On Our Mind: Thoughts from Mark & Michelle Dean

The Symbolic Expression of Eating Disorders

by Michelle Dean 13-10-2014 | 6:29PDT | Comments (0)


Have you ever noticed how expensive, haughty cuisine is often associated with sex, the divine, and transcendent experience; and conversely cheap, junk food is equated with addiction, excitement, or an out-of-control behavior? For example, in some conversations with friends, clients, and even in online food reviews the following may be heard:

“The apple tarty ice cream pastry caramely thing was just orgasmic”

“The creamy tropical fruit gelato was just heavenly”crack donuts

“Succulent pork belly paired with seductively seared foie gras”

“I felt I had been transcended to another world by the decadent dish that made me melt”.

And when dealing with inexpensive, junk food we may hear statements like:

“I could not stop eating them, because the cheesy puffs were just too incredibly addicting”

“I want to experience a party in my mouth tonight”

“The crack donuts keep calling me back”

“I need my chocolate fix for the day”

IMG_1409The language we use to describe food may be symbolic, illustrating our relationship with it by drawing on images and experience. This symbolic language can be idiosyncratic at times and represent an attempt to fulfill personal, relational needs. In order to be successfully understood, a relational context (with oneself and with others), is needed to fully comprehend this personal meaning. When symbolic content is removed from the defining relational context, such as an expression between people, cultures, time, or situation, the expression, whether spoken or in image form, loses or changes its meaning and may be misunderstood or even literally translated. The feeling of hunger may be equated with eating, although the hunger may be an emotional, physical or spiritual hunger. Examples of these types of misunderstandings and attempts to meet emotional needs of hunger, loneliness or fatigue through disconnected actions abound.  

In our language, wishing someone good luck, by using the idiom “Go break a leg”, when taken literally, is not a kind wish at all! One must have a language and cultural context to understand this phrase and many others. A few cultural marketing blunders that demonstrate this, include, when automobile manufacturer Mitsubishi launched its “Pajero 4WD” in Spain, they forgot to bear in mind the word Pajero means jerk in Spanish. And when Honda introduced their new car “Fitta” into Nordic countries in 2001, if they had taken the time to undertake some cross cultural marketing research they may have discovered that “fitta” was an old word used in vulgar language to refer to a woman’s genitals in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish. In the end, they renamed it “Honda Jazz.” When dealing with emotional expression it is not always easy to rename, express, and meet the needs of underlying hungers and thus they may manifest as behavioral, emotional, and physical symptoms. 

Symptoms of many kinds of illnesses, both mental and physical are also considered symbolic and as such may manifest themselves as a bodily expression, as evident in somatoform disorders, conversion disorders, eating disorders, as well as some addictions, carrying symbolic longing, desires, and conflicts about self care; all turning unmet underlying relational needs into physical form and behaviors. For example, the meaning of a person’s eating disorder is unique to him or her, understanding the underlying symbolic expression of it is imperative in assisting the individual to relate to these needs and desires and transforming them into a impetus that does not pose damaging or life threatening ramifications.

iStock_000005583030MediumIt may be said, eating disorders are disturbances of relationships: Relationships to others and the environment, to oneself, to one’s emotions, and to one’s needs, desires, and imagination.  As Woodman (1980) indicated, being free from externally exposed famine means we are all the freer to project onto food that have nothing to do with assuaging our alimentary needs, seeking through eating to satisfy our longing for affection or sexual fulfillment, or to muffle our grief or rage.  Food can also become the repository of our secret fears and fantasies of perfect health and thus, becomes a symbolic function of complex, underlying psychological processes (Burch, 1973; Dean, 2013a, 2013b; Dallett, 2008; Woodman, 1980, 1982).  And as Carl Jung is quoted, “The underlying, primary psychic reality is so inconceivably complex that it can be grasped only by the farthest reach of intuition, and then but very dimly.  That is why it needs symbols” (1975a, p. 159).

