allesfresser (allesfresser) wrote in ed_ucate,

discussion questions about / excerpts from 'Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa'

by Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

bold text added by me, for emphasis.
italicized text = my notes/questions/thoughts.

I am disquieted by the tendency to equate all female mental disorders with political protest. - pg.37
...the madhouse is a somewhat troubling site for establishing a female pantheon. To put it another way: as a feminist, I believe that the anorectic deserves our sympathy but not necessarily our veneration.

More recently, as the number of anorectics and bulimics has grown, some writers, in a well-intentioned but desperate attempt to dignify these all-too-frequent disorders, have tried to transform AN into the contemporary moral equivalent of the hunger strikes associated with early-twentieth-century English suffragists such as Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst.
Although some earnestly believe that AN 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. The suffragists had a specific political goal to achieve, at which point food refusal ended. In contrast, the anorectic pursues thinness unrelentingly (in the same way that a paranoid schizophrenic attempts to elude imagined enemies), but she has no plan for resumption of eating. If the anorectic'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. Anorectics, not known for their sisterhood, are notoriously preoccupied with the self. The effort to transform them into heroic freedom fighters is a sad commentary on how desperate people are to find in the cultural model some kind of explanatory framework, or comfort, that dignifies this confusing and complex disorder.

before reading this, i was unaware of any trend comparing modern anorectics to hunger-striking suffragists of the past century; it seems to me like a ridiculous comparison that i never would have drawn on my own.

Finally, there is a strain of cultural analysis that implicates recent social change in the etiology of anorexia nervosa, particularly increased educational, occupational, and sexual options for women. In The Golden Cage Hilde Bruch suggested such a connection. In 1978 she wrote: "Growing girls can experience. . .liberation as a demand and feel that they have to do something outstanding. Many of my patients have expressed the feeling that they are overwhelmed by the vast number of potential opportunities available to them . . . and [that] they had been afraid of not choosing correctly." Yet, as a sophisticated clinician, Bruch did not blame social change or feminism for AN. She understood that confusion about choices was only a partial explanation, for most young women handled the same array of new options with enthusiasm and optimism and did not develop the disease. Some antifeminists will still insist, however, that feminism is to blame for the upsurge in EDs. This interpretation usually asserts, incorrectly, that AN emerged for the first time in the late 1960s and 1970s, at the same time as the modern women's movement. To the conservative mind, AN might go away if feminism went away, allowing a return to traditional gender roles and expectations. The mistaken assumption is that AN did not exist in past time, when women's options were more limited. - 38-9

i don't know whether it's fair to generalize & attribute this theory/opinion to 'the conservative mind,' however, i definitely think that it's bollocks to figure that if 'feminism went away,' EDs would disappear. that sort of speculation seems futile/pointless anyway; it's impossible to predict what would happen if feminism had never been born, and what society would want/expect to experiment with taking it away??
and i only think a comparison of 'western' societies to current societies where women's rights are lacking and EDs aren't as common would be even -remotely- warranted [in this context of EDs] if the many other cultural, political, economic etc. differences were thoroughly considered...

In sum, the explanatory power of the existing cultural models is limited because of two naive suppositions: (1) that AN is a new phenomenon created by the pressures and circumstances of contemporary life and (2) that the disease is either imposed on young women (as victims) or freely chosen (as social protest) without involving any biological or psychological contribution. Ultimately, the current cultural models fail to explain why so many individuals do not develop the disease even though they have been exposed to the same cultural environment. This is where individual psychology as well as familial factors must come into play. Certainly, culture alone does not cause AN.

In order to understand AN, we must think about disease as an interactive and evolving process. - 40

After weeks or months of starvation the young woman's mind and body become acclimated to both the feeling of hunger and nutritional deprivation. This constitutes a second stage of the disorder. There is evidence to suggest that hunger pangs eventually decrease rather than intensify and that the body actually gets used to a state of semistarvation, that is, to a negative energy balance.* At some unidentified point in time, in certain girls, starvation may actually become satisfying or tension relieving--a state analogous perhaps to the well-known "runner's high." Certain individuals, then, may make the move from chronic dieting to dependence on starvation because of a physiological substrate as well as emotional and family stresses. This is where biochemical explanations (such as elevated cortisol levels in the blood or some other neuroendocrine abnormality) come into play. The fact that many anorectics seem unable to eat (or develop withdrawal symptoms when they begin to eat regularly) suggests that something biological as well as psychological is going on. - 40-1

*: the promise of this if one diets/restricts enough = dangerous, imho...may lead to girls/women/ppl trying to stick with extreme dieting and ending up in alternating restriction / b/p cycles or w/BN; or finding it's true that they adjust to being semistarved and sticking w/it (fasting), possibly developing AN. Or ED-NOS.

Obviously, only a small proportion of those who diet strenuously become addicted to it, presumably because the majority of young women have neither a psychic nor a biological need for starvation**. . . Yet in alcohol and drug dependence and in AN, there appears to be a correlation between the level of exposure and the prevalence of dependence. Simply put, when and where people become obesophobic and dieting becomes pervasive, we can expect to see an escalating number of individuals with AN and other EDs. - 41

**: OR they just aren't as determined to reach the crucial point where hunger ceases; or they don't want thinness as badly / aren't obsessive enough?? just playing 'devil's advocate.'
i don't mean to sound like i'm glorifying anorexia or claiming it's an elite group to which it's desirable to belong or not just any girl is equipped with the will power or coolness to qualify!
i'm a self-diagnosed bulimic, btw.
BUT i think that while it's true that not every young woman has the proclivity to develop AN, the pressure to be thin / prove oneself resistant to the rampant obesity in our society combined with the feeling that extreme dieting is a 'challenge' and if one can succeed at that 'game' then one will earn happiness / self-satisfaction is a recipe for encouraging (esp.) young women to strive for AN.
and i suppose that we in this comm differ greatly on how much/little we sympathize with the typical 'wanarexic.'

finally, do you find any of this - either what the author or i have written - offensive?
further thoughts/input?

i want to read more of this book but i find it difficult to take in all at once, in part b/c i'm an active bulimic and maybe also b/c i am in the middle of several books at once!

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