A Perfect Loathing: The Feminist Expulsion of the Eating Disorder

Stephanie Houston Grey, Louisiana State University


In Kenneth Burke's Language as Symbolic Action, it is suggested that communities build internal cohesion by negating portions of their constituencies in rituals of purification.  Over the past thirty years these dynamics have been evidenced in the role that eating disorders have played in the development of contemporary feminist consciousness.    While key feminist authors have been framing these conditions for the larger public, the manner in which anorexia and bulimia have been projected through these writings has become increasingly problematic.

This article deploys Burke's frameworks of purgation and negation to explore the dynamics of a changing narrative within the feminist community and the consequences of that narrative for those identified as having an eating disorder.  With the spread of American culture world-wide, eating disorder and feminism have both 'gone global’ intensifying and complicating debates about diversity and authenticity.  Thus, new emerging frames of reference may make possible a recasting of this troubled relationship.

ONE OF THE EARLIEST TEXTS to make the connection between food and feminist consciousness was Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman (1969). It is revealing to note that Atwood, who would become iconic for dramatizing feminist issues within her fiction, chose to inaugurate her career by exploring women’s struggles with consumption. Forging an authentic relationship to food, including detangling its complicated relationship with consumer culture, the health and beauty industry, and the patriarchy, has long been at the heart of the feminist project; meanwhile, Western culture, led by the United States, has seen rates of obesity on the rise, even as the cult of the thin grows more permeating.  Caught in the frenzy, stigmatized from all directions, those identified as eating disordered find no public stance that others may accept.  Their condition is all the more poignant in that, potentially, they may reveal the unsustainable paradoxes of consumption that are etched visually into their bodies and made physical by their apparent inability to simply enjoy and digest. This paper explores their plight as made manifest in discourse, especially key texts in feminism, the movement that once seemed poised to come to the aid of these abject but has instead turned on them, accusingly.

At the end of The Edible Woman, the main character Marian bakes a cake representing her body and leaves it in the hands of her male suitors, who devour it.  Atwood is scrutinizing the way that women’s bodies have themselves been offered as products for heterosexual male consumption and that the reclamation of these bodies is central to freeing the mind from patriarchal control.  Emerging at almost the same time was the first modern, encyclopedic treatise on eating disorders. Psychologist Hilde Bruch (1973) connected the dieting pressures placed on young women to the explosion in the diagnoses of anorexia nervosa, adding this insight to her clinical assertions that eating disorders also illustrated compromised childhood development.  As expert conversations about eating disorders moved to center stage in the public culture, second wave feminism coalesced into a distinct cultural force that transformed dominant understandings of eating disorders as a manifestation of troubled psychology into a political issue. During the following decades, feminist explanations for anxieties about the body and consumption, and eating pathologies affecting women went virtually unquestioned in American culture.  Kenneth Burke (1989) observed that attempts to overturn orthodox understandings are often enacted against a mythic backdrop.  Using set, stage, and critical agon, major intellectual shifts are constituted as high dramas, albeit at times hidden within their literal vocabularies.  Following Burke’s reading of the function of culture, it becomes clear that certain questions have been obscured within the historical association between feminism and eating disorders.  First, where may we see this mythic force and what does it look like?  Second, what dynamics have marked the historical transformation marking eating disorders as a nexus of the personal and political?  Third, what has been the impact of this political appropriation for those identified with these conditions?

Unlike most mental illnesses, eating disorders are widely believed to be contracted by transmission, not unlike a virus, from either from one sufferer to another or from elements of popular culture. Today, the most resonant of contemporary feminist observations about eating disorders targets the beauty industry’s marketing strategies, particularly the argument that overly thin models constitute a source of contagion through which these conditions are spread. Naomi Wolf (1991) puts it in stark terms, writing, “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement: the beauty myth” (10).  This argument, which has moved beyond the academy to become a cultural commonplace, suggests that women, who are subjected to higher standards of thinness than men, are victimized by a misogynistic cosmetic and clothing industry that strikes at the core of their self-esteem and renders their bodies objects for commercial consumption.  Jean Kilbourne’s influential lecture series Killing Us Softly is one of many examples of counter-campaigns designed to reverse the effects of the beauty industry.  More importantly, most undergraduates are able, without prompting, to correlate these images of air-brushed models to eating disorders.  Wolf (1994) also asserts that beauty standards are issues of power, writing that “the cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female control” (97).  As women navigate the public and professional spheres, their status as objects of desire delegitimizes any serious goals that they might achieve.  This issue of control and resistance to control has blended seamlessly with the discourse surrounding eating disorders.  As Eve Browning Cole states, “Constant dieting, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, compulsive exercising, and (not least of all) enormous cash investments in beauty and fashion, are all symptomatic of the power of the cultural ideal” (66).  Fashion magazines, particularly those directed at teenagers, portray female bodies that are unrealistic, establishing standards of beauty that are beyond reach.  These authors and many before them share the assumption that eating disorders constituted a symbolic contagion, and that a systematic political response was required to combat them.

