The body as text: Anorexia nervosa. (The Mortification of the Flesh).
I was not satisfied by the explanations I received during the years I studied psychology. From psychoanalysis to family therapy, these responses only explain the symptoms and fail to delve below the surface. In my opinion, eating disorders are the manifestation of a deeper search that Jung called individuation. In the Jungian and Transpersonal schools, I finally found a point of reference to help me understand my own existence and that of others which allows me to incorporate the need for transcendence and a divine dimension into my understanding of the vital processes of humanity.
It is from this position that I will attempt to find an alternative meaning for eating disorders--an understanding that will allow the conflict to become transformed into a path for growth, a path to become reacquainted with oneself, which in the end, is a path to become reacquainted with the divine within the human.
At the same time, the immense media coverage of this phenomenon has made me look beyond the purely individual and allowed me to observe anorexia's greater social repercussions. A phenomenon that arouses so much interest and is belittled by the explanations given about it (centered on the causal importance of the ideal body) clearly aggravates and attacks the foundation of the prevailing order
Anorexia directly questions the existence of certain regulated and normative ways of being and, in the process, creates a new option that does not obey the ideal. According to Bray and Colebrook (1998, p.58), in anorexia, the modes of consumption and the functions of the body itself could also be seen as forms of invention. The true "deviation" from the anorexic body could represent a certain "flaw" or "obstacle" of the Cartesian concept. This body would be precisely where the classic and regulatory "image of thought" as an ordered "theater" breaks down.
In the language of anorexia, there is a rejection of the patriarchy's definition of femininity. In turn, this dominant male order is forced to create and promote its own explanation in order to reduce the threat posed by the phenomenon of anorexia. The feminine experience and its conflicts are belittled in a world that prevents women from communicating on their own terms, thus eliminating the capacity for growth and transformation.
In its attempt to ameliorate the impact of anorexia, the system has validated extreme thinness as the canon of feminine beauty par excellance and has turned this ideal into a duty. In this context, anorexics are not transgressors, but rather become passive and obedient women. Those who are not docile "by nature" debilitate themselves with endless diets. "The many theories about women's food crises have stressed private psychology to the neglect of public policy, looking at women's shapes to see how they express a conflict about their society rather than looking at how their society makes use of a manufactured conflict with women's shapes. Many other theories have focused on women's reaction to the thin ideal as proactive, a preemptive strike" (Wolf, 1991, p.189).
Thus, when examining anorexia, it is necessary to take into account its complexity and rich symbolism. Individual factors and the symbols that they express must be considered within the different social, cultural and historical contexts in which the condition is manifest. By this, I refer to the importance of historical perspective, which makes it is possible to understand the role of food in the female experience and the significance of their bodies throughout history. This perspective also provides insight into how the conflict between the role assigned by others as opposed to the role desired for oneself may be expressed in the shape of the body and relationships with food.
In addition, corporeality, matter and food are all fundamental elements of occidental religious symbolism. This points to the religious aspect of anorexic behavior that is nothing more than a humane, natural impulse to unite what has been separated. (1)
Given the complexity of anorexia, various explanatory models have been developed since this concern came to public attention in the 1970s.
The biomedical model explains anorexia as a syndrome with many causes including individual biological vulnerability, psychological predisposition and the social climate. This reductionist model places considerable emphasis on neurological and endocrine dysfunctions that might account for anorexia. Consequently, treatment is usually limited to medication and behavior modification.
The psychological model includes different theories that explain anorexia as a result of individual psychology. This model is primarily based on the pathological response to the crisis of development in adolescence.
The psychological perspective searches for an internal dynamic that would explain the different characteristics of the disease, the relationships these characteristics have among themselves and within a given family environment.
These theories focus on one side of anorexia: the family system and its styles of communication; the girl's internal experience; the cognitive and intellectual characteristics; or the subconscious content that contributes to anorexia (from both the Freudian and Jungian perspective).
The Communicational Aspect: Communication disorders appear both in the family system and in the patient's interpersonal communication.
According to Hilde Bruch, anorexic patients are characterized by a confusion of limits--evident in a confusion of pronouns inside the family system--that obscures their perception of their own physiological states of hunger and satiation. From an early age, they learn to be more responsive to others' perceptions of their needs than to what they themselves really need.
