Eating disorders and our relationship with food

The art of food

Food has always been the subject of art.

You may have painful memories of art lessons where you had to try to replicate a piece of fruit or veg on a piece of paper.

Still Life with Fruit Dish, Paul Cezanne 1880 (public domain)

Photo? No this is an oil painting by Netherlands-based artist Tjalf Sparnaay.  Sparnaay’s work is so richly detailed that it has helped spawn a subgenre of art known as 'megarealism'. 

Cooking is a creative act so it's not surprising that food photos and paintings have become not just a record of the dish but an art form.

Today, social media is a tasting menu of feasts for the eyes.

The Sausage of the Future

This menu of food was created by Carolien Neibling.

Do you follow 'food' artists on social media, if so how does this reflect who you are, your culture, lifestyle and aspirations?

Consuming food is essential to life. Preparing and eating food are an important part of identity, culture and community. But our relationship with food is complex and influenced by many things: religion, culture, race, social trends, peer pressure and social norms, beliefs, availability of food, childhood experience and events, coping strategies, mental illness, and physical illness.

A balanced and healthy diet promotes health.

An unhealthy relationship with food and eating can result from any one of the issues mentioned above, and can impact negatively on both mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Feasts and celebrations

We celebrate life events and life itself with food; preparing it and eating it.

Peasant Wedding Feast, Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1556 (public domain)

All cultures and world religions recognise important events with a feast or celebratory meal.

Rosh Hashanah, Yelena Patshevich 2016

This picture celebrates the food eaten at the Jewish celebration Rosh HaShanah.

The most famous meal in the Christian calendar is the Last Supper and has been depicted by many famous artists.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci 1490 (Creative Commons)

What events are celebrated through feasts and food in your home?

My favourite representation of a feast is in Frances Hodgson Burnett's book 'A Little Princess'. You can watch the scene from the book here.

Harvest is celebrated in all cultures, although in the developed world the growth and harvesting of food is often taken for granted. Many people have lost touch with the joy of growing food and the celebration of harvest.

This year, 2020, there has been a resurgence in connecting with nature; nurturing plants and growing food and a recognition of the positive impact of this on wellbeing.

The Harvesters ,Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1565 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Public Domain)

The farmers in this picture are offering a prayer of thanksgiving for their potato harvest.

The Angelus Jean-Francois Millet 1859 Musée D’Orsay, Paris

Food plays a symbolic role in many world religions, e.g. the consumption of bread and wine in the Christian Holy Communion, the offering of food to the gods in Buddhist and Hindu religions.

Some world religions do not believe it is right to eat certain food products 

Specific produce and meals are associate with certain countries and cultures.

What meal do you associate with who you are and your culture?


Fasting can be part of everyday life, a dieting or health strategy, part of surgical care and it plays a role in most world religions.

It can be taken to extremes and result in death or starvation. In religion this is known as asceticism; the belief that enlightenment is reached by abstaining from the sensual pleasure of eating.

The Fasting Buddha

Emma Donogue's historical novel, The Wonder (2018),  Donogue examines the relationship between fasting and faith, there is an interesting review here.

Strong political beliefs may lead individuals to consciously reduce or stop their food intake to raise awareness of their plight.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Arundhati Roy (2017) Published by Penguin Random House

Chapter 4 Dr Azad Bhartiya

Dr Azad Bhartiya was according to his own calculations entering the eleventh year, third month and seventeenth day of his hunger strike. Dr Bahartiya was so thin as to be almost two-dimensional. His temples were hollow, his dark, sunbaked skin slunk over the bones of his face and the prominent cartilage of his long, reedy neck and collarbone. Searching, fevered eyes stared out at the world from their deep shadow bowls. One of his arms, from shoulder to wrist, was encased in a filthy white plaster cast supported by a sling looped around his neck. The empty sleeve of his grimy striped shirt flapped at his side like the desolate flag of a defeated country. He sat behind an old cardboard sign covered with a dim, scratched, plastic sheet.’ This outlined the reasons for his fast.

Poverty, famine and war

In contrast, many people in the world do not have any control over the quantity or quality of food they have access to.

