‘Unetheredness and Baselessness’: Eating Disorders, Control and Existential Feelings

Sarah Warriner suggests that phenomenology can help us better understand eating disorders.

Eating disorders are commonly understood as being centred on control, rigidity and inflexibility, most notably in the ‘lay’ explanation of eating disorders. We loosely imagine someone desperate, perhaps a young woman or girl, who craves (and arguably believes) they have found an accessible means to an autonomous end: that of being ‘in control’. These paradoxical desires around either grasping or letting go of control are embedded in a dangerous cycle of distress which move between compulsion, anxiety and shame. Clinical and academic research on eating disorders have both shown the dimension of control does not quite capture the presentation of eating disorders, and other similar elements have been seen to emerge – such as self-control and ineffectiveness. Discussion around eating disorders is becoming more layered and critical, and is beginning to better understand their complexity, as well as their prevalence.

‘If I’m thin I’m in control if I’m fat I’m losing control’
Poppy (Research participant)

 Control is one of many broader themes that has arisen in my own research on eating disorders in older people, which has resulted in the analysis of eating disorders as they developed over five or six decades. One of my participants who has experienced anorexia from her teens right through to her sixties described her anorexia as an attempt at ‘keeping it all inside’, and uses the metaphor of being inescapably ‘on a tightrope’. Another participant is unable to eat in the presence of other people, something which similarly began in his teens and has continued into his mid-eighties – whenever he ate a meal with his young family in his thirties, he would sit in the corner, looking at the wall. Since living alone, for the last 15 years, he locks the front door before sitting down to eat.

Despite their varying experiences, each person I engaged in these conversations with is looking for something that could be described as control, but goes much deeper than this. The sense of control appears to be a phenomenologically rich experience which encompasses many other nuanced existential feelings. Instead, control as a broader experience can be characterised by a constellation of certainty, stability, respite, or an anchor – these are composite parts of the feeling of ‘control’, as they seem to appear within the phenomenon of eating disorders. It also became clearer to me that these feelings of control relate to the experience of anxiety, or a sense of perceived ontological and existential turbulence, with each one defining the other – the anchor and the storm are conceptually contingent. Phenomenologically, their descriptions of their eating disorders are characterised by some existential feelings which were associated with self-control, effectiveness and autonomy: ‘untetheredness’; ‘baselessness’; ‘dislocation’.

‘We have to reject the age-old assumptions that put the body in the world and the seer in the body, or, conversely, the world and the body in the seer as in a box.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Visible and the Invisible

Similarities can be seen with the clinical research on control, which has begun to differentiate between self-control, ineffectiveness and suchlike. However there is still often a segregation which occurs between different analyses: psychologism, behaviourism (and a more general medicalisation), even psychosociocultural and feminist conceptualisations, seek to locate the arena in which eating disorders manifest for the individual. Although there is no denying that each theoretical approach adds to our understanding of the phenomenon as a whole, it remains, from a philosophical perspective, problematic. Each person, or patient, is seen as a being which is influenced and moulded by, yet distinctly ontologically separate from other objects, or things in the world. For phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty, this is psychology’s greatest mistake – for him, human beings in fact exist as intertwined with the ‘flesh’ of the world – the self, the body, the Other and the world form a dynamic ‘chiasm’ of interconnectedness.

Image credit: Jack Finnigan via Unsplash

Returning then to the existential feelings that characterise the sense of control within eating disorders, looking at those feelings as they appear to the individual phenomenologically (to their consciousness) gives us a new, deeper understanding. If we consider that existential feelings, for example anxieties about feeling ‘out of control’ and wanting to ‘gain control’ are in fact not directed towards the body/self or the world, but are ‘structures of relatedness between self and world’ (Ratcliffe 2009), this gives an interesting new insight into the phenomena. Just as the anchor and the storm were interrelated, a similar structure can be seen in the existential feelings of eating disorders where the individual feels untethered, baseless and dislocated. They do not experience this feeling solely in relation to themselves, or the Other, or the world – it is instead a lived feeling which represents the ‘in-between’ space between self, body, Other and world.

 ‘This anxiety is undoubtedly mine, but it is also something from without, fighting my efforts at mastery’
Drew Leder – The Absent Body

For many philosophers anxiety has a very particular existential quality, most notably as a feeling which disrupts our day to day experience of the world and its meanings (Jean-Paul Sartre 1943). One example given by Drew Leder is the experience of anxiety when reading a paper at a conference:  ‘I discover my hands becoming clammy, my voice beginning to crack…Try as I might to focus on my talk, my attention is pulled back to these physical manifestations’ (Leder 1990, 84). The feeling of anxiety is a shift in the balance of our awareness, pulling us away from our actions as affective. Our bodily awareness takes over, despite our actions continuing, and ‘the body is remembered particularly at times of error and limitation’ (Leder 1990, 86). Reflecting back at the desire for control, which occurs within the context of what I described as ‘existential turbulence’ for people with eating disorders, this demonstrates what could be the same kind of ‘disruption’ which Sartre and Leder describe in their examples of anxiety.

There is no question that eating disorders represent something about the way in which we inhabit, experience and use our bodies in the world – they are not only something we are, but something we have. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty states, ‘our body is a being of two leaves, from one side a thing among things and otherwise what sees and touches them’ (1964/1992, 137), and this is another element of eating disorders which can, and should, be investigated with the same phenomenological engagement.

It is my belief that as an alternative to increasing our knowledge about eating disorders, we can instead look to understand them more deeply by asking more critical ontological questions. Phenomenology, used as a methodological tool, can help us undertake this reflection on human experience by moving beyond our pre-judgements, pre-knowledge and assumptions and into this ‘in-between’ space where existential feelings exist and are felt. It takes us to the core of what is human and existential about eating disorders, and how they appear to us as meaningful, self-conscious beings.

Sarah Warriner is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Hull through their Creative Economies scholarship, ‘Philosophy applied to Wellbeing’. She is a freelance writer and researcher interested in mental health, existentialism and phenomenology.


Drew Leder. 1990. “The Absent Body.” London: University of Chicago Press
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 1964/1992. “The Visible and the Invisible.” Paris: Editions Gallimard
Matthew Ratcliffe. “Existential Feeling and Psychopathology.” Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 16, 2 (2009): 179-194. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed October 14, 2018)
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1943. “Being and Nothingness.” London: Routledge


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