the scene of the disordered senses (katconfessional) wrote in ed_ucate,
the scene of the disordered senses

On "Anorexic Elitism": An Article from Feminism and Psychology (Part I)

Eating Like an Ox: Femininity and Dualistic Constructions of Bulimia and Anorexia
Maree Burns
Feminism Psychology 2004; 14; 269

Anorexia brings with it the appearance and feeling of total control and almost
total denial. This stimulates pride, and a sense of achievement, perfectionism and
of being different (perhaps even better) than other people. Bulimia, on the other
hand, brings with it a feeling of being completely out of control. It is shameful in
its indulgent excesses, revolting in its final scenario (the vomit spattered toilet,
the streaming eyes, the stench). This stimulates guilt and self disgust. (McCarthy
and Thompson, 1996: 10.)

The behaviours that typify the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia1 do, at
first glance, seem to be radically opposed. One is characterized by self-starving
and the other by binge eating and purging. Although the diagnostic criteria
(see American Psychiatric Association, 2000) for the two disorders share many
features, such as desire for thinness, body dissatisfaction, and fear of weight gain,
they are (correspondent with that first glance) organized into distinct and separate
pathologies. Such categorization obscures any relatedness between the two
‘conditions’ and makes it difficult to conceptualize them, and the women2 who
practise them, as having much in common. Despite this, cultural theorists have
argued that eating too much and eating too little represent inseparable ways of
coping with a (western) culturally pervasive slenderness imperative (Girard,
2000; Lupton, 1996). Furthermore, bingeing is often described as a consequence
of extreme dieting (French and Jeffrey, 1994; Polivy and Herman, 1985) and
many women identified as anorexic also practise binge eating and purging
(Gleaves et al., 2000). Despite such overlaps, and in line with western culture’s
dualistic heritage, the practices of starving and binge/purging are considered
incongruent and invite oppositional constructions of the phenomena and of the
women who are diagnosed, or who identify, as bulimic or anorexic.

Drawing upon feminist poststructuralist theory (e.g. Gavey, 1989; McNay,
1992; Weedon, 1987), the aim of this article is to examine the ways in which
anorexia and bulimia are constructed in language in hierarchical opposition to
one another in a variety of sites, how cultural discourses of femininity play out in
these constructions and how some women who practise bulimia might be positioned
and regulated in relation to them. My concern is not with interrogating
whether bulimia and anorexia are or are not different from one another, but
rather with how we understand them as different and how this knowledge is inextricably
tied to assumptions about normative femininities. To contextualize
this examination I begin with a brief background of how eating disorders have
been framed in the media, in traditional psychological studies of lay and expert
opinion and in ‘critical’ literature on the topic. Following this I outline the
methodology and theoretical assumptions of this study. The texts that I then draw
upon for my analysis include examples from popular culture, ‘psy’ literatures,
health practitioners’ discourse, and accounts of women who practise bulimia.


The dualistic conceptual categorizations that characterize western epistemology
are far from neutral and always involve the assignment of moral meanings
(Gergen, 1995; Shildrick, 1996). One of the ways in which meanings are privileged
in discourse is via their hierarchical and oppositional relation with other
texts. Language contains implicit binaries in which one side of the opposition is
positioned as the key concept against which the other is defined negatively. For
example, value-laden connotations surround anorexia and bulimia in many locations
where eating disorders are discussed. Traditional psychological research on
lay beliefs about disordered eating has indicated that the ‘symptoms’ of anorexia
(dieting and the pursuit of slimness) are considered normal female concerns
(Levitt, 1997; Polivy and Herman, 1987) and that women with anorexia elicit
shocked admiration for their appearance and control (Branch and Eurman, 1980).
Bulimia (bingeing and purging) however, has popularly been judged as ‘unusual
behaviour’ and has been regarded as uncommon and abnormal (Huon et al., 1988:
239). Such dichotomous representations are also evident in the accounts of health
experts who associate ‘high achievement, perfectionism and self-control’ with
anorexia (Butler et al., 1990: 67) and characterize self-starving girls as ‘perfect
children, obedient, hard working, excelling academically, admired by their
teachers, and often confidants of their parents’ (Whyte and Kaczkowski, 1983:
91). In contrast, women with bulimia, generalizes psychotherapist Riebel (2000),
practise ‘a kind of rebellious selfishness’ and ‘break common rules of honesty
and civility’ (p. 183).

