Here’s part of a talk I gave on the Big Island of Hawaii for the opening of our new ‘Ai Pono treatment program in Kamuela. I hope you enjoy it.
When I first started working with eating disorders, in 1982 in Honolulu, I was supervising a psychology intern who was doing research on the incidence of eating disorders in Hawaii. The two of us would get together, and we would talk about what we were seeing. And a third woman joined us, and she was a social worker who had her own recovery, but she had to figure it out herself. There was nobody to help her. So the three of us would get together and talk about what we were seeing. And every time we got together, we’d say, there is a real problem here. There should be a center for this.
After we had said it for about the fifth time, we looked at each other and laughed — okay, here we are. It was one of those; you build it and they come. And they came. Girls and women of all ages, all sizes, all ethnicities, all different kinds of struggles with eating and their bodies. No guys back in those days. Now, that is starting to change. But back then, no guys showed up.
I was intrigued as we were just trying to figure this out … Now, remember, bulimia didn’t even get diagnosed until 1980. So the field was really quite new.
What I wanted to know was, first of all, why is it females showing up?
Second, of all, why is it these girls and women?
And third, why is there a struggle around food, eating and their bodies?
I’m a storyteller; I like to tell stories. But as a psychologist, I’m trained to be a story listener. So I thought, alright, I’m going to listen as carefully as I can. Not with my physical ears, but with my inner ear to see if I can find out: What’s the common denominator? What’s the common thread that connects all these girls and women with their very diverse backgrounds? What is it?
And what I found is this: These girls and women were like the child in the fairy tale the Emperor’s New Clothes. I’m going to tell you a brief version of that.
So, there was once this very vain emperor. He didn’t care much about ruling his kingdom; he was mostly interested in fine clothing and jewelry. And he had quite a reputation for that. So a couple of con artists heard about him, and they came into town and pretended they were tailors. They said, our clothing is so fine, only those fit for their station in life can even see it.
Well, the emperor was quite impressed, so he commissioned a whole new wardrobe for himself. The con artists pretended to cut and stitch cloth that wasn’t there. But all the people that worked for the emperor carried on about how fantastic the clothing was because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. And even the emperor went on and on about his cool outfits because he didn’t want people to think he wasn’t fit for his station in life. So eventually the con artists, took all the money, and they went laughing all the way to the bank as they left town.
Then there was this grand procession where the emperor was wearing his new outfit. Of course, he’s totally naked. The townspeople were oohing, and awing about how wonderful the clothing was because they didn’t want their neighbor to think they were stupid. But there was a child in the crowd that said in a very loud voice, but mommy, the emperor has no clothes on at all!
When this child spoke, it created a ripple throughout the crowd, and everyone saw the emperor for the fool that he was.
So what I was starting to see were these girls and women who struggled were like the child in the story, in that they had an uncanny ability to perceive subtle realities. What I mean by that is they could read between the lines. They could see the bigger picture. They could sense hypocrisy. They could tell when things were not okay, even if everyone around them said things were just fine. But because their lives weren’t fairy tales, when they spoke up about what they were seeing, they were either ignored, maybe they were rejected. Perhaps in some instances, ridiculed. Or even in some instances, abused.
So what had to happen was they had to find some way to dim their light. To diminish this capacity to perceive subtle realities — because what every child wants more than anything else in the world (what all of us want more than anything else in the world) is a sense of belonging. And they were perceiving things that others around them didn’t see.
However, they confused belonging with fitting in. Which is not the same thing. Just to clue you in: Belonging is when you stay connected to your true self, who you really are, as you connect with others. Fitting in is when you abandon yourself to look like, act like, think like, and feel like how you think others want you to look and act and think and feel. And that’s where things start to get a little cockeyed.
Remember, here you have somebody that is very emotionally sensitive and highly, highly intuitive, what I call Thin Skinned. As far as I’m concerned, not only is there nothing wrong with being thin skinned, I believe our world would be in a lot better shape if more of our world leaders were thin skinned because, with it, there comes a level of compassion and empathy that is so, so needed. So valuable. There is a problem, however, if you are born thin skinned into a world
There is a problem, however, if you are born thin skinned into a world that doesn’t value that, into a world that is all about being thick skinned and with values like; Water off a duck’s back. No big deal. You’re too sensitive. You’re overreacting and blah blah blah blah blah.
If you are born thin skinned, that’s it. You’re not going to change it any more than you are going to change the color of your eyes. As I said, that’s not the problem. The problem is, you’re born thin skinned into a world that doesn’t value it, and therefore, can’t teach you how to maneuver as a thin-skinned person in a thick skinned world.
There are certain skills that are absolutely essential. You have to develop within your psyche, a strong enough container to hold all your emotions and intuitions — so they are not spilling out all over the place. And also strong enough to protect you from the nonsense out there. There’s a lot of nonsense.
Even people who love you more than life itself, they have nonsense. And they usually don’t even know they have nonsense. So it can’t be their job, it has to be your job to learn how to protect yourself. But, because we also live in an emotionally illiterate culture, there’s nobody to teach that. It’s not taught in the schools.
Now where do eating and food come in?
Well, imagine this, imagine that you are driving down a road. You’ve been down this road a hundred times. But this time, you’re starving or on a diet.
Same thing. What’s going to get your attention on either side of that road? Come on; we’re all built the same way. It’s every restaurant, every fast food place. Food, food, food. And if you’re on a diet, it’s going to be the food you’re not “supposed” to be eating.
Now, imagine this, imagine you’ve got a love-hate relationship with your mother. Your boyfriend ditched you. You’re on a career path that doesn’t serve you. You’re worried about losing your job. And you hate the job anyhow. But you don’t know what you’re going to do otherwise.
These kinds of problems require a complex set of skills to resolve. And if you’re thin skinned, things that might be no big deal to somebody else, penetrate your very bones.
But if you are looking at food, food, food, food, you can go, there’s something wrong with me, and I know what’s wrong with me. I like food too much. Or I’m too fat. Now, as painful as that is, and it is incredibly painful to feel like you’re too fat, at least there’s relief in thinking, I know what’s wrong with me. This is the problem and the solution: Too fat, lose weight. Too fat, lose weight, too fat, lose weight.
All those other things, they kind of fade into the background, temporarily. But they never really get resolved. Because you’re caught up in the red herring. Red herring is a term often used in literature. So, let’s say you’ve got a who-done-it mystery. Who killed the old lady? Is it the maid, the butler, the chauffer ? And everybody’s watching the maid. Because she’s weird. She’s doing strange things. It’s the way she dresses, the way she talks, blah, blah, blah.
And at the end of the story, there’s a twist. It was the butler. Who nobody suspected. Because everybody’s watching the maid. The maid is the red herring.
And so what happens with eating disorders, the food, and the fat become the red herring. Everybody starts thinking that’s the problem. And because the real issues never get resolved, the tension, the feeling like there’s something that’s not okay with me, there’s something wrong with me, never goes away.
I would love to hear what you think, share a comment below!
Till next time,