Unrecognized in this shift from understanding eating disorders as a manifestation of troubled child development to a result of the beauty industry run amok is the way that strategies of political empowerment were blended and transformed with those of political containment. Throughout his work Burke explored the dynamics of linguistic identification, the process through which communities organize and reorganize themselves through deeply entrenched symbolic dynamics.  These undercurrents sometimes surface through redemptive rituals of purgation, purification, perfection and transformation.  At the core of these sub-currents resides the essential counter-dynamic of linguistic negation.  Burke observes that “definition is a symbolic act” that blends the differentiation of symbols with cultural admonitions and that negation is the driving force connecting “thou shall” and “thou shalt not” (Language as Symbolic Action 44).  During times of stress and transformation, communities enact these redemptive rites by “projecting” a symbolic container of pollution.  This projection is “the curative process that comes with the ability to hand over one’s ills to a scapegoat, thereby getting purification by disassociation” (Philosophy of Literary Form 202-203).  He warns that “the principle of perfection in this dangerous sense derives sustenance from other primary aspects of symbolicity.  Thus, the principle of drama is implicit in the idea of action, and the principle of victimage is implicit in the nature of drama” (Language as Symbolic Action 18).  Drama is therefore not complementary or external to literal political enactments, but constitutes the substance of these acts.  As communities constantly strive to perfect the images and ideas around which they are built, they also negate and thus purge elements that have some projected association with their own substance.  During key moments of political transformation, these redemptive rites embody the counter-veiling forces of identification and separation in such a way that participants may act unconsciously to purge and contain potential elements of their own imagined constituency—a process that can have negative consequences for the scapegoated group that is marked and isolated.  Thus, as communities seek to realize some desirable telos endemic to the vocabularies they embrace, the drive to perfect these ideological lexicons has a profound effect on the cartographies of exclusion that mark all political units.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s the eating disorder became so thoroughly integrated with ruminations over the hyper-visual, artificial commercial culture that cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1989) used the metaphor of the anorexic to characterize this two-dimensional glut.  The eating-disordered subject was no longer a real person in the traditional sense, but an inauthentic extension of this commercial economy of illusions.  When Burke observed that containment strategies driven by symbolic negation result in the creation of new social hierarchies he went on to suggest that the ultimate example of this ritual negation is embodied by those moments where “being” is contrasted with “non-being” (On Symbols 269).  During the late 1980s, as eating disorders gradually moved from the therapeutic realm to that of cultural and political criticism, representations of the eating-disordered person underwent a problematic transformation.  While this transformation was part of a larger, ongoing cultural process, a prominent locale for this shift came in the new ways that some feminist authors began to define these conditions.  Certainly the insights into both the cultural context and therapeutic culture surrounding eating disorders made by many feminist theorists have been extremely valuable in providing new vocabularies for managing eating disorders. However, at a key juncture in this history a paradigmatic change occurred when the discourse of liberation shifted dramatically to that of containment.  Most important to this reversal was feminist philosopher Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight (1995), a work with a broad influence that has extended into the new century.  As it projected the eating-disordered person as a symptomatic outgrowth of patriarchal repression that had to be contained in order to facilitate women’s empowerment, this book provoked a conflicted, even combative, relationship between feminism and the eating disorder through which the body became a site not of reclamation, but expulsion.  The present essay explores this intellectual shift as a symbolic drama in which rituals of perfection and self-realization became guiding dynamics in quarantining and stigmatizing the eating-disordered person.  First, this piece investigates how the eating disorder became a central metaphor in the gender equality debates of the 1970s and 1980s.  Next, it examines the strategic negation of the eating-disordered person within this political context as the anorexic/bulimic subject was transformed into a projection of patriarchal visual codes.  Finally, this work discusses the political and social ramifications of the containment strategies through which the eating-disordered person was symbolically purged as a non-woman (indeed a “non-being”) and ultimately as a patriarchal tool.  Only by understanding the history of the eating disorder as a product of dramatistic motive can the contours of isolation and stigma associated with these conditions be appreciated.

The Transformation of Eating Disorders into Metaphor for Woman’s Struggle

Burke observed that ritual drama is the focal point for all dynamic symbolic and intellectual activity, functioning as an “Ur-form or hub for all human action” (PLF 134). Not relegated to the primitive, these conflict-driven enactments remain submerged within literal discourses that subsequently shape a milieu. The Burkean template is such a powerful tool for analysis because of its capacity to find within these dramas more than mere symbolic abstraction, drawing connections instead to the sphere of practice. In this framework, the agents in these dramas enact formal structures and, in turn, are impacted by discourse in material ways.

As eating disorders came to occupy the public’s attention during the 1970s with high profile celebrity cases such as Karen Carpenter, these conditions were quickly appropriated by many feminist scholars as essential components in understanding women’s modern experience.  These conditions inspired a generation of therapists, led in part by the influential Susie Orbach, to create a new type of treatment that blended traditional psycho-dynamic approaches with narratives of political empowerment.  From this standpoint, patients’ resistance to their disease was sublimated in a program designed to encourage them to assert their political status and independence from a repressive regime.  This fusion of the therapeutic and the political was also fueled by confessional moments in the work of high-profile feminist authors.  The subsequent drama enacted through this literature would become integral to our understandings of both eating disorders and feminism as uniquely related, consubstantial issues.