Within the psychological literature, popular culture and the media, eating
disorders generally, and anorexia in particular, have been receiving increasing
attention (Furnham and Hume-Wright, 1992; Murray et al., 1996; O’Grady and
El-Sobky, 1987; Theander, 2002). In the case of pop culture and the media,
anorexia has even been glamorized (Gordon, 2000; Habermas, 1992) to the point
where ‘an aura of golden gloss for females with anorexia nervosa exists to some
extent as a common public fiction’ (Andersen, 1999: 206). Unlike anorexia, with
its fashionable and glamorous associations, Andersen (1999) comments that there
is no such ‘gloss’ for women with bulimia. Instead, when bulimia is the subject
of popular attention, ‘it is often an object of fun’ (Gordon, 2000: 207) and
derision, or of pity.

Foucauldian informed critical scholarship in the area of women’s eating
disorders has highlighted the existence of these oppositional constructions of
anorexia and bulimia and the complex interweaving of notions of femininity in
their construction (e.g. Eckermann, 1997; Hepworth, 1999; Malson, 1998;
McKinnley, 1999; Saukko, 2000; Squire, 2003). This body of work has revealed
the dualistic hierarchical organization of autobiographical descriptions of selfstarving
and binge/purging and of representations of women who engage in these
practices. It has been noted that anorexic behaviours are often (but not always) construed
as indicative of an ultimate control: as the outcome of the mind successfully
transcending the physical desires of the potentially eruptive body (Bordo, 1993;
Garrett, 1998; Malson, 1998). Bulimia, by comparison, is negatively valued and
fairly consistently constructed as being out of control, abnormal, risky and disgusting
(Brooks et al., 1998; Lupton, 1996, 2000).

As this existing scholarship suggests and given the premise upon which this
article is predicated – that discourses are (re)produced in social institutions as
well as at the site of individual subjectivity (Weedon, 1987) – we can expect that
discourses which organize anorexia and bulimia in a hierarchical fashion will be
present in both the accounts of women with eating disorders and within other
cultural sites in which the phenomena are discussed. I have briefly highlighted
this in the traditional psychological research on lay and expert attitudes. As yet
there have been no examinations from a critical psychological perspective of the
ways in which anorexia and bulimia are constituted via their comparison within
expert discourse. Also absent has been any analysis of whether the dualistic constructions
embedded in authoritative discourses overlap with popular cultural
understandings and with women’s reports of their own eating disorder experi-
ences. This article addresses that gap in the literature by interrogating the dichotomous
discursive fictions that have built up around anorexia and bulimia and the
figures of the anorexic and bulimic woman, across several sites.


Participants and Procedure

In this article I investigate how women who practise bulimia and health professionals
in the field discuss bulimia and anorexia and the relationships/differences
between the two. My analysis draws upon the transcripts of semi-structured
interviews conducted with 15 women who reported binge eating and ‘compensating’
(vomiting, laxative abuse, exercising) on a regular basis. Most conformed
to the clinical criteria for bulimia but this was not formally assessed and was not
a requirement for participation. Eleven of the women identified as Pakeha,3 two
as Maori, one as Tongan and one as Fijian-Indian. Two-thirds of the women were
aged between 25 and 35. The interviews explored topics such as eating, compensating,
bulimia, anorexia, embodiment, gender, and femininity. In addition, 11
health professionals including psychiatrists, a general practitioner, clinical psychologists,
the director of an eating disorder community organization, a dietician,
a self-help group facilitator, and a psychotherapist were interviewed. All were
involved in work with women with eating disorders. This set of interviews
explored topics such as ‘aetiology’, diagnosis, treatment/prevention, gender, and
how anorexia and bulimia are related. All of the interviews were tape recorded
and transcribed verbatim.

