By Deborah O’Neill
In using the term “food addiction” in this essay, I do so loosely to describe eating patterns such as constant dieting, binging/purging, starving and negative body image. Over a period of years I have struggled with my own issue about food and my weight. I have also worked with many women in their search to reconnect with their bodies and to deal with their difficulties around food. In this essay I hope to touch briefly on some of the underlying factors that, in my experience, indicate that eating issues are indeed a metaphor for our times.
There can be a very real addictive element in our relationship with food. There may be a driving compulsion behind the individual’s food practices, be it serious eating or serious non-eating. The power behind this urge to take in, consume, the inability to cope without the “fix”, the total focus of concentration on food, the relief after the fix, followed by the numbing and anaesthetic effect, is much like any other addiction. It is like a sacred ritual that is all consuming and all powerful. However, it is the only way the person has of getting through the day at this point in their life.
Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are unique to the Western world. They are unheard of in Asian countries. They are becoming common in Asian communities in Britain and Europe. A troubled relationship with food and the body is something that is familiar to many women and increasing in men. What is happening in our society that our eating has become a problem?
Working With Food Issues
Like the air we breathe, food is essential. We cannot live without it. So, in working with food addictions, all the issues around food – weight, eating and nourishment – need to be looked at. The person’s individual story needs to be allowed space to unravel. Each story is totally unique, there are never two identical relationships to food. Everyone perceives and feels their body in their own way. Perhaps that is why so many diets or regimes that only focus on what is eaten and in what quantities, are doomed to failure. The very real underlying issues are not dealt with. The emotional, social and political issues are not touched. The person is not entering into a relationship with their body. They do not get the opportunity to hear what it is saying to them and to the world. Eating issues are a real expression of the body/mind/soul split that is part of our modern culture and that is at the root of many addictive processes.
When Food is Love
There can be a real emotional dependence on food – the connections of love, warmth, comfort, and nurturing that go back to the breast are without doubt. In this light, the attempt to use food to give ourselves comfort or support is one way of trying to meet our needs, although the effect is temporary and usually guilt laden. Food and the way we relate to it – be it overeating, binging and then purging, or starving, become an effective way of dealing with feelings that cannot be otherwise expressed. Until the person develops other ways of getting her needs met and expressing her deepest feelings, her relationship with food will be her voice and coping mechanism.
Time to Eat?
How do we relate to our food? Have we any real sense of what our body needs? Do we really know when we are hungry? Do we know what we are hungry for? Is the food we get nourishing, satisfying? Can we sit and enjoy it – taste it? Eating can become a very mechanistic activity. There is no engagement with the food or the experience of eating. Meals become an empty activity, a numbing practice. There may be no pleasure in preparing or eating the food, in fact it can become a harsh, abrasive ritual. Food requires, care, time, attention and love in all stages, from growth to preparation – soil to table.
Many people unconsciously split off, disconnect, from the food, it is not tasted. The full sensual impact is not allowed. It is not perceived as nourishment or goodness. Ritual, family, can become just more things to be slotted into a busy day – a rushed affair, a time of conflict.
When there is no connection to the activity of eating, there is little sense of real hunger or fullness. How much is enough? More to the point, is there ever enough? In a society where we have more of everything than we will ever need, there is a real scarcity mentality. There will never be enough to satisfy our appetites. When we look for security in matter, we have to keep taking in, to fill the need or the emptiness. We look to things, substances, relationships, something outside ourselves, to fill us up. The satisfaction or relief when we take in or consume what we have craved is short lived. We start wanting again.
Women, Food and the Body
For many years now, food and the body have been the arenas women have been allowed to express themselves in, perhaps it is understandable this is how we express our pain. In a culture where there is great emphasis on looking “right” there has never been greater pressure on women to fit the acceptable norms. While the images that surround us are of “perfect” looking women, it can make us feel the ordinary is unacceptable. If we focus on how we look outwardly, it is easy to forget there is any inward importance. If we orientate ourselves towards other peoples’ needs, values and expectations, our own sense of self can be experienced as very empty.
With the emphasis on outward appearance, there can be a real disconnection from the body as a whole. There is a loss of groundedness in the body and the inner world of images, feelings, intuition and spirit. We treat the body like a machine. We keep it looking well and running smoothly. When illness occurs or something happens (e.g. in our relationship with food), we try to fix it quickly, without stopping to ask – what is my body saying to me? For many women learning to work with their bodies, to get to know them, to listen to their wisdom, to learn to love them and nourish them, is a long and painful process. We are not encouraged to have a natural and spontaneous relationship with our bodies. It is something we have to learn for ourselves.
Our Global Body
What happens on an individual level is mirrored in our relationship with the Earth. We take more and more, gobble up natural resources and throw back the bits we don’t want or cannot use, and starve other regions. We treat our planet as we treat our individual body. We find it hard to nourish it and take care of it, to treat it with respect and to honour its wisdom. We engage with the same struggle to dominate and control, without stopping to look, see and stay in contact with what is really happening.
The Great Emptiness
An image occurs time and time again in therapeutic sessions where the client is dealing with food issues, it is of a great emptiness, a black hole, a bottomless pit, a void.
This emptiness is not exclusive to food issues but where there is an addictive process at work, there is an attempt to fill the void with something to take away awareness of its gnawing presence. This can take the shape of food, drink, relationships, sex, shopping etc, etc,. The addictive process takes possession and pulls the person into a downward spiral that is literally soul destroying.
In therapy, the person can learn to encounter emptiness, enter the darkness, to find the parts of themselves that have been forgotten, cast aside, rejected, disowned and denied. In so doing, the darkness or void becomes a place of growth rather than a place of fear and terror to be avoided.
If we are to look at the purpose that food issues or addictions serve, perhaps it is a call to consciousness, a call to reclaim the parts we have abandoned to the emptiness. It is a call to connectedness – to ourselves and our own bodies, our feelings, our inner selves, our creativity, our spirit, our relationship to our Global body, the Earth and the inherent beauty that is within us and everything else!
Etchenbaum, L. & Orbach, S. (1985) Understanding Women. Penguin
Lawrence, M. (ed)(1987) Fed Up and Hungry. Women’s Press
Woodman, M. (1982) Addiction to Perfection. Inner City Books
Woodman, M. (1985) The Pregnant Virgin. Inner City Books
Wilson-Schaef, A (1987) When Society Becomes an Addict. Harper & Rowe.
Deborah O’Neill is a Psychotherapist working in private practice in Galway.