Perhaps most interesting about the appropriation of eating disorders is the extent to which they have become the “women’s disease,” conditions that are so universal to women’s experience that, even if individual women do not develop full-blown pathologies, all suffer the negative consequences of weight neuroses. Notice how seamlessly Orbach (1986) makes this connection:

There are those women who are constantly dieting and consistently limiting their food intakes, there are those women who diet during the week then let themselves go at weekends, there are those women who do not eat until suppertime…there are those women who consistently plan to diet but end up over eating every time they start to eat something (compulsive eaters); and there are those women who try to avoid food at all costs (anorectics). The adaptations are endless and women vary in their responses (61).
She then suggests that for millions of women “food is a combat zone, a source of incredible tension, the object of the most fevered desire, the engenderer of tremendous fear, and the recipient of a medley of projections centering round notions of good and bad” (62).  As they have lost control over the ways that their bodies are represented, women must now constantly battle to meet normative standards that are both unrealistic and beyond their ability to set.


It is not surprising that, for many early authors who write in this vein, confession is a powerful discourse for marking female bodies as political subjects, since as a narrative form it is deeply tied to the assumption that the personal is political. These assumptions about commonalities in experience moved away from biological essentialism to support the notion that women shared the same problems and conditions, a unity that had been denied by the patriarchy’s fragmentation and reduction of gender.  Sheila Collins writes, “We came to learn that the problems we thought were purely personal—that we thought were due to our own peculiar upbringing or to our own inabilities or neuroses were in fact, shared by every other woman” (363).  The experience of the eating disorder or related issues dealing with food was one arena where these commonalities could be located and to some extent exploited, as the patriarchal enemy galvanized women’s experience into a general theory of sexual politics and shared interests.  This focus on the private sphere as extension of the political had a profound impact on the ways that eating disorders came to be recognized within the feminist community.  Sandy Friedman asserted that male-based language “forces women either to deny their own experiences or to reframe them in male-defined language.  Reinforcing only the male perspective makes women feel that the very way that they speak is wrong and that the stories they tell are trivial” (290).  The feminist strategy of inserting narratives from the private sphere into the political realm to establish authenticity has translated quite easily into the realm of food disturbances.  In fact, both discussions emerged concurrently in the late 1960s.  The link between individual trauma and commonality in experience represented by eating disturbances became a natural conduit for this discourse of the personal made public, legitimating the anorexic/bulimic experience as symbolic of women’s experience in general and illustrative of the challenges that they had to overcome.

Growing from the dramatic linkage between food consumption and female emancipation within feminism has been a culture of confession in which individuals find entry into the “women’s community” by discussing the pressures levied against them by the diet industry.  The most vivid moments of oppression and subsequent awakening for many white, middle class women often center upon issues of weight and appearance.  Gloria Steinem (1983) notes that the most powerful moment in her young adulthood was her recognition that she possessed an eating disorder, a realization that led to an interrogation of her own internalization of sexist values.  An eating disorder, from this standpoint, becomes a rite of passage or admission into a community—an experience that signifies that you have suffered as your sisters have and can purify yourself through confession.  It is not surprising that Wolf, who made manifest “the beauty myth,” would also share similar occurrences in her life:

It is dead easy to become Anorexic.  At 13, I was taking the caloric equivalent of the food energy available to the famine victims in the siege of Paris.  My doctor put his hands on my stomach and said he could feel my spine.  I turned a cold eye of loathing on women who evidently lacked the mettle to suffer as I was suffering.  Adolescent starvation was, for me, a prolonged reluctance to be born into womanhood if that meant assuming a station of beauty (102-103).
Containing most of the commonplaces of the female experience of anorexia, Wolf’s account is very instructive because it presumes a commonality of experience among all women.  Like many accounts of religious conversion, a deluded existence is replaced by a higher level of consciousness—in this case, rejecting the anorexic/bulimic identity for a more authentic mode of political awareness.


As this drama evolved, it spawned a body of scholarship that interrogated the obsession with the control and management of the female body in popular culture.  After critiquing Victorian assumptions about feminine hysteria, among the next goals of many contemporary feminist thinkers was to disengage eating-disordered individuals from the realm of individual psychopathology and discuss them as socio-political phenomena, particularly as casualties of the consumer culture obsessed with the shape and size of women (Hepworth & Griffin 1990).  For the past thirty years, media critics have examined the roles that fashion magazines, the beauty industry, and icons such as Barbie Dolls, play in creating unrealistic body expectations in young women and, by extension, eating disorders (i.e. Spitzack 1993; Kilbourne 1995; Wolf 1991).  This abundance of research is designed to demonstrate that the recent increase in the occurrences of eating disorders is a predictable outcome of media campaigns that imprison women in their own bodies, thus exposing the negative impacts that such representations have on self-perceptions (Botta 2000; Harrison 2000) as well as revising therapeutic approaches to the treatment of women who display consumptive pathologies (Gremillion 2002).  Robin Morgan laments, “We have no bodies either because they are defined, posed, abused, veiled, air-brushed or metaphorized by men” (53).  The eating-disordered person and her treatment became a projected template upon which to ritually contest this oppression. 

