... As Told By Savory Sweet
Anorexia Nervosa would be categorized as an illness in the 19th century. However, its presence in history and practice by a segment of the population can be traced back at least to the medieval period.
At this point, classes were defined by the availability of food, with the upper classes participating in feasting to celebrate a myriad of religious and cultural events. However, as technology advanced agriculture, transportation, and socio-political-economics, the amount of food between the classes became less of an issue. The upper class now distinguished themselves by *how* they ate, and practiced self-restraint.
During this time, religious institutions began to more frequently associate food with spiritual adherents (the forbidden fruit, body and blood of Christ, etc.) and the Church along with some number of laymen would practice fasting days to observe religious holidays. Also rising in numbers, were girls who would begin abstaining from food during the medieval era, known as "fasting saints." This would be be Western Europe's first encounter with adolescent girls to control their bodies and social lives. Through fasting, these girls could prevent themselves from being married off, causing embarrassment to their families and circumventing ecclesiastic authority. Restriction of food served as both a spiritual undertaking as well as the assumption of self-control and social-restriction of others.
The Victorian Period would become the pinnacle of self-restraint and idealization of the upper class as thin and frail (as this indicated one was unfit to work, instead enjoying the idle idyll of leisure). Women were expected to manage the complicated dinner and tea set up, and yet refrain from eating publicly. A fat gluttonous body, during this time would indicate a complete lack of control, spiritually, morally, and carnally. These qualities were espoused as virtues a woman must hold precious, as indicated within The Cult of True Womanhood, and this could be manifested physically as a waif.
However, this would also be a time of scientific advancement (germ theory, patent medicine, etc.) and a system of of diagnosis and treatment began to form. This wasting female body with related ailments such as dyspepsia (chronic indigestion) and chlorosis (anemia) became a significant concern for doctors and families. The category "anorexia nervosa" and its symptoms (wasting body, refusal to eat food, absence of an organic origin) emerged from this new medical system. However, doctors paid little attention to the anorexic's complaints, and the family was considered unreliable and biased, therefore the doctor relied purely on his inexperienced knowledge of the disease and "scientific evidence" to treat the patient (mainly consisting of bed rest and refeeding).
Twentieth Century and Beyond
Anorexia Nervosa has only recently, within the last few decades been regarded as a serious mental illness, though restrictive eating and dieting was still commonplace (see Great Depression, World War II). However, in the postwar years, companies began placing an importance on materialism and youth culture. Clothes became more revealing, and more of the body was displayed, with individuals newly anxious about aspects of their body never before displayed. Companies combated this anxiety with products targeting youth such as cosmetics and hair products, but with the sexual liberation of the 1960s-1970s there was still an increased sense of preoccupation with bodily appearnace. Women in particular were expected to purchase proper clothes, exercise adequately to maintain her shape, and consume food to display a socially and presentable figure.
News media began to warn of the "starving disease" and anorexia became increasingly diagnosed. Though today, statistics vary, it still remains to be the highest fatality rate of any other psychiatric illness and many patients still struggle with symptoms even after treatment. Further, male anorexia is increasingly on the rise with the ratio of males to females diagnosed currently at 1 to 10.
Anorexia is a continually shifting sociocultural pathology: as the currents of culture have changed, so too has its diagnosis, treatment, and conceptualizations.
One can see, that there is no one confounding factor, no lovely scapegoat that can be blamed and chastised for the emergence of today's eating disorders, in this case anorexia nervosa. Like almost everything, it remains a multiplicity of factors, and no one person or generation can claim to have witnessed its evolution.
What is an eating disorder? A religious connection? A rejection from parental control? Self-regulation? Socially enforced purity? A drive for beauty? Manifestation from adolescent anxiety? Consumerist motivated perfection, gone awry? Something to do with the brain? Shall I keep typing?
Saturday, August 8, 2009
... As Told By Savory Sweet