This difficulty in identifying their own sentiments is also rooted in the communication style of these families, in which the feelings of any given member of the family are rarely communicated by that same person. One member of the family voices the others' needs (Minuchin, 1978). Anorexics have grown up seeing their bodies as an image that reflects the desire of others. The anorexic is thus incapable of distinguishing her desires from those of others. An anorexic will perceive her appetites as being the imposed needs of others, against whom she is rebelling.
These women are hypersensitive to the needs of those around them. If they are unable to distinguish between their own desires and the perceived desires of their parents, when they are older they will be even more vulnerable to the cultural messages relating to achievement and beauty (Caskey, 1985, p. 179). Alongside this extreme obedience is a demand for independence and autonomy by the anorexic, exercised through control over her own body and food intake. Anorexic behavior also places the hierarchical family structure in question: food represents an area in which power is exercised by the parents (especially the mother), food is currency for emotional exchange.
The rejection of food is extremely defiant behavior, and it allows the anorexic woman to take control of her body for the first time.
From this perspective, the central focus is placed on the dynamics of the family system that produced the anorexia. The characteristics of this "psychosomatic family" include a rigid structure with heightened interpersonal involvement, overprotection and conflict avoidance (Minuchin, op. cit.).
The Cognitive Aspect: Cognitive distortions are directly related to the family configuration previously described and its characteristic communication style. One such cognitive aspect common among anorexics is the perceptual distortion of their body size, which impedes them from seeing their bodies as they really are. Whether the starvation itself causes this distortion or whether it is a primary symptom of the syndrome is still being debated.
Anorexic thinking is characterized by a difficulty in accessing overly abstract mental operations, which results in a more concrete relationship with the world. Although it is common for anorexics to perform quite well academically, they are generally not independent thinkers. They are more motivated by external approval than personal enrichment.
Academic accomplishment is valued over all other demands made on the daughters. Frequently, these expectations are expressed by the father. The anorexic is the perfect daughter who sacrifices herself for others and fulfills social and familial expectations, in school as well as in other areas of life.
This cognitive style accounts for the paradoxical relationship anorexics have with food. They often think of food, count calories and are well informed about nutrition. They do it on such abstract and symbolic terms that it almost replaces the act of eating itself (Caskey, op. cit., p. 183). Once it enters the body, food becomes an undesirable substance that might bury her in kilos of unwanted flesh. The symbol substitutes itself for what is being symbolized.
Similarly, the body is interpreted as a synonym of the self, a self, as we saw before, that is partially constructed by others' desires. Therefore, escaping the body, reducing it, also means, in anorexic terms, escaping the desires of others that shape her identity.
The Developmental Perspective: The main theme of this perspective is the girl's rejection of sexuality and femininity that she has observed and been taught by her mother. Some authors believe that anorexia can be triggered by the first menstrual period or by the first sexual overtures by a man.
The fear of gaining weight--or rather, the fear of accumulating body fat--and menstrual suppression comprise a central aspect of the anorexic condition. Body fat and menstruation are closely connected and play a fundamental role in women's sexual development. In fact, a critical quantity of body fat is required to initiate menstruation. Body fat has a direct influence on women's hormonal functions.
Fat, in a physiological sense, signifies femininity: it is an inevitable part of sexual development and maturation, and it shapes the female body into characteristic patterns that differentiate it from the male (Caskey, op. cit.). Consequently, this terror of body fat is a subconscious rejection of sexual development and, therefore, female sexuality as it has been defined by the patriarchal order--a sexuality that is basically heterosexual, tied to reproduction, and which "guarantees a model for social relations between the sexes in which the woman's body is always accessible to men" (Rivera, 1994, p. 126).
By means of dietary restrictions, the process of sexual maturation is detained along with all subsequent behavior that society expects from women from that point on. From this perspective, anorexia represents the subconscious decision to not participate in a sexual life and the rejection of the genital myth that prescribes permanently active sexual behavior, beyond the needs and desires of each individual woman (Gomez, 1996).
In this sense, menstrual suppression is a key symbol because it signifies the suppression of the possibility to conceive. "In a percentage of anorexics, amenorrhea appears before a level of thinness that justifies it, which also indicates the presence of a psychological factor that is acting on these women's hormone levels" (Gomez, op. cit., p.29).
The consequences of anorexic behavior on the female body lead anorexic women to occupy a different position from other women: a feminine existence that does not include sexual encounters and reproduction. "Most of these women do not have sexual relations, masturbate or even date men. Much like their medieval predecessors, many die virgins" (Gomez, op. cit., p.36).