Burke notes that frameworks of acceptance and rejection emerge from particular political contexts.  During key points in history, he notes, “Our philosophers, poets, and scientists act in the code of names by which they simplify or interpret reality.  These names shape our relations with our fellows.  They prepare us for some functions and against others, for or against the persons representing these functions” (ATH 4). The cultural revolution that defined feminism in the 1960s and 70s revolved around the idea that personal enlightenment was the first step toward challenging the destructive policies and perceptions of patriarchal false-consciousness.  In the case of food, Kim Chernin (1981) described a prison constructed from “our culture’s tendency to encourage women to retreat from strength and physical abundance into a sinister self-reduction” (182).  It is important to note that this appropriation locates the eating disorder as a site of conflict, translating these conditions into the critical agon of an ongoing quest for perfection ultimately realized by political empowerment and self-determination.  While this pathway could be understood as a personal journey, these journeys shared certain key elements.  To understand the personal as political meant to apply shared political frameworks to the subjective lifeworld.

Most important to this historical appropriation, eating disorders became a projected site for the enactment of women’s struggle for independence.  Since eating disorders present a false consciousness that must be corrected, a patient’s reticence to alter her behaviors is often viewed as a resistance to appropriate gender identity.  This frustration is illustrated in Orbach’s work where she suggests that anorexia expresses ambivalence toward gender identity.  She writes, “Sexual identity is an aspect of gender identity so that in rejecting models of sexuality one is simultaneously rejecting models of femininity” (183).  The anorexic’s resistance to her own femininity was graphically illustrated in the popular literature of the late 1970s surrounding this topic.  Lui, for example, describes her disgust with her gender in the most visceral terms: “I grab my breasts, pinching them until they hurt.  If I could only eliminate them, cut them off if need be to flat chested like a child again” (79).  What emerges is a type of opposition between feminism as the acceptance of femininity and the eating disorder as a pathological rejection of femininity.  Along with descriptions of the way the female body is appropriated by the beauty culture, a discourse for reclaiming the body as a site for authentic feminine experience also emerged.

Through these key texts, eating disorders were projected as a sphere against which the empowerment of the feminine could be enacted.  Anorexia can thus be seen as a form of protest by turning the body into a creative palimpsest on which pain can be inscribed and represented.  One key to using the eating-disorder body as a site for critique is finding ways to heal the fractures between self and representation that define it.  This notion plays a significant role in feminist understandings and responses to eating disturbances.  Miriam Greenspan (1983) asserts, “As long as woman is essentially defined by her body and as long as her body is appropriated by men, she will always have the problem of female identity” (181).  Yet it is important to note that even as these authors appropriated the eating disorder as a political issue, they also maintained a humane, empathetic relationship to these conditions.  Orbach (1986) noted that politicizing the eating disorder might have therapeutic value since, if “we begin to see the anorexia as an attempt at empowering, and food refusal as the action of one whose cause has been derogated, dismissed or denied,” then, “there is an urgency and a strength in the refusal to eat.”  She continued, “To see the anorectic’s food refusal as a hunger strike is to begin the process of humanizing her actions” (102).  Thus, almost as soon has she had appeared on the public stage, the eating-disordered subject became one of the primary actors in the drama to empower women and legitimate their experience.  One sees in Orbach’s work a reverence for the anorexic even as she labored to turn her patients’ energies toward more productive forms of protest and resistance.  While Orbach suggested that the eating-disordered subject possessed a certain agency through her refusal to eat, a new generation of scholars would largely desert this position as they explored the philosophical and socio-historical significance of the eating disorder for women.  After the anorexic’s appropriation into the body-politic of the feminist community, the stage was set for her to become the subject of ritual purgation as this developing political entity embraced lexical strategies to perfect itself.

Purification and the Eating Disordered as Patriarchal Agent

By the late 1980s the eating disorder had become firmly established as one of the primary signs of women’s struggle for political consciousness.  It functioned as persuasive evidence for the negative impact of patriarchal images and discourse on women’s lives.  Yet, as the next decade came into finer relief, the dramatic dynamics began to shift from appropriation to purification.  Burke observed that symbolic motive is driven by a will to perfection that can be achieved only by systematic negation (Language as Symbolic 145).  This leads to critical junctures where elements of one symbolic domain are purged, facilitating a reorganization of the remaining components in a new symbolic hierarchy.  This clarification (and here the term clarification is used in the technical sense—the reduction of elements to their essential form) of terms leads to a new and more powerful “curative unification” (PLF 219).  As the eating disorder entered into the realm of cultural critique proper, these individuals were gradually read as cultural symptoms or ancillary extensions of other political forces.  This process occurred during a discrete period of time within certain portions of the feminist community where the eating disorder was reduced to a mimetic spectacle that, rather than producing its own original voice, simply spoke through an artificial form of perverse mimicry of commercial culture.  Once the connection between the eating disorder and the artificial was established, this led to the symbolic containment rituals of purification which the clarified  the feminist enterprise through the projection of the eating disorder as an entity that was at once an agent provocateur of the patriarchy and a two-dimensional non-being.  As the eating disorder had become a stage upon which feminine emancipation was enacted, a new generation of scholars began to characterize eating disorders as inauthentic non-beings who had to be quarantined.