In addition to these transcripts, and in order to contextualize these accounts, I
included two additional sources of data: items from the psychological literature
on eating disorders and items from popular culture. Although the collection of
these was not systematic (they were encountered during the course of this study
while conducting literature searches, watching television, using the internet, reading
magazines and so on), they have been included because they addressed
themes identified in the interviews. Their inclusion is valuable because they
represent authoritative and/or popular ways of describing these phenomena and
therefore form (part of) the discursive resources that constitute anorexia and
bulimia as a binarized hierarchy.

Theoretical Assumptions and Analysis

Fundamental to this article is the feminist poststructuralist principle that meaning
is constituted through language, which is always located in discourse and
inextricably connected to gendered power relations (see Gavey, 1989; Weedon,
1987). Indeed, my starting point for this analysis insists that anorexia and bulimia
do not exist independently of the discourses that describe them. There are there-
fore no truths to be uncovered about eating disorders or about the women who
practise them. Anorexia and bulimia are, instead, understood to be constituted by
the very knowledges that seek to depict and ‘know’ them. From this perspective
the fictions (composed of intricate weavings among psychological, expert,
individual, and popular cultural discourses) that have sedimented around these
categories of eating distress and around the women who populate these categories
(including the power relations they (re)produce), constitute the focus of my
critical analysis.

My analysis is iterative and focuses upon three interrelated areas of examination,
which are organized into separate sections. In the first section, informed by
a broadly conceptualized Derridian notion of textual analysis, I am concerned
with deconstructing the gendered hierarchical oppositions (see Jordanova, 1989;
Weedon, 1987) that structure language (e.g. male/female, mind/body, subject/
other, controlled/uncontrolled) and which have been shown by others to characterize
individual accounts and cultural representations of eating disorders (e.g.
Malson, 1998; Squire, 2003). More specifically, this stage of analysis involved a
careful reading of, and comparison between, the two sets of interview data and
the psychological and cultural examples. The purpose of this was to identify and
examine the themes around which bulimia and anorexia are positioned in a
dichotomous and hierarchical fashion.

In the second section, commensurate with Weedon’s (1987) charge that any
textual analysis that ‘fails to attend to questions of social context, particular interests
and power’ does ‘not meet feminist needs’ (p. 160) (see also Lather, 1991),
I am interested in the broader discursive fields and power relations that structure
the linguistic hierarchical oppositions I identify in the first section. Here, utilizing
a form of feminist poststructuralist discourse analysis (see Gavey, 1989;
Gavey and McPhillips, 1999; Potter and Wetherell, 1987), I include a discussion
of how wider cultural discourses of femininity are imbricated in binarized
descriptions of anorexia and bulimia. This level of analysis is interested in
the ways in which definitions of femininity imbue the categories, practices, and
identities that are associated with them, with meaning and value. The goal of this
strategy was to reveal the implicit privileging of certain ‘sides’ of the binaries in
order that the impact on constructions of bulimia and anorexia and bulimic and
anorexic women could be exposed and problematized.

In the third and final analysis section, from a position that assumes that women
with bulimia might encounter these lay and expert discourses concerning their
‘condition’, I analyse two excerpts taken from the larger collection of interviews
with women with ‘bulimia’. These extracts were selected on the basis that
they included discussions about anorexia and bulimia and about the participant’s
experiences of both. Here I examine how the accounts position the women in
relation to the binary logic of eating disorders that I have identified and discussed
in the first and second sections. Informed by poststructuralist ideas concerning
the discursive constitution of subjectivity (Henriques et al., 1984; Weedon,
1987), I discuss how dichotomous constructions of anorexia and bulimia provide
certain possibilities for the identities of women who practise bulimia and I
suggest some implications of these. This recognizes the possibility that anorexia
exists as a category against which women with bulimia might define themselves
given that, as Holliday and Thompson (2001) have suggested:

any definition of the self rests on the exclusion of the other. In order to know
what one is, one must first know what one is not. This ‘other’ is never ‘real’ as
such, but is rather a constructed fiction against which one can define oneself.
(p. 121)

A Note about Femininity

A central component of my analysis is the role played by discourses of femininity.
Femininity can be understood as an ideological construct around which
norms cohere about the way women should be. Discourses of femininity associate
specific qualities with being female and present these in opposition to those
held to be synonymous with masculinity (Weedon, 1987). Women who do not
conform to these ideals have traditionally been defined as deviant (McKinley,
1999). It is of course misleading to talk about femininity as if there were one
monolithic construction of it operating at any one time. Although at various
socioculturally, historically specific moments, different (sometimes contradictory)
femininities gain currency, these do not exert a hegemonic influence but
are constantly contested. Definitions of femininity are continually shaped in relation
to a variety of socially significant variables such as ethnicity, sexuality,
socio-economic status (among others) and are rendered meaningful within the
particular contexts in which they are located and according to the gendered,
classed and racialized power relations operating there.

