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Saturday, June 4, 2011

fasting girls

by Catherine Partin

In Fasting Girls: A History of Anorexia Nervosa, Joan Jacobs Brumberg traces the history of anorexia nervosa from its roots in the fasting demonstrated by medieval saints, through its resurgence in the Victorian era, and into modern times.  Great care is taken to distinguish between different forms of anorexia as the practices of refusing food evolved throughout the centuries, with Brumberg describing the transition from fasting as a form of religious devotion and piety to a symptom of insanity and finally a disorder of its own.  She attempts to explain, through careful historical examination of times and cultures in which food and femininity have been inextricably linked, how anorexia nervosa originated and why it has become so insiduous in our society.   Brumberg outlines three theoretial models of causation: biomedical, psychological, and cultural, the last of which is most relevant to feminist thinking.

             The cultural model of anorexia nervosa asserts that the disorder is caused by what Brumberg describes as “a powerful cultural imperative that makes slimness the chief attribute of female beauty.”  (33)  While eating disorders can be explained in biomedical and psychological terms, this feminist interpretation acknowledges that cultural forces are also to blame.  Brumberg writes, “Before Chernin, Orbach, and Millman, women’s dieting and weight concerns were trivialized or interpreted as masking a strictly individual psychological problem without consideration of the ways in which culture stimulated, exacerbated, and gave shape to a pattern of problematic behaviors.”  (36)  Without dismissing valid medical findings and psychological theories, Brumberg notes that the cultural model provides an additional explanation for anorexia nervosa by recognizing that social factors influence eating habits and disorders.

             Contemporary feminist analysis of disordered eating is based upon scholarly criticism of nineteenth-century women and medicine.  These scholars postulate “that women’s bodies are a locus of social control…and that ‘female diseases’ are socially constructed states that symbolize both the hegemony of scientific medicine and Victorian social constraints on women.”  (36)  Brumberg continues, “Thus, anorexia nervosa is painted as a young woman’s protest against the patriarchy– that is, as a form of feminist politics.” (37)  In this view, the refusal to eat is a symbolic rejection of oppressive social norms.  However, Brumberg takes issue with the classic feminist view of anorexia nervosa as a cultural or political protest on the grounds that it denies the biomedical factor and can lead to thinking of the illness as a conscious choice rather than a debilitating disease, arguing, “Although some earnestly believe that anorexia nervosa is a conscious and/or symbolic act against sexism that follows in a direct line from early-twentieth-century feminism, it is difficult from a historical perspective to see the analogy between the articulate and life-affirming political strategies of the Pankhursts and the silent, formulaic behavior of the modern Karen Carpenters…If the anoretic’s food refusal is political in any way, it is a severely limited and infantile form of politics, directed primarily at parents (and self) and without any sense of allegiance to a larger collectivity.” (38)  In other words, disordered eating may indeed be spurred by generalized dissatisfaction to which oppressive societal demands contribute, but to conclude that anorexia nervosa is then a conscious reaction against authority would be presumptuous.  Brumberg also notes that this way of thinking can lead to what she calls “an interpretation of the disorder that overemphasizes the level of conscious control,” (37); she recognizes the merits of the existing cultural model but argues that it cannot stand alone as an explanantion for a disorder that also has roots in physiology and personal psychology. 

            Brumberg hypothesizes, as many eating disorders experts do, that the causes of anorexia nervosa are intertwined; she posits that anorexia nervosa can be divided into two stages, the first involving a sociocultural framework for food-refusal and the second consisting of the mental and physical disturbances that feed the compulsion to starve.  Brumberg writes, “When we take the long history of female fasters into account, it becomes apparent that there are certain historical moments and cultural settings when a biological substratum could be activated by potent social and cultural forces.”  (42) 

            Fasting Girls mainly concentrates on the Victorian era, when notions of food and feminity were interwined to such a degree that anorexia nervosa emerged as an independent diagnosis amid myriad other variants of disordered eating associated with diseases such as dyspepsia and chlorosis.  Brumberg notes that the historical timing of anorexia nervosa corresponds with the idea that, following the Protestant Reformation, medicine took the place of religion in suppressing and dominating women.   When fasting lost its power as a religious practice, refusing food was then cast as symptomatic of mental illness, specifically hysteria, which in turn had its basis in the inherent weakness of the female body.  Brumberg writes, “The health of young women was definitely influenced by a general female fashion for sickness and debility…In Victorian society unhappy women (and men) had to employ physical complaints in order to be permetted to take on the privileged ‘sick role.’  Because the most prevalent diseases in this period were those that involved ‘wasting,’ it is no wonder that becoming thin, through noneating became a focal symptom.’  Wasting was in style.”  (168)

            Despite the passage of time, wasting is still in style.  Following a detailed analysis of anorexia nervosa’s roots, Brumberg discusses the evolution of beauty ideals from the early twentieth century up to the 1980s.  Her work shows that while cultural settings and expectations have changed, food and appetite continue to serve as a feminine mode of self-expression.  In her conclusion, she observes, “As in many psychiatric disorders, the behavioral symptoms are an expression of prevailing cultural concerns.”  (253)  Fasting Girls is a fascinating examination of an illness that is fed heartily, if not altogether caused, by the myths of beauty and femininity to which we as a society subscribe.

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