The anorexic body: a feminist and sociological perspective on anorexia nervosa

MacSween, Morag (1989) The anorexic body: a feminist and sociological perspective on anorexia nervosa. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis attempts a sociological and feminist analysis of anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is an illness which affects predominantly women, and its incidence is greatest among middle-class young women in Western countries. Its strong bias along class and gender lines suggests that such an approach to the illness could prove fruitful. The thesis argues that analysis of anorexia demands a clear understanding of the sociology of the body. The sociology of the body sees the body as constructed in social life: understandings of the body vary temporally and culturally, and reflect the categories of their culture. It is suggested that anorexia nervosa represents an attempted transformation of the concept of the feminine body in contemporary culture. Anorexic women aim to transcend appetite, and to allow no intrusions into the body, constructing an anorexic body which is closed, separate and inviolable. Since this transformation is individuated and privatised, however, it cannot ultimately succeed in overturning a system of social meanings. The thesis concludes that individual solutions to anorexia will not lead to the end of the illness as a social phenomenon in the lives of women. Only collective feminist action can reconstruct the degraded contemporary concept of woman. The argument is pursued firstly through a discussion of the initial use of the term `anorexia nervosa' in the late nineteenth century by Gull and Lasegue. The treatment of anorexia as a modern disease is discussed, and the claim that anorexia has always existed but has not been recognised is refuted. Psychiatric and feminist accounts of anorexia are then considered. The former see anorexia as a purely individual phenomenon, and the limitations of this position are discussed. Feminist analyses of anorexia, in seeing it as deeply intertwined with women's social position in a patriarchal culture, are argued to advance understanding of the illness, while still retaining individualist elements. The next section analyses the ways in which anorexic women themselves explain their illness. This leads on to a discussion of the notion of the body as concept. After a theoretical outline, several body-concepts are analysed and placed in their social and historical contexts. Contemporary understandings of the body as an individuated possession are then discussed, with particular focus on the concept of the feminine body as passive object. Objectification, discipline and chaos are argued to be the central meanings of the feminine body in contemporary culture. Analysis of the issues of abortion and rape seek to make this theoretical point clearer. A detailed analysis of anorexic practices looks at how these meanings are transformed in anorexia. It is suggested that anorexic women try to construct an inviolate anorexic body which is completely under their control through a complexly ritualised eating pattern. The precarious nature of this control points to the limitations of individual `solutions' to social problems.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences
Supervisor's Name: Ferguson, Professor Harvie
Date of Award: 1989
Depositing User: Angi Shields
Unique ID: glathesis:1989-3244
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 Mar 2012
Last Modified: 05 Feb 2014 15:42

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