Within Aotearoa New Zealand4 where this research was conducted,5 a variety
of discourses of femininity, including Maori and Pacific definitions of womanhood,
circulate. Not all are afforded the same amount of legitimacy, however.
In ways that presumably overlap with other English-speaking cultures where
similar western values dominate (and silence, marginalize, and colonize ‘other’
ways-of-being [Smith 1999]), the forms of femininity that tend to be privileged
in Aotearoa New Zealand include contemporary Pakeha middle-class discourses
of femininity. Broadly speaking, these encompass combinations of consumerist,
heteronormative, liberal humanist ideals within which discourses of beauty,
success, individuality, slenderness, and self-control occupy prominent positions.
These forms of femininity, while not constitutive of the subjectivities of all
women who are exposed to them (given the specificities of individual women’s
numerous positionings), powerfully infiltrate cultural sites and institutions in
ways that provide ‘templates’ or norms for ideal femininity. Against and through
these, many women will be judged, positioned, and regulated both by others and
by themselves. These sites include those from which this article draws examples,
such as popular culture, psychological literature, and expert and lay discourse on
the topic of eating disorders. Although western, middle-class definitions of
femininity can be located in these places, it is important to emphasize that, for
participants, a variety of other ‘knowledges’ about what it means to be feminine
and unfeminine might also be salient.

From this position, it is impossible to present an exhaustive analysis of the
multiplicity of ways in which participants took up or resisted the binarized discourses
of femininity that I analyse in the first sections of this article. Rather, I
examine the roles played by particular (largely western, middle-class) discourses
of femininity in the provision of dualistic ‘eating disordered’ positions around
which some women with bulimia are positioned. This does not render my analysis
idiosyncratic but emphasizes that the contingent, fluid and multiple nature of
discursive fields, and the complexities of socially significant markers of identity,
renders ‘conclusions’ across women impossible. At best, this analysis (like poststructuralist
discursive work generally) shows how certain styles of femininity,
present in cultural and individual texts that deal with the subject of eating disorders,
can (at times) be powerfully constitutive of subjectivity and practice for
some women with bulimia.


Control and Lack of Control

Eating disorders are currently conceptualized in the psychological literature as
issues of control. Bulimia is understood to represent a lack of control (Bruch,
1973) and anorexia quite the opposite: an over-control (Jarman et al., 1997). This
framing is also central to psychological measures of eating disordered behaviours
and, not surprisingly, characterizes the accounts of women with eating problems
(Brooks et al., 1998; Fontana, 1996; Malson, 1998; Surgenor et al., 2002) and the
descriptions provided by lay people (Benveniste et al., 1999; Ogden, 1997). The
following extract by Dr Hilda Bruch (1985), a pioneer in the study of eating
disorders, demonstrates that persisting constructions of women with bulimia as
uncontrolled were evident in psychological discourse on the subject almost two
decades ago:

They [women with bulimia] make an exhibitionistic display of their lack of control
or discipline, in contrast to the adherence to discipline of the true anorexics
. . . The modern bulimic is impressive by what looks like a deficit in the sense
of responsibility. Bulimics blame their symptoms on others; they may name the
person from whom they ‘learned’ to binge, in particular those who introduced
them to vomiting . . . from then on, they behave as completely helpless victims.
Though relatively uninvolved, they expect to share in the prestige of anorexia
nervosa. Some complain about the expense of their consumption and will
take food without paying for it. They explain this as due to ‘kleptomania’,
which indicates, like bulimia, an irresistible compulsion that determines their
behaviour. (p. 12)

Within Bruch’s account, bulimic women are constructed as lacking. They are
deficient in discipline, control, and a sense of responsibility, and embody a questionable
morality. Worse, they are at the mercy of their irresistible compulsions
in comparison with the ‘discipline of the true anorexics’. A representation of
bulimia as a ‘helpless’ and ‘exhibitionistic’ failure of control is clearly derogatory
and functions to idealize the discipline embodied by the ‘true anorexics’. In
Becca’s account that follows, this control/out of control dichotomy persists as a
construction around which bulimic and anorexic practices are made meaningful.

