Sublime Starvation: Shedding Pounds, Gaining Worth

An Academic Perspective on Eating Disorders – April 2017

When considering eating disorders, the obvious cause is vanity: an insecure teenager girl peruses Cosmopolitan and starves herself to look like the model on the cover. More often than not, however, an eating disorder is a coping skill for deeper pain. Focusing on one’s exterior distracts from inner anguish. Furthermore, harming oneself fosters a sense of self-worth resembling martyrdom.

Anorexia and other eating disorders often manifest as vanity, but they are actually attempts to achieve a sense of purpose and self-worth by rejecting one’s physical needs and gaining total control of one’s destiny, ultimately rejecting societal standards. It is crucial to recognize these deeper motivations and encourage the development of healthy coping skills in order to decrease the prevalence of eating disorders.

In a society that deems females subordinate, women have two options: conform to societal ideals or reject them. According to Sheila Lintott, “…fat women are not only deemed unattractive, but also lazy, slovenly, dirty, undisciplined, and unsuccessful.”[1] Furthermore, Lorayne Robertson and Dianne Thomson assert that for girls, the fear of being fat is a major predictor of late adolescent disordered eating.[2] 

Lintott acknowledges society’s theory that “women can never be too thin. We are, despite our efforts at resistance, conditioned to see thin as beautiful and…beautiful as necessarily thin.” Anorexic women challenge society’s “fear of fat” by exhibiting the opposite extreme. By embodying a health risk just as fatal as obesity, they show society how dangerous its values are; they prove that “too thin” does exist.[3]

Women with eating disorders, in theirs states of emaciation, prove that society cares not about health and wellbeing, but about physical appearance, casting a negative light on its values. According to Karisa Butler-Wall, “American cultures have a long history of policing body size…rather than promoting health, anti-obesity discourse often further stigmatizes fatness…fatness signifies a moral failing on the part of the individual.”[4] 

Some may claim that the “moral failing” is due to the health risk overweight people embody. In that case, emaciation should qualify as the same kind of “moral failing.” Instead, as Lintott reveals, emaciation warrants praise: “When we admire the anorexic girl’s body, we are admiring her will power,” says Sheila Lintott. “We think we see beauty in her emaciation, but this is an illness we share with her.”[5] 

Society’s illness is so pervasive and accepted that it takes emaciation to bring it to light. Thus, people with eating disorders aim not to please society, but to cause members to examine themselves. 

Roughly eight million Americans suffer from eating disorders—90-95% being women, according to Lintott—but anorexia is not just a rich white woman’s disease; it reaches all classes, races, and ages.[6] Felicia Romero acknowledges the steady increase in male anorexia, “from approximately 5% (DSM III) in 1985, to as much as 10% in 1987”[7] Male anorectics alter their bodies in direct contrast to societal norms, proving that eating disorders represent rejection, not conformity.

Society urges men to be muscular, fit, and athletic, which stimulates identity crises similar to those of anorexic women.[8] Again, according to Lintott, women can never been too thin.[9] Female anorectics appear to conform to society’s norms because thinness is the female ideal, but male anorectics directly defy male norms through their transformations.[10] Losing weight does not aid in the physical strength department, only in the mental. 

In addition to fostering personal identity, male anorectics support the feminist movement by proving “too thin” does exist. Male emaciation is less-common and jarring, forcing spectators to acknowledge it as abnormal and unhealthy. 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 anorexic patients are male, but clinicians often fail to diagnose young men, which may conceal true statistics.[11] 

If a male anorectic does seek professional help, it is usually for an endocrine or gastrointestinal side effect of anorexia. Since clinicians do not suspect anorexia in males, they treat the initiating trauma without identifying anorexia as the cause.[12] Male anorectics cannot stop menstruating, so their affliction lacks a dead giveaway.[13] 

Since clinicians hesitate to diagnose males, male anorectics face a lower recovery rate.[14] Plus, males grappling with identity crises often resist treatment due to the stigma associated with anorexia, that it is a “female” affliction.[15] By staying out of the statistics, male anorectics give females the spotlight, creating one realm with a female majority and thus contributing to the feminist movement. 

