Saturday, August 8, 2009

The History of Anorexia

... 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.

Middle Ages
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.

Victorian Period
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?


Flushed said...


Greene said...

Learn something knew every day.
Great questions though. Interesting indeed.

Anonymous said...

wow, funny, my mum and i were talking the other day, being catholics, she said they used to have to fast before church.......

Nic said...

Very interesting, I actually found the whole history really intriguing. I feel that for the most part anorexia and self starvation is just a side effect or other issues and its for us to decide why we do what we do, and what we need to do to be ultimately happy.

Kitty said...

i developed anorexia nine years ago when my first marriage failed. i do not remember what drove me really, just the need for control when i had seemingly lost all the control in my life.

i was never thin in my eyes though, even when i was seriously sick and very frail, i was still 'fat' and spent hours trying on my clothes before i'd leave the house trying to find the most flattering outfit. i usually ended up staying home because i would become too upset.

i've stayed a reasonable weight since then, i've porked out having kids and lost it again, twice. i am currently heading down the relapse path and i am in two minds about what to do.

one mind says get help now and head it off.

the other, stronger voice tells me to keep going. life is better without food and without fat. i'm compulsed to hide it for as long as i can. i have insight and intelligence, yet i keep fucking lying to my therapist, my husband and my friends.

i have no idea what drives me to do this to myself. i just wish it would go the fuck away.

Ana said...

This is really well written :) I love it! Especially the bit about there being no scape goat. The whole thing really pulled me in, though.

Celia said...

Interesting! I've always thought that anorexia could be genetically linked but bulimia isn't (as it developed in the 1970s really, and the incidence rose in small islands when Western culture was introduced there). I suspect that the proportion of people exhibiting anorexic behaviours has not increased in recent years, but that the media has chosen to pick up on it.

nadja said...

i love this post. and i love your new blog look! <3<3

Ana's Girl said...

I'm loving the new look of your blog. It's so old-school cool. And this article was really interesting. I kept meaning to research it myself, but never go around to it. Thanx for doing all the work for me. Haha.

Meggy said...

great good reads for sure.


EvaPuedeVolar said...

Thank you for the history lesson. I loved the bit about the Victorians. I didn't know any of that.

I read a book, and it was so fabulous, all about hunger and different aspects of it. It goes through famine and starvation to hunger artists and political fasters to anorexia. A very informative book. Seems like you'd like it.

If you really do want a job, I can try to help you get into the phone sex biz. Email me. Honestly, it's the best job ever.

Lurve you!

<3 Eva

EvaPuedeVolar said...

P.S. Duh I describe the book and then don't tell you what it is. I'm a dolt. If you or any of your skinny readers want to check it out:

Hunger: An Unnatural History

By Sharman Apt Russell

Dot said...

Great post! And you should keep typing! ; ) Haha! I want more!

sorry_i_can't_be_perfect said...

wow, i loved it.
you learn something new everyday don't ya?
thanx for that!!

SophiaRuins said...

i fucking love this!
it loved the way the information was presented, and it made me think about the effect that society can have on someone.
wonderful writing too;

XOXO Sophia Ruins <3

heebeejebus! said...

This was very interesting, thanks for the history lesson. : )

PeriAdot said...

I'd LOVE to show that to some of the retards who call themselves 'Counsellors' at student health!!

Thankyou! I loved it!! <3

Anonymous said...

i love history! thanks for that! oh and your blog layout is precious :) good luck with whichever path you choose. and either way, you are beautiful and meaningful to so many people.

bella said...

thanks for commenting on my blog! i havn't had a chance to read much of yours yet, but i promise i will!


ps. dreads require patience - lots of it, and loving care. thats about it. no blow dryers or curling irons or leave in conditioning, shine serums, goops, or goos :) go for it, chicky!

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Joanna said...

When not given the right anorexia treatment, anorexia may result to anemia and low white blood count which are necessary in fighting off infections.

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