Using Metaphor and Storytelling to Heal Body Image
By Anita Johnston, PhD
Most eating disorders professionals recognize that negative body-image issues are the bookends of the struggle with an eating disorder. They are typically the first to show up and the last to leave. Quite often, individuals become embroiled in a full-blown eating disorder as a result of first wrestling with negative perceptions about their bodies, and then attempting to use food restriction, excessive exercise, or dieting as a solution. And the struggle with negative body image usually continues long after the eating disorder behaviors have ceased.
The prevalence of negative thoughts about the body is pervasive even for those who do not have diagnosable eating disorders or disordered eating patterns. As a result of our fat-phobic, diet-obsessed modern culture and a media that perpetuates an unrealistic ideal of beauty as excessively thin, flawless, and youthful, most of us have had to deal with negative thoughts about our appearance.
For those with eating disorders, however, and for some whose bodies do not fit the body-ideal of the culture, a negative body image can be crippling, often causing them to limit their lives extensively, leading to self-harm and life-endangering behaviors with food and exercise.
While it is important to challenge the constant fat-phobic messages from the culture, which emphasize an extremely narrow form of beauty, it is also necessary to address the messages that individuals who struggle with negative body image have already internalized—and believe to be absolutely true. Challenging those messages and shifting perceptions can be difficult, however, if an individual has spent a lifetime absorbing and believing them, either consciously or unconsciously.
One of the most powerful ways to transform perceptions is through the language of metaphor and the use of storytelling. Humans have always turned to story at those times when reason alone cannot help, those times when everything in the culture seems stacked against them. In times like those, it is a different story that is needed, personally and collectively, one that can go deeper into the psyche and ring “more true” than the old story that has been perpetuated, internalized, and used maladaptively in an attempt to cope with pain or fear, or in order to find a way out of a troubling situation.
Many ancient cultures made sense of the world they lived in through two ways of looking at and thinking about the world. The Greeks called them “logos” and “mythos.” Logos seeks to find objective truths and definitive explanations that can be proved with observable facts, statistics, controlled experiments, and logical thought processes.
Unfortunately, when attempting to resolve negative body image, logos often fails us. Extreme fear of fat does not make sense and cannot be explained away, logically. Neither facts nor research support the current shame-based “war on obesity,” which is doing more harm than good for those who struggle with negative body image. Body shaming of those who don’t meet the cultural ideal can create and perpetuate eating disorders, and exacerbate negative body image. Logos is of little assistance for those with negative body image who grew up being told that fat is bad and who live in a culture that continues to misguidedly embrace that distorted and harmful belief.
The other way of viewing the world, mythos, uses a more imaginative and intuitive approach—and makes use of metaphor, stories, and imagery. While the power of logos lies in reason, the power of mythos lies in the imagination. While logos can be used to help us understand the realm of matter, mythos helps us get to the heart of the matter.
It is mythos that is more useful when logic fails us, when the facts don’t add up or are treated as irrelevant, as in the case of negative body image. Logically, we can understand that the beauty-ideal of the culture is unobtainable and that the messages of the media are manipulative. We can bemoan the pressures our culture places on our physical appearance, but logic alone often is not enough to keep those messages from penetrating our psyches. We need a different story so we can imagine a different, truer reality.
In our modern culture, one that prides itself on a rational, logical way of viewing the world, the term myth is often used synonymously for that which is not true. However, in traditional cultures, it was used to describe deeper truths that cannot be accessed by logic. Myths are those stories that are false on the outside but true on the inside. Myth can make the most sense when everything else seems to make less sense. The term mytho-logical suggests that myth has its own kind of logic and power. It can be a way of addressing situations that tend to defy logic and rationality, and can provide surprising solutions when logos fails.
Such is the case when dealing with the psychological processes involved in negative body image. Pointing out the “facts” to someone struggling with negative body image is often not useful for addressing belief systems that have been locked into place, remaining resistant to logical inquiry regardless of their irrational nature.
Stories, however, speak to us in the imaginative language of mythos and metaphor, and can bypass those deeply entrenched belief systems, allowing us to affect unconscious beliefs through the transformative power of the imagination, bringing about a greater awareness of a deeper, more profound truth.
Carl Jung referred to metaphor as “the healing symbol” because of its ability to provide us with images that can transform unconscious thought patterns into forms that can be assimilated into conscious awareness. He described three distinct levels in the psyche at which metaphors affect us: mental, emotional, and imaginative. The mental level is where we interpret the meaning of the metaphor. At the emotional level, we connect to the feelings embedded in the metaphor. The imaginative level is where the actual transforming power of metaphor occurs, according to Jung. He suggested that because metaphor functions on these three levels simultaneously, a deeper and more immediate connection can be made to the psyche (Woodman, 1993).