The mother figure and the relationship between mother and daughter play a fundamental role in the emergence of anorexia. A mother is the closest model of femininity that a woman has, but mother-daughter relationships are, in many cases, difficult and conflictive. Healing this relationship is part of healing our femininity.
The anorexic daughter subconsciously rebels against her mother's example and teachings by destroying the female body that she was given. "The combination of domestic obligations, emotional abandonment and economic dependence to which they see their mothers subjected exerts a powerful influence in the adolescents' radical decision to not be like her at any price" (Gomez, op. cit., p.51). Adolescents perceive their mothers' frustration, low self-esteem and their disappointing relationships with men. In a world that undervalues female existence, mothers have not been able to be models of achievement for their daughters.
Instead of identifying with their mothers, whom they perceive as representing femininity, adolescents subconsciously identify with their fathers, who represent the masculine aspects within them. The female body, matter and creation are rejected in favor of mental, disembodied and esthetic ideals that the anorexic attempts to attain through purification of the body and from the feeling of ecstasy provoked by lack of food.
The anorexic's movement towards the father is central to anorexia: it constitutes a cry for help to the mother, a mother that represents a part of herself. And as Caskey forthrightly asserts, nothing better generates swift access to maternal attention than the denial of food (op. cit., p.188).
In regard to the conflict between anorexia and femininity, there has been considerable discussion about the rejection of the role of food-giver that has been assigned to women. "Feeding the children and men of the group is, possibly, one of the few instances of power that women have been able to use with a degree of independence. Feeding others constitutes one of the behavioral expectations that patriarchal culture assigns the female gender without exception, often crossing class barriers" (Rivera, 1990, p.51). However, this sphere of power is not gratifying to women as their relation to food is its preparation for the consumption and enjoyment of others. In addition, this labor goes unrecognized because of its association with nature. "Since she suckles the child (the discourse seems to say), she might as well concern herself with feeding the rest of the family" (Rivera, op. cit., p.52).
Anorexia is an attempt to escape the role of food- and care-giver that does not leave room for the care of oneself. This self-neglect leads to frustration and fatigue that is transmitted from the mother to the daughter, who tries, in turn, to avoid this type of feminine existence for herself. She is angry at her mother for not being able to create her own space and transmit the consequent sense of security.
The Psychoanalytic Perspective: Freudian psychoanalytic theory interprets anorexia as a disturbance in the adult female identity that translates into the difficulty of appropriating femininity, sexuality and maternity.
An earlier problem with the mother, who has not been able to fulfill her maternal function because she is not emotionally independent from her own mother, is reactivated during adolescence. Femininity is constructed by means of identification with a fragile mother who cannot be attacked because aggression towards the mother becomes self-aggression. Identification with this dependent and fragile woman means that, for the anorexic, becoming a woman is a threat.
However, it must be kept in mind that in Freud's theory, female sexuality is explained in relation to that of the male, and female maturity is achieved only when the desire for maternity appears as a healthy resolution of the Oedipal complex (the desire for a child instead of the paternal phallus).
Freud does not consider girls' experience when they discover their own bodies and the impact of their fathers' and the world's perception of their female body. He does not perceive that girls come of age in an environment where the female-sexed body is much more threatening than pleasurable.
In this sense, Emilce Dio Bleichmar makes an important contribution to psychoanalysis by reviewing theories of sexuality, demonstrating the invisibility of the female experience and proposing a different explanation that takes into account the realities of women.
Dio Bleichmar redefines the father-daughter relationship and how it affects the girl's physicality and heterosexuality. The father looks at the girl's body with an intensity that has sexual significance for both the father and daughter, albeit with different degrees of experience and meaning. "The sexual gaze opens an inter-subjective space, secret and silent in that it is no more than a stare, but the girl will carry it with her from then on ... because it becomes a part of her very flesh: her body, even fully-clothed, has an attribute that can provoke a glance that will undress her" (Dio Bleichmar, 1997, p.258). Her body then acquires a provocative character, founded on an attribute, not on an intention or a desire.
Dio Bleichmar continues: "Attaching a provocative meaning to the girl's body creates a peculiar dialectic of public/private and exhibitionism/voyeurism. By way of the gaze that undresses her, her body has been exposed, contemplated; is an object of the gaze; has become inhabited by the gaze ... It is always the perception of the other, other eyes that look at the body from the girl's own sexualized eyes.