Art psychotherapists are especially poised to work with art, image, and symbolic function, in the therapeutic process with clients who manifest eating disordered behaviors, thus providing an experience that creates the necessary bridge over deficits left by personal and cultural experiences, which have failed to provide adequate nurturance for development (Dean, 2013b; Isis, Bishop, Tulucci, Dean & Betchel, 2012; van der Kolk, Perry & Herman, 1991).  As art psychotherapists, patients, and as a culture this means, “[…] cultivating new skills and enlarging our scientific horizons so that there is room for the creativity that is a part of our everyday experience of living” (Goodman, 2007, p. 31) restoring symbolic function to a process rather than direct destruction, and potentially lethal actions, upon the body (Dean, 2008; Jackson, 1996; Ramos, 2004; Sidoli, 2000). 

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 8.57.28 PMJoin me for an online webinar hosted through The Center for Psyche & the Arts, LLC on October 26th or at The Expressive Arts Therapies Summit in NYC for my workshop: Emaciated Imagination: Disordered Eating and Symbolic Expression on Sunday Nov. 9, 2014 from 10 a.m.– 1 p.m. as I explore the symbolic nature of eating disorders from a personal, familial, cultural, and environmental perspective utilizing a Jungian and depth psychology framework.  The importance of context and symbolic function in attachment ruptures, trauma, and recovery is discussed as well as the meaningful treatment of such symptoms through a symbolic, image-based means, such as art psychotherapy. 

If you are unable to join me for these live events, the webinar will be available for download within 24 hours of the live event. Individuals who register before the October 26th will receive the lowest rates, so register early. A link to the recorded video will be provided to both live and distance-learning webinar participants for repeat viewing should you choose to review the material multiple times. Additionally, continuing education credits will be available for all programs. Please see our website for more information and to register.

References (not included as links):

Bruch, H. (1973). Eating disorders: Obesity, anorexia nervosa and the person within. New York: Harper Collins.

Dallett, J. O. (2008). Listening to the rhino: Violence and healing in a scientific age. New York, NY: Aequiteas Book from Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press.

Dean, M. L. (2013a). Cultural considerations of eating disorders. In P. Howie, S. Prasad, and J. Kristel (Eds.), Using Art Therapies with diverse populations: Crossing cultures and abilities. (pp. 277-288). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dean, M. L. (2013b). Conference Proceedings from Binge Eating Disorder Conference: Crack Donuts and the Emaciated Imagination: Disordered Eating and Symbolic Expression. Bethesda, MD: BEDA.

Dean, M. L. (2008) Preserving the self: Treating eating disordered individuals who self­injure with art therapy. In S. Brooke (Ed.) Creative arts therapies with patients who have eating disorders. (pp. 56-82). New York: Charles C. Thomas.

Goodwin, B. (2007). Nature’s due: Healing our fragmented culture. Edinburgh: Floris 

Isis, P., Bishop, E., Tulucci, Dean, M. L. & Betchel, A. (2012). Conference Proceedings from The American Art Therapy Association Conference Keynote Plenary Panel: Eating Disorders. Savannah, GA: AATA.

Jackson, E. (1996). Food and transformation: Imagery and symbolism of eating. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, C. G. (1975a). The collected works of C.G. Jung. Bollingen Series XX. (Vol. 16 The practice of psychotherapy: Essays on the psychology of the transference and the subjects). (2nd ed.) New York: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. (1975b). The collected works of C.G. Jung. Bollingen Series XX. (Vol. 8 The Structure and dynamics of psyche: Including “Synchronicity: An Acausal connecting principle”). (2nd ed.) New York: Princeton University Press.

Ramos, D. G. (2004). The psyche of the body: A Jungian approach to psychosomatics. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Sidoli, M. (2000). When the body speaks: The archetypes in the body. London: Routledge.

van der Kolk, B. A., Perry, J. C. and Herman, J. L. (1991). Childhood origins of self­ destructive behavior. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148, 1665–1671.

Woodman, M. (1980) The owl was a baker’s daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the repressed feminine. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Woodman, M. (1982). Addicted to perfection: The still unravished bride. Toronto: Canada: Inner City Books.

© 2014, All rights reserved, The Center for Psyche & the Arts, LLC; written by Michelle L. Dean, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, CGP, HLM (DVATA)

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