Extract 1

Becca: I think to get, to actually be an anorexic, you’d have to have like incredible,
supreme control, and just to get to that place, something inside you must just push you
there. Whereas I think with bulimia, it’s just (long pause) it’s a lot more common
because it’s like a, a humans are fallible, that’s what they do. They indulge and they try
to make up for it.

Becca’s account portrays anorexia as quite rare and as an outcome of having
‘incredible, supreme control’ whereas bulimia is constructed as an unremarkable
or as a predictable human behaviour. Becca’s language indicates that indulgence
and compensation are inevitable due to inherent human fallibility. Women with
anorexia have something extra that just pushes them there, which distinguishes
them from the weakness or indulgence embodied by bulimic women. In this
account just as in Bruch’s, anorexia is idealized as the epitome of control.

Success and Failure

Another way in which anorexia and bulimia were differentiated was around the
theme of success and failure. Here Fran distinguishes between ‘anorexics’ and
‘bulimics’ in terms of the kind of achievement represented by bodily control.

Extract 2

Fran: I almost feel that anorexics are the . . . are the successes /MB: Right/ Bulimics
are the failures (laughing).
MB: Why is that? Can you tell me a little bit about why you think that?
Fran: Well, anorexics can do it, I can’t I mean, I sort of feel like I’ve even failed at
being an anorexic (laughing).
MB: And so that would be the preferable way to be?
Fran: Oh yeah. Mm I would love it. I would really, really love it.
MB: So what is the um, what is the bulimia then if it’s . . .
Fran: Well, it’s sort of like, having given in. You know like having let your appetite
control you. You know whereas, anorexia’s a wonderful feeling of being in
control. Of, you know – not letting um, your hunger or anything else take
charge of you.

In this extract, the achievement and valuing of abstinence informs Fran’s separation
of bulimia and anorexia, rather than any psychological categorization.
Within individualistic cultures, to be controlled and successful is usually regarded
as highly desirable (Lupton, 1996; Thompson and Hirschman, 1995)
whereas to allow oneself to be overcome by one’s body is constructed as a moral
failing (Cooper, 1992). Fran represents the practices of bulimia as failure: as
her body and hunger taking over and taking charge of her. This is offered as an
example of unsuccessful personhood. The phrasing Fran deploys constitutes
herself as separate from her hunger or appetite, which are constructed as external
forces. This dichotomizing construction of eating or bingeing as the body overcoming
the self has also been noted by Malson (1997) in the accounts of women
who self-starve. According to a hierarchical and dichotomous construction of
indulging one’s appetite as ‘the body out of control’ and not eating as ‘the body
in control’, bulimia and anorexia are represented as failure and success.

This framing of anorexia as success and bulimia as failure was also located in
the talk of health professionals as indicated by a psychiatrist’s comments below.

Extract 3

Jill: They’re [women with anorexia] overachievers – are often – well they’re high
achievers and (long pause) they’re quite driven a lot of them, they have a
certain um (long pause) they have a persistence that allows them to be anorexic.
You’ve actually gotta be . . . quite good at . . . controlling yourself to be
anorexic. Most people can’t manage it . . . ah, there’s a certain persistence
about them that ah, most people don’t have and – so they do have certain
personality qualities – you know quite obsessional and . . . driven that allow
them to succeed at anorexic – if you can succeed as an anorexic whereas I
think a bulimic, you know, you could consider a bulimic as a failed anorexic.

