the family often realizes that voluntary fasting and compulsion are very different things. The mother then tries to convince her daughter to eat. This has its own rewards: the reward for the care received and your willful and stubborn rejection.
Although the helplessness of the parents in the face of the rejection and hostility that their daughter opposes them is painful, it can perfectly provoke a feeling of triumph in her that, at last, dares to go beyond the limits of what today’s families consider a rebellion tolerable.
Ultimately, the adolescent’s symptoms are the result of imposing her own solution to her own problems. In fact, she has not lost her appetite but has mastered it because, in fact, she feels hungry all the time. However, the greater the control of anorexics, the more likely they are to feel out of control.
The inner battle is reflected in her relationships with any authority figure who tries to force her to eat. If the girl comes from a more traditional background, where food and family meals are binding, the moment when parents notice thinness and begin to consider it a serious problem may come sooner. If it happens too late, the fight against the food problem could very well reach the intensity of a war.
CONFLICTS WITH THE MOTHER
Therapists often include in the anorexic picture the adolescent’s need to separate from a powerful mother.
- She may behave like a friend and just put up generational barriers.
- Or it may be the opposite, a strict woman who imposes herself on excessive control and who, in the eyes of her daughter, is a devouring mother.
- You may need your daughter to make up for what she lacks (for example, a satisfying career or marriage), and you do this by entangling her in all the things that have not gone well in her life. So, like a double knot, this maternal lack can cause guilt whether the girl forces herself to accept that maternal image despised by both of them or rejects it.
Separation from the mother is a conscious process, but in its development it brings up unconscious themes. The girl may feel that she needs to be alone to distinguish which parts of her personality really belong to her, and at the same time feel the fragility and guilt that this entails. Her expressions of hostility towards mother and family can indicate both the strength of her attachment to them and the terror caused by their presence and also the idea of rejecting them.
The inner confusion, the war of contradictory desires, can find its anchor of salvation in the double rejection of food and menstruation, which would make her enter the world of women to which her mother belongs. Her cruelty to others is linked to cruelty to herself, which she asks others to painfully witness.
A FEMINIST VIEW OF THE DISORDER
The book psychotherapist Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike (“Hunger Strike”), based on his experiences with women with eating disorders who came to it directly or therapy centers for women in New York and London -of which he co – founded -, offers a feminist perspective on anorexia and its treatment.
Orbach interprets the disorder as a woman’s struggle against her affective needs, an attempt to control them in a world that, by placing contradictory demands on women, denies her the possibility of satisfaction.
Anorexia is effectively a hunger strike, a protest against a time that holds the promise of independence and a life beyond the home, while requiring women to meet the needs of others in their various roles as lovers. , wives, mothers or caregivers.
Inside the woman, anorexia is interpreted as a metaphor for what society wants from her: that she does not occupy too much space, that she watches over her needs and represses herself. The unconscious legacy of mothers to daughters Orbach points to the way in which women learn from the mother’s actions not to depend on her emotions but, rather, to facilitate the aspirations of others.
“Adolescent girls suppress many of the needs and initiatives that arise within them. As a result, they grow up feeling that they have not received enough and are often insatiable and dissatisfied. In an attempt to solve this mental state, they seek to connect with other people and learn that these relationships, especially with men, depend on their bodies being acceptable. ”
Orbach emphasizes that this time condemns the mother to bequeath to her daughter an unsatisfactory perception of her body, repressing and containing it, so that she becomes a woman as corresponds to her gender. By reducing or stopping her needs, the girl will grow up feeling ashamed of having deficiencies, fighting against them, without being able to recognize or express them a girl who will not allow anything to enter her interior, neither love nor food, since otherwise she would publicly reveal her needs, even herself.
PSYCHOLOGICAL THERAPY TO ENSURE HEALING
Theories about the causes of anorexia and its development are abundant.
- Some analysts interpret the rejection of food as rejection of the mother, from whom the anorexic patient is distancing herself. Seeing the mother as food rather than caregiver is a symbolization error, another deficiency linked to the girl’s earliest relationships with her mother.
- Biologist psychiatrists link anorexia to depression. Certainly, parental depression can play an important role in the development of the eating disorder in some of the children. If one of the caregivers suffered from anorexia, they may have passed on an inappropriate sense of bodily reality to their daughter or son.
- There are also some therapists who see in the deprivation of food – with the consequent disappearance of menstruation and the cancellation of feminine forms – an attempt to replace the woman’s body with a masculine one.
However, all anorexia specialists, regardless of the theory they defend, agree on one aspect: the fear and rejection of the anorexic person to food is also a rejection of all forms of intrusion (which is exactly what it represents the therapy).
This fact makes any treatment difficult. Anorexic patients permanently sabotage therapy. They are as aggressive towards those who try to help them as they are cruel towards themselves. Taking into account that, as Orbach points out, force feeding reinforces gender stereotypes, since it is exercised by the power of a male doctor who applies invasive tubes in the female body , this procedure poses a threat to the anorexic patient, who does refusing to eat is to show that you are in control and able to beat your appetite.
Therefore, although hospitalization may be necessary and the administration of food saves the life of the girl at first, if a comprehensive psychological therapy is not carried out, a new cycle of this disease will inevitably occur. Only a few anorexics follow the hospital diet without other help.
Group therapy, inside or outside the hospital, can be very useful, as it helps the patient overcome her loneliness. It can also get her to see the disease outside of herself, rather than from within.
Regarding individual treatment, Orbach recommends structuring a therapeutic pact whereby feeding remains under the control of the patient until she asks for help herself. Genuine empathy on the part of the therapist is essential, especially since the patient may have already been through many specialists.
In the open terrain of therapy, the girl-woman’s feelings of disgust and despair, her inner maps, her body image, can gradually be pushed aside along with the rejected food that has symbolically given them life. Thus, at last, it will be possible to map out a new self.