THIS HOLIDAY…DON’T KILL THE MESSENGER
January 1, 1970Dear Friends,
The holidays present a special challenge for people who are vulnerable to eating disorders. Too much stress, social pressure, family tension, performance anxiety, and – of course – the omnipresence of food. Every one of these holiday elements can trigger the urge to binge, purge, or starve. One way to curb the urge is to study it – closely – and respect the message it is sending.
The impulse is not the enemy. This mistaken notion is part of the myth that surrounds eating disorders. Like all self-destructive impulses, urges to restrict, overeat, or purge are distress signals – warnings that the body is under attack and in danger of overloading. Attack from what? Here are a few of the infinite possibilities, depending on your particular experiences:
• Dread of the parties your family will drag you to, in spite of the fact that parties make you intensely nervous.
• Grief over the loss of the boyfriend you had hoped to spend the holidays with.
• Anxiety over your parents’ reactions to your lower-than-anticipated semester grades.
• Fear that this year’s holiday gathering will bring you face to face with the uncle who molested you at age five.
In a perfect world, a young woman who stopped eating would attract compassionate concern, empathy, and solace. She would live in a family or community that paid attention to each other and knew how to read the warning signals. The need for food is so primal that in primitive cultures such internal warning signals are indeed understood, respected, and heeded: unnatural eating behavior is a cry for attention and help.
In our society, the internal signals are the same as they have been for millennia. Bingeing, purging, and starving are bodily responses to chemical stress reactions in the brain involving a host of neurotransmitters. Certain people are genetically primed to over-eat, under-eat, or vomit when they are intensely anxious or depressed. Yet instead of respecting the warning signals as our tribal ancestors did, we have so wildly twisted the cultural meaning of these signals that we dismiss them as “normal,” a “passing fad,” or “self-centered acting out.” Some even romanticize anorexia as the mark of delicacy, femininity, or “perfect beauty.” Not until the warning signals threaten life itself do we sit up and take notice that maybe something really is wrong. And then, more often than not, the response is not to locate the true source of distress, but to further attack the messenger: the body.
After waging my own misguided war against my body for decades, I have finally come to recognize my figure not as an adversary, nor as a mere battleground for some war between different factions of my psyche; I have come to view the body as the soul’s translator. The soul I have in mind is not a religious entity but rather, the culmination of mind, emotion, and spirit. Some prefer to call this “consciousness” or “self.” Neuroscientists describe it as the ever-changing totality of the neural firings that occur throughout our nervous system throughout our lives. Boiled down to its absolute and most mystical, as well as biological, essence, our soul is what happens in the space between one neuron and the next. The body merely translates what happens into action, thought, sensation, and change.
An eating disorder is one kind of translation, an action that “acts out” what the soul is feeling. In other words, restricting anorexia is the physical pantomime of a soul that feels so crushed, empty, hollow, invisible, or lost that there is too little even left to feed. Bulimia acts out the plight of a soul that wants, or feels compelled, to swallow far more sensation, emotion, or stress than it can tolerate until it has no choice but to get rid of it. And, by this reasoning, binge eating signals a soul so starving for sensation, touch, recognition, or peace that it has never known satisfaction.
If this rings true to you, I hope you will take good care of the messenger this holiday season. Your body is neutral and innocent, and it tells the truth. So instead of fighting it, pay attention to what it is trying to tell you. If you start to feel anger, loathing, or disgust, step back and think about the real source of these intense feelings. I can assure you, it’s not your belly fat or the food on the table. And stuffing, starving, or purging will only worsen the way your body and soul both feel.
So instead, heed the early warning signals. Excuse yourself from the party or encounters you genuinely dread. Make holiday plans that spare you from the deepest sources of your anxiety. Schedule extra meetings with your most trusted friend or therapist, and explore what is really causing your distress. In the meantime, go for a walk. Meditate. Or, take positive action against some of the forces in our culture that have perverted our ability to read our innate warning system: write a letter to Vogue demanding a return to models of health instead of anorexia; write a letter to Us demanding that the stories about celebrity diets stop now!; go online and join one of the many organizations that fight eating disorders, and promote self-aware girl power and health at every size.
Make a New Year’s resolution to make a real difference, not only in your own life but in your whole world. I wish you true joy and peace this season, and throughout the year.
Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders will be released in paperback from Wellness Central this January, 2008.