In an almost admiring fashion, Jill portrayed ‘anorexic women’ as overachievers,
driven, persistent, and good at controlling themselves. These adjectives, when
taken out of the context of describing anorexia, depict what would be considered
a collection of desirable characteristics belonging to a successful individual in
western cultures (see Rose, 1996). Indeed, in Jill’s account, the types of women
who succeed at anorexia embody the rare but socially admired qualities of selfactualized
subjecthood. Anorexia is therefore perversely represented as an exemplar
of much that is desirable. Jill’s description of bulimics as ‘failed anorexics’
poignantly echoes Fran’s self-description, and serves to portray women with
bulimia as at least lacking in those desired qualities, if not embodying all of the
opposite negative characteristics.

Greed versus Abstinence

A differentiation between anorexia and bulimia was also achieved through attributions
of greed and physicality to bulimic behaviours, and transcendence and
restraint to those characterized as anorexic.

Extract 4

Rosie: I used to think that bulimics were um . . . were greedier and I used to think that
it was really bad to be bulimic but it was OK to be anorexic, because it was um
bulimia was like a greedy type of behaviour like you’d eat and then you’d be
sick whereas anorexia they just didn’t eat at all. I always wanted to be like that
[. . .] bulimia is is a more um, is a more physical thing, you actually have to
physically go and find somewhere that you can throw up your food and you
have to do it and then you have to sort of . . . come back in and carry on doing
what you were doing. Sometimes you’d be in company and other times you
wouldn’t, whereas anorexia is . . . I mean, there is no physical doing, you just,
you just don’t eat.

Rosie describes the ‘doing’ of bulimia as socially disruptive due to the act of
eating and self-induced vomiting, which requires removing oneself from social
situations and finding somewhere to throw up. Her description of the physicality
of bulimia contributes to a construction of it as somehow more bodily or more
embodied than anorexia. It involves being greedy, eating and being sick whereas
anorexia seems to transcend the base functions of the body because ‘there is no
physical doing’, ‘you just don’t eat’. A framing of bulimia as greedy and physical
in this account is what contributes to its construction as ‘bad’ and less ‘OK’
than anorexia.

Women’s bodies have historically been regarded as sites of ‘unwellness’ and
infirmity (Showalter, 1987; Ussher, 1992) so when Rosie describes bulimia as a
‘more physical thing’, it is more easily characterized as sick. Pathologizing
representations of the excessive nature of bulimia can also be found in historical
and contemporary psychological literature where binge eating is characterized as
‘rapid and grotesque eating orgies’ (Russell, 1979: 443), and ‘seeking oblivion at
the trough’ (Riebel, 2001: 40). These descriptions both sexualize and dehumanize
binge eating in ways that are easily incorporated into narratives of female
deviance that depend upon lurid representations of the leakiness of women’s
bodies (Creed, 1993; Grosz, 1994). It seems less congruent to ascribe what is
more easily characterized as the aloof self-controlled and contained body
(Lupton, 2000; Malson, 1998) of the woman who refuses to eat in the same way.
This is reflected in popular culture where there is an almost voyeuristic obsession
with, and sensationalizing of, women’s binge eating (e.g. Bishop, 2001). While
introducing a guest and describing her past eating difficulties, Kim Hill, a popular
radio host, focussed on the shocking disclosures in her guest’s book, thereby
(re)producing a cultural fascination with the ‘feminine grotesque hysterical body’
(Lupton, 1996: 110). Rather than describing her guest’s ‘recovery’, Hill (2000)
told how she ‘stole food from work friends, she gorged on unthawed cakes
straight from the freezer, she took meals from the food trolley at the old folk’s
home where she worked’.


Popular cultural representations of women’s deviant appetites are not confined to
prescriptions about appropriate eating but are infused with sexual themes whereby
women’s desire for food is often conflated with, and substituted for, desire for
sex (Bordo, 1993). This is also evident in psychological discourse. The diagnostic
features for women who binge/purge institutionalize a conflation between
unseemly indulgence and pathology (e.g. Wiederman, 1996). Women with
bulimia are described as more likely to have ‘impulse-control problems, to abuse
alcohol or other drugs, to exhibit more mood lability, and to be sexually active’6
(American Psychiatric Association, 1994: 541, italics added). They ‘may be quite
promiscuous’ (Abraham et al., 1985: 72) and are considered to ‘experience their
first romantic/erotic encounters at a younger age’ (Morgan et al., 1995: 68), ultimately
having difficulty developing age-appropriate sexual identities (Meades,
1993). In contrast, women who starve are characterized both in popular culture
(Restifo, 1988), and psychological discourse, as ‘having difficulty negotiating
heterosexual relationships, ultimately retreating from, or rejecting, the inevitably
of becoming a sexually mature woman’ (Morgan et al., 1995: 68).

