The Objectified Body as a Transitional Object in Anorexia and Body Dysmorphic Disorders
‘False Bodies, True Selves: Moving Beyond Appearance-Focused Identity Struggles and Returning the the True Self’ is a book embedded in Donald Winnicott’s idea of the false self and true Self. Winnicott, an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst writing in the 1950s and 60s, described the development of a false self within the mother-infant relationship when the infant’s spontaneous impulses are met with non-acceptance. This false self typically develops at the stage of first-object relations. Object relations theory is a variation of psychoanalytic theory and suggests that human beings are primarily motivated by the need for contact with others, with their need to form relationships. In the context of this theory, the term ‘objects’ refers to significant others with whom a person relates, usually one’s mother, father, or primary caregiver. It can also be used to refer to part of a person, for example the mother’s breast or the mental representation of the father.
According to object relations theorists, the personality develops through early family interactions and primarily through the mother-infant relationship. Infants are said to form mental representations of themselves in relation to others. These representations then significantly influence their interpersonal relationships as they move through life.
At the stage of first object relations, the infant periodically acts on spontaneous impulses. The source of this spontaneity is the true Self. The true Self is described as the authentic and uncensored aspect of who we are which is, indeed, who we wholly are at our core. Carl Jung also spoke about this Self with an uppercase ‘S’ as being the transcendent, unchanging part of ourselves, in stark contrast to our undulating ego, shadow, and complexes. The true Self is given the opportunity to develop at the stage of first object relations, at which time the infant acts primarily on spontaneous impulses springing from his true, authentic Self. The mother, father, or primary caregiver, then meets the spontaneity of the child with either a good-enough or not-good-enough response (Winnicott’s terms). The good-enough response meets the child’s spontaneity with acceptance and accommodation, thus allowing the true Self of the child to have life. The not-good-enough response, on the other hand, fails to meet and embrace the child’s spontaneity. Rather, the primary caregiver substitutes the infant’s gestures with his or her own. Very quickly, the child learns to comply and to transpose her true, spontaneous Self with a false self that more readily meets the needs and expectations of her caregiver. If the child’s true Self is repeatedly substituted and squashed in this way, she may even lose sight of her true desires, thoughts, feelings and needs thus coming, instead, to live largely or even entirely from a false self-perspective.
Importantly, Donald Winnicott focused on how an infant moves from an illusory sense of merged existence with their primary caregiver to a secure and separate sense of Self. Within the space between these two self-experiences, the infant often uses what Winnicott called transitional objects, which typically come into play from about four to twelve months old and are the infant’s first “not me” possessions. While they are usually physical objects, such as a blanket, a teddy, or a thumb, they are thought to symbolise a third reality in-between subject and object; in-between that which is merged with the caregiver and that which is separate to him or her. Such transitory objects are thought to preserve the illusion of connection with the caregiver while also mediating the process of establishing the difference between the inner and the outer life and between the other person and the self. According to Winnicott, these objects facilitate the growth of the infant’s potential to experience and convey his true Self.
Transitional objects, as their name suggests, are required in times of transition from a sense of our self in one domain or relationship to a new sense of self. It is my postulation that the objectified body can be one such transitional object. Eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and other appearance-focused identity struggles can emerge when the body is used as a transitional object between one sense of self and another. Indeed, these struggles frequently develop in times of transition, with the most common time being during the transition to adolescence. Instead of reaching for the blanket or teddy of our childhood as objects which were offered as comforting and soothing, we reach for the objectified body as a potential soother, perhaps having assimilated the societal myth that a thin and beautiful body if we are female, or a muscular and handsome body if we are male, will provide a sense of security, comfort and even happiness.
I personally used my stuffed toy elephant to soothe and provide me a sense of separation, yet continued symbiosis, with my mother as an infant. As I emerged into adolescence, I instead reached for my protruding hip bones and concave stomach, having believed that an identity, a sense of self, and a level of soothing could be found in a thin body. In this way, my starving body was a transitional object, an attempt to move from a false self, which was completely enmeshed with my mother, to a true Self which was separate to her and had an identity of its own. By using a starving body as I did to find my own edges and assert a separate sense of self, however, I instead regressed to a needy dependent and relied on my mother completely for my basic needs once more. Indeed, Winnicott emphatically explained that sometimes only a regression to dependence is sufficient to break through the false self-system so that one can begin to exist as a person again.
My psyche required a transitional object as I moved into adolescence as I had denied and abandoned my true Self since early infancy; I had no idea who I was or what my desires were, never mind having any notion of how to go about fulfilling them. My starving body screamed out against this true Self suppression and asserted emotions and desires I didn’t even know existed. In this way, my transitional object brought me through to a place of wholeness and integration, as it indeed was supposed to do. Had I been born in another era, however, it is doubtful that I would have turned to the thin-ideal, to the objectified body, as my transitional object and would, therefore, have been unlikely to have almost killed myself in the process.
Eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and so on are a psychological mission, not a physical one. The expedition is the return to the true Self and the pursuit itself, therefore, is not the issue. When we reach for the body as the transitional object back to the true Self, however, physiological aspects can mean that we literally lose ourselves and our lives in the process. The psyche is not concerned with our physical death, however, but with our psychological death, with the death of our true Self. It will look for any object, any semblance of hope, to cling to and to transition with. In a society which repeatedly exclaims that the ‘body beautiful’ can transition us towards a happy and fulfilled Self, is it any wonder that so many of us turn to the body as our transitional object in this way? I would suggest that eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and so on are completely understandable responses in a society that tangentially vilifies and romanticises the appearance of the body at every corner. I was not looking to be thin throughout the years of my anorexia, nor was I looking for the perfect face during my battles with body dysmorphia; not really. I was, rather, looking for my true Self in all of the wrong places. What a relief to finally understand that my identity is not the appearance of my body and that my true Self is, and always has been, there all along. This book has been written with a view to supporting others in their journey from appearance-focused identity struggles back to their true Selves and with a desire to spread awareness about the truth of these struggles, which have nothing to do with appearance at their core.