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Eating disorders are seldom what they seem...

Light and Dark

Eating disorders are full of paradox. When they're severe, it's a way of almost living and almost dying at the same time. They give nourishment and then take it away... I keep thinking eating disorders are never what they seem.


Eating disorders help one express and avoid feelings.
By focusing on something concrete and turning it into a compulsion-obsession, the mind "forgets" about inner hurt and shame. For some, it's a way to "out-hurt the hurt." The eating disorder is an attempt to produce a pain that hurts enough to overshadow the pain deep inside. To prefer the pain of the eating disorder suggests how deeply sufferers hurt. At times the eating and/or purging itself can temporarily numb a person, providing a temporary dissociative state. What keeps an eating disorder going is that it never quite erases the inner pain.


In fact, an eating disorder increases both physical and emotional pain. The escape is only temporary. True healing is accomplished by acknowledging and working through feelings and issues, not by ignoring them. Pushing thoughts and feelings away only continues the cycle of the eating disorder, making it self-sustaining.

Inner Hurt and Shame

An eating disorder may be self-punishment for guilt and shame.
Paradox An eating disorder is itself a source of guilt and shame, again making the cycle self-sustaining.

An eating disorder can provide the illusion of control.

Taking control over your body size and intake may feel like the only way to take control of your life.

Yet, to be so focused on the issue of size and eating is also a dangerous way to be out of control and may influence others to take control for you.

Some feel lost, without an identity--nothing. The eating disorder provides an identity.
Paradox An identity provided by an eating disorder robs one of a more complete, more real self.

For others an eating disorder is a form of protection.

If their body is thin enough or big enough, they'll be unattractive, thus safer from sexual advances or intimacy of any kind, including friendships or relationships with family. Anorexics and bulimics can erase secondary sexual characteristics like menses and breasts. Body size becomes a defensive barrier between the sufferer [who sees herself as otherwise defenseless] and the rest of the world.

Paradox Eating disorders can increase vulnerability. They make one less healthy and strong, and thus less able to protect one's self. Isolation makes things worse by cutting off sources of help and creating a loneliness that may increase eating disordered behaviors.

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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
2300 West Ridge Rd.
Rochester, NY  14626
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Updated on 06/12/2002
2002, Jonathan P. Levine, CSW