Starving the soul

IMAGE MManifold

Thanks to Marion Manifold for kindly allowing her artwork to be used in this article (in grey scale format) and in the book, ‘In My Room’.  Marion’s work investigates female identity and body imaging.


Starving The Soul .

I thought depression was the darkest well, until I heard a young woman speak at a fitness convention about her experience of elite sport and how it contributed to her coming close to losing her life to anorexia nervosa.

I also observed eating disorders becoming more apparent among athletes I worked with; colleagues; young people; and I’ve seen its prevalence among the fitness industry students I teach. Then there have been people close to me who I’ve supported through the grueling and unrelenting battle with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders defy ordinary comprehension and the brilliant minds of the world’s experts. Eating disorders are shrouded in shame and stigma, are becoming more common and are grossly misunderstood.


marion manifold 2


Whilst eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating) manifest into an obsession with weight and food, they are essentially not about food. They are complex mental and emotional health issues that are influenced by what’s happening in peoples’ lives, how they feel about themselves, and our culture.

As an advocate for and educator in fitness and health, I began to question the messages I was giving and their potential damage and adverse affects on people’s health and lives. In particular, the well meaning focus on weight loss which I’ve observed has a very real and disturbing potential of driving people to go to dangerous lengths to achieve weight loss, and in doing so, often placing both their physical and mental health at great risk.

I felt I had a personal responsibility to gain a deeper understanding of eating attitudes and behaviours relating to food, and the complex issues that drive them. In this process, I came to realise how insulting the well meaning food focused solutions were for overcoming weight problems.  It wasn’t as simple as ‘eat more’ (for those with anorexia) or ‘eat less and move more’ (for people who were overweight), it was far more complex and pain-filled than this.

As I began to understand the many influencing factors that can contribute to eating problems, I also discovered that it wasn’t beyond my ability, everyone’s ability, to do something.  We can all play a role in prevention and in helping people suffering.

I share with you now, what I learnt about eating disorders and what I discovered I could do personally to make a difference.


marion manifold


Stop Applauding Thinness.

Working in the fitness industry, the most obvious influencing factor was the over applauding of thinness. As Kathryn Zerbe points out in her book, ‘The Body Betrayed’, this can lead to people defining their sense of self and worth by their body weight and shape alone. In the din of the applause and in an endeavor to hold on to the sense of worth gained from losing weight, people may resort to unhealthy and disordered eating and exercise habits.

What Can We Do?

Stop applauding thinness and engaging in ‘fat’, ‘diet’, ‘good food/bad food’ and body dissatisfaction talk, in the presence of friends, family and particularly children. Move towards the practice of making conscious choices about what we eat to maintain health and energy levels and a body weight that is not determined by externally imposed ideals, but that is achievable and healthy for us personally.  NB:  This is not saying that eating disorders are simply about the want to be thin.

Mass Media.

Mass media and digital technology further add to the drive for slimness and ‘perfection’. Manipulated and enhanced images produce ‘perfect’ specimens which can engage us in questioning and even ultimately rejecting our own body and self image. When we fall way short of matching the stereotypical images, we can become dissatisfied with what we look like and who we are.

Modeling agent and fashion designer, Stuart Anderson made this statement about the prevalence of eating disorders among models. He posed the question: “How do we expect the average member of the public to compete with images in magazines when the models themselves can’t?”

In addition there is the media pressure for girls to become women, sexual beings. By exploiting the female body in this way, young girls can get caught in the struggle to retain their feminine innocence within an increasingly sexual world.  (See  ‘Bra Wars’ and ‘No Idea’ ).   Initial starvation is a way of remaining ‘girl-like’ – it inhibits breast development and that of womanly curves, and menstruation.

The affects of starvation, however, not only alter their bodies, but also their minds. Their world becomes increasingly distorted, as does their view of them selves and obsession with food, weight and appearance. It can be further driven by the fear of the sexual pressures and expectations that come with being a woman. Music video clips are just one example of the exploitation of sexuality and the female body.

What Can We Do ?

Limit our exposure (and our children’s) to mass media (magazines, print media, TV).  Become a critical consumer of media.  (See ‘World Proofing Children‘ and ‘Buy Into It Or Not‘.  Analyze, challenge and reject the messages and images that we’re constantly receiving and again, encourage my children to do the same. Seek positive role models for their personal qualities and contribution to the world, not their appearance, body shape and size.


marion manifold 3


Adolescent Transition.

Another factor is the struggle young people may experience during the transition from childhood into the complex adolescent world.  An eating disorder can be an attempt to simplify and narrow that overwhelming environment and control the strong emotions that go with it. Rather than ‘sitting’ with negative emotions they may seek refuge in addictive restrictive or binging behavior.

What Can We Do?

Be sensitive and empathetic to young people and our children during this time. Ensure the conversations and education relating to puberty emphasize the ‘normalness’ of these body changes and of viewing these changes in a positive way.  Teach our children valuable life and coping skills; encourage them to build mental strength and resilience by challenging their fears; and emphasizing the importance of being able to self protect from the negative influences in their lives.


Abuse, whether it be sexual, physical or emotional, can be another influencing factor (though not always).  For those who’ve experienced the violation of one’s body and self, an eating disorder can manifest as a means of exerting control over their body and life. It can also be an act of punishing and rejecting their body and themselves. Extreme weight gain through over eating can serve as a protective barrier for women who’ve been raped or abused. The less attractive they are, the less likely they believe they are of being violated or objectified to fulfill male sexual desires.

What Can We Do?

Unfortunately these acts cannot be undone, but personally and as a community we can accept that this is a very real issue that affects many lives and treat those who have experienced any form of abuse with great empathy and care.

Needs Not Being Met.

The pressure, stress and chaos of life itself can play a role in eating behaviours and disorders. Busy lives, complex family relationships and structures, and an increase in time spent in front of computer and TV screens can leave little time for relationship and self nurturing, family meals and warm conversations, and feeling a sense of being connected to one’s self and the world around us. The result?  People (including children and young people) can feel emotionally empty. Whilst some may fill that hole with comfort food and over eating, others may reinforce their lack of worth by denying themselves basic needs – like food and self care.

What Can We Do?

Keep check on the stress levels in our own life and family environment. Ensure that everyone’s physical and emotional needs are being met and there is adequate time set aside to regularly reassess and do this. Make time for cuddles and free play, and dinner together, where home cooked meals are served on a table that is decorated with candles and flowers, and where television is replaced by warm conversations. Work towards simplifying our lives and creating (rather than filling) time.   Time to create a more wholesome, connected life and to consciously resist the cultural trend and belief that a ‘successful life’ is about doing and having more. Protect our own sense of self and that of our children in a culture that continually threatens to undermine and erode it.


Finally, genetics and personality traits like perfectionism, obsessive and harm avoidant personalities (i.e. overestimate the risk of harm) can also contribute.

The intention of this article is to provide some insight; validate those who are suffering; empower those close to someone with an eating problem to play a role in the care and support of that person; and encourage everyone in the community to get involved in doing things that play an important role in the prevention of eating related health problems.

The ‘What can we do?’ suggestions I have made are in relation to eating disorders, but they also play an important role in enhancing family relationships; our general relationship with food and sense of self; and our health and quality of life.

If more of us did some or all of these things we would be playing a very valuable role in the prevention of weight related problems and of helping those whose lives are dominated and threatened by this soul, and potentially life, destroying condition.


Useful links:  Butterfly Foundation.  The National ED Hope Line  National ED HOPE Line:

Call 1800 ED HOPE / 1800 33 4673