Famine and war can cause food shortages, but poverty can also result the need for food banks even in affluent societies.

Southall, Joseph Edward; The Food Queue; 1918 Gallery Oldham (Creative Commons Licence)

In a society where there is an abundant harvest of food should there ever need to be food banks?

Where do you shop for your food? How might it feel to have to visit a food bank to eat and survive?

Famine Rowan Gillespie (1997) Dublin

These statues commemorate the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1849. The cause of famine is blamed on a potato disease commonly known as potato blight. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe, the impact and human cost in Ireland, where one third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food, was catastrophic. During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island's population to fall by nearly 25%. 

In her book, The Siege Helen Dunmore  tells of the story of ‘The Siege’ of Leningrad that began in the sunshine of September 1941, when German forces encircled the great Russian city. Hundreds of thousands died from starvation and hypothermia; the city's population halved by the time the siege was lifted in 1944, 900 days later.

The story is centred on Anna, her immediate family and her lover, Andrei. The essential plot is the search for the fuel and food that will enable the family to survive. What is 'normal' or 'essential' is redefined on a daily basis.

‘Don't you know that food is the only thing that matters in a war?’

 In the early days of the siege, the family ritually count their remaining potatoes and onions; as the winter deepens, it's a great triumph to find a stray onion in a forgotten corner. Things worsen; Anna makes broth from a leather school bag, from wallpaper paste. It's almost unthinkably wonderful when Andrei comes home one day with real meat: a guinea pig from the hospital lab.

‘Being dead is normal,’ Dunmore writes, ‘You can die so casually these days. As your perception of reality changes, you wait for spring to bury your dead; hunger has made you too weak to carry them away, so you set aside a corner of the room for their bodies, which the terrible cold preserves. As for the living, you have to patrol yourself all the time, to stop yourself slipping over the border between this world and the next. If you let go, and sit down in no man's land, the snipers of cold and hunger will soon finish you off.’

This is a harrowing book, the threads of love and hope that are woven through the story make it bearable. The story of the impact of hunger and starvation on a family and city is skilfully told. There is much to be learnt from reading this book.


After thinking about the impact of poverty and war on the supply of food, it seems hard to move on to the issue of obesity. A first world problem that is having a significantly negative impact on health and wellbeing.

Benefit Supervisor Sleeping, Lucian Freud (1995) Private ownership (Fair Use)

Freud painted a number of large portraits of Sue Tilley and called her 'Big Sue' He said of her body, ‘It's flesh without muscle’.

Why do you think Freud painted this picture of Sue?

What is the impact of her weight on her health?

What challenges might her weight pose for a doctor treating her?

Obesity is a cause of significant health problems; is it an illness or a lifestyle choice?

Fat, Gluttony and Sloth, Obesity in Literature, Art and Medicine David Haslam and Fiona Haslam (2009) Liverpool University Press

This book offers readers a more detailed exploration of this topic.

Or if you would prefer a novel, then I would recommend this book by Lionel Shriver

Eating disorders

The term eating disorder is an umbrella term for anyone whose eating habit has a negative impact on their mental or physical wellbeing, and includes comfort eating, anorexia and bulimia.

Body dysmorphia, mental illness, stress and trauma, peer and media pressure, cultural expectations and norms can cause individuals to take control their eating in a way that has an unhealthy impact on their weight and health. 

Over a million people suffer from symptoms of an eating disorder. The GP is often the first point of contact when seeking help.

These resources may help improve understanding how this condition impacts on the lives of sufferers.

The website ‘The Mighty’ published a series of pictures linked to a discussion article entitled ‘What does an eating disorder look like?’ We hope the authors are happy for me to reproduce two of their images and text on my site as I think they are very useful images to help doctors understand how an individual struggling with an eating disorder might feel.

