The disappearing act: First the person, then the body


rough sketch of man on grungy paper

“light as a feather, floating on air, I want to be perfect, barely there.”

This is a quote from a Pro-Anorexia website. This is one of the best summaries of the experience of an eating disorder that I have ever heard. In particular, the comparison of being perfect with being ‘barely there.’ If you really look at the Anorexia the disease and not the manifestation of it (which is the weight loss part), what you might see is that this is an illness of disappearing first as a person, and then as a body. What does it mean to ‘take up space’ as a person? To me it means that your needs, wants, preferences, feelings, wellbeing and vulnerabilities are made known to those who matter to you in your world. In other words, you are not afraid to let others know how they can nurture you, what you feel, and what you need for your self. You can and do ask others to make room for your needs in the daily goings on of the family system or in the lives and agendas of those who love you. You don’t see your vulnerabilities and needs as a liability, you don’t resent yourself for being human. Unfortunately, most people with eating disorders do resent their needs, they feel their needs are a burden, are a liability or an endangerment to those they love. They are afraid to ask for accommodation of their self-needs because doing so shows lack of gratitude, makes the family worry or is a sign that one is ungrateful. The degree to which these needs can be hidden or minimized is the degree to which one achieves ‘perfection’ in their role obligations. The process of Anorexia is not just about being perfectly restricted physically–that is the last step in the process. Before any of that happens, one learns to restrict their needs psychologically and socially. The contempt one feels for needing food is an extension of the contempt one feels for needing anything at all. In this process, first the person disappears, and then the body starts to disappear. I don’t ever push someone with Anorexia to gain weight because doing so puts the cart before the horse (plus I would probably only be the 714th person to have told them this, so what on Earth would be the point?) What I do suggest (which elicits much less fear and more commitment) is rethinking some of the internalized role obligations that have caused the person themselves to disappear. The body part will only reappear once the person within is allowed to reappear.

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