Listen to Lisa’s interview on Entanglement Radio below.
The causes of eating disorders and disordered eating are many and complicated. In my discussions about them with all kinds of people, I’ve found that almost everyone knows about the link between eating disorders and the damaging effects of the beauty, fashion, entertainment, and diet industries on one’s self image. Some know of the effects of familial dynamics, individual psychology (perfectionism and anxiety are quite common among those with anorexia), and patriarchy (a healthy female body will never be good enough). Far fewer are aware of the research into the genetic and biochemical causes of eating disorders. Even fewer are aware of the link between eating disorders and disordered eating and the hyper-consumerism of Western culture.
Our consumer culture teaches us that our appetites, whether for food, sex, electronics, petroleum, entertainment, diversion, consolation, revenge, or convenience, must be satisfied at once.
I first encountered the last idea in “A Certain Hunger: The Body Language of Anorexia,” published in This Magazine in 1989 by the Canadian writer and human rights activist Maggie Helwig. She argues that the popular theories about domineering mothers and our society’s “thin is beautiful” fetish trivialize eating disorders. Helwig, who almost died from anorexia, says it’s no accident that the widespread appearance of eating disorders in the 1960s and the epidemic of the 1970s coincided with the unprecedented growth of the consumer society, which places supreme value on one’s acquisition of goods and services. Helwig observes that by the end of the 1960s, our material consumption had become “very nearly uncontrollable.” What resulted is “what is possibly the most emotionally depleted society in history, where the only ‘satisfactions’ seem to be the imaginary ones, the material buy-offs.” Anorexia, then, is the evil of consumerism played out in women’s bodies. “It is these women,” writes Helwig, “who live through every implication of our consumption and our hunger and our guilt and ambiguity and our awful need for something real to fill us. . . . We have too much; and it is poison.” By not eating, the anorectic causes a cessation in ovulation and menstruation, rendering herself literally unproductive. By not eating, the anorectic refuses to be consumed by the act of consumption. By not eating, the anorectic is telling us that she’d rather be skeletally thin than ingest something that isn’t real or substantial or safe or nourishing. Such self-denial in a culture of plenty is an audacious, radically countercultural act and statement.
I extend the link that Helwig sees between anorexia and consumerism to other eating disorders. Those with bulimia nervosa participate in unrestrained consumption, yet refuse to complete the act by hurling the food back out. Those with binge-eating disorder take in as much food as they can, as fast as they can, with no compensatory measure, like vomiting or the use of laxatives, afterward. Those with bulimia and binge-eating disorder are also using their bodies to protest or reflect a pernicious value system.
“….we must seek ways to bring into our lives that which will nourish, fill, and heal us”.
Everywhere I look, it seems, I see people with the diseases, discomforts, and dislocations that result from consuming more food than the body needs and more of this planet’s resources than is just. Our consumer culture teaches us that our appetites, whether for food, sex, electronics, petroleum, entertainment, diversion, consolation, revenge, or convenience, must be satisfied at once. Feeling kind of blue? Buy a new pair of shoes! Feeling bored? Go on a cruise! Starved for human contact? Check in with your Facebook friends! But things and diversions can’t fill a hungry heart or lessen the pain one feels from isolation or a lack of meaning or purpose. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, what we’re really hungry for can’t be bought.
Part of the healing for individuals with eating disorders and disordered eating, indeed, healing for all who live in a consumerist society, is to face what Helwig calls “our awful need for something real to fill us.” That means honestly answering the question, “What is it I’m truly hungry for?” Then we must seek ways to bring into our lives that which will nourish, fill, and heal us.
After my second bout with severely restrictive eating when I was in my mid-twenties (the first episode occurred when I was in high school), I asked that hard question about what I was truly hungry for. I had three answers: I wanted to become a writer; I wanted to pursue a deeper relationship with God; I wanted to work for social justice. As I began filling myself with the nourishing “food” that I craved, my restrictive thinking and eating began loosening its grip on me. For the next couple of decades, I felt full.
But when I was 54, I again found myself empty and hopeless. My children had left home as they were supposed to, but I missed them fiercely. And I was afraid of growing older in an ageist society that tells people, but especially women, that as we age, we will become less powerful, less autonomous, less relevant, less visible. At 54, I started restricting again. Many months would pass before I could see what was happening to me. But when I did, I once again asked the transformative question: What am I really hungry for? This time my answers were that I craved deeper connections with others and that I wanted to be seen as valuable and relevant to myself and others as I aged. My healing began when I brought people into my life who gave me opportunities to love and serve them and allowed myself to be loved and served by them.
What is it that you are truly hungry for?
Listen to an interview with Lisa as she speaks candidly about her journey with disordered eating.
About the Author
Lisa Knopp is the author of six collections of essays. In her most recent book, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, she tells the story of her own eating disorder and disordered eating, as she explores the genetic, biological, familial, psychological, cultural, and spiritual factors that cause this condition, with a special focus on midlife eating disorders.
Knopp is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction. She grew up in Burlington, Iowa, and now lives in
Lincoln, Nebraska. Visit her website: www.lisaknopp.com
(c) Can Stock Photo / ruslangrumble