Eating Disorders as an Addiction to PerfectionKiva Farah
“The individual may strive after perfection . . . but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.”
This article is based on Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection and is a continuation of my previous article on the author: Psyche, Metaphor, Soma, with a specific focus on how disembodiment and the loss of the feminine principle engender the development and maintenance of eating disorders.
Woodman, whose focus is on women whose food complex is bound up with the mother, describes a disorder stemming from a fundamental denial of the self in pursuit of perfection. This self-denial causes an insatiable spiritual hunger that the compulsive endeavours to feed through self-constructed rituals. Because these rituals are rooted in the negative mother, however, they only work to deepen her starvation and abstention from life. To be liberated of her disorder, she must come to terms with her humanity and establish her own feminine identity.
The Original Matrix
It is the original matrix, our mother, who sews the seeds of our addiction to perfection. Woodman describes a society in which women adopt masculine values that alienate them from their feminine identity and from their bodies. These women are unable to adequately nurture themselves and by extension their children. Instead, they place expectations of perfection on the child, who experiences these standards to which they are held as a fundamental rejection of the self.
Such early childhood experiences with the mother form the negative (or witch) mother-imago, a Lady Macbeth figure who kills her own relatedness by engaging in powerplay alien to her feminine nature. This engagement with the power principle murders the Great Mother, who facilitates a connection between the inner and outer world. That is, consciousness and the unconscious, body and spirit. It is the negative mother-imago to whom the daughter remains possessed, that frames her relationship to food.
Striving for an idealized version of herself rather than accepting her true self, she lives in a constant state of self-denial. Such women may grow up to be highly efficient and successful in their professional lives but come home empty and unable to fill the void because they are still vulnerable to the approval or rejection of the mother-imago or mother surrogate (e.g., the husband, the church or the culture), whom they allow to dictate their behaviour. Plagued by a sense of inauthenticity, they are starving in relation to themselves, for their own feelings and desires remain unacknowledged.
The Alienated Body
As pointed out by Fuchs, in his paper The Disappearing Body: Anorexia as a Conflict of Embodiment, while the pursuit of slenderness may act as a gateway to anorexia nervosa, the DSM-5’s characterization of the disorder as a “fear of becoming fat or gaining weight” overlooks the fundamental disturbance of embodied self-experience in the anorexic woman:
“The actual conflict in anorexia consists in a severe alienation of the self from the body, which is increasingly experienced as an external, alien object and subjected to an authoritarian regime . . . a regime of self-observation and self-assessment that detaches itself more and more from the usual norms of body image. The radicalization of starvation—even to the point of dying . . . can no longer be explained by the mere pursuit of an ideal of slenderness and beauty” (p.110-111).
The pursuit of perfection is a movement out of life and out of the body, which the compulsive comes to view objectively – as a thing to be fashioned into a work of art. Because she is not in touch with the wisdom of her instinctual body, she does not consider what the body is trying to tell her. The symbolic meaning behind the ritual of her disorder. For example, it may be that the binge has something to do with swallowing the mother, and ritual vomiting with a refusal to keep the mother in the stomach. While the anorexic, who cuts her meat into a thousand little pieces, is attempting to dismember the mother and transform her from the negative to the positive mother.
According to Woodman, food takes on the symbolic values of the witch mother (those masculine ideals of perfection) that she cannot assimilate, or that her body outright rejects. “Nutrition thus stands for all kinds of intrusion of the foreign that could violate one’s physical boundaries and destroy one’s autonomy. Metabolism means exchange with the environment, but also dependency on it; starvation and vomiting, on the other hand, are equivalent to separation, purification and expulsion” (Fuchs, The Disappearing Body, p.113). For the compulsive, food threatens to contaminate her body, it may be experienced as indigestible and cause her to become allergic or bloated. How much she eats often does not matter, for her size may vary in direct proportion to her ego’s acceptance or rejection of her own humanity. Because she is possessed by the negative mother, who condemns the wants of the “I”, her relationship to food takes on a forbidden quality. Stolen even out of her own refrigerator, she performs her ritual binge in secret. Without a mother who was able to nurture her, she is unable to nurture herself.
“The body is like an elaborate metaphor. One may be able to taste and not swallow, like the anorexic, or to swallow and not integrate, like the bulimic or obese.”
— Marion Woodman
The Demonic Ritual: A Rejection of Life
The destabilization of our traditional, religious structures has left us without a container in which to safely fulfill our natural spiritual and ritualistic needs. Rituals are an essential part of our lives; they are the transformative fire that allows us to move from one level of conscious awareness (or state of being) to another. The ritual of death and rebirth as seen with Christ, for example, when performed within the container of the church allows for a healthy level of psychic distance between us and the God we are emulating. By giving ourselves over to a Higher Power who imbues our new life with meaning, we experience the life of the god, who drinks from the cup, dies, and rises again, vicariously.
Following the infamous death of God and the subversion of those traditional and religious structures to aid our differentiation between the sacred and the profane, the personal and the impersonal, man is left to his own devices. He creates his own rituals and enacts them within himself, without realizing he may invoke the wrong god.