Here is an old wisdom tale that can be used to help heal negative body image and demonstrate how the mythological power of story and metaphor can bring about transformation within the psyche.
Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a king who had returned from a very successful hunting expedition. The entire hunting party galloped with great fanfare into the courtyard of the castle, glad to be home after being gone for so long. They were greeted, as they always were on occasions such as this, by the king’s most loyal and dedicated companion and very best friend, the dog he had raised from the time she was a puppy.
But as the horses entered the courtyard, the dog began to behave strangely. She would begin to run toward the hunting party, then stop abruptly, snarl, bark, spin around in a circle, and run away. Again, she would run back toward the hunters, snarl, bark, spin around, and run away.
The king thought to himself, I have been gone for so long it appears my dog has gone mad. And so he chased after the dog, following her as she ran through the corridors of the castle. She stopped suddenly at the entrance to the nursery of the king’s first-born child, spun around, snarled, and barked once again. At that moment, the king was horrified to see that the dog’s muzzle was covered with blood. As he stepped into the nursery, he saw the walls were covered with blood, and across the room, all he could see was his infant child’s overturned cradle.
Enraged at the betrayal of his “best friend” and most loyal subject, he drew out his sword and plunged it into the dog’s heart. Immediately thereafter, he heard a cry from across the room. He raced over to the cradle, and there, beneath the carcass of a dead wolf, was his infant child—totally unharmed.
Most of us, upon reading this story, feel a pit in our stomach because we can easily identify with the king. When we gasp at the horror embedded in this story, we connect psychologically to the metaphors at the emotional level to which Jung was referring. At the mental level, we can relate to the experience of jumping to hasty conclusions—without first questioning our immediate perceptions or examining the entirety of the situation in which we find ourselves—and know all too well the remorse that comes with discovering that our misperceptions have led to beliefs and behaviors that have caused some irreparable damage (to another person, a situation, or to ourselves).
When individuals who struggle with negative body image tell themselves that they are too fat and ugly, they, like the king, fail to examine the entirety of the situation they are experiencing when the thought I am too fat or I am ugly arises. Because their physical appearance is the first thing that comes into view when they sense something is wrong, they turn the full force of their fear, disgust, and rage against it. They are not conscious of the inner stories that are actually causing the suffering, and as a result, much in the same way the king immediately blamed the dog, they tragically blame the wrong aspect of their selves for their misery—and mercilessly attack their bodies.
Because they do not push the pause button long enough to fully examine the whole picture, they respond to the initial thoughts that come to mind when distressed (i.e., They rejected me because I am too fat) and immediately assume it is the body, the home of their appetites and instincts, that is the enemy that is causing their pain and discomfort.
Those struggling with negative body image believe the problem lies in their physical appearance and do not realize that the real culprit, the wolf, is the inner critic, that voice within that says, “You are not thin enough, not toned enough, not beautiful enough. You are not (fill in the blank) enough.”
They fail to see that it is the inner critic that has been stalking and preying upon their inner child, their authentic soul-self, that aspect of their Being that is unique, special, and precious. It is the inner critic that lies in wait—attempting to ambush newborn ideas, feelings, and desires—insisting on perfection, decrying their worthiness, proclaiming that having appetites, needs, or emotions is a sign of weakness, that not “fitting in” is their utmost failure.
It is the inner critic that says, “You can’t have it because you are too fat. Only when you lose weight or look a certain way will you deserve to be happy. You are not lovable unless you are thin and toned.”
Because of their limited brain functions, when young children initially try to make sense out of their world, they often equate feeling bad with being bad, assuming that if they feel bad, they must be bad. Thus, if bad things happen and they feel bad, then it must mean they are bad. If, somewhere along the way, they begin to equate bad with fat, for example (not difficult to do when living in a culture that says fat is bad), then those words begin to be used interchangeably in their internal stories.
An inner narrative develops as follows: “Bad things happen; I feel bad/fat; I must be bad/fat.” The mental images and emotions are interpreted literally, as a child without the full range of cognitive faculties on board would, linking the two and seeing them as synonymous. And if the narrative remains unchallenged later on in life, inner emotional states continue to be confused with outer appearance, affecting self-image profoundly.
To untangle the story line, it helps to recognize—using the faculties of an adult mind—that feeling “bad” is a signal from our inner guidance system that something is amiss. Our task then is to become good detectives and not automatically assume that feeling bad/fat is the same as being bad/fat—that if we are feeling threatened, the cause of that feeling is not the body, although we may experience it in our bodies.