Whereas diets are temporary attempts to meet society’s standards, eating disorders aim for spiritual transcendence and self-actualization and as such resemble asceticism. According to Gail Corrington, anorectics describe their condition as a form of askesis, a discipline of the body for the sake of a “higher purpose.”[16] 

Lintott builds on this theory, stating that diets are temporary and have specific goals, such as to lose ten pounds and improve the physical self, while eating disorders aim to overcome their physical selves through force of will; they are shortcuts to respect and power.[17]

Claiming ownership over one’s sexuality exemplifies a higher purpose. Romero states that male anorexia is frequently associated with severe gender and sexuality crises: “By altering his body through severe dieting and exercise, the anorectic retains a pre-pubertal physical appearance,” preventing him from developing a sexual identity.[18] This draws a parallel to anorexic and ascetic women whose lifestyle choices prevent them from reproducing.[19]

By shirking their reproductive abilities, anorectics claim their devotion solely to themselves. They will not please a partner sexually and they will not raise a child; they are responsible only to themselves. Corrington validates this theory with the following quote: “Eating and noneating thus become symbols of power and control: refusal to eat is a refusal of any authority over the body other than one’s own.”[20] 

Rejecting societal norms, especially in terms of appearance, allows women to find autonomy and purpose. Meeting society’s standards is a purpose, but not a higher purpose. Dieters have purpose; eating disorders have a higher purpose.

Dieters aim to be the best they can be given their human limitations, but anorectics and bulimics aim to defy their natural limits and gain “superhuman” abilities. The dieter wants her appetite to disappear, but the anorectic or bulimic depends on it for her identity.[21] 

As Corrington asserts, an anorectic sets for herself “a…relentless, physically torturing challenge, one over which she alone has control…motivated by a dominating image of herself as a…pure being. She will be mistress of her desires by becoming mistress of her appetite, and thus gain self-acceptance.”[22] 

According to Lintott, “When confronted by a desire for food, the eating-disordered individual rejects the dominance of nature over her physical self by refusing to eat or refusing to take nutrients from the food. This domination of self over nature is the crusade of the anorectic and bulimic.”[23] 

Corrington illustrates this crusade: “This soul would fain see itself free and eating is killing it… A full belly does not make for a chaste spirit…Those whom satiety drove from paradise, fasting restores.”[24] Without hunger, her life would lose its meaning. Her attempts to triumph over it would be meaningless. 

The dieter also equates thinness with worth and strives to meet society’s ideals, but the anorectic or bulimic rejects and surpasses these ideals with her excessively thin body.[25] Thus, diets are motivated by superficial concerns and eating disorders are motivated by deeper concerns. 

Emaciation is more than an image; it is evidence of the strength of will. When gaining weight, anorectics worry about losing their emaciated body not because they will miss it, but because they will miss the strength it represents: “The physical manifestation of the internal struggle is merely evidence of the strength of will.”[26] 

People who are healthily thin are a delight to those around them. They are able to please a partner sexually and provide their parents with grandchildren. Emaciated people cannot do this.

The ascetic way of life gave women a break from patriarchy; it was a chance to control their own bodies and their own destinies. Starving themselves of food and sex prevented them from reproducing, often a disappointment to their parents.[27] 

Thus, when giving up one’s emaciated body, an anorectic fears that he/she will have to answer to someone other than themselves. Additionally, it takes hard work and dedication to reach emaciation; abandoning this leaves them purposeless. 

Emaciation also allows anorectics to test their visibility. In many anorexogenic families, states Vander Ven, “the daughter is seen as a project rather than as a developing individual.” Success-and-achievement-oriented families don’t encourage daughters to trust their inner resources or develop their individuality.[28] 

This lack of personalization leads daughters to feel invisible, so they try shrink themselves to test their visibility. Thus, as Lintott asserts, “the eating-disordered individual does not fear physical destruction but the destruction of her spirit…Succumbing to hunger threatens to destroy her identity as someone who can withstand hunger at any price.”[29] When an anorectic surrenders their sick body, he/she gives in to society. 

In order to decrease the prevalence of eating disorders, society must recognize its own role in their perpetuation. Even though it has been established that eating disorders and diets are different, America’s diet culture does enable eating disorders. According to Vander Ven, “Dieting brought on by the desire to meet a social expectation for thinness causes anorexia.”[30] 

Lintott states that 40% of American women on any given day are on a diet, according to conservative estimates.[31] Furthermore, “Oprah Winfrey, a dazzling role model for female success, has said that the most ‘significant achievement in her life’ was losing sixty-seven pounds on a liquid diet. (She gained it all back within a year.)”[32] 

If you have sixty-seven pounds to lose, then losing them may be your greatest achievement, but if you do not have sixty-seven pounds to lose, it could be your final achievement; it could take your life.

Girls also grow up with unrealistic role models, like Barbie, whose body has been proven to be disproportionate.[33] By glamorizing a lifestyle that is harmful for many, society encourages eating disordered behavior. 

Showering anorectics and bulimics with attention also sends the message that their actions are appropriate. According to Derek Llewellyn-Jones, “The sufferer becomes the focus of everyones’ attention and energy. Other siblings can feel neglected and uncared for by their parents.”[34] 

Failing to give people attention when they are healthy suggests that one must struggle to deserve attention. Society’s glorification of thinness also supports anorectic behavior. Society must recognize that these emaciated bodies are sick and not something to be desired. 

