Fasting and the female body : from the ascetic to the pathological

Pietro_Lorenzetti_001Fasting and the female body : from the ascetic to the pathological

Gordon Tait

Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 11(1). pp. 58- 75 (1999)


This paper will examine the literature on ‘anorexia nervosa’, and argue that it is underpinned by three fundamental assumptions. First, ‘anorexia nervosa’ is a reflection of the mismatch between true ‘inner self’ and the external ‘false self’, the latter self being the distorted product of a male dominated society. Second, the explanation for the severe fasting practices constitutive of ‘anorexia nervosa’ (a new social problem) is to be found within the binary opposition of resistance/conformity to contemporary cultural expectations. Finally, ‘anorexia nervosa’ is a problem which exists in nature (i.e., independently of analysis). It was eventually discovered, named and explained. This paper will problematise each of these assumptions in turn, and in doing so, it will propose an alternative way of understanding contemporary fasting practices.

The American Anorexia Nervosa Association defines ‘anorexia nervosa’ as a ‘serious illness of deliberate self-starvation with profound psychiatric and physical components’. It is regarded as a ‘complex emotional disorder that launches its victims on a course of frenzied dieting in pursuit of excessive thinness’ (Neuman and Halvorson, 1983:2). As well as ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’, ‘anorexia nervosa’ is also commonly referred to as a ‘disease’, a ‘sickness’, a ‘syndrome’ and a ‘condition’. The point here is obvious: young women lose such large amounts of weight because they are sick, hence titles such as Welbourne and Purgold’s (1986) The Eating Sickness. Consequently, the fasting practices so evident amongst young women are now almost always explained in terms of individual pathology, and the name of the pathological state is ‘anorexia nervosa’. The notion of ‘anorexia nervosa’ has now superseded all other explanations of why young women fast. It is utilised, fairly unproblematically, at every site and in every context where interest in the issue is expressed.

Click here to read this article from Women & Performance

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