"Her intimacy does not guarantee any secrets, nor her extreme demureness, because no matter how much she hides, what covers her--her clothing--does not stop the display of a undressed/naked body. Therefore, the need arises to not only hide, clothe and cover the body so as not to be provocative, but to return the gaze, which is an act of provocation. This constitutes an agreement about the sexual meaning of the gaze. Not looking back is not enough. Even if the gaze is unmet, the foreign object was implanted by the watcher's eyes. So it is necessary to resort to intrapsychological mechanisms that attenuate the exciting and persecuting content of the returned gaze in order to prevent it from becoming a code for sexual complicity that would sexualize her body, her being, in an intrusive, seductive fashion, but in such a way that the seduced automatically becomes the seductress" (Dio Bleichmar, op. cit., p.260).
This situation could account for the later appearance of anorexia as a form of protection from the gaze, initially from the father and later from men in general, a way of freeing herself from the body that in her environment has come to signify provocation.
By means of extreme thinness, which impedes the appearance of the female form and allows the adolescent to maintain a more childlike appearance, the anorexic rejects adulthood and female sexuality as represented in the patriarchal gender-sexual system.
The Cultural Model: This model is comprised of two aspects; the first is the idea that anorexia is generated by an imperative culture that makes thinness the primary attribute of feminine beauty. Visual information--television, film, magazines and advertising--feeds the preoccupation with female thinness and becomes a primary stimulus for anorexia.
Modern media emphasize external qualities and create an ideological platform where women appear as ornamental, passive, weak and ambivalent about their femininity.
In this model, anorexic behavior is not only a pathology or a psychological disorder, but also the inevitable consequence of a misogynistic society that degrades women, undermines female values and experiences and confiscates their bodies. "Women must claim anorexia as political damage done to us by a social order that considers our destruction insignificant because of what we are--less" (Wolf, op. cit., p.208).
This model addresses the way in which relations between the sexes in the patriarchal system lead women to anorexic behavior.
Before the advent of this explicative model, the obsession with diets and the search for the thin body were trivialized and interpreted as symptomatic of an individual psychological problem. The way in which culture encourages and exacerbates problematic behavior models was ignored.
However, the cultural model proposes that anorexia is a conscious and symbolic revolt against sexism. Naomi Wolf calls anorexia "a prison camp. One fifth of well-educated American young women are inmates. Susie Orbach compared anorexia to the hunger strike of political prisoners, particularly the suffragists. But the time for metaphor is behind us. To be anorexic or bulimic is to be a political prisoner" (Wolf, op. cit., p.208).
This model enriches the psychological perspective, allowing anorexia to be understood within its cultural context and not as an individual or isolated phenomenon.
The Interpersonal Perspective
Individual consciousness is constructed by answering the question, "Who am I?" The responses trace a mental boundary that runs through the entire range of experience and desire; what remains inside the boundary is perceived as "I" while what lies outside is excluded from the self. Wilber (1979) explains that the individual does not only have access to one, but many levels of identity and compares this "familiar, yet ultimately mysterious, phenomenon we call consciousness" to "a sort of rainbow composed of different bands or levels of identity."
Throughout life, boundaries are traced through different areas, establishing limits that ultimately evoke a reduced image of oneself, which is called a persona or mask. Remaining aspects are projected or severed and form the shadow, that which has been rejected or denied. Thus, our consciousness conforms to accepted traits and characteristics.
If our consciousness is expanded and if what was assigned to the shadow is accepted as our own, the boundary would remain inside the organism, separating the mind or the ego from the body, which is left outside the limit of what one is. Our consciousness does not contain the whole organism but only an aspect of it: the ego or mind. In other words, the consciousness identifies with a mental image of itself.
Another level of consciousness is created when the boundary is placed between the organism and the environment which contains it. This boundary gives us a skin and accounts for the identity that contains the body and the psyche, integrating all their elements: the whole organism is as one.
Finally, there is also a limit that transcends the boundary of the organism constituted within the skin: the interpersonal experiences in which identity expands beyond the organism, although we may be unware of it.
Each person establishes their own identity and their own way of understanding themselves, Wilber concludes, reassuring us that the various philosophical, religious and psychological currents represent not so much contradictory ways of focusing on individuals and their problems, but complementary focuses on the individual's different levels. That is to say, they all intend to effect changes upon a person's consciousness, but they act on different levels because they interpret human existence in different modes.
