In Greek mythology, there is a story about Echo and Narcissus. Echo had the prior misfortune to be caught in the cross fire between cheating Zeus and his jealous wife Hera. Hera responds by taking away Echo’s ability to speak, now she can only repeat the last thing someone else says. Meanwhile Narcissus angers Aphrodite because he is vain and arrogant so she causes him to fall in love with his own reflection.
Echo sees Narcissus and falls in love with him
“He was a youth of such transcendent beauty that Echo, whom the tender passion had passed over all her life, was instantly lovestruck.”Mythos: The Greek myths Retold by Stephen Fry. (Page 337)
Narcissus does not return her love
“he thought the whole business of love absurd. It turned sensible people stupid. Narcissus hated being mooned and swooned over. It maddened him to see the unmistakable look of love leaping into the eyes of others. There was something so angry and ugly about that look. Something so hungry, lost and despairing, so brooding, haunting and unhappy”Mythos: The Greek myths Retold by Stephen Fry. (Page 338)
Echo watches Narcissus but cannot make him love her. Her longing causes her to waste away until the only thing left is the echo of her voice which only Hera can remove.
Narcissus also fades away
Day after day he lay by the river, passionately and hopelessly in love with his own reflection, gazing at himself, filled with love for himself and longing for himself, with eyes only for himself, and consideration for no one and nothing but himself. He drooped down over the water, pining and pining until at last the gods turned him into the delicate and beautiful daffodil that bears his name.Mythos: The Greek myths Retold by Stephen Fry. (Page 343)
There are many complex factors which cause someone to crash diet or develop an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. It would be wring to suggest that this story was appropriate for everyone, but it does pick up four aspects of our relationship with food, weight and dieting.
Wanting others affection
“If I was skinnier, perhaps they would notice me, like me, maybe even love me. Then I would be accepted”. This thought seems to be pervasive even after we have gained their affection. I remember wedding dress shopping with my friend where several shop assistants freely told her that she could diet to fit into a smaller sized dress before the wedding. Why? If you have met someone who loves you and has just asked you to spend the rest of your life with them, why do you need to shrink in size?
In a swipe right culture with TV shows such as “Naked Attraction” our society keeps reinforcing that the way you look is more important than the way you feel or what you do. But is that true? Think about the people you have loved (think real connection love rather than lust here – this might be romantic love or friendships or families), was it their body which was the most important thing?
There is research that suggests that couples who are happy together are more likely to put on weight together and in some cultures this is prized as a sign of well-being and maturity.
Echo wastes away as she pines after Narcissus, but Narcissus remains indifferent to Echo. His reasons for avoiding love and Echo’s love specifically are not linked to how she looks and there is no indication in the story that he is even affected by her slowly disappearing.
Some people say that confidence is the most attractive personality trait, but not a confidence which you will only allow yourself to feel when you meet your goal. Be confident in who you are now, even if you just start with being confident about very small things. Think about one thing you like about yourself – pick something not based on appearance, instead choose something about a skill you have or a personality trait or a personal quality. Did you pick something? That is what makes you unique. You should show people that side of yourself more. You are great.
Relationship to self
Narcissus wastes away for a different reason, more connected to his own feelings about how he looks. On social media last week I saw someone re-post a meme which said “Waking up thinner is worth going to bed hungry.” This obsession with personal appearance is not about pleasing others, the person may continue to starve themselves even when friends and relatives beg them to stop dieting or tell them they are beautiful. Because there is a voice louder than those external voices, there is the internal voice which repeats the same negative messages that they must be thinner, they are not good enough as they are now.
Sometimes there is a competitive element to this striving for personal perfection. Can I lose more weight than the other people in my weight loss group? Can I run further, spend more time at the gym, ingest less calories? Can I weigh less, shrink my hips, have a bigger thigh gap, fit into a smaller size? Can I show everyone how great my progress is with a before and after shot because this body is great.?Well, it is great but it can be better – if I just build up a bit more muscle, if I just lose a bit more here, if I just…
Actually, extreme dieting can have the opposite effect – it can increase wrinkles, reduce skin elasticity make you look old before your time. Not so beautiful a goal.
But as Narcissus gazes at his reflection, the perfection he sees is unreachable. Every time he reaches forwards to get closer to perfection the ripples disturb the image. My tutor said to me during my Dramatherapy training “Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough” – it is not possible, you are chasing something which can not be achieved, the standards will change, the goal posts will shift and you will waste away in search of it.
Wanting to disappear
In some versions of the story, Echo does not simply fade away, but instead begs the goddess Aphrodite to take away her suffering. This can only be done by removing her body, her spirit, her life, only leaving the cursed echo of her voice to continue to linger around those who live on.
They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes. For some people there is a desire to diet until they die. To reduce their waist until they waste away. Maybe there is the desire, like Echo’s, to remove yourself from the suffering.
At the same time, this physical disappearing can be a very visible cry for help as desperate loved ones watch you shrink and fade away before their eyes. Maybe part of the wanting to disappear is also wanting them to see you disappear.
We know that children love to play Hide and Seek because there is the skill of the hiding and the thrill of being found by the ones seeking us.
For both Echo and Narcissus, their stories start with them losing control.
Echo is talkative, loyal and friendly and it is these traits which lead to her downfall with jealous Hera. The punishment is the removal of her voice, her autonomy, her self expression. This then results in her isolation from friends and family. The loss of control.
When experiencing abuse or trauma, many people identify with this loss of voice. Others may find themselves feeling helpless and unable to support those around them, not knowing what to say or feeling useless.
For Narcissus, he find himself stalked by suitors who he does not wish to date. His experience of love is that it is unwanted, invasive, non-consensual. Attempts to avoid or ignore this attention are unsuccessful until finally Narcissus shouts and makes his stalker leave him alone.
The stalker then kills himself and Narcissus is blamed. Narcissus lacked power and autonomy and when he finally reclaimed the power over his own relationships he was then held responsible for being disruptive. This has echoes of controlling or abusive relationships, the slow erosion of someones autonomy and the manipulation used to force them to do what the perpetrator wants.
There is often a loss of power in our stories before developing a negative relationship with food. I wonder if you can see this in your own story? One of the things which attracts people to controlling their food and exercise is that is is within their power to control. This is true for people who crash diet after a break up. It is true for anorexics who tightly control their food intake. It is true for bulimics who binge and purge. It is true for the person who obsesses about exercise.
It is true, you do have power over calories consumed and calories burnt. But this power is not a substitute for the loss of other forms of power. If someone has stolen you ability to be playful, creative, expressive – you. If someone has chipped away at your patience or burdened you with their problems, then whether or not you control your weight will not have any impact on whether you return the other powers.
Ultimately, the control Echo and Narcissus have, does nothing to improve either of their lives. It is a control which causes both to waste away and robs both of any chance of a different ending to their story.
If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you might want to think about getting some help. There are therapists and support groups specialising in working with people with eating disorder and also therapists and groups specialising in the underlying issues which could include loss of control, trauma or relationships breakdowns. Maybe you think therapy is not for you as you are not as bad as other people, but sometimes talking to someone early can help to reduce the negative messages which are affecting you and can help you take steps towards being the healthiest you both physically and mentally.
London Dramatherapy Group for age 11 to 14
In just 20 days I will be starting a group for young people in years 7, 8 or 9. We will be exploring “too big emotions” the ones we are struggling to live with, the ones which go around and around in our head, the ones which are affecting our relationships, behaviour and sense of self.
If you know a young person who might need some help then please tell them about the group, there are still places available. The group will meet every day for a week (during half term) for 3 hours to allow us to explore together through stories, games and honest reflections on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.