Supporting Liberation from Eating Problems
Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 13-14
Eating problems include a range of difficulties involving dissatisfaction with the appearance of one’s body, attempts to alter food intake, (restricting/cutting back on certain foods, dieting, bingeing/overeating) and, sometimes output, (purging, over-exercising). For some people, body dissatisfaction is less the reason, with their difficulties with food resulting from other experiences such as trauma or oppression. The reasons for eating problems are complex and there are different ways of thinking about these reasons. For example, the biomedical model focuses on the physical aspects of eating disorders and family therapy models work with family dynamics. Other theories focus on the relationships people have with significant persons in their lives as well as their communities, society and culture. One such approach, which entertains the impact of the multiple relationships that people have, is the Relational Cultural Model.
This relational model of development stresses that healthy psychological development occurs when people receive opportunities to participate in growth-fostering relationships. The researchers of this theory also defined the dynamics of growthfostering relationships. They found that connection is a key process. Connection is defined as, “…an interaction between two or more people that is mutually empathetic and mutually empowering…” (Miller & Stiver, 1997, p. 26). Thus, the creation of a growth-fostering relationship is a mutual process whereby all of those involved are present and participating fully. Mutuality doesn’t mean that all the persons involved in a relationship have the same role, nor participate in exactly the same way. However, both/all persons involved benefit from the relationship. An example of this is the relationship between parents and children. Parents obviously have very different responsibilities and ways of participating in their relationship with their children. However, mutual involvement means that parents and their children are free to express themselves authentically, empathize with each other and feel empowered by the relationship.
This is contrasted with disconnections in relationships, which are found to create psychological distress. “Disconnection can range from a minor feeling of ‘being out of touch’ to a major experience of trauma and violation.” Relational disconnections can occur in personal relationships or on a larger scale within our communities or society, for example, with people who face the challenges of racism, classism, ableism and the discriminatory beliefs and practices of our homophobic and fat phobic culture.
How Can this Relational Model Be Used to Better Understand Eating Problems?
Instead of looking at eating disorders as problems that exist within the individual, the Relational Cultural Model encourages us to consider eating problems within the context of people’s relationships. Put simply, when people have chronically or severely disconnected relationships with significant persons, their communities and/or their society, they develop ways to survive or get through. Eating problems can be one of these strategies. In the absence of connected relationships and in a cultural climate that often requires people to disconnect from their own experience, the body becomes the vehicle of expression. This makes even further sense when we consider the current cultural pressures targeted directly at the female body, i.e., pressures to be thin, emphasis on bodies as objects, media focus on appearance, etc. For males, pressures of strength, muscles and being ‘big.’
However, this strategy, (namely an eating problem), ultimately works against psychological and relational well-being. Instead of resolving the original disconnections, eating problems further disconnect people from their families, friends and ultimately themselves. As a result, new relational strategies that ultimately support liberation from eating problems are indicated.
Given the findings that connection in relationships is key to psychological well-being, people dealing with eating problems can be supported by the development of more mutually empowering and empathic relationships. For some people, this might mean that they begin to develop new relationships that hold the potential and ability for connection: for example, new friendships, support/therapy groups, finding a good therapist. Working with significant others towards greater empathy and mutuality in relationships can also be helpful, for example, through family therapy or couples therapy. Also, having opportunities to explore one’s own strategies of disconnection and connection in relationships can be an important part of building more connected, growth-fostering relationships.
Ultimately, a relational approach to understanding and dealing with eating problems encourages us to consider the multiple relational contexts of our lives. None of us develop and live in a vacuum. Thus, we are invited to consider eating problems as solutions to the relational and cultural disconnections in our lives rather than an individual disorder or pathology. This also gives us hope in being able to develop greater connection with each other and within ourselves.