Weak family dynamics also keep eating disorders alive; the illness gets the family to communicate. As Vander Ven proves, the anorectic is often “caught in the middle of the mother and father. Her symptoms are used to defer conflict. The family unites around the concern for the child and thus rewards the symptoms.”[35] 

Additionally, some mothers feed and nurture their daughters according to their own needs as a way to feel in control. They thus train their daughters to meet their mother’s needs rather than their own, and starvation is the daughter’s attempt to heal this porous boundary. [36]

Recognizing individuals—especially children and adolescents—and giving them autonomy they are healthy will keep them from feeling compelled to harm themselves for attention. 

Once society has acknowledged its role in the perpetuation of eating disorders, it must take action to decrease their prevalence. According to Rebecca M. Puhl. federal law allow weight-based discrimination, in the workplace and beyond:

“…adults with obesity face unfair hiring practices, lower wages, denial of promotions, and job termination because of their weight…employees within the obese body mass index (BMI) range are 37 times more likely to report employment discrimination than are thinner employees…these inequities remain…even when thinner applicants are less qualified.”[37] 

Perpetuating the unfair treatment of heavier employees trigger eating disordered behavior in thinner employees, an overcorrection to ensure they never reach that point: “I can see that I am thin,” quotes Lintott, “But I also know that there is fat woman inside me, dying to get out. And if she gets out, I’m still afraid that she’ll kill me.”[38] These “preventative measures” lead to a health crisis more fatal than that of obesity. 

Educating society, especially children, about health and wellness can prevent the development of eating disorders. Lorayne Robertson states that students who don’t know their bodies’ daily needs may ignore their hunger/fullness cues and develop eating disorders.[39] Therefore, it is crucial to teach proper nutrition in schools.

Early intervention is essential, as well. In a study, cited by Susan Woods, of people who recovered without professional help, four females reported that an early supportive intervention by their mothers turned them toward recovery. They had the shortest duration from symptom onset to the beginning of the recovery, averaging 9 months…Those who came to the realization on their own averaged a 4 year duration.[40] In order to successfully intervene, however, society must become aware of causes and symptoms.

Finally, in order to eradicate eating disorders, we as a society must accept and celebrate our human limitations. Lintott quotes one anorectic, who says, “If I get caught up fighting with my body, I will lose no matter what. Because my body will fight for a while, and that will be hard to control. And when my body finally stops fighting the war, I’ll lose again. Because I’ll be the only casualty.”[41] 

The end result of starvation and malnutrition is severe illness and eventually death. It has been established that eating disordered individuals aim to please themselves, not society. The average member of society does not aspire to death, so anorectics successfully reject society’s ideals by killing themselves through their behaviors. However, they cannot revel in their achievements if they are not alive, and thus their success is void. 


Thank you for reading. Please remember, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own and while true at the time of composition, are always subject to change. Take what you like and leave the rest, and keep coming back.

Bibliography

Butler-Wall, Karisa. “Risky Measures: Digital Technologies and the Governance of Child Obesity.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, CHILD, 43, no. 1/2 (Summer 2015): 228-45. Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/43958490.pdf.

Chatoor, Irene, Jaclyn Surles, Jody Ganiban, Leila Beker, Laura McWade Paez, and Benny Kerzner. “Failure to Thrive and Cognitive Development in Toddlers With Infantile Anorexia.” Pediatrics 113, no. 5 (May 2004): 440-47. Accessed February 16, 2017. EBSCOhost.

Corrington, Gail. “Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 51-61. Accessed February 19, 2017. JSTOR.

Crisp, A. H., and D. A. Toms. “Primary Anorexia Nervosa Or Weight Phobia In The Male: Report On 13 Cases.” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 5796 (February 5, 1972): 334-38. Accessed January 24, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25417571.

Lintott, Sheila. “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty.” Hypatia, Women, Art, and Aesthetics, 18, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 65-86. Accessed February 1, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810975.

Llewellyn-Jones, Derek. “The Family.” In Eating Disorders (Oxford), by Suzanne Abraham, 122. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Accessed February 16, 2017. Health Source- Consumer Edition, EBSCOhost.

Puhl, Rebecca M., Janet D. Latner, Kerry S. O’Brien, Joerg Luedicke, Sigrun Danielsdottir, and Ximena Ramos Salas. “Potential Policies and Laws to Prohibit Weight Discrimination: Public Views from 4 Countries.” The Milkbank Quarterly 93, no. 4 (December 2015): 691-731. Accessed January 24, 2017. JSTOR.

Robertson, Lorayne, and Dianne Thomson. “Giving Permission To Be Fat? Examining the Impact of Body-Based Belief Systems.” Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne De L’éducation 37, no. 4 (2014): 1-25. Accessed January 26, 2017. Source: Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation, Vol. 37, No. 4.

