Starving for Approval: Anorexia and the Mother Shadow

  Mother and Child,  Mary Cassatt, 1897

Mother and Child, Mary Cassatt, 1897

Originally posted February 7, 2012

View this article at elephantjournal.com

To-day's your natal day;

    Sweet flowers I bring:

Mother, accept, I pray

    My offering.

 

And may you happy live,

    And long us bless;

Receiving as you give

    Great happiness.

--To My Mother, 

Christina Rossetti

Ask any anorexic who has a shred of consciousness around his/her behavior and 99% of them will say “It’s not about the food.” And as much as it’s “not about the food,” it’s also not about the models in the magazines, the actresses on the TV or the media. Sorry to blow your cover, finger-pointers, but I am done using the media as my scapegoat.

Yes, I agree that a lot of the images shown are heavily photoshopped and are idealized versions of beauty that no one could possibly attain. I also agree that many of the images (especially of women) are dismissive at best (like when she plays the one-dimensional “love object” to a male protagonist) or deeply damaging at worst (like when she is a glorified corpse for abuse and rape).

But as difficult as it is to admit, they are giving us exactly that for which we are asking.

Honestly, how many times have you and I looked at the TV and said (or at least thought):

“How old is she?!”

“Check out that plastic surgery!”

“He has gained some weight!”

“Ugh! What a slut!”

We, inside our own personal psyches, have an internal war of judgment and hatred that is then reflected in the cultural ideals with which we are surrounded. And then that judgment is projected when we see something as “ugly” (that fat whore really needs to just give it up) OR when we see someone “beautiful” (she only got that role because she was fucking the director. Give that skinny bitch a hamburger!).

How can anyone possibly win when everything around us is a mirror of our own self-doubt and fear?

We as a society are all walking around starving for approval and are too full of pride to admit just how much we want it. This approval somehow validates our right to exist in the world, but it is a temporary salve—a fast-food, quick fix so that we don’t have to face the deeper hunger within.

For me, anorexia is the quick fix. For example:

1. It keeps my body small and childlike, so I get to have the concerned attention of those around me, rather than overtly admitting my desire and risking rejection.

2. It keeps my ovaries and pelvis frozen, so as not to run the risk of pregnancy (because that would require a level of responsibility that I could never handle).

3. It dulls out the hunger within. This way, I don’t have to face how greedy I am and thus won’t feel the shame that comes with admitting that I haven’t done the work to know what I want. Or oftentimes I know exactly what I want, but expressing that comes with a high price, usually in the form of people’s judgments (which is humiliating and hits my vanity in a deep way): “Are you sure that’s what you want?” “That sounds way out there.” “You just like the attention.” “LA is just not your kind of town.” “Is that really for the greater good?” “Be reasonable.” “Save some for the rest of us.” “You’re not ready for that yet.”

4. It keeps my world organized and sane—all I have to do is be the good girl and get the good grades and be president of all the clubs and eat the good foods and avoid the bad ones and then I will be liked and will have earned some sort of credit in your world and you will allow me to stay with you for another day (yeah, that one’s really warped, ain’t it?).

In my case, this hunger for approval shows up strongly in what I call my “Mother Shadow.” Caroline Myss talks about different variations of the Mother archetype, but the overarching one that every woman has inside of her is the nurturing, loving caretaker. Yes, every woman has this archetype in her. We are biologically wired to house and nourish life: breasts, hips, vagina, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, estrogen—the whole lot. Now of course, not every woman expresses this energy through giving birth to physical children. Some women are doctors, some found charities, some are community leaders, some save orphaned kittens. It doesn’t matter how this energy is expressed, but that it is acknowledged, integrated and given an outlet.  

What makes this energy a “shadow” for me is that somewhere down the line I have chosen to reject it. For quite some time I have had an intense phobia of getting pregnant—like, my life was going to end if that ever happened to me. I have also focused very heavily on being a “career” woman—someone so driven by her oh-so-important life purpose, that I didn’t have time for that weak stuff. And I will also admit that there is a residual shame leftover from the feminist movement that if I showed any signs of domesticity, I was not in favor of women’s rights.

Now, I may get in a lot of trouble for saying this, but well…it’s my blog, so fuck it. While I am extremely grateful for the women’s movement and for what it did to bring to light the gender inequalities within society, I think it did a disservice to the deeper feminine energies within us. It taught us how to act like men—or rather, provide us with the false sense of masculinity that parades this planet as being “in one’s power.” Goal-driven, unwavering, never showing emotion, working non-stop, constantly producing, going up, up, up.

This particular flavor of nurturing Mother energy needs the soft, quiet receptivity of moment to moment connection and intimacy. This is at the heart of what we are missing within our culture and the very thing for which we are starving.

I was all good at being seen as Kali. Or the Bitch, the Whore, the Sex Queen or any other kind of wild and destructive feminine archetypes. But since I had rejected the Mother within me, I had to find secret ways to “sneak” her into my life (for that is how a shadow works—if you deny it in the conscious mind or body, the unconscious will find ways to get a hit through the back door, whether you like it or not). So, like a drug addict or an anorexic who has her once-a-week-secret-cookie fix, I would seek out the constant approval of women I considered to be authorities to me. Teachers, leaders, mentors, family members, even my own mother. I was morphing myself, moment by moment, into this person that would be likeable and loveable enough to receive the momentary nourishment of a Mother’s love.

Of course the problem with that is, somewhere down the line, I forgot who I was. My validation became a search of some feminine external, rather than the integrated feminine within myself. And so when I would slip up and my cover was blown, I revealed myself to be someone altogether different that who I pretended to be. It almost felt like an act of betrayal to those I loved, and most importantly, to myself.

I thank the Universe for my anorexia. Some may say “Oh my God! If only we had known then we could have prevented this from happening to her.” But what you are missing that anorexia is not the cause of my pain, but a warning signal that some other thing in my life is out of alignment—that I am not living authentically in my skin. To use the analogy of putting your hand on a hot stove, the anorexia is not the hot stove itself, causing the burn. The anorexia is the bundle of pain receptors sending messages to my brain saying, “Take your hand off this stove before you kill yourself!”

And so, here I am. In San Fran-Fucking-Cisco (of all the most random of places), facing the fertile Mother within me and learning to love her deeply. To expose my hunger and embrace the possibility of getting full and fat and pregnant with energy and giving birth to something. Receiving love, in all its forms, and knowing that I don’t have to produce anything in return or have all the answers. Redefining what success is for me and cultivating an unbearable amount of gentle patience with myself as I learn to take responsibility for my life. And to answer the most dangerous question of all—the one that may have me spinning in circles for lifetimes to unveil.

It’s a question we all have, really. We spend millions of dollars every year on gym memberships, guru books, self-help workshops, therapy sessions and calls to the psychic friends network in the hopes that someone will give us the quick answer. OR we spend billions on porn, alcohol, television, cigarettes, shopping, sugar and empty-calorie sex so that we can numb or distract ourselves to point where we don’t hear this question lurking in our basement anymore.

It’s time to turn on the lights. My shadows are quickly exposing themselves. And when the anorexia comes around again, I will get down on my knees and give thanks—for then I will know another rejected piece of me is waiting just behind that veil of fear. And in meeting her, I will have come one layer closer towards answering that ultimate question: Who am I?