Self Images as Diagnostic Tools?
It has long been acknowledged that art when combined with therapy offers a powerful therapeutic form of nonverbal communication that is particularly useful in the treatment of eating disorders, where cognitive defenses can be strong. In a recent publication it has been revealed that women, prone to developing an eating disorder or currently suffering from one, draw themselves with prominently different characteristics than do women of normal weight and with no eating disorder. Consequently this has been identified as a useful diagnostic tool. This has been revealed in a new joint study from the University of Haifa, Soroka University Medical Center and Achva Academic College, Israel, published in The Arts in Psychotherapy. "
The study further revealed that self-figure drawings can differentiate between anorexic and bulimic women, and that women with anorexia tended to omit breasts from their self portrait and were inclined to draw smaller figures relative to the page size, using less defined body lines.
These findings appear consistent with our experience at Life Works. Through the art based psychotherapy offered at Life Works it has become apparent that differences not only exist but that it extends to men with anorexia who are also showing signs of marked body image issues.
While there is immense value in noticing differences in the drawing styles and content of these disorders, arguably the value pertains primarily to the therapeutic process, - for the client to become aware of his or her own process and for the therapist to mirror this. While many treatment centers often refrain from doing explicit work around concepts of body image, it is a central aspect of the eating disorder treatment at Life Works.
Art Therapy and Drama Therapy used in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy allow the person suffering from and eating disorder to explore all aspects of themselves, including body image issues. Art therapy exercises are very useful – however, there is potential danger in relying on them as a stand alone diagnostic tool outside the therapeutic process. Naturally clients do not consistently fall neatly into simplistic diagnostic criteria. For example, the bulimic who restricts or the anorerxic who purges may produce images that cross the simplistic diagnoses and in such cases it appears valuable to allow the meaning to come from the client rather than from the professional.
Concluding that image A = Diagnosis B can be a considerable obstacle in capturing the complexity of the picture that is an eating disorder.