The Realities of Eating Disorders



From the very inception of the second wave, feminists have been guilty of idolising the anorexic body, considering it an emblem of that archetypal mantra ‘the personal is political’. Rather than presenting anorexia in its irreducibility, it has in the past been used to symbolise the impact of patriarchal culture.

In its parody of male dictates, it has been transformed in the eyes of feminists into a form of social protest – action rather than words against the cultural framework that it exists within. Indeed, the imagined anorexic ‘end product’ – a body lacking in breasts, hips, menstruation or “feminine” signifiers – is thought represent self-achieved freedom.

The Beauty Myth

In reality, though, the mystification of eating disorders disguises a far painful narrative of powerlessness. To quote Naomi Wolf in her near canonical ‘The Beauty Myth’,

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The anorexic may begin her journey defiant, but from the point of view of a male-dominated society, she ends up as the perfect woman. She is weak, sexless, and voiceless, and can only with difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate. The woman has been killed off in her.[1]

Whilst likely a relic of the hunger strikes of the early 20th Century suffragette movement, such idolisation can be traced back as far as the 18th Century, to those who were known as the ‘Fasting Women’.[2] These women would lie in bed without a morsel of food for weeks on end, transforming themselves through cultural mediation into religious idols and icons of pilgrimage or retreat.

Their perceived femininity set them apart from the male ‘hunger artist’ – an explicitly masculine spectacle of distortion, distinct from the elevated adoration of the female proto-anorexics. And it is undeniable such fantasies continue today. This is what now demands demystification, in order that such disorders may be seen in their reality, and that all sufferers be properly recognized and treated.

The Curse of the Ideal Woman


If asked to list the qualities of the ‘ideal woman’, many in the Anglo-centric west would reel off a characteristics along the lines of ‘pretty’, ‘slim’, ‘together’, ‘collected’ – namely, ‘not hysterical’. These are none of them attributable to the male figure, indeed, the very word ‘hysterical’ has its origin in the Greek word for ‘uterus’, the hysteric being she whose uterus has become dislodged, traveling about the body.

The ‘ideal body’ is intimately bound to the ideal of ‘self-control’: not being ‘too much’, avoiding excess. The fantasy is a package, so much more than simply ‘looking good’. Any loss of control over one’s self, functions, body or emotions, is thought to elicit shame. Specifically relevant here is the Western tradition of associating masculinity with mental ascension, and femininity with corporeality and immanence, subordinating the feminine associations to the masculine.

The Pressure to conform to the ‘masculine’

This is particularly relevant to women today, now that they are increasingly ‘admitted’ to previously ‘male’ spaces such as the office or business. The worldview taught these women remains ‘male’, resulting in even greater pressure upon women to conform to the ‘masculine’. The female, which is bodily, is abjected.


As such, the body becomes alien to the idealised mind; a fleshly imprisonment from which the mind desires transcendence. The ‘ideal’ body is primarily ideal in this Cartesian fantasy, abstracted from fleshly needs.

The excessively slender body has become culturally symbolic of minimalism and perfection in its removal from desire, whether voracious hunger or sexual insatiability. Note that in many advertising campaigns, female indulgence in food is equated with sexual indulgence and eroticism – something ‘naughty’, to be hidden.

Anorexic Self

Today this takes effect in the context of cultural postmodernism (post-war, post-nuclear, post-holocaust) – uncertainty and instability. The fantasy of the anorexic is one of both control and beauty, and, as we have learnt, these are often precisely the same thing. Both the inner and outer ‘self’ are linked in one and the same essential fantasy, creating a more ‘marketable’ self through appearance – she who is in control. Similarly, the anorexia sufferer in this climate of self-definition and self-actualization comes to adopt this ‘anorexic self’ as an identity, rather than view themself as a person who suffers from anorexia.

Whilst many condemn the anorexic, it is undeniable that this condemnation goes hand in hand with a sense of awe. “I could never just stop eating”, is something that I have regularly heard said, “I don’t know how they can do it”, with more than a pinch of admiration and envy. The fantasy exists within the disordered mind and community considerably more dangerously.

A disorder that threatens all order

Whilst the image tied to the ‘perfect body’ in mainstream currency is one of healthy control, the ideal within the community takes this to its extremity. The body is taken as exclusively an object for cultivation. Indeed, online communities of eating disorder sufferers post pictures of themselves and one another as means of ‘thinspiration’ for weight loss goals.

Often these photographs are headless body shots, taken entirely for purposes of bodily examination and desubjectification. The disorder is shot through with this notion of ‘cleanliness’, cleanliness from sin, sex, dirt, and bodily matter – anything connecting them to impurity.


Indeed Julia Kristeva, psychoanalyst and linguist, has drawn attention to this clean/unclean binary, the unclean being “what is out of place” and therefore threatening to the inside/outside binary.[3] Kristeva suggests that, culturally, we require the body to be “clean and proper in order to be fully symbolic”, bearing “no trace of its debt to nature”. The abject, then, produces feelings of insatiable loathing and disgust, in the subject’s inability to transcend their own body.

