The ideal of perfection, and everything being under the control of the individual, is certainly in harmony with contemporary western culture. This ideal of control over messy emotions, ageing, our own success, has unfortunately become linked to being thin. This gives form to the voice of anorexia, a seemingly safe way to a painless and perfect existence. Just get thin. Just don’t eat. Just don’t feel.
In coming to understand anorexia and bulimia, I have found the approach of narrative therapy to be illuminating. It externalises the voice of anorexia and bulimia and regards it not as a part of the person but as a seducing, and then mercilessly attacking force. This makes it easier for families and therapists to align with the person suffering from an anorexia/bulimia attack in a collaborative attempt to resist. It seems to me to be a positive and effective approach which avoids pathologising individuals and families and ascribing blame.
According to the narrative approach, and to my experience with clients, too, the voice of anorexia and bulimia is instantly recognisable, it tends to sound the same in everyone it attacks. Once you are caught it is hard to escape, and you feel trapped into following the rules which, if followed to the end, in the case of anorexia lead you to your own death. But how exactly does it seduce its victims?
It promises young people, usually girls, that if they just follow the rules, they will become perfect, have full control over their lives, have full control over their feelings, and will be safe, with nothing to fear — invulnerable, in fact — and that nothing will be able to touch them, or hurt them. It sounds like a good deal for young girls who are vulnerable, lonely, perfectionists, high achievers, or who have suffered trauma and abuse and are looking for a one way ticket out of those feelings.
It often catches girls at a transitional time in their lives, as they are growing up, learning about and trying to reconcile in themselves the many contradictions in dominant cultural values, wherever they live. The ideal of perfection, and everything being under the control of the individual, is certainly in harmony with contemporary western culture. This ideal of control over messy emotions, ageing, our own success, has unfortunately become linked to being thin. This gives form to the voice of anorexia, a seemingly safe way to a painless and perfect existence. Just get thin. Just don’t eat. Just don’t feel.
These are some of the insights that have crystallised for me through contact with the narrative approach, and their huge online archives of ‘insider’ or survivor experiences. As for what parents and friends can do to help young people become immune to the voice of anorexia or bulimia, I would say — let’s speak a different language to anorexia.
I’d say, let’s welcome emotions, listen to them, talk about them, the big scary ones and the ones which might seem silly or small. Let’s not just pay lip service but really make sure our daughters and sons and friends know that they are loved as they are and don’t have to achieve anything or hold anything together in order to gain love or approval. Let’s avoid comparing, measuring, or otherwise judging people, particularly not by how attractive, thin, fat or self controlled they are. Let’s make sure that we do what we really like doing and not just what we ‘should’ be doing, so we feed all of ourselves, and so there is someone there to answer back to the insidious voice of anorexia.
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