This process was gradual.  Caroline Walker Bynum’s (1987) Holy Feast Holy Fast and Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s (1988) Fasting Girls, following Bruch’s lead, explored the relationship between practices of religious fasting (anorexia mirabilis) and modern anorexia.  Unlike Bruch, however, each would recast this history as concerned with political authenticity and voice.  For Bynum, anorexia mirabilis, rather than misdiagnosed anorexia, was a legitimate form of self-expression with motives set in contrast to the modern disease paradigm.  She considers cases such as that of Julian of Norwich as well as a host of other Christian anchorites who used fasting as a legitimate means for communing with Christ.  Unlike the modern anorexic who attempts to mimic the diet and fashion models, the “miracle maidens” recognized that women had a deeply entrenched symbolic connection to food and by performing their sacred roles in particular ways, they could gain social status.  Bynum writes, “They manipulated their families, their religious superiors, and God himself.  Fasting was not merely a substitution of pathological and self-defeating control of self for unattainable control of circumstance.  It was part of suffering; and suffering was considered an effective activity, which redeemed both individual and cosmos” (207).  Their ability to sustain their bodies on nothing but the spiritual flesh provided them status as holy vessels of transmutation.

While Bynum’s work on the medieval body and women’s attempts to gain recognition within the Church is informative, one striking characteristic is the author’s assertion that the miracle maidens must be demarcated from women of the modern period who engage in the same practices. Commentator Michelle Lelwica (1999) suggests that Bynum seems to set the medieval and modern in opposition, with a preference for the former, writing, “Her appreciation of it [mirabilis] downplays the extent to which this construction of female holiness has supported oppressive ideologies of women and the pursuit of feminine virtue into the present.  Ultimately, Bynum’s reluctance to question the belief that female suffering and sacrifice are salvic contributes to her distinction between the symbolically fruitful practices of medieval women and what she sees as the superficial motives of present day anorexics” (28).  Certainly the two phenomena are marked by historical distinctions and differing contexts, but Bynum’s assertions that the miracle maidens are so different from modern women who engage in identical practices reads like a defense of her subject matter against the inherent superficiality of the modern eating disorder.

This question of the relationship between mirabilis and nervosa was re-engaged the following year by Brumberg, whose work brought a slightly different perspective to this issue.  Brumberg seemed to challenge Bynum, but her deference to Bynum’s historical containment argument blunted her critique and her ability to draw clear conclusions.  Brumberg seems, perhaps more accurately than Bynum, to suggest that the transformation from mirabilis to nervosa is a product of Western culture’s shifting vocabularies for understanding unconventional behaviors, as these women are redefined from “saints” to “patients.”  She further appears to correct Bynum by not committing to legitimating mirabilis over nervosa.  Instead, Brumberg suggests that Anorexia mirabilis no longer exists not because the motives of those who starve themselves have changed, but because the paradigms for coding these behaviors have shifted.  If a young woman were to make the decision to self-starve as a means to transmute the flesh of Christ, healthcare professionals would code her as anorexia nervosa regardless of the legitimacy of her motives.  Yet while Brumberg did not seek to legitimate one form over the other, she maintains a focus on the question of legitimacy.  Her primary metaphors to describe the history of anorexia are display, casuistry, and fraud.  One of her primary subjects, Ann Moore of Turbury, presents an example. Playing the role of miracle maiden, she was able to use her status and manipulation of religious narrative and iconography to manipulate her gullible public.  After a physician exposes her fraud, the modern press quickly castigates her.  Brumberg writes:

Ann Moore stood as a symbol of female cunning and deceit.  She was decried by everyone as a fraud and cited in medical textbooks as evidence of the scurrilous nature of religious fasting claims.  Here was a woman who made a mockery of Christian piety and scientific learning, employed her own daughter in the deceit, and drew substantial material gain from the earnest gifts of the pious (60).
While Bynum sought to describe mirabilis in historical isolation from the superficial modern anorexic, Brumberg suggested that differences between these two conditions are the products of cultural vocabularies (i.e. spiritualism or disease).  Brumberg documents how those who starved themselves for God were debunked by enlightenment skeptics and thus moved from the realm of miracle to medicine.  Once the anorexic, with her perverse desire to display her starvation for personal ends has been revealed as a fraud, she can then be correctly cast in the role of patient.  Thus mirabilis and nervosa are both delegitimized in this latter viewpoint.  The primary historical shift in which both works participate is to look at self-starvation as 1) a means of political expression and 2) as a means of inauthentic political expression (at least in terms of its modern manifestation).


