NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Metaphor in eating disorder art: Understanding the lived-in experience

It is difficult to communicate what it means to live with an eating disorder … This illness, anorexia nervosa, has profoundly impacted my life in ways that words cannot express. In my art practice, I utilise metaphorical imagery to challenge stereotypical eating disorder images, such as the physically thin body, in order to adopt a novel way of looking at ordinary objects through an eating disorder perspective.

By Ally Zlatar

It is difficult to communicate what it means to live with an eating disorder. At times I think quite literally, “I just want to be skinny”, but, truthfully, it is more complex than that. This illness, anorexia nervosa, has profoundly impacted my life in ways that words cannot express.

In my art practice, I utilise metaphorical imagery to challenge stereotypical eating disorder images, such as the physically thin body, in order to adopt a novel way of looking at ordinary objects through an eating disorder perspective.

“The First Bite was the Sweetest” explores the idea of lustful desire. In Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” strawberries are thought to be symbolic of the debauchery and sinfulness of humanity. The strawberry, at first, tastes sweet, but afterwards lacks flavour, which is why we return for another bite.

As such, the objects in my paintings are imbued with a life beyond the ordinary; they embody my struggle. Some of my experimentations focus on the importance of food. Food, like my most intimate relationships, has always been a source of refuge. For a long time, I derived my sense of self-worth from both the food I consumed and the partner I was with. Both provided the fullness I craved.

Cake, for example, is one of the few things I know well enough to help express my feelings. In the summer of 2018, on my daily walk to an eating disorder treatment centre, I would pass the most delicious red velvet cake in a cafe window. Every day, I wanted a slice, and every day, for three years, I resisted the temptation. Similarly, in my relationships, I spent so much time creating and molding myself into what my partners wanted that I neglected my desires for the sake of fulfilling theirs. I never thought anyone would love me for me. I never gave myself the things I wanted. I was attempting to use food to express myself.

My series, “Dinner for the Boys I Loved”, explores how my love for cake is an allegory for my various relationships, which range from one-night stands to profound love affairs. Given the various forms and complexities of these relationships, cake is my way of exploring how deeply these relationships affected me.

This metaphor is concerned with the collective experience of eating disorders being liken to a quasi-religious order that believes in “salvation through starvation”, a way of life and practice, whereby calorie counting is religiously observed.

“The First Bite was the Sweetest” (Figure 1) explores the idea of lustful desire. In Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (1503–1515), strawberries are thought to be symbolic of the debauchery and sinfulness of humanity (Glum 1976). The strawberry, at first, tastes sweet, but afterwards lacks flavour, which is why we return for another bite. We crave the sweetness. Likewise, casual flings subverted and perverted what I genuinely wanted, which was acceptance and love.

Figure 1: Alexandria Zlatar, The First Bite was the Sweetest, 4″ x 6″ acrylic on print, 2019

Another series that explores the body as a metaphorical tool is my collection, “Time to Dine”. This series reduces my naked body to a product to be consumed. “À la king” (Figure 2) represents me as a domesticated body, a body that abides by traditional gender roles, such as the dutiful cooking of a Thanksgiving turkey.

Figure 2: Alexandria Zlatar, à la king, 4″ x 6″ acrylic on print, 2020

Similarly, “à la Fresca” (Figure 3) presents the gendered idea that the female body must be the pinnacle of health and wellness. The body is no longer a home. Instead, it is something for restaurant consumption. The house gets to decide how the female body will be served. This visual metaphor addresses the objectification and stigmatisation of women and its psychological impact, which can contribute to the development of eating disorders (Schaefer & Thompson 2018).

Figure 3: Alexandria Zlatar, à la fresca, 4″ x 6″ acrylic on print, 2020

Often, words cannot articulate the reality of the struggle or the complexities inherent in living in an eating-disordered body (Shklovsky 2017). Another series of mine, “Sunday Service” (Figure 4), initiates the viewer into the collective belief systems embodied by those with eating disorders, which I metaphorically refer to as the “Church of Thin”. This metaphor is concerned with the collective experience of eating disorders being liken to a quasi-religious order that believes in “salvation through starvation”, a way of life and practice, whereby calorie counting is religiously observed. These artworks are inspired by my lifelong fascination with the way eating disorders can be viewed through the lens of religion. Eating disorders can indoctrinate individuals with the idea that life is better if one follows the “Cult of Thin”. My artworks allude to the importance of learning to separate church from state (mind from body).

Figure 4: Alexandria Zlatar, Sunday Service, 4″ x 6″ acrylic on print, 2021

In my work, I use metaphorical imagery to probe the experience of living in an unwell body, to move beyond the surface appearance – to go deeper into the human psychological condition. In doing so, my work captures the depths of eating disorders by creating visual imagery that provides a tension between pleasurable associations, such as those evoked by food, with uncanny images of female nudes or cult imagery. In turn, these works are visual metaphors that serve as psychological portraits of my own eating disorder experiences.

 

References

Glum, Peter. 1976. “Divine Judgment in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights”: The Art Bulletin, 58 (1), 45–54.

Schaefer, Lauren M. and Kevin Thompson. 2018. “Self-Objectification and Disordered Eating: A Meta-Analysis”. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 51 (6), 483–502. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22854

Shklovsky, Viktor. 2017. “Art as Technique”. In Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 8–14. Wiley-Blackwell.


Ally Zlatar is an artist and activist. She holds a BFA in Visual Art and Art History from Queen’s University and an MLitt Curatorial Practice and Contemporary Art from the Glasgow School of Art. Her Doctor of Creative Arts focusses on embodied experiences of eating disorders in contemporary art. Ally is a Lecturer at the University of Glasgow (Anderson College, GIC), and she has taught at KICL London and the University of Essex (UEIC).

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