[Marxism] The MIM on anorexia
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 26 16:53:01 MST 2006
Interesting book review from the Maoist International Movement, who
were always good for a laugh. But in this case they seem to make some sense:
Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease
Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Reviewed by MC2
Reprinted from MIM Notes 35, Jan. 1989
I highly recommend Joan Jacobs Brumberg's book Fasting Girls: The
Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease. Thousands of women
in the United States die each year by starving themselves to death to
meet dominant cultural beauty ideals: thin is beautiful; fat is ugly.
This book is valuable because it traces the origins of anorexia from
the second half of the 19th century to the 1980s, and compares the
disease with women's religious fasting during the European Middle
Ages. This review will focus on the historical methodology Brumberg employs.
Anorexia is found mainly among upper middle-class women in the United
States, Western Europe and Japan. It is uncommon in the Third World
except among elite women educated in the United States or Europe. In
the United States, it is rarely found among working-class white
women, and almost never among Black women.(1)
Brumberg makes a number of observations concerning historical
methodology that every reader ought to memorize because they are so
important to critical social analysis. Some writers have made glib
comparisons between religious fasting by women and anorexia today;
these commentators have claimed that such behavior has a biological
basis in "women's nature." Brumberg writes: "Just because a behavior
occurs across cultures or times does not necessarily mean that it has
the same cause or that it is biologically based."(2) She then
explains: "The story of anorexia nervosa lays bare the extent to
which disease is a cultural artifact, defined and redefined over
time, and therefore illustrative of fundamental historical
transformations. Consequently, my response to the frequent question,
is anorexia nervosa a new disease must be somewhat ambiguous:
anorexia nervosa is a historically specific disease that emerged from
the distinctive economic and social environment of the late
nineteenth century."(3) Brumberg shows that anorexia is not the same
disease that it was 100 years ago because society has changed.
"[T]here are significant new behavioral symptoms that mirror
contemporary culture namely, pervasive hyperactivity and
competitiveness. Among affluent young Victorians food and eating were
at the center of a web of associations that had a great deal to do
with gender and class identity. The same is true today, but broad
social and cultural forces, particularly the intensification of
messages about the female body, have prompted the urgency of appetite
control and generated a new experience of the disease in the
twentieth century. Anorexia nervosa used to be an isolated and
idiosyncratic disorder; over the past few decades it has become both
more familiar and more formulaic, and its physical symptoms are now
more acute."(4) Brumberg quotes Charles E. Rosenberg in a pioneering
study of cholera in the nineteenth century: "A disease is no absolute
physical entity but a complex intellectual construction, an amalgam
of biological state and social definition."(5)
There are three major explanations of anorexia: (1) biomedical; (2)
psychological and (3) and socio-economic (what Brumberg calls the
cultural model). Brumberg clearly emphasizes the socio-economic or
cultural model. The only criticism I have of Brumberg is that she
does not clearly explain the dialectical relationship between culture
and economic institutions; although in practice she does emphasize
the relationship between anorexia and class/gender social relations
in a capitalist economy. Brumberg does an excellent job of tearing
apart biomedical explanations of anorexia. Some doctors have linked
anorexia to imbalances in hormones that occur mainly among women.(6)
Brumberg agrees that women who are anorexic may well have hormonal
imbalances, but she demonstrates that these biomedical indicators are
the effect of anorexia rather than the cause. It is hard to argue
that anorexia is primarily caused by genes or hormones when only
upper class women in the United States, Europe and Japan get the
disease. No one has seriously suggested that working class white
women in the United States have different hormones than upper middle
class women; although some bourgeois scientists probably would put
forward genetic explanations for why Black women rarely contract the
Brumberg demolishes psychological categories of anorexia: "The
psychological paradigm is incomplete, just as the biomedical model
is, in that it fails to provide an adequate answer to the same thorny
problems of social address, changing incidence, and gender. After
reading the psychological literature, one still asks: Why is the
anorexia nervosa "epidemic" restricted by class and confined to
societies like our own? Why are we experiencing more anorexia nervosa
today than we did fifty or one hundred years ago? Why is it that
adolescent girls and not adolescent boys engage in this form of
Brumberg shows anorexia has changed over the last 100 years as
class/gender structures have changed in response to socio-economic
developments in United States, English and French capitalist
societies, although the main focus since 1900 is on the United
States. During the second half of the 19th century prosperous middle
class families could afford to keep their female children out of the
labor force. Young women stayed at home until they married, typically
in their early 20s.(9) What we now call adolescence was created by
the burgeoning prosperity of middle-class families during the late
19th century. Before this time women married younger and all but
members of the higher aristocracy performed at least some domestic
work. Obviously, working-class women started laboring at a very early
age. Middle-class adolescent women were privileged in one sense
because they did not have to work or yet reproduce, but they were
highly dependent and controlled by their parents unlike their
brothers, who had far greater educational and employment
opportunities. Starvation was one socially acceptable way for middle
class young women to rebel against parental control.(10) To some
extent Victorian women fasted to meet cultural values about beauty,
but those social pressures were weaker then than they are today.(11)
Ideal female body size in Victorian culture was larger than today and
women were required to wear such bulky clothing it was more difficult
to tell whether a woman was thin or not.(11)
Brumberg provides information on how Amerikan popular culture since
1900 has put pressure on women to be very thin. The ideal female body
size as presented by mass media has become much slimmer than it was
in 1920. Thin movie and television stars have become models for many
Brumberg goes beyond mere generalities about cultural ideals in the
mass media. She points out that food today is usually loaded with
sugar and fat. Just go eat a Big Mac at McDonald's. Fast food and
prepared food are loaded with calories.(12) People have the choice of
getting fat or constantly dieting to stay thin. Dieting itself is big
business with all kinds of pills and dietary supplements offered to
help people lose weight. Some of the emphasis on changing diet and
increasing exercise is positive, but all the media hype about getting
in shape can lead at least some people into dangerous diets.
Brumberg makes a valuable point about the competitive aspect of
modern anorexia in the 1980s. Women are entering the labor force in
record numbers today; although on average they earn far less than
men. Women today are educated in competitive behavior to get ahead in
the business world, this is especially true among upper middle-class
women. It is not surprising that competitive values spill over into
dieting and beauty. Distorted capitalist values about individualism
and competition contribute to anorexia.
Beware of bourgeois genetic, hormonal or psychological explanations
for behavior that is really socio-economic in origin.
1. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia
Nervosa as a Modern Disease, Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1988, p. 280 n. 14.
2. Ibid., p. 2.
3. Ibid., p. 3.
4. Ibid., pp. 5-6.
5. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
6. Ibid., p. 25.
7. Ibid., pp. 25-8.
8. Ibid., p. 31.
9. Ibid., p. 126.
10. Ibid., p. 188.
11. Ibid., pp. 188, 254.
12. Ibid., p. 260.
More information about the Marxism