Or, a philosophical approach to eating disorders
Some time ago I watched a show on TV. It dealt with eating disorders among a group of teenage girls confined in a treatment center 'for their own good', which actually meant for the good of the sanity of their parents. These were girls who not only had eating disorders but exhibited uncontrolled anti-social behaviouirs; who 'self-harmed' on a regular basis; who could not manage their own lives and refused to be managed by others - except when incarcerated, when choice had been removed from them, when responsibility was no longer required of them and, in consequence, they were free to indulge and express the chronic resentment they all felt.
Towards the end of the show the group of girls had a supervised meeting in which recent events were discussed and re-commitment to more controlled behaviours was to be made. The youngest girl, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, was seized by a moment of acute distress when it came to her turn to make this committment. And it was clear from the reactions of the other girls and the professional supervising the meeting that not one of them had any clue as to why the girl should be so distressed.
The child was reed-thin, so thin she virtually vanished when viewed in profile. Yet she railed and sobbed and screamed about how loathsomely fat she was, how disgusting her flesh was, how it suffocated and strangled her, how it held her prisoner. In this touchy-feely age we are meant to be friends with our flesh, to love it and be happy with it because we can love and be happy with ourselves; this despite the fact that such an attitude is utterly antithetical to the philosophical and spiritual history of the West.
In the thinking of Aristotle the dualism of spirit and flesh is absolute. Flesh is nothing but matter, and matter has no life until it receives substantial form. Through the synthesis of greek philosophy and Christian theology/eschatology carried out by Thomas Aquinas substantial form became the soul. And through the subsequent teaching of Augustine of Hippo, the soul became the seat of righteousness and virtue while the flesh became the seat of every evil lust or passion. As his Confessions illustrate, Augustine's animus against the flesh was motivated by his pre-conversion history of sexual promiscuity and moral debauch. In other words, what became the standard Christian teaching on sex, the nature of women, on lust, salvation, and 'original sin' was no more than the chronic over-reaction of a man ashamed of himself and his history, a shame he never overcame and which has been handed on to all of us who are inheritors of the Christian tradition in the West.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the birth of movements that were actually the manifestations of an outright rejection of this tradition. Feminists fought against the Patriarchal domination of men over women; hippies rejected Western society and its mores; Freudian and Jungian psychologists pointed to the hidden life of the subconscious as a way to reconcile our internal antagonisms and bring peace to ourselves, and so to the world. And the subtext of all these thoughts and movements was essentially the same: love yourself-love others-love the world. Except we didn't. And we don't. And we never will.
The young girl in the show reminded me of my wife in some ways, of her hatred of her flesh, which she consciously thinks of as a prison. She speaks of it as a burden; a burden that constantly demands the most careful attention and is never satisfied; as something that is a form of curse. Sabrina is able to express these thoughts, to understand the loathing she feels, and to contain it (to the extent that she does) because she's extremely intelligent, self-aware and self-reflexive and, even as a child, highly articulate.
The young girl in the TV show appeared to be none of these things. Instead, she was caught in the grip of (for her) an inexpressible horror at the nature of her condition; the condition of being held captive by something she loathes, her flesh and its endless appetites; a condition she feels she can control only through the process of slimming herself to the point where the flesh as nearly as possible vanishes. What she wants is release from the prison-house of her nature as a physically embodied human being, and no therapy that does not take that realization as its starting point can ever be of help to her.
Such an idea may seem bizarre, but it's actually a very ancient way of relating to human existence. It's found in the dualism of Aristotle; in the heresies of the Manichees; in ancient adages such as mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body); but most particularly and meticulously in the doctrines of the Gnostics. The true reality of human existence, said the Gnostics, was found in the spiritual and not the earthly realm. The world and everything in it that belonged to it, they believed, was a defective creation, a thing made in falsity and ignorance by Saklas (the 'blind' God, blind as in ignorant of its origins); by the rebellious Aeon Sophia ('wisdom') without either the permission or the assistance of the Nameless and Bornless Thing in which all of creation had its origin.
In consequence of this evil act, some portion of the Divine essence (the Pleroma) becomes imprisoned within a defective physical reality that can serve only to torture the divine spark that exists in all physical life but exists in its fullest and most sensitive form in human beings. The purpose of Gnostic teachings is to awaken that spark of divinity in all life, but especially in humans, so that either through the union of all the wills of all these 'sparks' (in some teachings) or through a salvific act on the part of the Aeons (an act sometimes equated with the life and death of the man, Jesus) the divine can escape from the world and return to its true place among the Aeons.
The theology and the symbolism are alike unimportant. As an explanation of the existence of evil, and of the dissatisfaction and unease (dis-ease) with life that we all feel occasionally and some feel constantly, it's no more bizarre than the standard Christian view of the 'fall of Satan' and its consequences. It's not the nature of the explanation as an explanation that counts, but the fact that there is an awareness that something needs explaining in the first place - and that every such explanation (at least in the West) has at its core an either/or, black/white, dualism that leaves no space for debate or interpretation.
Watching that young girl in her distress, distress made all the greater by the utter failure of those around her to understand it, I felt that if she could be brought to believe that someone comprehended the cognitive nature of her situation and, more importantly, could show her that the feelings that torment her are not in themselves crazy, that she is not crazy for feeling as she does but is in fact taking part in a long and honorable tradition of thinking about the human condition, then she would have a place in which to stand and begin the long process of accommodation with reality that's necessary before any 'cure' can be found.
Whether or not this particular child ever succeeds in overcoming her condition to the point where she can lead a 'normal' life, I think it would ease her distress considerably to understand that her attempts to claw the flesh from her arms and thighs and belly with her fingernails are in fact completely intelligible as a physical attempt to free her 'real' self from the decaying flesh in which it is trapped, rather than being a symptom of some otherwise unidentifiable 'craziness'.
A philosophical approach to the 'cure' of eating disorders would not concentrate on 'food', or 'eating' or 'disorder'. Instead it would take the line that what needs to be addressed is the Weltanschaaung of the bulimic or anorexic, that addresses the false division of physical attributes into fat = bad, thin = good, which itself is no more than a symptom of a much deeper malaise. It's perfectly possible that some instances of bulimia/anorexia have their origins in physical disease or dysfunction, and for those individuals no amount of philosophizing will help them attain control over their disorder. But for those whose behaviours are motivated by the cultural dichotomy, the Manichean dualism imposed by Western philosophy and history, the deconstruction of this dualism and the demonstration of how it feeds into and affects the lives of individuals today, maybe the first step towards reconciliation with themselves and with the societies in which they must live.