In this way, explanations for the phenomenon of anorexia provided by different models aim at different levels of the spectrum of consciousness, each having a clear and plausible vision within their principal focus.
From the level of the collective unconscious, as developed by the Jungian school, we can understand processes affecting people not only as individuals, but also as collective and transpersonal beings--that is to say, the processes that connect us with the transpersonal being that inhabits us and forms part of the collective unconscious. This perspective allows us to understand all human manifestations as avenues of growth.
Jung speaks of the process of individuation. This process, which continues throughout our lives, is the conscious realization of one's own psychological reality, which includes both abilities and limitations. It leads to the experience of one's self as the regulating center of the psyche (Caskey, 1985, p.189.).
Anorexia could therefore be seen as a path to individuation (if its deeper meaning is unearthed and relevant symbols interpreted), in that the woman recovers the meaning that female existence has for her.
By this I am not attempting to excuse anorexia but to discover its deeper meaning: an attempt to heal a wound by means of painful behavior. Bell (1985) postulates that anorexia draws attention to the failure of the person who suffers it in a way that attempts to resolve the problem. In its confused and paradoxical fashion, anorexia is a search for autonomy, independence and spiritual growth.
Anorexia is characterized by the rejection of food. Food is a system of symbols with multiple meanings, and knowing the symbolic value of what is being rejected is a vital step to understanding anorexia's symbolic landscape. On the other hand, the meaning of the body also varies according to the culture and period in question.
Because anorexic behavior precedes the cultural model of "beauty = thinness," the attempt to modify the body obeys a different impulse, related to meanings assigned to the female body during different historical periods.
I believe that an historical review of these meanings could shed some light on an understanding of anorexia. The body as text must be decoded.
The Fast (or Purification)
It is impossible to speak of abstaining from food without also referring to the body and the effect of fasting on the physical self. In the sacrament of communion, for example, food and the body are the same thing: the body is transformed into an object to be consumed and, moreover, what is being eaten is the body of Christ. Without a doubt, this symbolic ritual has a great influence on the significance of the body and food as elements charged with religious meaning.
Fasting has existed since antiquity and has always been linked to religious rituals as a way to prepare the body and the soul for an encounter with the divine.
Participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries fasted for many days before being initiated. In North American traditions of shamanism, the shaman fasted before receiving the substance that would induce a trance.
Oriental religions also include fasting within their practices as a way of elevating the consciousness and deepening meditation.
From the perspective of Christianity, fasting is the only way to recover one's own spiritual nature, redirecting physical hunger to a hunger for God whose fruits are concentration, sobriety, enjoyment and purity (Curran, 1989).
The ascetic impulse and the idea of fasting as a way of purifying the mind and the body and preparing the body for divine inspiration is rooted in dualistic, eastern, Pythagorean and neo-Platonic traditions, implying an attempt to escape the body where the spirit is buried.
Christian asceticism was based on loyalty among the disciples and their detachment from material goods. Later, chastity and spiritual martyrdom were added as new ideals for perfection, based on Paul's interpretations of Christ's dictates.
The virtuous life was no longer an imitation of Christ and prayer. Now, it was a path which sought adoration through acts of the mind. The role of fasting changed from a preparation for certain rituals into an attempt to dominate the body and its needs; thus it became a symbol of sanctity.
Among religious women, however, fasting assumed characteristics different from ascetic fasting. This privation of food was no longer an aspect of an extremely moderated lifestyle. Rather, fasting was maintained over time until the devotees were on the verge of death from starvation. Fasting was often associated with mystical visions and trances through which direct contact with God was possible. The voluntary denial of hunger and fatigue brought them closer to Christ's spiritual perfection--the divine lover for whom they were preserving their virginity.
In the same way, some laywomen, who were known as saints, carried out strict fasts and lived lives stripped of material comforts.
By the end of the Middle Ages, the act of fasting was no longer part of the official ecclesiastical doctrine. This behavior would come to be seen as devil's play, and the clergy were charged with verifying the fasting woman's sanctity.
