It’s hard to believe that summer is just around the corner! It seemed like it was months away when I registered to attend a workshop in June on eating disorders—and now it’s less than a week before I’ll participate in the continuing education conference hosted by Remuda Ranch, one of the leading inpatient programs for those suffering from eating disorders and related issues. The conference, “Hungry for Hope: Restoring Identity”, is designed to equip counselors in the areas of body image and disordered eating with a focus on the role of identity in recovery. I am grateful for this opportunity as I seek to become a more biblically and clinically sound therapist.
Currently, about 70% of my clients suffer with issues related to eating and body image. While this may not be the initial problem for which they seek help, it becomes evident as we explore their identity as women. To be honest, I believe on some level this is every woman’s secret. It was my own “secret” beginning my senior year in high school (1984) and continuing for the next fifteen years. I understand on many levels the heartache and hopelessness that these women experience, and it is my deep desire to see them also find the freedom that is more than possible!
Data from the 2000 U.S. census indicate that 43 million adult women are dieting to lose weight at any given time, and 26 million more are dieting to maintain their weight. While once thought to be a disorder found only in teens and twenty-something women, this is no longer the case. Clinical eating disorders are showing up in girls as young as eight, in geriatric patients, and in women of every age in between. So you may be wondering, why do they do it? I believe it begins with a widely accepted Body Myth that women have come to live by: that our self-worth (and our worth to others) is based on how we look, what we weigh, and what we eat. Women feel an enormous pressure to be beautiful and are aware of constant evaluations of their appearance. For many, body shape becomes the same as identity, and so the meaning of life and the answers to life’s challenges are sought through the shape of one’s body.
You must realize that these disorders are not actually about eating, food, or weight. They are about the meanings that eating and body image assume when life seems frightening and empty. Trust me, women never predict the eventual suffering that comes from walking this destructive path. The goal is simply to deal with emotions and the stress of life by changing the shapes of their bodies. Author Margo Maine describes the Voice—that “language” of fat and body image despair—that keeps women bound. It is very potent, even if there is no clinical eating disorder. The Voice distorts one’s ability to see and act on her strengths, creating endless self-defeating messages of failure and inadequacy.
Is there hope? Absolutely! Instead of translating pain and disappointment into the language of fat, recovery means putting those feelings into the language of words and emotions. There is no denying that recovery will be hard work. But, recovery is possible. Unless she is medically unstable, a woman can find healing and hope through individual therapy, during which she will uncover deeper issues and gain understanding and support needed to take courageous steps toward change. She will learn to gradually remove the mask of perfection and live from her true self. My goal as a counselor is to help women rethink how they see themselves and discover new ways of measuring their self-worth, ultimately by turning down the “Voice”—the language of the illness—and turning up the Voice of Christ, so that all that matters is this…the King of the universe is enthralled with her beauty! (Psalm 45:11)