Note: this post has a lot of thoughts packed together that have not been clearly pulled apart. I’m really intending to write more about this, and a lot of these thoughts are preliminary attempts to work through some ideas that I think are extremely important. Any insights are welcome.
In my DBT group we’ve been talking a lot about emotions recently: how to identify them, what they do for us, how to regulate them, etc. One of the emotions that we went over which was a little surprising to me was disgust. I suppose that somewhere in my mind I knew that disgust is an emotion, and actually a fairly common one, but as I looked at the prompting events of disgust, the physical symptoms of disgust, and the interpretations of disgust, I realized that disgust is a hugely important element of eating disorders, and that there is a wide body of literature that discusses some of the roots and backgrounds of disgust that never gets touched on in eating disorder treatment. It’s pretty clear that people with eating disorders often feel disgust towards themselves or disgust towards food, but what is disgust? Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? And what can this tell us about eating disorders?
So what is disgust at its most basic? In general, disgust is the feeling we have towards things that might contaminate or poison us. Likely we evolved this feeling for a really good reason: to avoid things that would kill us if we ate or touched them. In many ways, disgust has to do with bodily boundaries. You want to keep the good things on the inside and make sure that the bad things remain on the outside. We are disgusted by things that break down our boundaries: things that can come in through our mouths or ears, things that come through our sexual organs, things that break our skin and leave us without a boundary, or things that can get inside our body through our skin in some fashion or other. The purpose of disgust is therefore beneficial: it can keep us safe from potential pathogens, from sexual fluids, or from things that may invade our bodies. We want to remain pure, because purity will keep us safe and keep our boundaries intact.
However disgust has expanded from these origins into moral and religious contexts. Particularly in the Abrahamic religions, this moral tint to disgust came from Judaic purity laws, which mixed together the disgust emotions of purity with other moral issues in order to strengthen both. Judaism extended conceptions of purity and boundaries from literal filth into things that they believed would keep them spiritually pure, as well as keep their society as a whole safe from contaminants. Holiness was equated with purity, because purity is health and safety. If you look at Leviticus or other law books in the Old Testament, most if not all the laws are about keeping different things from mixing together, or from keeping impure and bad things out. A clear example of this is that a woman on her period is expected to remain separate from the community, and anyone who touches her must ritually cleanse himself (Leviticus 5:19-20). In general, blood is considered a pathogen. It’s not something you want to touch. However in order to enforce that boundary, religious law was invoked to create an ethical and moral consequence to becoming impure.
So early religions often had purity concerns as a way to enforce this sense of disgust and keep individuals safe. However these purity concerns grew into much more than that, and they took the sense of disgust and expanded it to apply to anything that was considered unethical. Again however we see a lot of questions about purity. When someone lies, you are not likely to feel a whole lot of disgust (even if it’s about something pretty horrible). When someone is raped, or brutally murdered and mutilated, or even humiliated, we feel a great deal of disgust for the perpetrator. These are instances in which someone’s boundaries are violated, either literally with rape, or their body’s boundaries are destroyed in the case of mutilation, or their boundaries of self-respect and self-identity are violated in the case of humiliation. This might be part of the reason we find sexualized immorality more disturbing and disgusting than other sorts of violence or crime: because sexuality is nearly always associated with penetration of some sort.
So we have these conceptions of boundaries, and this idea that we need to keep certain things in and other things out, and when things get inside our boundaries or threaten our boundaries we feel disgust. What does this have to do with the disgust of an eating disorder? In my opinion, everything. Eating disorders are all wrapped up in the concept of disgust. If you’ve heard someone with an eating disorder talking about food or about how they feel after they eat, they tend to use words like sick, gross, icky, nasty. They are words that connote disgust. Many eating disorder patients act as if food is unsafe or will hurt them in some manner. These together seem to indicate that people who are avoiding food they deem disgusting to keep themselves safe are concerned with keeping their bodies pure.
Food is one of the few things in our lives that we have to put into our bodies. We feel disgust towards eating things that might be a danger to us, and many religions have put purity taboos on certain foods. Food is all wrapped up in questions of boundaries and what is acceptable to put into our bodies. Particularly in modern America, there is a narrative about good food/bad food, which paints certain foods as toxic. These could be foods with chemicals or foods with fats or foods with sugars, but the language around them generally labels them as poisonous. In conjunction with this, there exists the idea that women in general need to be pure. They need to be saintly. They must be morally good, sexually good, and they absolutely can’t let bad things into their system because it could ruin their beauty and worth. If you look at the sheer number of cleaning commercials aimed at women, you might have some indication of how cleanliness is apparently the basis of our self-worth.
For many people with eating disorders, the food becomes a question of worth, of morality, and of saintliness. The less you eat, the better you are as a person. The more saintly you are. The more pure you are. This rhetoric makes perfect sense in the context of disgust: we feel disgust at things that come inside us, at things that are foreign in our bodies. If you begin to identify food as something foreign that you can choose to let into your body or as something that you can keep out, you begin to think that you can keep yourself safe, just as religions with certain food rules do, by keeping the bad things outside of your body and by being in control of the boundaries of your body. That sense of bodily integrity is one of the most important feelings of control that we get as human beings. The most important thing we can control is how our body interacts with the world around us: what we put in it, how we keep others out. These are the most important for our safety, as well as for our sense of individual identity. When these things are violated, of course we feel disgust. And when you’re barraged with the idea that the world outside of you is dangerous, dirty, and bad, and that you need to be clean, this feeling of disgust can get out of control.
If an individual is feeling as though their boundaries are violated often, or they feel as if they have no control over the safety of themselves as an identity or as an individual, they may take radical action to make themselves feel safe by keeping out the bad. This can take the form of an eating disorder. And the feedback loop on it is strong: you feel disgust towards something, you don’t eat it, and you feel safe and secure because you didn’t die. This is also given a moral element by stories of asceticism. Keeping the whole world out of your body has come to be equated with spirituality, with purity, and with saintliness. It apparently makes you better than other people if you keep your body clean from anything associated with the world (because the world is dirty). Restricting taps into this cultural conception, and allows you to feel morally superior for every time you skip a meal. It also tells you that you’re protecting yourself from anything that is unclean or dirty.
We don’t often think of America as having a strong purity culture, and our purity rules are not clear: we have a variety of different rules that are not always consistent. It’s no surprise that many people feel confused about what is appropriate with food and purity. It’s no surprise that with all the shaming that happens around food, some people feel that the only way to be safe is to cut food out entirely.
I believe that there are important insights to be gained from the disgust towards our own bodies as well, and that these might have ties to sexuality, sexual morality, boundaries, and the world as dirty. I’m hoping to do two follow up posts to this one, on identity and purity, and on sexuality and purity.