Once re-inscribed on the socio-historical terrain of the late 90s, the eating-disordered individual was set to take on a problematic relationship to feminist theory with the publication of Bordo’s (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and The Body. One of the best-selling books on the University of California Press, it had tremendous ramifications for the status of eating disorders in American culture both inside and outside feminist spheres.  Bordo’s work combined cultural critique and philosophical rumination, particularly with respect to the challenges women faced in their coding along the mind/body dichotomy, traced back to the Cartesian subject.  She writes, “If we do not force our work and workplaces to be informed by our histories of embodied experience, we participate in the cultural reproduction of dualism, both practically and representationally” (42).  She then notes, “Between the media images of self-containment and self-mastery and the reality of constant, everyday stress and anxiety about one’s appearance lies the chasm that produces bodies habituated to self-monitoring and self-normalization” (203). Bordo correctly asserts that certain modes of transcendence are promulgated throughout the modern diet culture, which created barriers and boundaries that ultimately damage women’s autonomy.  The forces of normalization continue to destructively influence women’s lives as they struggle to cross the mind/body boundary and exercise real political agency.  Yet when considering eating disorders, she makes a logical turn that had remained nascent in Bynum and Brumberg: that the eating disordered had to be purged for the feminist community to be perfected.

When Bordo presents her sustained analysis of the eating disorder, her interpretation diverges from those of the early 1980s.  In her response to Orbach’s use of the hunger strike metaphor, she posited, “It is no wonder that a steady motif in the feminist literature on female disorder is that of pathology as embodied protest—unconscious, inchoate, and counterproductive protest without an effective language, voice, or politics, but protest nonetheless” (175).  While the eating-disordered individual emerges as a political subject in her work, Bordo wanted to move the discussion away from the idea that they are using their bodies as a site to parody or resist the patriarchy.  She notes, “The anorectic, of course, is unaware that she is making a political statement.  She may, indeed, be hostile to feminism and any other critical perspectives that she views as disputing her own autonomy and control or questioning the cultural ideals around which her life is organized” (176).  Here those identified as anorexic play a key role in the gender political terrain, but any type of anti-patriarchal statement they might be making is completely unconscious.

Of all of the feminist critics who have dealt with the eating disorder, Bordo was most concerned with how anorexia in particular functioned as a political terrain through which women negotiate their relationship with male domination.  Borrowing from Bruch’s work, particularly sections still heavily influenced by traditional psychoanalysis where she speculated that anorexia represents a desire to purge the feminine and adopt the body of an adolescent boy, Bordo suggested that anorexia functions as a space through which masculinist and feminist ideologies are contested: “These two selves are perceived as at constant war.  But it is clear that it is the male side—with its associated values of greater spirituality, higher intellectuality, strength of will—is being expressed and developed in the anorexic syndrome” (155).  Bordo strategically avoided addressing Bruch’s observations that women who engaged in overeating also had male-dominated fantasies.  This point was mimicked and amplified in Leslie Heywood’s Dedication to Hunger (1996), in which the author suggested that certain assumptions found in Western epistemology, particularly the Cartesian split between mind and body, promote feminine disempowerment.  She states, “In both the high modernist art artist and the anorexic there is a rejection and will to eliminate the feminine, a will to transcendence, and to shape the base material into a higher form” (61).  This higher form is associated with the anorexic’s deluded conception of male values, that they are in essence performing a male psychology through self-starvation.  As Bordo gradually distanced herself from Orbach, her commentary on the anorexic became increasingly severe:

Through anorexia, by contrast, she has unexpectedly discovered an entry into the privileged male world, a way to become what is valued in our culture, a way to become safe, to rise above it all—for her they are the same thing.  She has discovered this, paradoxically, by pursuing conventional feminine behavior—in this case, the discipline of perfecting the body as object—to excess.  At this point of excess, the conventionally feminine deconstructs, we might say, into its opposites and opens onto those values our culture has coded as male.  No wonder the anorexia is experienced as liberating and that she will fight family, friends, and therapists in an effort to hold onto it—fight them to the death, if need be.  The anorectic’s experience of power is, of course, deeply dangerous and illusory (179).
Here the eating-disordered persona is seen as an inauthentic, deceptive attempt to construct a sense of self.  She is in fact using the debris of objectification left in the wake of the patriarchy to construct this identity.  She fights against the liberatory impulses of the feminist community so that she can reaffirm a patriarchal psychology that, according to Bordo, she uses to gain unwarranted access to the male privileged world.


Among the key terms that animate Bordo’s discussion of eating disorders, along with “male privileged,” and “feminism,” is “collusion.”  Her position is summarized in the following passage:

The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested.  In this connection, the fact that hysteria and anorexia have peaked during historical periods of backlash against attempts at reorganization and redefinition of male and female roles is significant (177).
The anorexic is not merely a symptom of femininity as political struggle, she is the engine of the backlash against women.  Given the use of the term “collusion” in the preceding passage, the logical extension of this argument is that the eating-disordered individual functions as a traitor to her gender.  She is an agent provocateur of the patriarchy operating within the sphere of feminism and threatening to destroy it from within.  Following the logical conclusion of this narrative, the eating-disordered person was not co-opted by early feminist writers, but had insinuated herself into this discourse willfully and malignantly to inhibit it from within.  It was she who stood in the way of the logical dynamics of ritual perfection.  Only through her correction and quarantine would women gain access into the privileged center of rationality as equals rather than perverse spectacles.  The anorexic was the commercial spectacle come to life as a patriarchal golem that, if not checked, would ultimately undermine the entire feminist project.


