Asceticism, differentiation, government : ‘anorexia nervosa’ as an achievement

Asceticism, differentiation, government : ‘anorexia nervosa’ as an achievement

By Gordon Tait

The Australian Sociological Association Conference (1992)

Introduction: From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries in Europe, it was not uncommon for young women to starve themselves to death. This fasting was done as a form of personal piety, and was lauded as an achievement. In Holy Anorexia, Bell suggests that these medieval women were suffering from a mental state ‘psychologically analogous’ to ‘anorexia nervosa’ . This paper will address that assertion.

Statistics would suggest that in contemporary western society, where lack of food is not generally a problem, significant numbers of young women are engaged in severe fasting practices. There are several sets of explanations for this behaviour, all of which centre around the pathological condition ‘anorexia nervosa’ . By this logic, young women lose such large amounts of weight because they are sick. Feminists have been quick to realise that accepting this paradigm as it stands, brings with it a lot of undesirable baggage. And yet, important though their work has been, generally their research has not problematised the use of the medical term ‘anorexia nervosa’ , nor has it altered the understanding of severe fasting amongst young women as a ` sickness’ or an ` epidemic’ . However, recent texts such as Brumberg’ s Fasting Girls (1988) and Robertson’ s Starving in the Silences (1992), have done precisely that. The purpose of this paper is to extend these critiques by historicising the fasting practices themselves.

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