chapter  3
30 Pages


In late twentieth-century Europe the concept of ‘anorexia nervosa’ has taken up a prominent place in the pathologization of certain aspects of women’s experiences. ‘Anorexia nervosa’ has become the name of, and an ‘explanation’ for, the extreme distress that some girls and women experience in relation to food and body weight and for the seriously self-destructive behaviours that accompany this distress. And if we are to understand better how ‘anorexia’ has come to function as an explanation for women’s ‘disordered’ eating and not eating; if we are to understand better its high cultural, clinical and academic profile; and if we are to understand better the relationships between ‘anorexia nervosa’, ‘woman’ and women, then it is necessary to take a genealogical perspective and ‘trace the descent’ of anorexia. One must explore how ‘anorexia’ has emerged and developed as an object of medical and psychological discourses and examine the part that discursive constructions of femininity have played in this historical process. For, as feminist authors have repeatedly demonstrated, an affinity between deviance, ‘insanity’, sickness and the category of ‘woman’ has existed in a variety of different socio-historical contexts.l How might ‘anorexia nervosa’ fit into this history of female and feminized pathology? This relationship between ‘woman’ and ‘pathology’ has been apparent both in the gender-bias of various clinical diagnoses and in cultural representations of insanity and sickness as feminine. For example, more women than men have been diagnosed and treated for ‘mental illness’ in the twentieth century (Ussher, 1991; Chesler, 1972) and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Showalter, 1985; Ehrenreich and English, 1974).2 And, as the Other of ‘rational man’, ‘woman’ has often been ‘fictioned’ as sick, intellectually impaired and as irrational and mad (Ussher, 1991). For, as the Other of rational ‘man’ (see

Chapter 1) ‘women and madness share the same territory’, positioned in relation to a fundamentally male norm (Martin, 1987:42).