Those caught up in the throes of negative body image do not understand that the body is not the source of the distress being experienced, but, rather, is the messenger, trying desperately to communicate and alert them (through sensations, instincts, intuitions, or emotions) when something is not right. They no longer see their body as their most loyal friend and protector that will be with them from the day they are born until the day they die. They can neither see nor appreciate how their body remains truly dedicated in its service to their soul, to their essential self, to who they really are. They believe it is their body that has betrayed them and don’t recognize that it is what they are imagining—not the body itself—that is problematic.
To make things worse, the inner critic is supported by a collective culture—a whole chorus of voices—that tells us all of our problems would be solved, all our pain would be eliminated, if our physical appearance were different, if we fit the image of a certain prescribed beauty ideal. Billions of dollars are being thrown to the pack of media wolves feeding on this false story, a story told with a subversive intent to undermine our positive self-image in order to sell some product wrapped in the “sheep’s clothing” of health, fitness, beauty, fashion, etc.
Those struggling with negative body image often unwittingly join in the chorus, bonding with one another as they bemoan their physical imperfections and exchange disparaging comments about their appearance. With enough repetition, this message becomes internalized and the inner critic is strengthened, dominating the internal narrative. The true culprit is not recognized, often leading to destructive, and sometimes life-threatening, behaviors in a futile attempt to get the body to conform to an image that, however relentlessly promoted, is essentially unobtainable.
The transformative element of this metaphoric story lies in the imaginative realm. What if the king had taken a moment to question the situation—rather than believe the first thought that came to his mind? What if the king had assumed that the dog’s “crazy” behavior had meant something other than, “There must be something wrong with my dog”?
What if the king were as loyal to his dog as she was to him? What if the king had stopped to decipher what the dog was trying to say and trusted her instinctual nature? Could the tragedy have been averted? Could the mistake have been prevented? Could the king have spared himself untold grief?
What if those who struggle with negative body image could learn to push the pause button long enough to recognize the voice of the inner critic and notice when it is attacking the uniqueness of their being, their precious, most authentic self? What if they could, upon sensing something was wrong, differentiate the voice of their inner critic that says, “Something is wrong with me,” from the voice of their inner guidance saying, “Something is not right with this situation”? And what if, rather than assuming there was something wrong with their body, they could see that the inner critic was simply auto-responding, parroting the manipulative messages of the media? Would it be possible that they could then see the truth of their situation and discover the real culprit wreaking havoc in their lives and causing them misery?
In order to break free from negative body image, we need to suspend immediate judgment and follow the twisting corridor in our psyche toward the real source of discomfort, using curiosity to discern where the real trouble lies. In order to recover from negative body image, we need to recognize that the problem lies in a thought process that links feelings of distress with being fat (in a pejorative rather than a descriptive sense) or ugly. Freedom from negative body image is to be found in changing thoughts about the body—not in changing the body. To find true freedom, we need to shift our focus from how we look to how we see.
About the author:
Anita Johnston, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist, iaedp Certified Eating Disorder Specialist & Supervisor, and author of Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationships with Food Through Myth, Metaphor, and Storytelling, which has been published in six languages. She has authored book chapters in Eating Disorders: Bridging the Research-Treatment Gap and The Psycho-spiritual Clinician’s Handbook, along with numerous articles in professional journals.
Dr. Johnston has been treating eating disorders for over 35 years. A pioneer in the field, she founded the Anorexia & Bulimia Center of Hawaii in 1982, developed Hawaii’s first inpatient eating disorders treatment program at Kahi Mohala Hospital in 1986, and created the very first eating disorders Intensive Outpatient Program in the U.S. on the island of Oahu in 2001. In 2010, she developed Australia’s first intensive outpatient eating disorders program in Sydney.
Currently she serves as Clinical Director of ‘Ai Pono Hawaii Eating Disorders Programs which has a Residential Program in Maui and Intensive Out-patient Programs in Honolulu and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is the co-creator of the Light of the Moon Café, an international, interactive e-course, and online “workbook” for Eating in the Light of the Moon.
As a recognized international workshop presenter, Dr. Johnston lectures around the world to professional organizations, conferences, universities, medical institutions, and the community at large. She is best known for integrating metaphor and storytelling into her training as a clinical psychologist to explain the complex issues that underlie disordered eating behavior and other struggles with eating, weight, and body image.
Woodman, M. (1993). Conscious Femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.