• BLOG
  • Thought piece

Culture and symbolism: The environmental forces underlying disordered eating

“Why is it that those aspects of a woman’s body that are most closely related to her innate female power, the capacity of her belly, hips, and thighs to carry and sustain life, are diminished in our society’s version of a beautiful woman?” ~ Anita Johnston, Eating in the Light of the Moon.

In a recent meta-analysis of 32 studies across 16 countries comprising 63,181 participants, 22.4% of 6-18 year-olds showed signs of disordered eating. While this is different from an eating disorder, such as bulimia or anorexia, it still constitutes eating patterns that are emotionally or physically harmful. 

What lies beneath this staggering finding? As with any mental health issue, disordered eating arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. We may not be able to alter our genes, but by critically examining the influence of nurture, we empower ourselves to break free from its grip. This is particularly important for employees who are working from home, and struggle alone with food on a daily basis.  

The shifting sands of perfection

Societal norms play an enormous role in disordered eating. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe was the body icon with her voluptuous hourglass figure. By the late 2000s, the Kardashians introduced ‘healthy skinny’, which was characterised by a large bottom and breasts, and a flat stomach. In between these decades, we’ve seen Twiggy, Cindy Crawford, and Kate Moss all pave the way for a new version of the ‘perfect body’. 

Recently, the 1990’s look termed ‘heroin chic’ has made a return with people aiming for a thin, pale, androgynous figure. Social media fuels the fire, such as Tik Tok’s latest new, damaging trend: body checking, which involves seeking out information about your body (e.g., weight or how your body looks from different angles). Hashtags like #jawlinecheck, #smallwaist and #sideprofile are receiving up to 1.2 billion views. The relationship between social media use and disordered eating has received a lot of speculation in the media and, unfortunately, studies have confirmed this association.

Instead of learning to accept our bodies, we become a slave to the mind’s idea of ‘perfection.’ We starve, binge, and purge in the hope of achieving our goal. But once we notice how the cultural standard of beauty is always shifting, the power of ‘perfection’ crumbles. Once regarded as a ground truth that will stand the test of time, it can be brought out from the shadows and into the light. Perfection is a mere construct, and telling ourselves this daily can foster bodily acceptance. 

It is, of course, hard to go against the cultural grain and embrace our bodies when we are hard wired for approval. Validation was once a matter of life and death, but it no longer poses a threat to our survival in modern society. Nonetheless, when caught in this hamster wheel, it can be useful to remind ourselves that we are not immortal. We have finite time to love our bodies for all they do for us every day without a conscious thought. We recommend this fantastic meditation for a gratitude practice!

Food as a symbol for emotional hunger

Disordered eating can also be triggered by the scripts we receive about our body in childhood and adolescence. A mother may always be very well turned out and expect the same of her children, which conveys the message that self-worth is conditional on desirability. Or a parent may express the appeal of a specific attribute, causing the child to focus on that body part in themselves.

Beyond specific scripts, our early relationships can lay the foundations for disordered eating. A fractured bond with a mother, often known as the mother-wound, can hurt so deeply that we turn to food to cope. Johnston argues that food, which provides comfort and warmth, satiates an emotional hunger. As we learned to ignore our feelings, we resort to the same coping mechanism whenever our well is low in later life. It can therefore be helpful to ask what feelings are we avoiding? 

While emotions are painful, they are neither harmful nor wrong. Yet, as Johnston’s first chapter, The Buried Moon, indicates, our society values masculine qualities (daylight, logic, focus, competition, individuality) over feminine qualities (moonlight, stillness, intuition, emotion). As a result, we suppress any intense feelings, for example loneliness and sadness are often met with anger (“get a grip”).

But what underpins this inner critic? Often it is shame, and as Sheryl Paul states: “Of all the emotions, shame is the one that causes us to hide behind a wall and go silent more than any other.” When we repeatedly fail to honour our emotional world, the feelings that we believe we can’t handle sink deeper. 

Psychoanalyst Nina Savelle-Rocklin advises people in the throes of disordered eating to consider the VARY acronym as a way of becoming their own best friend:

Validate: Recognise and accept what you’re feeling without judgement or apology

Acknowledge: Affirm the importance of what you’re feeling.

Reassure: Put yourself at ease and remind yourself that you’re not always going to feel this way. 

Yourself: That’s you! Ask yourself what you need to feel better.

Perfection is a transient norm, not a fixed ideal which society would have us believe. We should not be trying to get our bodies to catch up with our minds, but our minds to catch up with our bodies. As long as we keep chasing a moving benchmark, we’ll never learn to appreciate and accept the one body we have that lets us live our life. 

Nourishing our feminine qualities will also help us reclaim our relationship with food. Slowing down enough to hear the feelings we have silenced over the years through starvation, bingeing and purging will initially be uncomfortable, but once we do so, our bodies can be released from the shackles of disordered eating.

Date: 9th March 2023

Word count: 960