With the emergence of rationalism, doctors replaced clergy in evaluating the causes of fasting. Brumberg (1988, p.49) identifies this shift as the beginning of a long, historical process of the clinicalization of human behavior. Fasting women were no longer seen as saintly and devout but as patients who suffered from a disease whose causes were at first perceived to be organic and later psychiatric.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were still women who believed that prolonged abstinence was a way to connect with the divine. The need for ritual persisted, even without the context that gave it meaning. Now, this behavior meant that they were ill: fasting no longer served as a ritual for mediating between the human and the divine. Stripped of its meaning, the act became hollow, incomprehensible and extremely painful.
Today, fasting does not have the religious significance it once had. However, this meaning is hidden away in our subconscious, and many women carry out this religious act every day, unaware of the need for the transcendence that underlies their behavior.
Fasting lost its original significance--as a physical and spiritual preparation to receive the divine--when it became an act to battle the body, which was seen as an obstacle to spiritual perfection.
Therefore, efforts towards healing will involve recovering the body so that it will not need to be purified compulsively by means of fasting. Caskey explains that anorexia includes a rejection of the mother and her body in favor of a symbolic relationship with a spirit of pure masculine adolescence that has all the attributes of a young masculine divinity (op. cit., p.185). This spiritual union gives the anorexic the feeling of purity and perfection that she seeks through the transformation of her woman's body into the body of a young adolescent. Fasting instills a sense of mystical ecstasy that provides a site for encountering the divine being.
The Body (or The Mother's Legacy, Along with the Word)
Another fundamental element of anorexia is the relationship with the body.
The body is a source of meaning as a grounds for experience.
With the establishment of family systems, the female body in placed under patriarchal dominion. A model of male sexuality is imposed upon it; its mobility is restricted and maternity is controlled and possessed by the father.
Maria Milagros Rivera proposes that many women find a way to control their body and its significance through religion and spirituality. The preservation of chastity and the renunciation of marriage lets them stay outside the gender system and to speak from their female-sexed body. "Speaking can take the form of preaching, prophesy, dialogue between women, writing, images and sound, and it can also take the form of a text inscribed on the body--that is to say, a somatic manifestation that expresses an unbearable and inexpressible tension" (Rivera, op. cit., p.46.).
The intensely physical quality of female spirituality was rooted in a theological-philosophical context in which women were associated with flesh and people were considered to be comprised of a mind/body duality.
God's body had an extraordinary religious significance. The bread became Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist, and the consecrated host was considered a physical vestige of Christ. For women, receiving the host meant a direct connection to their divine husband, who became bread so that he could enter their bodies.
Women who only ate the host stopped menstruating; that is to say, they forfeited their capacity for biological maternity. They also lost many physical attributes which marked them as women, and they devoted most of their days to prayer and preparations to receive their spiritual husband.
I believe that a number of factors can account for why some women took this path to a divine encounter with Christ. Not only did they resist being incorporated into the family system, they wanted to find their own place in the world.
In the Middle Ages, the body was perceived as both a vehicle for contact with God and the site for temptation and decay. Women were associated with all the negative connotations of the body, such as lust and irrationality.
For women to cleanse their bodies of sin, they had to suffer as Christ did. As we will see, the value placed on female suffering and illness converted them into symbols of saintliness. Bell stresses the importance of the theme of painful diseases and heroic responses to God's involuntary trials in the lives of saintly women, citing a noticeable increase in such imagery at the end of the sixteenth century (op. cit., p.175). Physical suffering became the way through which women would attempt to contact the lost divinity, using their bodies as a text where this need is recorded, the need to signify from their own bodies with their own language.
Anorexia Today (or Asceticism Without a Context)
Sacred anorexia and the fasts performed by women who belonged to the first Christian communities have lost their meaning in the modern world. The context in which anorexia occurs today generally does not consider the need for the religious or the ascetic to be part of human life.
Practiced for centuries, anorexic behavior has had different meanings depending on the socio-historical context. It was a sign of saintliness in the Middle Ages, and a symptom of female weakness in the nineteenth century. Today, it is seen as a bio-psycho-social disease.
It follows that the different qualities and characteristics of this behavior would also change according to the context. Throughout the ages, anorexic behavior has been molded by the environment in which it occurred. For example, in the Middle Ages, religion was an essential aspect of daily life, and anything unexplained was attributed to divine causes. Women's low status in society and in the family led them to find authority and autonomy in convents, where despite having to answer to male clergy, they were able to escape the system of the family and everything it implied.