Romero, Felicia. “Adolescent Boys and Anorexia Nervosa.” Adolescence, 643rd ser., 29, no. 115 (Fall 1994). Accessed February 16, 2017. Health Source- Consumer Edition, EBSCOhost.

Stone, Alison. “Starving for God.” Poetry 154, no. 4 (July 1989): 220. Accessed February 17, 2017. JSTOR.

Vander Ven, Thomas, and Marikay Vander Ven. “Exploring Patterns of Mother-Blaming in Anorexia Scholarship: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge.” Human Studies 26, no. 1 (2003): 97-119. Accessed January 24, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20010319.

Woods, Susan. “Untreated Recovery From Eating Disorders.” Adolescence 39, no. 154 (Summer 2004). Accessed February 16, 2017. Health Source- Consumer Edition, EBSCOhost.


[1] Lintott, Sheila. “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 66.

[2] Lorayne Robertson and Dianne Thomson, “Giving Permission To Be Fat? Examining the Impact of Body-Based Belief Systems,” Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne De L’éducation 37, no. 4 (2014): pg. #5, accessed January 26, 2017, Source: Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation, Vol. 37, No. 4.

[3] Linott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 66.

[4] Karisa Butler-Wall, “Risky Measures: Digital Technologies and the Governance of Child Obesity,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, CHILD, 43, no. 1/2 (Summer 2015): pg. #229, accessed February 3, 2017.

[5] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 78.

[6] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 67.

[7] Felicia Romero, “Adolescent Boys and Anorexia Nervosa,” Adolescence, 643rd ser., 29, no. 115 (Fall 1994), accessed February 16, 2017, Health Source- Consumer Edition, EBSCOhost. 

[8] Romero, “Adolescent Boys and Anorexia Nervosa.”

[9] Linott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 66.

[10] Romero.

[11]A. H. Crisp and D. A. Toms, “Primary Anorexia Nervosa Or Weight Phobia In The Male: Report On 13 Cases,” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 5796 (February 5, 1972): pg. #1, accessed January 24, 2017.

[12] Romero, “Adolescent Boys and Anorexia Nervosa.” 

[13] Crisp, “Primary Anorexia Nervosa Or Weight Phobia In The Male: Report On 13 Cases,” 1.

[14] Romero, “Adolescent Boys and Anorexia Nervosa.” 

[15] Ibid.

[16] Corrington, “Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence,” 52.

[17] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 74.

[18] Romero.

[19] Corrington, “Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence,” 52.

[20] Gail Corrington, “Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2, no. 2 (Fall 1986): pg. #52, accessed February 19, 2017, JSTOR.

[21] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 79.

[22] Corrington, 60.

[23] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 76.

[24] Corrington, “Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence,” 51-52.

[25]Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 79.

[26] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 73.

[27] Corrington, “Anorexia, Asceticism, and Autonomy: Self-Control as Liberation and Transcendence,” 56.

[28] Vander Ven, “Exploring Patterns of Mother-Blaming in Anorexia Scholarship: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge,” 11.

[29] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 76.

[30] Thomas Vander Ven and Marikay Vander Ven, “Exploring Patterns of Mother-Blaming in Anorexia Scholarship: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge,” Human Studies 26, no. 1 (2003): pg. #17, accessed January 24, 2017.

[31] Linott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 66.

[32] Linott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 78.

[33] Linott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 83.

[34]  Derek Llewellyn-Jones, “The Family,” in Eating Disorders (Oxford), by Suzanne Abraham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), accessed February 16, 2017, Health Source- Consumer Edition, EBSCOhost.

[35] Vander Ven, “Exploring Patterns of Mother-Blaming in Anorexia Scholarship: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge,” 13.

[36] Vander Ven, “Exploring Patterns of Mother-Blaming in Anorexia Scholarship: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge,” 9.

[37] Rebecca M. Puhl et al., “Potential Policies and Laws to Prohibit Weight Discrimination: Public Views from 4 Countries,” The Milkbank Quarterly 93, no. 4 (December 2015): pg. #693, accessed January 24, 2017, JSTOR.

[38] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 76.

[39] Robertson, “Giving Permission To Be Fat? Examining the Impact of Body-Based Belief Systems,” 5.

[40] Susan Woods, “Untreated Recovery From Eating Disorders,” Adolescence 39, no. 154 (Summer 2004): pg. #, accessed February 16, 2017, Health Source- Consumer Edition, EBSCOhost.

[41] Lintott, “Sublime Hunger: A Consideration of Eating Disorders beyond Beauty,” 77.

Cover Photo: https://bolstablog.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/

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