What a Body Knows

Finding wisdom in desire.

It's Not (Just) About Food: Moving Beyond the Religion of Thinness

Why you can't think your way out of an eating disorder

I just read a book by a colleague of mine, and fellow PT blogger, Michelle Lelwica. Her book, Religion of Thinness, is brimming with insights on the sources and supports of eating disorders, including one I want to highlight here.

You can’t (just) think your way out of an eating disorder. 

Lelwica explains why. By using categories drawn from the study of religion (myth, icon, ritual, morality, community, and salvation), she is able to document a set of phenomena in contemporary culture that function as a self-reinforcing system, what she calls a “religion.” People with eating disorders believe that by engaging in rituals of food manipulation (whether dieting, binging, purging, obsessing, calorie counting, or some combination of all), they will find the happiness and acceptance they desire. 

The system works because the practices have real physiological effects that provide those who perform them with immediate feedback and concrete measures of success. People lose (or gain) weight; experience all manner of chemical rushes, sugars to endorphins, and in the process, cultivate a sensory awareness of these effects as proof that they are OK. The effects of the practices make the beliefs seem true.

Moreover, this net of beliefs and practices is not only self-reinforcing, but as Lelwica suggests, the needs it serves are real. Her discussion about what human “spirits” need resonates with what I describe inWhat a Body Knows as a “desire for spirit”: humans desire a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that allows them to affirm their lives as worth living. 

Manipulating food is one way to pursue the sense of satisfaction, and it is particularly powerful because it enlists another primal desire—a desire for an experience of nourishing ourselves. As I discuss in WBK, nourish and nurture are forever entwined. Eating disorders extend a mind-over-body diet mentality to life as a whole: if I were thin, if I could attain perfect control of my body, I could get the life I want. 

For these reasons, then, you can’t think your way out of an eating disorder. It is not enough to develop a critical immunity to cultural images of thinness. It is not enough to modify behaviors. Nor is it enough to deal with whatever fear, pain, and stress might prompt you to buy into the “religion of thinness.” While all of these interventions are helpful to some extent, none work at the level at which an eating disorder functions as a(n unhealthy) religion. Its patterns of belief and practice, icons and values hook into a set of basic physical and emotional needs and provide tangible, if deadly, life-depleting results. 

Healing from an eating disorder requires that you lose your religion. Losing your religion means finding a new one. 

The path to doing so is challenging, for it requires shifting your most basic experience of being in the world at the level where you sense and respond to your own bodily self as well as the bodily selves of others; and from this shifted place, embracing or creating the beliefs, images, practices, values, and human communities that will support you in that care-full attention to your bodily self. It’s risky. Scary. The results aren’t guaranteed.

So how do you do it?
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Leif, 8 months yesterday, is standing. For the past month he has been pulling and pushing himself up onto his tiny feet at every turn and resting there for ten or twenty seconds at a time. His smile curls his cheeks into ruddy mounds; he waves his hands joyfully. Yet he has absolutely no interest in moving his feet. He will reach forward to the floor, sit backward on his rear, and even twist sideways to land on his hands, but his feet, rooted to the earth, won’t budge. It’s as if he is living up to his name, and trying to be a tree. 

He reminds me: if you want to walk, you have to be willing to fall. Every time you take a step, for a fraction of an instant, you are aloft and moving through space. In that moment you must trust that the ground is going to be there for you, that your spine will connect to it through your legs, and that your center will hold you up. 

How do we ever venture to take such a risk? There comes a moment when we are able to feel a pulse of energy that rises in ourselves and takes shape in our muscles as a desire to move. There comes a moment when we are willing to trust our bodily selves and allow new patterns of sensing and responding to walk us into a new world--a world of walking and walkers.
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In counseling her readers to lose the religion of thinness, Lelwica identifies alternative resources across a range of religious traditions, and guides readers through specific practices of mindfulness for heightening awareness of their sensations, and promoting inner peace.

All good. I would add as well that we need to engage in bodily practices that help us cultivate a sensory awareness of the movement that is making us. We need to remember what it takes to walk.

Sometimes practices of sitting and stillness can serve to reinforce the sensory education we receive in perceiving our bodies as material objects, there for us to control. To shift this experience at its root, we need practices that provide us with an experience of our bodily selves as something other than the mind over body self that the religion of thinness itself exemplifies. We need practices that help us learn how to discern, trust, and move with the wisdom of our own bodily selves—such as those I described in my last entry

Such movement practices yield a network of energizing, vitalizing pleasures that are capable of holding their own against the immediacy of eating practices. They put us back into our bodily selves, so we are more able to feel and follow the arc of our eating pleasure. They provide us with a lived experience of discerning, trusting, and moving with impulses that arise in us. They thus provide us with an experiential ground that can support a matrix of beliefs, icons, and values that affirm this rhythm of bodily becoming. 

As I explore in WBK, humans look to religion for the opportunity to exercise their ability to name and make real the world in which they want to live. It is by participating consciously in this process that we find the sense of vitality, direction, and belonging we need in order to affirm our lives as worthwhile. It is not so much about identifying the right belief or the right practice or the right vision of life as much as it is about the willingness to take the risk of finding ways of being that support us in becoming who we are and unfolding what we have to give. It's not just about food. 

We can learn to launch ourselves forward into space, willing and able to inhabit space, take up space, and move through it, because we are alive. Step by step, we walk into a new world. 

See my 5-star amazon review of Religion of Thinness!

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Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., has taught at Brown and Harvard universities. She is the author of What a Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire and Family Planting.

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