“I drew this picture while on a psychiatric ward for suicide watch, and my eating disorder thoughts were stronger than they had been for a long time. They capture the loss of control I experienced and the driving force/personality/voice behind every decision I made at those times.” — Rosie Bogumil

“This was a performance piece I conducted while studying fine art. It highlights the obsession and control anorexia withholds. For five days I sat aligning rice so they didn’t touch, rice being the food staple highlighting struggle, greed and guilt. Anorexia is so much more than the strive to be thin. By accepting help willingly I still hold that tiny bit of control that a section would diminish.” — Amelia Baron

Films are often fictional: produced to transport viewers away from the real world to one of imagination. Their usual aim is to entertain, sometimes they are made to shock, they can educate and result in a change in perception. Film producers go to great lengths to ensure actors and actresses look a certain way, often resulting in pressure to change weight and body shape.

Renee Zellweger gained weight in order to play Bridget Jones in the Bridget Jones's diary.

Anne Hathaway lost 25lbs so she could play the role of Fantine in the production of Les Miserables.

Do you have a view on this?

How might this influence viewers and fans?

These are examples of films that tackle the issue of eating disorders:

  • What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
  • To The Bone
  • Safe

The books have characters who struggle with eating disorders:

How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love. The first of these short stories, Before It Disappears by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan describes the relationship between joy who has anorexia and her partner Richard. It's a great short story to use in teaching.

Life Size Jennifer Shute (1992) Secker and Warburg

A first person account of Josie, a twenty-five-year-old graduate in Economics, suffering from anorexia who is hospitalized in an attempt to stop her from starving herself to death.

Fasting Girls Joan Jacobs Brumberg (2000) presents a history of women's food-refusal dating back as far as the sixteenth century. It is a tableau of female self-denial: medieval martyrs who used starvation to demonstrate religious devotion, "wonders of science" whose families capitalized on their ability to survive on flower petals and air, silent screen stars whose strict "slimming" regimens inspired a generation. 

Poems and songs

What do the words of Lily Allen’s song, The Fear say about society in the 21st century?

 ‘Now everything is cool as long as I'm getting thinner’,

These words reflect the fact that in many countries thin is beautiful.

What do you think about this?

Are there lyrics in other songs that refer to eating disorders?

How does Cynthia Cruz’s poem ‘Diagnosis’ help you understand the thoughts and feelings of the person in her poem?.

Diagnosis Cynthia Cruz Published in The New Yorker 2010 (Author contacted for permission to publish)

Awkward, and almost always the idiot
Savant, mutant, retard,
Travel my own effervescent weather,
In my underwater
Vessel, my sweet
Mars, and soundless
Daydream, magical sweep of Rimbaudian
Reverie. Always
Clumsy, and guileless, mind-
Blind, and deathly shy,
Winning every spelling bee,
Every math contest,
Done before the rest, finishing
First in science test.
Hiding the quarterly honor-roll awards
I won beneath the bed.
The shame of being
Seen consumes me.
And I fight it back,
A landowner warding off
Leagues of feral thieves,
With fire, handheld torch, burning back
The onslaught. In grade school,
Listening to the same Blondie song in my bedroom, over
And over for hours, days,
For years. No friends
But the one: silent, and sitting
In my head. Running laps around
The house for five, ten, fifteen
Miles, counting
Calories of everything put
Into my mouth—desperate to ward the onslaught
Off. Until I am nothing
But a body.
Burn the body down
And, with it, out goes the pilot
Blue light of the mind.
Everyone said
I was pretty back then.
Maybe, way back then,

Before I began.

Extremes of action and thought

This sections comes with a warning.

Not all aspects of cultural cuisine are palatable to all e.g. Cannibalism.

Eating People Zhu-Yu

Zhu-Yu is a Chinese artist who describes his work ‘eating people’ as exploring the space between morality and the law. This Youtube review   explores Zhu-Yu thoughts about cannibalism. The photo footage is intended to shock and to give the impression that he is eating human flesh, (it is not real).

A good topic for a tutorial, perhaps.

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover Peter Greenway 1989

This is probably Peter Greenaway's most famous (or infamous) film, which first shocked audiences at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The picture offers the director's usual ironic and paradoxical comments on the relations between eating and sex, love and death. The film includes scenes of cannibalism which may shock and disgust, but are certainly thought provoking.

Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat Salvador Dali 1938 view on this link

Intended to shock, it is hard not to find this image distressing.

Exploring why -  would be a good topic for a tutorial.


page created December 2020 with research from Beth Jakeman (Humanities Student)