Eating disorders are about bodies. Duh. They’re about fat and losing weight and body image and skinny models and photoshop. Wait, what? That’s not right. Eating disorders are about the experience of being in a body, the limitations and lack of control that being embodied necessitates. Much better. I’ve been wanting to write about this article at Science of EDs on embodiment for quite some time, but I haven’t known exactly what to contribute beyond “yeah, that!” The article looks at a study of embodiment in which participants rated how much they experienced their body externally, through the feedback and sight of others, through objective measures, or through physical ways of controlling their bodies. Unsurprisingly, high scores on these measures were correlated with eating disorders.
When I read this, I felt a resonance with these experiences and questions: yes, what drove my eating disorder was a feeling of discomfort with having a body, an inability to imagine how my “self” fit into that body, a confusion about how my body actually fit into people’s conceptions of me, and a kind of certainty that the only time I really was in my body was when I was doing something to it or with it. But embodiment has always meant more than that to me. Having a body means you will die. That’s a pretty basic fact at this point in time (although there is the potential that through technology we will change it). Having a body also comes with a variety of limitations: you can only be doing one thing at a time, be in one place at a time, you are bounded by temporality and space. Even if you’re a highly capable person who can probably accomplish nearly anything they try, your embodied nature says that you can only try a limited number of things.
Bodies, and particularly bodily functions (like eating) are a constant reminder of these facts. For much of my life, I have not been able to stand being present in my own body (aware of my senses, my location, my body) because it was so limited. Some people are able to accept these limitations without struggle. Some people don’t find that being in a body is a constant reminder of their miniscule nature in the entirety of reality. But many of the people that I have met who also have eating disorders are the kinds of people who have been told their whole lives that they can do whatever they put their mind to, that they can do so at a high level of accomplishment, and that they can change the world. The perfectionism that this breeds hates limits, even ones that are utterly reasonable (like not being able to live forever).
Some people have certainly wondered why those with a high drive for control and perfection choose their bodies as the realm on which to enact their personal battles. The experience of embodiment as mortality and limitation gives a good window into this connection. It might seem that the whole world is not within our control, but the most basic level at which we have no control is the fact that we are embodied, our bodies do things we don’t want them to, we can get sick and die, and having a physical presence inherently limits the ways that we can affect the world.
It’s quite possible that few other people with eating disorders are consciously aware of hating their body because it represents the fact that they cannot do everything they’ve been told they could; I cannot cure cancer and reconstruct Proto Indo-European and become a bestselling author and be a feminist/atheist activist and play taiko for a living and learn neuroscience and solve the problem of consciousness and star in an amazing TV show. I have to pick and choose, and knowing that I am giving up on some potential opportunity is painful. But even if others don’t consciously recognize that the reason they can’t do all this is because they are physical beings, on some level I suspect they feel it: it comes out in the guttural anger at the body and at the failings of the body, it comes out in the unrealistic expectations of perfection in every way, it comes out in the unnaturally high achievements and the insistence that slack is for other people.
Embodiment might be at the heart of all eating disorders, but not because of bad body image or a struggle to reconcile self-image with the perception of others. Somewhere in there, all of us want to be little gods, capable of anything. Bodies will always remind us that we never can be.