Ramifications for Eating Disorder Community

As the 1990s progressed, earlier understandings of eating disorders as mental illnesses were increasingly eclipsed by their supposed association with criminal activity and gender-betrayal (Grey 2006). Celebrities who were outed as having eating disorders were subjected to campaigns of public detection and confession through which the contours of their body could be used to measure their political authenticity as women.  Bordo supplied the intellectual framework for these performances in public interviews such as the one that appeared in Bitch, in which she commented on the relative political value of various women in the media based upon the size and shape of their bodies (Jervis 2003).  Those whom she identified as being too thin were cast as potential sources of contagion and hence outside the borders of the feminist community.  The intense speculation about the relationship between the size and shape of a woman’s body and her political awareness came to fruition with Ms Magazine’s “This is What a Feminist Really Looks Like” campaign.  One of the interesting ironies of this viewpoint was that the quarantine of the anorexic became a means for gaining access to the sphere of Cartesian rationality as the rejection of the eating disorder became a bridge for entry into the male-privileged sphere.  This transformative reversal whereby the contours of resistance mimic the contours of oppression reflects one of the most troubling of Burke’s observations about liberatory politics. In Attitudes Toward History Burke observes that ideologically-driven groups who deploy negation as a strategy to secure their own borders will themselves become products of an unconscious reversal whereby they begin to exhibit the structural contours of the very group whom they seek to challenge (21).

This obsession with political authenticity and the body stems in part from the dramatic context emergent in the early 1990s, an association that continues to have disturbing ramifications for both feminism and those associated with eating disorders.  Indeed, at least one critic has cautioned against the stance—suggesting that those with severe mental and physical health issues are not the best targets for rejection—even if this rejection fuels political progress for feminism (Nicki 2001).  Unfortunately, this passing comment went largely unheard. Through the appropriation of the eating disorder and subsequent quarantine, some feminist authors created a new internal dynamic through which women were set in opposition to one another and instructed to reclaim their bodies by rejecting and isolating their own sisters.  In some ways, this campaign provides vivid evidence for what Phyllis Chesler called “women’s inhumanity to women,” as in their attempts to break with the patriarchy some women had inadvertently adopted the very coercive strategies that they sought to escape.  These voices became products of the dramatistic dynamics and aesthetic undercurrents upon which they had relied rather than projecting a flexible emancipatory future.  It is a failure rendered acute, as these narratives continue to reverberate through the eating disorder community.

Perhaps the most problematic legacy of the history of eating disorders has been the systematic division between body and voice that this community has endured.  Take for example the response of many feminist commentators to the online Proana community, a digital space in which those with eating disorders explore the boundaries of their condition, seek community with one another, and, at times, embrace their conditions as alternative lifestyles.  Digital artist Ivonne Thein recently created an exhibition inspired by an anorexia billboard entitled Thirty-Two Kilos using the Proana aesthetic to highlight the dangers associated with eating disorders.  This exhibition, while intended to raise public awareness about eating disorders, met with an interesting response from many critics.  One typical response can be found on the feminist blog The F-Word:

On one hand I respect an artist’s right to their passion and subject matter choice and I appreciate Thein’s intention with this exhibit.  And as an artist and photographer myself, I also admire the flawlessness of the digital manipulation here.  But I am also an eating disorders awareness activist and I also have to question the extreme disconnect between Thein’s images’ intention and the ways in which the exhibit will be interpreted by the mass audience.  The edgy, couture nature of the photographs gives no sense of abject horror deserving of anorexia.  Thein’s exhibit might get a brief tsk-tsking about the dangers of anorexia but its lasting legacy will be more to serve as thinspirational images for girls and others hellbent on self-destruction.
The author’s fear seems to be that perhaps those within the Proana community might appropriate these images on their websites.  Certainly Proana websites have already incorporated Thein’s work for “subversive” purposes.  Yet the core of the criticism reveals a disturbing component of the abjection directed at eating disorders.  Consider the possibility that this is your body.  To speak through the image of Thirty-Two Kilos is to speak with an unauthorized, and hence non-, voice coded as inherently inauthentic and diseased.  Rather than engage such voices, the response has been systematic and widespread censorship to a degree very few online communities have experienced.  Speech is thus a near impossibility for the eating-disordered person unless she uses legitimate vocabularies.  As a non-being, First Amendment rights do not apply to her.


