Metaphoric Meanings of Disordered Eating


As ideas for this article were percolating within me, the question, “What are the crucial issues about an eating disorder that a recovering person or the significant other of a recovering person doesn’t know that s/he should know in order to grasp the driving forces underneath an eating disorder?”

    I have consistently informed my clients and students over the years that eating disorders are about disordered feelings.  What does that mean?  It has numerous meanings.  Eating disorders are symbolic.  They are metaphors for the disordered feelings which are unconscious, that is the, the person is unaware of the feelings.  If the person is aware of these feelings, which is extremely rare in the beginning stages of recover, most often the person is unable to process the feelings and express them in a healthy way. 

    Let me give some examples.  Person suffering from eating disorders have low self-esteem.  This low self-esteem has numerous origins, the most obvious of which is that they feel inferior physically in terms of body image, because they assess that they do not measure up to the body image which the media, their peers and very often their family members say they should have.  Thus, they “esteem or value” themselves as inferior to the set forth standard.

    This experience of having an inferior body image usually occurs in preadolescence when children have the fewest emotional coping skills to effectively make sense out of what they have been experiencing.  They begin to feel overwhelmed by these terribly uncomfortable feelings.  These feelings are essentially saying, “You are not good enough!  You are awful! No one likes you because you look different!  You should just disappear so no one can see you!  You don’t belong with the rest of the kids!”  And to this that very often elementary school children make fun of each other for all sorts of reasons, one of which is not looking like them, and now we have external validation that the child is inferior.  This external validation matches the internal dialogue the child has already been having.

    An additional complicating factor is that very often one or both of the child’s parents is abusive of the child, either overty or covertly.  Here is yet another area in the child’s life where she or he feels unsafe physically or emotionally.  Overt abuse is physical or sexual abuse.  Covert abuse, which is also referred to as mental and emotional abuse, is hidden.  It is not so obvious as physical and sexual abuse.

    Physical abuse is physically hitting, beating, pushing, cutting, locking in a closet or room, or causing physical harm to the child’s body in some way, whether or not bruises are left.  Sexual abuse is any act on a child, either physically or verbally, which violates the sexually private boundaries of the child’s body.  Physically touching the child’s genitals, breasts, or touching in a sexually seductive way, are examples of physical sexual abuse. Examples of emotional and mental sexual abuse are staring at the child in a sexual ways, mentally “undressing” the child, making sexually explicit comments such as, “Boy, if I was 20 years younger, I would go for you!” to a developing son or daughter, commenting on or teasing the child about his or her developing body, and walking into the bathroom or bedroom when the child is undressed and not giving them any privacy.

    An example of covert abuse is when the parent abuses the child’s pet or is mean to the child’s playmates.  The child “feels” the abuse, but it is not aimed directly at the child.  Another example is when the parent does not have the emotional or communication skills to convey to the child that he or she has made an error and teach the child how to become successful from the error.  The parent criticizes the child and puts him or her down rather than instructing.  This type of abuse is covert because it is not as obvious to the child or others that it, too, is abusive.

    For example, this child has a messy room, as most children do.  It is part of being a child!  Children (and adolescents, for that matter) do not live in the world of adults, which is about organization, time lines, etc.  Children live in the world of play and fun, which is about spontaneously being entertained by whatever catches their interest and then going on to the next thing of interest, leaving behind that which has lost interest.  If the parent does not understand how different what the child values is form what the parent values, and if the parent lacks effective communication skills, the parent usually criticizes the child for “being such a slob”, “not caring about the parent” as evidenced by not keeping the room clean according to the parent’s standard, “being lazy”, “being selfish”, etc.

    Hearing such negative attributions form one’s parent goes to the core of the child!  She thinks, “I must really be an awful person if my parent thinks that about me! I am flawed at my core!  I have disappointed the person I love most in my life!  How could I be so bad?!”  The child has no way of knowing that her parent is just ineffective in communicating.  The child thinks that “God” has spoken, because all children think that their parents are gods, until they begin the more intense individuation process of adolescence where they begin to see their parents for the humans they really are.

