Art As Symbolic Food for Eating-Disordered Adolescents

by Jan Souza

As a mental health professional, I have initiated and co-facilitated a spontaneous art therapy group for eating-disordered adolescent clients for the last four years. My thesis is that art can act as symbolic food, which is in the control of the client, thus empowering them to help themselves and improve their overall health. This topic was investigated through a retrospective investigation of three case studies. I looked at the artwork in terms of the treatment issues that have been identified in the literature on eating disorders. While I took a phenomenological approach to viewing the art, I acknowledged the importance of understanding underlying therapeutic issues, and, to this end, I used psychodynamic theory, especially as it occurs in the work of Dr. Hilde Bruch, Dr. D.W. Winnicott, Joy Schaverien, and Mary Levens. I utilized theory and research on the use of art therapy in the treatment of eating disorders to support my thesis that art done in a supported group context can become symbolic food that is self-nurturing and promotes growth.