Asceticism and the monastic option started to lose strength with the arrival of rationalism, which undermined the power of faith and miraculous or divine explanations and replaced them with scientific reason. The religious impulse was separated from human existence, and consequently the body was separated from and made inferior to the mind (or what was formally termed "the spirit").
The ascetic impulse was no longer mentioned; its behavioral significance vanished, submerged in the depths of the subconscious. However, it did not totally disappear: today this impulse is expressed in a world where asceticism and the search for transcendence have no valid mediator. At the same time, myth and ritual have been separated; today, because ritual is carried out without the myth that gives it meaning, it fails to obtain the desired transcendence and becomes compulsive.
I propose that today's anorexics are ascetics in a society where there is no place for such beliefs. Their behavior reveals a need for purification, sacrifice, austerity and isolation from the social environment.
I also believe there is another quality of anorexic behavior present in all fasting: the separation from the body, the significance of the body as an obstacle in the search for perfection.
In its logic of dichotomy, the patriarchy separates the body from the spirit. Even in the oldest ascetic currents there is an opposition between the soul and body, the latter being considered inferior. Life is granted by a spiritual father, removed from matter, and birth itself is reduced to merely a biological event.
The separation of body and soul is not innate, Wilber explains. As an individual advances in age and begins to trace and reinforce the boundary between what one is and what one is not, the body is considered with conflicting emotions (op. cit., p.18). This is a product of socialization in a patriarchal order that operates with separations and dichotomies.
The female-sexed body has been seized by the patriarchy. The patriarchy has constructed the female body with its language, defining it as weak, desirable and accessible, as a body whose product, life, is not its own. "Whether or not something has a symbolic existence depends on whether or not it is endowed with open meaning, freely expressible in common language. When a living being does not find meaning in the culture in which it lives, when a living being is not freely expressible in common language and is not part of the symbolic order, it becomes a source of suffering. It becomes a reality that moves within me meaninglessly and causes vertigo and anxiety, products of a symbolic confusion that, when taken to the extreme, could lead to illness and insanity" (Rivera, op.cit., p.62).
Thus, anorexic behavior symbolizes the inability to express oneself from the female-sexed body. The body becomes a source of suffering because it is constructed by extraneous meanings. There is a search for meaning that is only possible through the negation of the body, for in this symbolic (dis)order, body and soul are irreconcilable.
By denying the body and taking its existence away, the symbolic existence that the patriarchy has granted is also being negated. However, the price is too high because the more the body is eliminated, the further it strays from the original source of meaning, which is precisely the female-sexed body.
The Jungian perspective provides a rich foundation for understanding the paradox of anorexic behavior, and its two fundamental underlying qualities, namely asceticism and the spirit/body dichotomy.
From this perspective, the clinical task consists of discovering the transpersonal scope of human consciousness, which is formulated by the archetypes that make-up the collective unconscious. The objective of therapy is to recognize, accept and consciously use these powerful archetypal forces instead of letting ourselves move through them unconsciously.
For Jung, neurosis is caused by the loss of contact with the sacred, the loss of mythological transcendence. He maintained that in every other age prior to our own, there has been a belief in gods of one type or another; only a symbolic impoverishment without comparison could allow us to rediscover the gods as psychic forces, that is to say, as archetypes of the unconscious (Woodman, 1994, p.39). Neurosis is then an avenue of growth, of being.
Archetypes have characteristics that form part of the shadow, the impulses of personality which are rejected and denied. They are traits that our conscious personality rejects but that exist nonetheless, manifested in dreams, compulsive behavior and projections. The acknowledgment of these traits enormously enriches one's personality, making us more human, more complete.
From this perspective, anorexia can be seen without temporal limitations, allowing for the emergence of anorexic behavior as the ritual that women have carried out for centuries, a spiritual search to re-inhabit the body as a sacred place.
The ritual of the purifying fast is founded on the ancient practice of physical and spiritual preparation prior to a religious celebration. Compulsive fasting acts on the perception of the body as impure material, as dross, something that has to be eliminated to reach spiritual purity. An image arising from alchemy will help us better understand this dynamic. As Woodman explains, dross is an impurity that weakens the metal; an alloy is an impurity that strengthens it. If the soul, like gold, is too pure and refined, it becomes soft and cannot keep its form. It must maintain an impurity that will allow it to solidify and preserve an identifiable form. If the soul believes that it is above all identity, being too pure to maintain a form, then consider the body's alloy to be dross (op. cit., p. 129).