Kristeva discusses this in terms of the female body specifically, which, as Elizabeth Grosz has stated, is “constructed not only as a lack or absence but with more complexity, as a leaking, uncontrollable, seeping liquid; as formless flow; as viscosity, entrapping, secreting (…) a formlessness that engulfs all form, a disorder that threatens all order”.[4]

Bulimia Nervosa

The fantasy of the sufferer is one of bodily-effacement: to have the outer body reflect the inner turmoil of the mind. Odd, that the body is so central to such preoccupations, and yet never in history has humanity required the body less, given technological advances in industry. The body has come to assume rhetoric over function.

Whilst the results of these constructions speak for themselves, other equally debilitating disorders receive considerably less necessary attention, given the idealisation of the pure, anorexic form. The bulimic, for example, is excluded from the cultural image, eclipsed by the image of the anorexic. The figure evoked is one starkly distinct from that of anorexia, in its immersion within the bodily functions in repetition. As Marya Hornbacher, in her infamous account of her own struggle with disordered eating, describes:

Bulimia acknowledges the body explicitly, violently. It attacks the body but does not deny. It is an act of disgust and of need. (…) The bulimic finds herself in excess, too emotional, too passionate. This sense of excess is pinned to the body (…) There is a sense of hopelessness in the bulimic, a well-fuck-it-all-then, I might as well binge. This is a dangerous statement, for the bulimic impulse is more realistic than the anorexic because, for all its horrible nihilism, it understands that the body is inescapable.[5]

Anorexia and Bulimia


Sociology scholar Sarah Squire in her article ‘Anorexia and Bulimia: Purity and Danger’ demands a remapping of the realities of eating disorders, in a reconceptualization of the ‘eating disorder hierarchy’ and debunking the associated fantasies.[6]

One cannot help but notice, though, the erasure of binge eating from this triad, and, similarly, those suffering from EDNOS, whether this be meticulous calorie counting or orthorexia, similarly concentrating the body and its substances. Anorexia comes up trumps, with the remaining eating disorders serving as its ‘ugly sisters’.

Likewise, the image of the non-anorexic sufferer is erased from that archetypal image of feminist protest, given the invisibility of such disorders to the unsearching eye. Their suffering hidden and unacknowledged, often these disorders go without treatment or diagnosis.

Trying to Get the Facts Straight

Thus the ‘fantasy’ eating disorder not only isolates anorexia, but is also assumed reserved for young, white, middle-class girls. Indeed, the US-based website National Eating Disorders website reads that,

Exact statistics on the prevalence of eating disorders among women of color are unavailable. Due to our historically biased view that eating disorders affect only white women, relatively little research has been conducted utilizing participants from racial and ethnic minority groups.[7]

Such flippant addressal of this crucial issue is exasperating. Given that in many non-Western cultures the body type heralded is one other than the ultra-slim package of Hollywood and Anglo-centric media, non-white sufferers are regularly dismissed, their disorders going unrecognized. The assumption that one’s ideal conforms to that of their ethnic heritage results in non-white sufferers often feel a heightened shame in addressing their struggles, and often having them cast aside when make the decision to.

One sufferer has even reported being told by a medical professional that her disordered eating must of course stem from her stress at the potential prospect of a future arranged marriage, as opposed to any other, considerably more probable factor, such as the straddling of multiple cultures, unable either to unify their pressures or assimilate oneself into either or.

This is not just the case in terms of ethnicity, but also one of sexuality. When a woman with disordered eating is a lesbian, for example, perhaps identifying less with Western stereotypes of femininity, treatment may end up being inappropriate to their own experiences which are potentially more related to struggle with gender identity and homophobia rather than that presumed of media image and slenderness.

Acknowledging the realities of eating disorders

The need here is to recognize that the media and health services have misrepresented eating disorders to the general public, and as such are approaching the problem poorly and inappropriately.

This is a call, then, to acknowledge the realities of eating disorders in their multiplicity and diversity, debunking the fantasy of the ultra controlling, discretely admired, white women writing into patriarchal dictates, and allowing for treatment of the other, more common possibilities which may or may not be expected or accepted. The romanticisation of eating disorders, inherently tied to the notion of ‘white perfectionism’, must be demystified in favour something with full disclosure.

Learn more about Medicine or Eating Disorders

Are you a little disappointed by the occurrence of eating disorders among Women across cultures, ethnicity and society? Do you have an interest in Medicine and wish you could make it better? Attend our award-winning Medical Summer School Programme where you will learn about the advances made in the field of medical technology along with a progressive series of dissections to show how internal systems function and interact.

[1] Wolf, N. 1991, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. London: Vintage, p. 197.

[2] See Gooldin, S. 2003, ‘Fasting women, living skeletons and hunger artists: spectacles of body and miracles at the turn of a century’ in Body and Society, Vol. 9(2), 27-53.

[3] Kristeva, J. 1982, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 102.

[4] Grosz, E. 1994, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 203.

[5] Hornbacher, M. 1998, Wasted: a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. New York: Harper Flamingo, p. 153.

[6] See Squire, S. 2003, ‘Anorexia and bulimia: purity and danger’ in Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 18(40), 17-26.

[7] National Eating Disorders. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed on 1 April 2016].

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