Jung proposed that the intoxicating quality of substances is their ability to merge together what is otherwise fragmented within the psyche, providing momentary relief from a much deeper thirst for spiritual wholeness. Likewise, Woodman views eating disorders as a form of addiction that operates within the same conceptual framework. The obese binge is the same as the anorexic fast in that both women are chasing a high, attempting to satiate their starving spirit. But spiritual hunger that is not fed by the sacred is trapped in the demonic, and so both women are trapped in a demonic ritual with the negative mother who wishes to annihilate them. The ritual of their addiction is a refusal to enter into life and accept their own humanity.
As pointed out by Fuchs, the paradox inherent in the anorexic condition is that, in pursuing the ideal body, the anorexic actively prohibits its feminization. “[Raising] her demand for female slimness to an extreme where her body, in a sense, ceases to be that of a woman . . . her female form disappears, menstruation stops, libido and desire are lost, as well as any interest in the opposite sex” (p.111). Without an appropriate female role model to demonstrate the attractiveness of womanhood, she fears “the instinctive, libidinous, carnal body with its uncontrollable desire, which manifests itself in hunger as well as in sexuality”, and thus subjugates and anesthetizes it so that she might exercise control over her entry into her body and into life. Through her continuous denial of nutrition, she denies her dependency on the environment, and thus her own humanity.
The anorexic’s desire is to transcend the physicality of her body, to abandon its heavy animality which she abhors, in favor of weightless disembodiment and purity of spirit. Obsession is the cornerstone of her pursuit of perfection, a compulsion that usurps all else in her life and places the body, from which she grows increasingly alienated, at the center.
“You think of yourself – light, fast, free – free of earth, free of bondage to your body. In your ‘perfect’ body, you are in control, addicted to the light that keeps you out of body. You’re a swan maiden, addicted to wings, addicted to spirit. You refused to eat in order to fly.”
— Marion Woodman
“What a paradox is there: flying higher into heaven, at the same time being forced to work deeper into the hell of my addiction, the hell of my own unconscious body.”
— Marion Woodman
Likewise, the obese woman’s body acts as both an anchor and a shield, protecting her from the terrors of life that she is not yet ready to face. She is isolated from a society that does not receive her, that does not view her as sexually desirable nor acknowledge her as a woman. A society that robs her of her feminine identity. Like the anorexic, her body prohibits her participation in life.
From Addiction to Incarnation
The euphoric high experienced by starvation in pursuit of purity of spirit, in combination with the control exercised over her disinhibited body, leads to a feeling of inflated superiority that becomes what Fuchs calls, “the source of grandiose triumph”. (p. 114)
Woodman provides the following analogy,
“The elation experienced in this syndrome is the belief that they can choose whether to enter into life or not . . . To eat is not only to recognize matter, but to enter into it, or what is worse, to enter into it against their will which not only challenges but denies their omnipotence . . . God is not alone and omnipotent. He has the devil to contend with. One bite of the muffin is Eve taking one bite of the apple. It brings death into her world. It brings about the loss of Eden, the loss, that is, of omnipotence. What such a woman does not see . . . is that the devil or matter or muffin is . . . that part of the unconscious of God which has not been absorbed or digested.”
— Marion Woodman, Addiction to Perfection, (pp.54-55)
Thus, a process has taken place in which she has come to identify with the creator instead of the creation. A profound desire for control – the loss of which is often the real fear at the root of her food complex, hidden behind the false fear of becoming fat – is evidence of a power complex and indicative of a split between the Ego and the Self (the central identity), where the Ego breaks its bond with the Self and attempts to set up its own omnipotent kingdom. It is this pursuit of power that murders the Great Mother.
The act of biting into the apple instigates the process of incarnation – that is embodiment, “God in flesh, spirit in matter” – and the recognition of her own humanity. What she perceives to be the devil is that part of God that has not yet entered consciousness (i.e., the shadow), whom she must necessarily make space for if she wishes to differentiate herself from her own deluded omnipotence. In recognizing her own humanity and the wisdom of her instinctual body, she can begin to distinguish herself from the negative mother and establish her own feminine identity. According to Woodman, perfection is defeat because it belongs to the Gods, while completeness – wholeness – is the pursuit of man.
She must remain true to her feelings no matter how insecure they are, for authentic feeling is her only defence against the invasion of the masculine power principle. To do this requires a shift in the ego’s attitude toward the “I” from hostile to accepting, such that self-murder becomes the conscious sacrifice of her old life – that concretized life over which she exercises meticulous control – to make way for the new. Allowing the transpersonal power of Sophia, the feminine side of God, to flow through her. It is necessary that she develop a loving attitude toward the body such that the body’s nourishment becomes the ego’s concern, for only then can the demonic ritual of binging or fasting be replaced by the sacred ritual of receiving God’s body as the fruit that he has declared to be good. Transforming the witch mother into the Great Mother; she who satiates the spirit.
Artwork: Gustav Klimt Water Serpents I
Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride by Marion Woodman
The Disappearing Body: Anorexia as a Conflict of Embodiment by T. Fuchs