My clients often tell me that they “hate” their bodies. Sometimes I reply, “Really? You hate your spleen and your liver and your kidneys?” And they look baffled and say, “I never thought about that.”
Because when a client says that he or she hates her body, it means, “I can’t stand the way my body looks, and I can’t distinguish between my physical appearance and my body itself. I’ve reduced my body to a one-dimensional object. I am repelled by what I see, and I consider my body to be only what I see, and no more.”
I have heard this from clients of all shapes and sizes. The client may have anorexia and be significantly, or even dangerously, underweight. She or he may struggle with bulimia and have a body that is fit and toned and draws envy from people he or she meets. Or his or her body may be much larger than our culture typically deems attractive. Regardless of particular circumstances, body hatred, and its cousin, body shame, are part of the territory of eating disorders.
This means many things. For persons with eating disorders, body hatred and body shame are analogous to sense of self. They have likely come to see themselves as the aggregate of their abilities, accomplishments, and appearance. They have reduced themselves to one dimension. Their sense of self lies in only what is visible to the naked eye.
They experience disconnect from their inner worlds just as they do from their physical innards. Attempts to minimize the amount of food that comes in or stays in is an unconscious metaphor for a need for awareness of their inner worlds. Their identity and worth are grounded in what others can see and judge. Their value is based on what others think of them, or how they compare to others.
Missing from this perspective is an awareness of what makes a person human. Our inner world—our emotions, thoughts, wants, needs, likes, dislikes, interests, hungers, passions, and desires—make up “who we are.” Our muscles, bones, organs and blood vessels make up our bodies. What is visible from the outside is the tip of the iceberg. A person with unhealthy relationship with food often sees the tip as the iceberg.
I run groups for women with eating and body image issues. Something I often hear from prospective group members is, “I’m afraid I’ll compare myself to all the other women in the group.” I tell them, “I’m sure you will, and I’m sure they are doing that, too.” For these women, comparing is practically automatic. They scope out the room and determine where their body falls on the spectrum from smallest to biggest. They usually believe their body to be one of the bigger ones, if not the biggest.
And this assessment triggers more shame. Being the biggest means being the least disciplined, the least loveable, the most out of control, fueling the person’s resolve to become more disciplined, to exert more control over her body. She approaches her body as an unruly animal that must be tamed, something that must be dominated and molded into the proper shape.
Thus the difficult human task of knowing our selves and feeling comfortable in our own skins is made simple by focusing on the body. This is done by endowing it with the ability to determine whether we are loveable, worthwhile people. This is done while regarding it with contempt and ignoring its needs for appropriate nourishment and exercise.
Bodies are one-fourth our content as humans, the other components are mind, emotions, and spirit. Like a four-legged table, we function well when all four legs are sturdy and grounded. Treating our bodies well sends a message to ourselves that we matter, that we are important, and deserving of good care. Conversely, denying our bodies adequate nutrients, or forcing them to vomit back food sends a message to ourselves that we are not deserving of respect and care. Pushing our bodies to exercise not for health but to erase calories, to quell anxiety, or to create a false sense of competence does so, also.
Someone experiencing an eating disorder will likely find stability in cultivating a positive internal relationship with his or her self. In order to do this, she or he must begin to recognize that the body is much more than the size and shape that the world can see, just as a person is much more than her achievements and abilities. He or she must learn to cradle the self gently in acceptance, banish any criticism of his or her body’s shape, size or appearance, and develop curiosity about and interest in the person she or he really is.
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