This theorized relationship between sexuality and bulimia within mainstream
psychology deserves mention because value-laden notions of what constitutes
‘appropriate’ feminine sexuality (i.e. heterosexuality structured around male
desire and a coital imperative [see Gavey, in press]) saturate these discussions
and work to pathologize sex/ualities outside this frame as Abraham and
Llewellyn-Jones (1995) demonstrate:

Bulimia nervosa patients are frequently sexually assertive, their sexual behaviour
mirroring their eating behaviour. Their level of sexual activity is associated
with an increased risk of pregnancy and a higher rate of induced abortion.
More bulimic women than age-matched women masturbate to orgasm, have
orogenital sex or anal intercourse and reach orgasm regularly. (p. 283)

These descriptions conflate eating with sexual activity and indicate the negative
way in which those women who indulge (in non prescriptive ways) either of these
appetites, are construed.

Notions of compulsory heterosexuality and its enmeshment in discourses of
consumption are also evident in popular culture as illustrated by the title of a
recent autobiography Good Girls Do Swallow (Oakes-Ash, 2000). Eating and a
particular type of sex are similarly evoked by understandings of swallowing as
both ingesting food and as an activity that should occur when a woman performs
fellatio. Although it seems to disrupt traditional notions of femininity that
prescribe control around food and sex, the title simultaneously reinstates the
importance of a certain type of sex. Heterosexuality is privileged, and the kind of
sex that the ‘good girl’ engages in is structured around his pleasure. Clearly, in
terms of food and sex, the ‘good girl’ (unlike the over- or under-eater) lets in
prescribed amounts of both.

In the following account Sue (a psychologist) deploys a similar, although more
ambivalent representation of women who have bulimia. In her attempts to
account for how women with anorexia and bulimia differ, she describes women
who binge/compensate as more sensual and more appetitive.

Extract 5

Sue: She [friend with bulimia] just loved to eat. She was a very sensual person and
she loved to eat and she liked to to sleep with strange guys (laughs) and you
know I mean she she she / MB: yeah / she um she she really lived and and she
couldn’t bear putting on weight so she used to vomit.

Sue’s anecdote reproduces a notion of women with bulimia as more indulgent
than women with anorexia. By qualifying her statements with an almost admiring
‘she really lived’, Sue’s account avoids the pathologizing framing that
appears in psychological discourse concerned with the sexual appetites of
‘bulimic’ women. Her construction is more ambiguous and simultaneously draws
upon some valued and more agentic notions around women’s (heterosexual)
desire and getting the most out of life. However, by highlighting her friend’s
sensuality, love of eating and that she liked to have sex with ‘strange guys’, as
somehow implicated in her eating and purging behaviour, Sue also characterizes
her friend in ways that are consistent with ‘bad girl’ (hetero)sexuality. She is
represented as a woman who does not show restraint but seeks and enjoys
physical pleasures. This ‘bad girl’ sexuality is in direct contrast with the (albeit
exaggerated) ‘good girl’ sexuality exemplified by the figure of the ‘anorexic’
woman who is constructed as having limited sexual experience and desire.

At this point my analysis indicates that women who practise bulimia and professionals
working in the field draw upon notions (shown also to be present in
popular culture and psychological literature) of control, success, restraint, and
abstinence, in their representations of anorexia and self-starving. Bulimia, by
contrast, has been constructed negatively as indulgence, failure, unrestrained
desire, greed, and deviance. Commensurate with postructuralist conceptualizations
of the complex and potentially contradictory nature of discourses, the following
section demonstrates that anorexic bodies and practices do not have one
fixed meaning but can be theorized at the junctures between many discourses (see
also Malson, 1998). In what is a departure from the pattern that has been identified
so far, in the next section anorexia is positioned on the opposite side of the
eating disorder binary. Here it is constructed in extremely negative terms as a
‘hateful parody’ (Gordon, 2000: 204) of the cultural slender imperative.


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