    Other examples of covert abuse are disapproving looks or sighs from the parent which tell the child that he is wrong and does not measure up.  The parent being too busy, too preoccupied with him- or herself to focus attention on the child, or just plain selfish tells the child that he is not important, thereby inferior. 

    Do most parents intentionally set out to harm their children in this way? Of course not.  I believe parents do the best they know hoe to do at the time.  Unfortunately, parents have learned how to parent from their parents, and so on down the generations, and that is not good enough.  Parenting classes are the least attended classes of any classes offered for adults.  Why is that?  It isn’t because we parents don’t need to learn what they have to teach.  It is because it is extremely difficult for parents to recognize that they need to learn more effective ways of dealing with their children.

    However, whether intentioned by the parent or not, the result of such hurtful abuse, communication and interactions with the child is that the child has intensely negative and self-deprecating feelings.  Children and even adolescents do not have the emotional skills to effectively deal with such overwhelming feelings, so they try to avoid feeling them.  The two defence mechanisms of suppression and repression, whereby the painful feelings are pushed down below conscious awareness, are used by the child so that he is not overwhelmed by them.

    The act of overeating symbolically represents the child’s attempt to “stuff” the feelings down deep into the body.  The act of eating also produces a type of anaesthetization, or physical and psychic numbing.  The physical numbing occurs because the act of taking in food and the body’s subsequent commencing of the digestive process creates an actual physical reaction whereby the body begins to feel physically soothed.  Pay attention to this process the next time you eat.  It begins in infancy when, after sucking at the breast of the mother, the baby feels safe and sated and drifts off to sleep.  The psychic (referring to the psyche) numbing occurs at an emotional level, in that the above physical experience produces a temporary feeling of well-being similar to that experienced by the infant.  It is no wonder that this can become an addictive cycle where the child, adolescent, or adult continually feels the distressing feelings and then eats to suppress and repress the feelings in order to obtain the physical and psychic numbing.

    Thus, the child’s low self-esteem is “fed”, if you will, by a body image which is deemed inferior and by feelings of not being what the parent wants, not meeting the parents’ standards.  Since the child has not gotten healthy nurturing from the parent, she interprets this to mean that she is unworthy of nurturing.  Children most often blame themselves rather than the parent.  Abusing her body with too much food (compulsive overeating), throwing up the food which she has eaten (bulimia), or not eating enough food (anorexia) are all ways which symbolically represent her feelings of not deserving nurturing.  The food represents the nurturing, both physically and emotionally.  Each type of disordered eating also represents way to continue being abused, that is, to abuse her body, and to cause herself emotional and mental distress.  It is a way, symbolically, to perpetuate the abuse she experienced as a child. 

    At the very core of recovering from an eating disorder is recognizing and dealing with the origins of these feelings of low self-worth and self-abuse, not simply focusing on eating less food (compulsive overeating), not purging (bulimia), or eating more food (anorexia).  Next month’s article will focus on the specific steps to take in order to experience the most successful recovery process.

(This article appeared in the September 2000, edition of, an Internet recovery magazine.

Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist, a board-certified clinical hypnotherapist, and a former professor of Human Services at Saddleback College.  Her academic background includes being a summa cum laude graduate, a Phi Beta Kappa member and a two-time Fulbright scholar.  Twenty-five years of wide-ranging experience have given her a unique perspective on human problems.  Carol is a respected expert and sought-after speaker in the fields of family therapy, child and adolescent behavior, adult children of alcoholic and other dysfunctional family systems, and addictive disorders.  Her clinical background includes extensive training in chemical dependency and eating disorders and their effects on families.  In her private practice, Carol currently facilitates therapy groups and workshops for parenting, eating disorders, sexual abuse, addictive disorders, and adult children of alcoholic and other dysfunctional family systems.