A lot of people who have never had an encounter with eating disorders labor under the misconception that having one is about food. That it’s about calories, trans fats, and the act of eating. The reality, though, is entirely different from that.
Anorexia, on the surface, is about being skinny. So is bulimia. Binge-eating is about eating. Right?
Eating disorders come from a profound place. They come from the past. They come from attachment. They come from a sense of home. Most importantly, eating disorders, in their majority, refer to the idea of control. I have said so before many times on this blog, but this time, I’d like to dig a little deeper still.
Why do people want to have control? Why do we want to have authority over our own lives, the situations we are put in, and the people we associate ourselves with? Why do we like to control what we do, see, hear, and, ultimately, what we eat? Because without control, we feel discomfort.
It’s about comfort.
The concept of comfort food is not new. Most of the time, of course, it refers to probably somewhat less-than-healthy meals that sort of envelop the person, warm them up from the inside. Comfort foods bring us back into this state of being protected. Perhaps even as far as the protection of our mothers’ wombs.
As human beings, we seek comfort. At the most basic level, the comfort we experience as children determines how we relate to the world later on in life. I could go into a long explanation about attachment theory and what it entails, but I won’t bore you by copy-pasting psychology textbooks. I’ll just say this: kids whose parents cuddle them, who offer them bodily warmth and comfort, end up being better adapted to relationships in adult life.
Food is not only about nutrition. The perils of the human condition are many, and one of them is that we attach meaning to things that may not even presume this meaning inherently. To some people, a puddle of water might mean danger because they had almost drowned as a child; while to others, water refers back to happy memories of dancing in the rain. Puddle – danger. Puddle – happiness. The same thing happens with food. Food is central to human culture; any culture. You have your pizza, your fajitas, your blue cheese. If you go to Japan, you expect courtesy, anime, and sushi. Italy: loud people, fashion, pasta. The US: even louder people, guns, and hamburgers.
On a more intimate level, we associate food with the family. Most people’s favorite meals are those their parents or grandparents had given them as children. I love fried chicken because my mom and my grandma would make it in an old cast iron pan, swimming in oil, and the skin was always the best part. Fried chicken never tastes the same if it’s made by someone else. Or even in a different pan.
My point is, food is about comfort, at least on a psychological level. We eat to feel safe. Protected. We stress-eat because we want to feel that cocoon of home around us. We eat when we’re sad to fill the void in our hearts. Emotional eating is a central part of the human condition and plays a huge role in how eating slides along the continuum of adaptive to maladaptive.
My eating disorder was about many things. But was it truly a coincidence that it began when I first left the nest? I had no mom or grandma to cook for me. No more fried chicken. I didn’t know when mealtimes happened. I was halfway across the continent, suddenly having to reconstruct the comfort food had meant to me.
So I improvised. Like a child learning to write with block letters before going into cursive, I built rigid frameworks of systems and rules centered around my eating habits. Because I needed rules. Rules meant comfort to me.
When I come home for holidays, I am far less rigid in my self-imposed paradigms. I eat when I feel like it. I reach into the cabinet and the fridge without glancing at the clock. I sit on the couch next to my mother and eat fried chicken.
Disordered eating, in many cases, stems from this loss of comfort. A loss of something that made sense before. A loss of touch, attachment, and, finally, control.