This is the center of the compulsive ritual that creates distance from the body. Separated from the body's wisdom, women lose contact with love and enjoyment. Any pleasurable act is charged with guilt because once the seat of body and being have been seized, there cannot be a tangible expression of the spirit inside.
The cultural roots of this dissociation between the body and the spirit were already discussed. In personal terms, this division is rooted in the relationship with the mother.
A woman who is not rooted in her body cannot provide her daughter the link she needs to stay in touch with her own needs. The daughter cannot relax in her mother's body or her own; they are not safe places in which to develop. Instead, she prefers to remain pure spirit, distancing herself from the matter in which she is sinking. The mother's body is not a source of wealth and meaning; she did not demonstrate a deep love of being alive because this passion had never been transmitted to her.
The mother, separated from her needs and desire, becomes a negative mother in the daughter's subconscious. The daughter struggles to be rid of her, rejecting her body and food. The lack of contact with their bodies and the bodies of their daughters leaves a void in them that they try to fill with an illusory relationship with the animus or internal sexual polarity, which is fundamentally projected by the relationship with the father.
Generally, anorexic girls are their father's daughters. They identify with their fathers and invest them with a great deal of sexual-emotional weight. In Jungian terms, psychic incest is performed with the father. This girl's animus configures to the archetypal image of the puer aeternus, the adolescent male spirit, and therefore the incest refers to an erotic spiritual union with the puer. As Caskey explains, in order to stay pure and young enough to attain to the level of the puer, the anorexic purifies her body to the point of detaining or reversing her sexual development. Simultaneously, she withdraws from the outside world in an attempt to avoid contamination (op. cit., p.186).
The image of the puer echoes the union with Christ sought by medieval women. Christ was envisioned as a pure masculine spirit that women loved and tried to attain. Christ is the puer archetype.
The father, on the other hand, projects the characteristics of his anima (sexual polarity) on his daughter, and the daughter, who has subconsciously accepted the union, is trapped in the relationship. However, because the object of her love is her father, the incest taboo is imposed, and love must be separated from desire. The body is not in harmony with the spirit, and the woman begins to live life inside her head, disconnected from her own desires.
At the same time, anorexics associate the suffering implicit in fasting behavior with a form of purification. For anorexics, suffering and sacrifice increasingly tend to become ends in themselves. There is no perfection without suffering, and anorexia an ancestral suffering that causes a dissociation between the mind and the body
Nonetheless, this also reveals anorexia's potential for healing when we look beyond the dichotomies and restore to the body its sacred value. Woodman maintains that the natural feminine road to female maturity is through the body, and initiation rites of old sought to connect the girl to her own body, which was then recognized as part of the feminine cosmos (op. cit., p.198).
Today, we no longer observe initiation rites that give the body this kind of recognition. The body is given meaning by male perception that makes it vulnerable and fails to recognize its creative capacity. Mothers, who have also not been initiated, do not bestow their daughters with this acknowledgment of their own bodies. In other words, the mother cannot give her daughter's body any significance beyond the gaze of her father and the patriarchal (dis)order.
The recovery of the body, its significance and its importance as a site for creation, of meaning, of feeling, is a source of growth.
Reconciliation with the mother first involves losing her altogether, to the point of denying the body its fertility. This is the path of growth that underlies anorexic behavior--being able to recover the mother and simultaneously construct one's own identity. Like Persephone returning to Demeter after confronting the dark world of her subconscious, she returns to her mother transformed into a woman, having transgressed her mandate.
I have tried to demonstrate in this article that anorexic behavior does have a meaning, obeying an impulse towards transcendence. However, it is an impulse that manifests itself in a symbolic confusion in which some women find themselves inextricably immersed. When the spirit is separated from the body, the impulse towards transcendence is channeled by means of suffering, deprivation and a compulsive need for purification. The union of spirit and body and the recovery of its significance as a source of creation, sensation, meaning and pleasure allow for the transcendental impulse to be channeled toward the search for wholeness that begins in a body that is a source of life and meaning.
(1.) Religion comes from religare: to reunite.
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The author is a clinical psychologist with a Master's in Women's Studies from the Centre de Recerca DUODA at the Universidad de Barcelona in Spain. She is currently finishing a postgraduate degree in psychodrama at the Universidad de Chile.