In her work on the continued resistance to gay marriage among many conservatives, Martha Nussbaum (2010) argues that, in face of all reasoned arguments, the core of this resistance is an irrational disgust that is driven by fear of cultural contamination.  This fear of contamination, gay to straight, unconventional families, sex-organs being misused etc., drives the continued push to deny basic civil liberties to large portions of the population.  Because the images displayed in Thirty-Two Kilos are not “disgusting” or “horrible” the exhibit can become a vehicle for spreading the disease.  To speak from an eating-disordered body is by definition to speak from a position that becomes a conduit for the spread of these conditions.  It is not the image itself that the blogger objects to, but the potential that it might be appropriated and used to bring unauthorized voices into existence.  The question is not whether one supports groups like Proana or should or should not watch movies with thin actors, but whether projecting the eating-disordered person as a two-dimensional symptom of the patriarchy that must be silenced is necessarily the best strategy for dealing with these conditions.  Recent social scientific research has demonstrated that these conditions are now among the most highly stigmatized among all mental health concerns (Roehrig and Mclean 2010).  Given that eating-disordered individuals exist in a climate of growing hostility, their continued isolation and silence is a direct product of this cultural backlash.  If she is nothing but an inherently superficial non-being, then she does not deserve the right to speak.  Websites discussing eating-disordered experience are censored and shut down not only in America; France is currently considering legislation to criminalize any such activity on the web. Burke might caution us to pause at the threshold of this delineation and reflect upon the impacts of this type of redemptive quarantine.

In her analysis of the vocabularies that represent anorexia within the psychoanalytic community, Judith Hepworth (1999) proposed that the doctor/patient, wellness/disease relationship that has defined anorexia should be revised and the anorexic granted a voice.  She writes, “For a group of people diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, such as anorexia nervosa, the shift in bureaucratic organization towards participation creates opportunities for them to move beyond the position of patients and become part of the state-citizen relationship” (127).  From a Burkeian perspective it may be time to explore the possibility of creating a new terministic screen through which the eating-disorder community can coalesce.  In his exploration of Burke’s political potential Richard Gregg writes, “The ability we have to engage in symbolic reversal manifests itself in a myriad of ways.  It means we can manipulate symbols in order to achieve a transposition of meaning, substitution, transformation, reduction and production, ambiguity, analytic and dialectical processing, transcendence, and more” (194-195).  Robert Wess further notes that Burke plays a key role in understanding the juncture between the historically determined subject and the creation of strategic spaces through which the political agent can maneuver.  Hepworth’s use of the term “citizen” is telling because it demonstrates a recognition that eating disorders such as anorexia have been deprived of certain forms of personhood that have been accorded to other groups.  If she is nothing but a product of patriarchal objectification, she neither possesses nor deserves a voice.  From this standpoint, feminist scholarship, which did so much to enlighten and inform therapeutic approaches to eating disorders, became one of the primary movers driving these conditions underground and perpetuating a cultural stigma that continues to define the experience of eating disordered people and communities today.


It must be noted that the observations of many feminist authors have been crucial in making inroads into better understanding of and managing eating disorders.  Yet the key juncture in history traced in the present study saw a systematic shift from models that promoted empathy and sought to empower individuals to ones that dehumanized them.  Perhaps one explanation for the presentation of the eating-disordered woman as anti-feminist agent can be found in the relationship many of these authors adopted toward their subject matter.  While early authors such as Chernin, Wolf, and Orbach worked directly with eating-disordered patients or revealed within their own work that they themselves had struggled with these conditions, influential later authors had no such reference points.  Within this cultural model people simply became extensions of ideological systems and once this turn is made the flesh and blood behind the image can go unseen and unheard.  In many ways eating-disordered individuals function as effective scapegoats because they can be projected as a benign element that is never completely purged (Carter 1996).  The projection of the eating-disordered individual as an inauthentic, failed woman has become so commonplace in the academic and popular culture that she has been reduced to a stereotype.  This allows for continual repetitions of rejections where she is negated in an endless regress.  Such a perfecting impulse does not seek to annihilate her, but to contain her outside the borders of voice and reason.

To some extent, Burke reveals that liberatory models are highly susceptible to dramatic perfection and transformation through negation.  The ongoing salience of Burke is that his framework reawakens our understanding that these symbolic manipulations are connected to individuals through the motive drive and that these rituals are not abstractions, but lived material conditions.  The amplification in intensity and prevalence of eating disorders during the past two decades is a vivid demonstration of the salience of this observation.  As isolation and stigma increase, those with these conditions are less likely to seek treatment.  The reverberations of eating-disordered negation have echoed through the past two decades as these individuals have been subject to a level of stigma unseen in their history and to a higher degree of shame than those diagnosed with any contemporaneous mental health condition.  Burke warned us to mind how these symbolic dynamics shape the social topography upon which all people live and the oppositions that are manufactured to divide and isolate those against whom we attempt to establish our own sense of authenticity and empowerment.  In the case of the cultural construction of the eating disorders, this warning has gone unheeded.

*Stephanie Houston Grey, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Culture in the Department of Communication Studies at Louisiana State University. She can be contacted via email at houston@lsu.edu.

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"A Perfect Loathing: The Feminist Expulsion of the Eating Disorder" by Stephanie Houston Grey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.